By Jim Nieman
The launch of Reunion Church in the heart of New York City hasn’t gone off exactly as planned this year . . . but few things in life have escaped the far-reaching impact of COVID-19.
“There’s no book on how to do what we are doing,” says Russel Rader, who is launching Reunion in the Union Square neighborhood with his wife, Katie, and the help of a core launch team, Orchard Group, and churches from across the country.
“On Wednesday, March 11th, our community had an amazing evening of hospitality in our home with a group of people that were interested in being a part of our community,” Rader says. “As the last guest walked out the door, I thought, We have some momentum! We are on to something! This was the same night the NBA [season] was postponed and we found out Tom Hanks had COVID-19.”
In other words, life as the Raders knew it—as the United States knew it—changed that week.
“For us and our core team, it was immediately a time of confusion and chaos,” Rader says. “What about our next event? What about our plans to launch in the fall?”
Rader says the challenges of COVID-19 brought about a season of creativity in the face of challenges.
“Instead of going wide, we went deep,” Rader says. “We prayed. We mourned losses big and small. We held workshops . . . and shifted some of our gathering plans to online.”
Reunion is taking this time of COVID-19 to develop “our core,” Rader says. “We’ve intentionally focused on emotional and spiritual health, as we don’t want to walk out of this season tired or depressed. . . . We want to remember this season—though extremely difficult—as a time where we anchored ourselves in the love and hope that we have in God, who has never not been in control.”
This mature approach to an unprecedented situation is one for which Rader has been preparing most of his life.
THE PATH TO KANSAS
Russel Rader grew up in America’s Great Southwest (Arizona) and spent his college years and first ministry in America’s Heartland (Kansas) before venturing to “the Greatest City in the World” (New York) to plant a church.
Each move has been an adjustment, he says.
Sometime after his parents divorced, Rader’s mother moved across the street from Christ’s Church of the Valley in Peoria, Ariz., a suburb of Phoenix. (CCV was the largest Christian church to participate in our most recent survey.)
At the time, Don Wilson, an alum of Manhattan Christian College in Manhattan, Kan., was CCV’s lead pastor. Two other MCC grads served as youth pastors. All were influential in Rader’s college choice. But CCV’s Dustin Tappan—whom Rader calls a “spiritual father”—probably was the most influential in his decision to pursue ministry.
“I came to faith in Christ as a 12-year-old,” Rader says. “My calling to ministry was really confirmed and developed through strong mentors at CCV.”
Still, Rader says, upon arriving in the Midwest for schooling, “I didn’t think I would last very long in a small town like Manhattan.” Rader says it helped immensely that he immediately made some friends at the school. “[I] knew quickly they would be friends for life.”
After graduating from Manhattan Christian College, Rader served with Foundry Church (formerly Cedar Ridge Christian Church) in Kansas City for seven years. During that time, while at a friend’s wedding, he met his future wife. Katie was then an undergrad at New York University—near the area where they both now minister—and was living in her grandmother’s apartment.
THE PATH TO NEW YORK CITY
After Russel and Katie married, she moved to Kansas where he continued in ministry. The couple returned to New York for much of Russel’s 40-day sabbatical in 2015.
While traveling in the city one day, “I looked around and realized so many on the train were unlike me,” he says. “I began to wonder what it would look like to be a part of building a community where different types of people, from all walks of life, could come together and worship.”
One day, Katie asked him, “What are your dreams? What has God burdened you with?” The search for that answer confirmed her husband’s desire to help start a church in one of the busiest sections of New York City.
“We began dipping our toes into different church-planting networks and talking to our church in Kansas City,” he says. “We ended going through church-planting assessment and getting a green light.”
“I had reached out through some friends to Jordan Rice at Renaissance Church in Harlem.” Rice is a native New Yorker and former attorney who launched Renaissance about six years ago with the help of Orchard Group.
“We sat down to talk about church planting in the city and [Rice] says, ‘If you’re not from New York and you want to plant a church here, you’ll need to move to the city and just get a job. Because you’ve never lived here, you don’t really know what New York is.”
After much prayer, the Raders took “a bold step” and moved to New York City in the summer of 2018. Both got jobs—Katie with a private Christian school in Manhattan and Russel as a barista at a small coffee shop chain.
“I entered into a residency at Renaissance, and Jordan—while thinking I was crazy—let me be a part of their staff team and grow in my contextualization in the city,” Rader says. “My year and a half as a barista was both beneficial and humbling.”
Brent Storms, president of Orchard Group, says Rader’s humility and coachable spirit are two personality traits that made him a good candidate for this particular church plant.
For example, Storms says, Rader reached out to Jordan Rice and actually took his advice. He resigned his position with Foundry Church, he and Katie moved to New York City and took nonministry jobs, and Russel learned more about the city while interning under Jordan.
“That kind of humble posture will help him navigate the challenges ahead,” Storms says.
Russel’s partnership with Katie, who already knows and loves that particular neighborhood, is a huge plus.
“Planting a church is hard enough,” Storms says. “It’s even harder if a couple doesn’t truly love where they live and the people they are hoping to reach.”
SERVING WITH REUNION
The Raders now live an 8-minute walk away from Union Square, an area with a population density of about 100,000 per square mile.
“Our neighborhood, in particular, is full of college students, young professionals, creatives, and tech startups,” he says.
Rader says Reunion Church’s name was derived from a quote by St. Augustine: “You have made us for yourselves, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”
“If God made us,” Rader says, “then every time we gather, every time we pray, and any time we look in his direction, we are being reunited to God.”
As a church, Rader says, Reunion longs to be a loving presence, and longs for a movement of the gospel, change “in the here and now,” and practices that root us in community.
Rader is hoping and praying the young professionals of the city will find their identities in Christ rather than their work, abilities, education, or relationships.
“Many people in the city are lonely, overworked, and lacking community,” he says. “Katie and I believe . . . people do want to talk about God and are asking questions about our meaning and purpose as humans.”
Reunion currently has two community groups, each meeting once weekly. “We have a core team that is passionate about justice and mercy and the least of these and have been empowering them toward these ends.” Reunion has a strong core group of 15 and a relational network of about 130.
The Raders are hosting virtual YouTube worship gatherings from their living room every other Sunday.
“Our plans prior to COVID-19 were to launch in September 2020,” Rader says. “But with in-person gatherings currently limited or nonexistent, we have moved forward with establishing a digital presence and look forward to launching in-person gatherings in 2021.
“[We] have laid a good foundation for beginning in-person gatherings when it is appropriate to do so.”
This movement from the “Little Apple” to the “Big Apple”—this “Manhattan Project” (as it was dubbed early on by Orchard Group)—is still a work in progress, but the Raders remain confident God will sustain and grow Reunion church.
“Is this how we thought our church planting journey would begin?” Rader asks. “No.”
“Do we have faith that God is going to build his church? Yes.
“Do we have days where we lack faith that God is going to accomplish his mission? Yes.
“Does God love us and remain faithful to us anyway? Yes.”
Jim Nieman serves as managing editor of Christian Standard.
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NOTE: In addition to Renaissance Church in Harlem, other churches that are financially supporting Reunion Church as it launches include Foundry Church, Southeast Christian (Louisville), East 91st Street Christian Church (Indianapolis), Eastview Christian (Normal, Ill.), College Heights (Joplin, Mo.), and Mosaic Christian (Baltimore).
I added Reunion Church and the Raders etc to my prayer list.