Believing, Belonging

In 2001, at the end of my first year in Waco, I came to a crossroads. I didn’t receive a promotion I was up for at Baylor, so I decided to resign. If I left for a job in another city it would have been the fifth time I moved in the three years since graduating from college. Having lived in the same town (and house) for the first 18 years of my life, I was hardwired to find “my” place and stay there. But I needed a reason to stay, and I found my reason to remain in Waco in UBC.

But I can’t say that at that point I felt like I completely belonged at UBC. Which was weird, since I was involved in just about everything there was to be involved in and had become close friends with the pastor and other leaders in the church. But I still felt like an outsider.

Much of this was due to the fact that I did not attend Baylor and was, at 26, several years older than average person who attended UBC. Also, I didn’t really fit in culturally and socio-economically either. The son of a dad who worked in a tire factory and a mom who was a clerk for the State of Texas, I didn’t come from a financially stable background like many of the young people who end up at Baylor and UBC.

I also didn’t listen to Radiohead, which was a big deal in those days. I didn’t even know who they were until I asked someone what the music was playing in the sanctuary before worship every Sunday morning. I was told it was the “Kid A” album. When I was told that that, they didn’t say “Duh!” at the end of the sentence, but their tone very much implied it.

From the beginning, UBC didn’t have a system of membership like most churches do. If you came and participated, you were a “member.” As is the case for most aspects of a new movement, the reasons for this were created in retrospect. In other words, I don’t think any of the early leaders of the church made a conscious choice that UBC would not have membership, but looking back on the fact that membership didn’t exist, reasons were grafted onto the story to help explain our history.

What Kyle told me was this, using the dominant Modern vs. Postmodern bifurcated terms of the day: For those with a modernist worldview, with regards to religious institutions and communities belief always preceded belonging. In the modern area, if you wanted to fully belong to a church then you would give some kind of public declaration that you believe the same things the church does and will try to live in accordance to those beliefs. For those of us who grew up in evangelical churches, this public declaration looked and sounded like this: We walked down the aisle, usually at a young age, prayed for Jesus to come into our hearts and make a public profession that this happened. Someone then, usually a church clerk, would write down our name and address on a card and boom!, we were members. We belonged because we believed. (Or at least we said we believed.)

But for people immersed in a postmodern worldview, this system was inverted. Belief follows belonging. Postmoderns embrace the beliefs of a group only after they feel they have been included. There’s a very real sense in which this is not only true of postmoderns, but premodern people as well. What was Jesus’ first words to all his disciples? “Follow me.” And if we read through the New Testament, we’ll find that most of the disciples didn’t fully believe the things Jesus was saying about himself until well after they had been included in his group of traveling companions. They belonged in Mark 1-2, but didn’t really believe until AT LEAST Mark 16. And for some of them belief didn’t come until well into the book of Acts.

At UBC I believed, but only kind of belonged.

Rather than moving somewhere else and starting the process all over, I made the decision to stay. Aside from church, I hated just about everything about Waco during that first year. But toward the end, something was slowly changing. The possibility rang in my ear that this town could become my place. So for the next couple of years I tried to find a job that would plant me Waco, in the hopes that all the possibility and promise of UBC would come to fruition in my own life. I taught middle school for a year, managed a hotel café’ for a period of time, even tried a semester of seminary before landing as a manager at a the local retail store of a large national bookseller.

During my first five years, UBC began to grow and take on slightly different contours from when it began. A small number of students started to stick around after graduation, increasing the average age from 18 to 20. My friendship with Kyle and his wife Jen began to flourish. I spent many evenings at their house and babysat their children when they needed time away. I taught Sunday School classes, led small groups and even preached on occasion.

In the summer of 2001 I drove out with some UBC’ers to Bosque County, where Kyle’s family has a ranch on the northern end of the beautiful Texas Hill country, for a day at the pool. We met in the parking lot of Target before carpooling the 45 minute journey out of Waco. I ended up riding with John and Darby, a couple I didn’t know well. On the way out John said in passing, “You’ve really become a part of us, haven’t you?” It was one of those comments that he probably has no recollection of, but that lodged in my soul for years. My answer was, “Yeah, I guess so.” If I had said what I was really thinking, it would have come out, “Yeah, I hope so.”

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