I continued choosing to stay. Or rather, I continued to make a series of choices that made staying more desirable. Many of us did. Without a formal membership structure, attaching ourselves to UBC felt like continuous cycles of reaching out, asking people over, fumbling through conversations of vulnerability, and trying the best we could to create the conditions by which community could occur. Community, in those years, became a buzzword, a term that many on the outside eventually grew weary of. This happens when one group (in our case, church,) seeks to highlight an element of their life together. Others who don’t consciously or verbally focus on the same element can sometimes take another group’s emphasis on it as an accusation. For example, many charismatic and Pentecostal churches label themselves “Spirit Filled,” which can lead other churches to ask, “What, we aren’t Spirit Filled?” Usually the emphasis on a particular element of church life serves both purposes—It defines what a congregation holds dear, and it distinguishes it, sometimes arrogantly, from other churches around it.
For us, true community was beginning to take shape. Many of us chose to live together as roommates. On Easter Sundays, the few of us who remained in town would all gather at one of our homes for a holiday lunch together. We developed an insider language and were writing shared history with each other.
I shared a house with Tom, a Baylor graduate who had returned to Waco to work at the local call center of a national computer company. Our place was located near the “old money” Castle Heights neighborhood in Waco, (an area often highlighted on Fixer Upper,) but on a block with apartments and condominiums that was affordable for students and young professionals. Over the span of a few years our house became the central gathering place for the small group of post-graduates making our home in Waco and at UBC. On Thursday nights we gathered together to watch Ed, a television show on NBC about a lawyer, Ed Stevens, who moves from New York City back to his hometown of Stuckeyville to pursue Carol Vessey, the girl he was in love with, but never spoke to, in high school.
The “Will He? Won’t He? Will She? Won’t She” template the show employed (See: Moonlighting’s Maddie and David, and Friends’ Ross and Rachel) was the engine that drove the show along. But the breakout star of the show was the town of Stuckeyville itself. It was a quirky little community. Ed set up a law office inside a bowling alley that he had purchased and was managing, which caused the Stuckeyvillians (and watchers of the show) to refer to him as the “Bowling Alley Lawyer,” though he was quick to point out that he was a lawyer who owned a bowling alley, not a lawyer who specialized in bowling alleys. He employed a rag-tag group of characters: Kenny, a large man with a whistling lung who had been, before his job at the bowling alley, a pediatric nurse; Shirley, an eccentric who had a cat named Kenny, and who fancied herself an artist; Phil, a budding entrepreneur; and Eli, a paraplegic who found Phil absolutely insufferable. There was the high school student, Warren Cheswick, who had a thing for Carol, his teacher; Mike, the doctor who was Ed’s best friend, the two of whom often challenged each other to childish $10 bets that they were both honor-bound to perform; and Nancy (Mike’s wife) and Molly, Carol’s best friends.
Over time our Thursday night “Ed” gatherings reached into double digit figures. (We were likely about the only people in America watching the show, as its ratings were very poor, causing it to be canceled after four seasons.) We were enthralled by the story for its quirky humor, characters and storylines. But I think there was also something deeper going on. We saw in the town of Stuckeyville something we wanted for ourselves—A sense of community, belonging and, mostly, of longevity. Many of us had spent our post-college years as wanderers, and were ready to stop for a while and plant roots. We wanted people to belong to, and who would belong to us. We wanted community, and we talked about it incessantly.
And there was, to be frank, a little bit of posturing in all our talk of community as well. We didn’t just want to “be community” for each other, though we certainly wanted that. I think we also wanted others to know that we “did community” just a little different and, if we were honest, that we did it better. I had, in those years, a belief that I had somehow discovered the idea that church was more than just a worshipping event, but that it is to be a group of people who shares life together. Like Columbus spotting the “new” world and proclaiming, “Look what I’VE found!,” I was more than happy to share this discovery with whoever would listen.
Many people responded to our bloviating about community the same way I would have were I in their shoes, with a “who do you think you are?” stare and a defensive posture. When you claim to find something “new,” you are also, subtly or not, accusing others being behind the times. Whether we stated this outright was irrelevant. It was implied.
Others, mostly older people, took a more gentle and gracious approach. They knew we were young, and this is what happens when young people start a church on their own. They experiment with what works and what doesn’t. They try to eliminate everything that felt wrong d or uncomfortable about their previous experiences, and maximize everything they want church to be. Christian Utopia, free from conflict and humans being, well, human is the goal. These people had been in our shoes before, and was willing to absorb all our enthusiasm, neither rejecting it nor outright praising it, but able to name it for what it was.
One such person was an acquaintance of mine, Regina. She was a pastor at another church in town, one that had begun about the same time as UBC. As I was working as a manager at Barnes and Noble, we would often strike up conversations in the Religion section. Over coffee one day she asked me to talk to her about UBC, and what made us unique. I shared with her about the emerging church, embracing community in a way that hasn’t been done before, and trying to become, in the words of Brian McLaren’s Neo, “A New Kind of Christian.” She listened to me lovingly and graciously. Never defensive, yet never entirely acquiescing either. At the end of my many words she smiled, nodded gently, and said, “That sounds like church to me.”
Only in retrospect did I realize the pastoral nature of that conversation, and particularly of those words. In the moment, I suppose I thought I had won her over to my way of thinking, and that she was saying, “Oohh, you’re words are so pretty and revealing! And I always thought I knew what church was. But now with this new information, I realize I was COMPLETELY wrong!” But as time went on, and I learned more about her church and others like it, I figured out that her “That sounds like church to me” comment was a gentle, loving admonition that what we had stumbled upon was a way of doing faith that was not new, but as old as the Christian faith itself. It had been practiced in nooks and corners of the world, hidden and in plain site, many times before, and was still being observed, even if we were only just now experiencing it. Regina, probably unbeknownst to her in that moment, was my teacher that day. And her and those like her continue to be my teachers.
This is one of the challenges of starting a Protestant church in the late 20th/early 21st centuries. As denominationalism and networking among churches dwindle, and it becomes easier to “do your own thing,” churches spring up as a necessary reaction to perceived inadequacies in other churches. Often, this reaction is helpful in addressing something that has been ignored. An example of this would be Waco’s Church Under the Bridge. Located in the center of Texas, along I-35, the road that connects four of its 5 largest cities, and home to a Veteran’s Affairs mental treatment facility, Waco is the landing place for many people traditionally at risk for homelessness. Church Under the Bridge, a ministry of Mission Waco, was created as a result of the need for a faith community to address the needs of the homeless, which weren’t being addressed by already established churches.
The challenge is this: The very thing you are creating a new church to address becomes, in some ways, an idol. It becomes not just the thing you do, but the thing you assume every other church should be doing as well. The result in many communities has been that churches are now like retail stores, specializing in one or two aspects of the Christian faith. Do you want to minister to the homeless? Go to this church. Do you want to be “spirit filled?” Go to that church. There’s a church for the Calvinist, the Arminian, the soccer mom and the Cowboy. There’s even a church for the people who only want community. And I suppose this isn’t a bad thing in itself, and likely has existed in some form or another since Little House on the Prairie days, when small communities had only one church to choose from. The problem comes when each of those “specialty” churches are no longer in conversation with each other, and don’t receive what the others have to teach them.
We were forming a thriving community, one that brought life and was literally saving the faith in God for many of us. But, it could be said that we were also becoming insular and, perhaps, unteachable, which didn’t serve us well in the trials that were to follow.