We filled the gaps and we moved forward.
One of the more pivotal “moving forward” moments came about a year after David left. The anxiety some felt about his departure had started to subside, and it felt like a good moment to make a positive declaration of who we wanted to be as a church. to “move forward,” if you will. We knew some of the elements of the past that made us “us” needed to be re-embraced, while others needed to be discarded.
The staff met for drinks and dinner at the Elite Café to dream about the future. The result of this time together was so pivotal in the life of the church that we often referred to it as “The Elite Conversation.” (Later, we would often clarify that “Elite” referred to the place the conversation occurred, not its exclusivity. It could have just as easily been called the “Fat Ho Conversation,” had we chosen to meet at a hole in the wall burger joint a few blocks from UBC. “Fat Ho,” thankfully, was short lived.)
We talked about our identity. Who are we? Particularly, we addressed the issue of our identity as the “College Church.” Even those most wedded to our historic mission of being a congregation for Baylor students recognized that times were changing. Already, even before David left, we were beginning to see a slow decrease in the percentage of undergraduates who were making UBC their church. We were still a destination for many students, but we were no longer the only place in town that drew a large undergraduate population. The “playing field” began to level as more traditional churches embraced the Emerging Church values of authenticity and honesty.
Also, students starting to attend Baylor were being nurtured in congregations and youth groups led by ministers who had been influenced as students by churches like UBC. Whereas we were once the place where young people came to rebel against the ways of faith they had grown up with, we were now finding ourselves right in the middle of the new normal of Evangelicalism in America. The only difference was that we had a world famous Christian artist leading us in our music. And then we didn’t.
In addition to the changing reality of our shifting demographics, we also talked about our changing beliefs about demographic-specific ministry. We recognized that it was fiscally impossible to sustain a church made up primarily of students. But we also questioned whether it was theologically sound. There were differences in opinion with regards to this question, but as a staff we came to the consensus that we would stop purposefully identifying ourselves as a “College Church.” This meant, among other changes, we would stop referring to the congregation from the stage as “students.”
This was exciting for some of us, but required a paradigm shift in others. To ease the nerves of those who were fearful of us losing too much of who we had been, we made clear to say that, based on our history, we would always seek to be a place where students feel a sense of belonging and connection, that we would always minister to students particularly well. But we would no longer be a “College Church.” We were a church, and would lean into all that entailed. This was the starting point for the Elite Conversation, but I think in those moments we were simply naming what had already been true for some time.
There was a shared feeling around the table that we should pull away from the constant darkness and gloom of deconstruction, and toward a healthier embrace of discipleship and Christian spiritual formation. Although “Discipleship” was one of those ancient words that carried weight and gravity, we were often averse to it, as we felt other churches and traditions had soiled the concept with an undue emphasis on hierarchy and control. The heart of discipleship is following Jesus, and Spiritual Formation is, simply, becoming the people God wants us to be. But since the church growth movements of the 80’s and 90’s, the concern in many streams of evangelicalism had been more on the process of discipleship, particularly focusing on who gets to implement it. Discipleship had become more about the fact that someone was “discipling” someone else, than it was about whether or not we were actually being transformed into disciples of Jesus.
In the Emerging Church world, we deliberately rebelled against this hierarchical system of discipleship. The result, though, was that we inadvertently also rebelled against discipleship and spiritual formation altogether. In the Elite Conversation we named this as a problem, and committed ourselves to figuring out how to embrace becoming more like Jesus, while still avoiding the power-plays that many churches had turned discipleship into.
We also confirmed and recommitted to being a church that takes beauty seriously by nurturing connections between UBC and the local arts community. In years gone by this was a hallmark of our identity as a congregation. We hosted concerts, visual arts shows and open-mic nights. Many of these events had no explicit Christian bent, as we lived into the belief that the dividing line between what was sacred and what was secular was a false one, and that wherever beauty is found, there God is also found. Yet in the previous few years this emphasis had faded as we engaged in more traditional missional activities.
We also recommitted ourselves to being a presence in the world, to work toward the realization of God’s kingdom in our neighborhood and around the globe. This had become a part of our “new identity” in the years after Kyle’s death, and it was something we didn’t want to lose.
Out of the Elite Conversation came a new mission statement for the church: UBC seeks to form a community of people in the way of Jesus, which embraces beauty and lives missionally.
The Elite Conversation felt a little like being born, again. Not only did we craft a statement about who we were that was a collaborative effort, and that reflected a multidimensional ethos of UBC, we also realized that what we created was specifically suited to make use of the passions and giftedness of each person on staff. “Forming a community of people in the way of Jesus” was something I was eager to take the lead on through small groups, Bible studies and other formational activities. Tye, who was newly hired to replace David as the Worship and Arts pastor, was especially suited to help our congregation learn how to “embrace beauty” through the arts. And Toph had long been a champion in our efforts to do “Kingdom work” in the neighborhood and around the world, which made him the “lives missionally” guy. As the teaching pastor, Josh would be the primary communicator of our mission to the congregation. It felt like a perfect fit for the flat-leadership model we were operating in.
After the Elite Conversation, I thrived in my position in ways I had not before. I encouraged our Mi Casa leaders to explore ways to implement discipleship and spiritual formation practices into their weekly routine. These groups had expanded to include over 20 groups meeting in homes across town, with most having at least 8-12 people, some much more. I introduced new Bible studies for people wanting more traditional discipleship activities, and even began writing curriculum to be used in groups that had been meeting together for some time. As my love for creating liturgy and meaningful moments of worship grew, I continued to write prayers and responsive readings for our Sunday morning worship services, and established a weekly mid-week communion service, which was what I was most proud of, and received the most life from during that season of life at UBC.
On one hand, I was energized because I was doing the things I loved—Creating spaces and moments for people to think and reflect on God and God’s movement in our lives. I was able to spend large amounts of time in solitude, writing words of proclamation and faith that others could lean into and adopt as their own. And I was able to emerge from the solitude and nurture a few mutually formational relationships with people in the congregation. It was during this season that I had an overwhelming feeling of what we all hope for in our lives: I was doing what I was created to do, with the community I loved.
But my joy was also a little self-serving as well. I loved what I was doing, but I also loved that I had been given some semblance of control over aspects of UBC. I had spent my entire life disdaining the tight grip that people and factions had on their churches, and now that I was able to grab hold of the reins of my church, I was holding on as tight as I could.
I was also on a mission to prove that a “flat leadership” model of ministry could work. To do so, I asserted myself in ways that were less than pastoral. The perception was always going to be that Josh, as the primary preacher and presence on stage, was the “real” leader of the church, regardless of what our leadership model was. I was fighting against this, in part, to defend Kyle and his decision to institute the structure. But it was also a self-preservation mechanism. I thought by taking charge of certain areas, I would ensure my place in the life of the community.