University Baptist Church began in 1995. Like all origin stories, the details are dependent on the storyteller, and the story inevitably morphs into myth, which can become legend. Sometimes in the retelling the rough edges are chopped off, or smoother edges grafted on, to fit an agenda of the storyteller. Memory is a very fluid thing, and there are never enough flies embedded in the amber to paint a perfect picture, frozen in time. But I’ve heard, and told, the story plenty of times, and can give a decent picture of its contours and trajectory, and hope that you can see past any agenda, explicit or lingering in the background, I may have. (At least for now.)
Baylor University bills itself as the “Largest Baptist University in the World,” and this is true. Since 1845, when Texas was still a Republic, parents have sent their children to Waco with some hope, if not assurance, that the explicit Christian identity of the school would rub off on them. A significant amount of U.S. religious history has been shaped and influenced by what happens at Baylor. In the postwar years of the 20th century, a religious stirring among its students spawned a nationwide Youth Revival Movement that is still shaping and informing much of the discourse among evangelicals. Influential Christian publishing houses and record labels had their beginnings at Baylor. Billy Graham has an honorary doctorate degree from Baylor, and two of his grandchildren are graduates of the university.
Yet in the early 1990’s a study documented, among other things, that less than half of Baylor’s almost 15,000 students, throughout their four (or more) years of college, would ever get connected to a local church while they were in Waco. Though this is typical among most college students, a demographic that would much rather sleep in on Sunday mornings than go to church (which they may been forced to do for the first 18 years of their lives,) it was an alarming piece of data to the powers-that-be at the largest Baptist University in the world.
During this time, two students, David and Chris, began asking the question, “Why?” They wondered aloud why their friends, many who came to Baylor for its Christian heritage and identity, had no desire to step foot in a church, much less get involved in one. The conclusion they came to was, essentially, this: Their friends had either been hurt by a church in the past, or they felt that churches were requiring them to leave everything about who they were– their interests, personalities and doubts– behind when they walked through the doors. Questions, especially the real difficult ones that lead to even more difficult ones, were discouraged. Certainty about God and a distinctive “Church Language” that went along with that certainty was something they were exhausted with, and they either wanted more out of faith, or out of faith altogether.
On top of that, they hated the music at traditional churches. Many of them hated the songs more at those “contemporary” churches that sprang up in the 80’s and 90’s as a reaction to the “traditional” churches than they did at actual traditional churches. Students were eager for an expression of musical worship that was both rooted in the story of God, and that was (shocker) actually good music.
So David and Chris stopped asking “Why,” began asking “Why not?,” and created a church for their friends. Chris would preach, David would be the “Worship and Arts” pastor. They received some nominal support from the local Baptist association in town. At a meeting with local pastors, they explained the situation about students and church involvement, thinking they would probably be received with indifference or, worse, derision. After all, these were pastors who would LOVE to have students at their churches, and likely had tried, and failed, many times to reach out to them. They could have very well looked at these two young men as competition to be squelched.
Instead, they rejoiced at the possibilities. At the end of Chris and David’s presentation, one of the pastors broke down crying. He told about his grandson, a student at Baylor, who, despite all the grandfather’s efforts, would not go to church. He pointed to the study about the lack of church involvement among students and said, “That’s my grandson.”
The group of pastors gave their blessing and a small financial commitment.
UBC had their first meeting on January 8th, 1995 in a building near Baylor’s campus. The two founding pastors, just college students themselves, spread word to their friends. They expected a small turnout, but instead had around 400 people show up, many of them fraternity brothers of Chris’, and girls from their associated sororities. For a couple of years as the church grew, it floated through several different buildings, spending an extended amount of time at a downtown theater, the Waco Hippodrome, before moving into an old grocery store that had been repurposed as a church by another congregation that was moving to a new building north of town.
During those first five years a Community Pastor was hired, someone who could help Chris and David figure out how to handle the administrative duties of a church. A story that has remained and been retold time and again is that before the first Sunday the church met, the leaders tried to figure out what “real” churches do. Someone noted that every church they had ever attended gave out information cards for congregants to fill out. So they created and printed off hundreds of those and placed them on every seat in the building. At the end of the service, as the leaders of the new church were sitting around an apartment debriefing the events of the day, someone pointed to the stack of information cards, hundreds of them filled out with phone numbers and contact information and asked, “What are we supposed to do with those? Call everyone?”
Someone else responded, “I’m not calling all those people,” followed by an echo of the same by everyone else in the room.
The information cards were thrown into the trash, which began the great, freewheeling UBC tradition of “making things up as we go.”
Byron, the first Community Pastor, and someone who had experience working with churches, helped smooth some of these edges out, giving guidance to the daily life of the church. When he left to begin his own ministry, Kyle came in to take his place. Then Chris left to start another church in Houston, and Kyle took Chris’ place as the lead pastor.
In those early years a church identity was becoming solidified. For one, UBC became known by its original demographic, college students. (This hardly seems worth mentioning, since now there are myriad churches made up for specific demographics– Cowboys, Bikers, pub-crawlers, etc.– but this was a relatively new concept in the mid 1990’s.) For most of that time students, and more specifically, Baylor students, made up roughly 99% of the church. Being a “college church” meant many things. A sense of energy and adventure with regards to matters of faith and church was one of them. The “making things up as we go” motif another. But unlike churches that were more intergenerational, the people in the congregation were not able to financially support the church, being poor college students and all, so the church relied on donations from the outside, parents mostly, to pay its staff and keep the lights on.
By the end of the 90’s, though, it wasn’t just “any old” student that attended UBC. The Greek crowd remained strong, but as David developed an artistry that was clearly special and unique, many “outsiders” began to migrate to the church. A lot of these were folks who had no history of bad experiences with the church (like many in the fraternity/sorority crowd,) because they had no past experiences at all with churches. So where one group that attended the church was marked by questioning everything they had been brought up to believe, another group was discovering Christian faith for the first time. UBC, as a result, became known as a place for the “overchurched” and the “underchurched.”
I arrived at a church that was…
Baylor students specifically.
More specifically, Baylor students who were allowed to question things about faith.
Eventually there would be new groups of people come along, with different experiences and identities, and some of these identities began competing with each other for attention.
I sometimes think I arrived during the final stages of the honeymoon.