This story begins with me walking through the doors of a church. In Texas, this is not a strange place to start a story. We do that a lot here. Less than we used to, but it is still a very common occurrence. It’s a less common experience, though, for us to walk through church doors at a time when suppositions about Christian belief and practice are shifting under our feet. It felt like such a thing was happening in the early years of this century, and a church on the corner of 17th and Dutton was one of the epicenters of this activity.
Those who observed the initial tremors grasped for terms to describe what was happening. Most settled on some variation of “Emerging Church,” though the word “Postmodern Church” got bandied about from time to time. Like the wind of the Spirit Jesus spoke about in John 3:8, it was difficult to know exactly where it came from or where it was going. It possessed fragments of philosophy, theology and culture and, as one prominent chronicler of its movements noted, was part of a larger shift of Western Civilization itself. (See: Phyllis Tickle, The Great Emergence.)
And it seemed to disappear as quickly as it emerged. Few people talk about the Emerging Church with as much frequency as they did in those days. But it hasn’t really vanished as much as it has been absorbed back into the host from which it was born—The “institutional church.” It is transforming the Church in ways we won’t fully grasp for many years, and identifying “it” is becoming increasingly more difficult.
For a period the movement had somewhat well defined shapes and contours, though its adherents would have scoffed at the thought of being understood. Its purists met together almost exclusively in “intentional communities,” cohorts and bars. But a handful of institutional churches either embraced the Emerging label, or were intentionally created because of the movement. The church I walked into, University Baptist Church in Waco, TX, was one such congregation.
I spent fifteen years in this church. I entered at a time when the “Emerging Church” was throwing its coming out parties. By the time it ended for me, the Emerging Church had seeped back into the main water supplies of most evangelical denominations. During those years I experienced church life in a way that was both common to all communities of faith throughout history, as well as in ways that were new. The story is about me and my life in this church, but it also is a description of a particular microcosm of a movement. It is a story of a church struggling with all the implications of this new movement, often mimicking the same traits of the Megachurch Evangelicalism it was reacting against.
In the relatively small world of Emerging Churches, we made a name for ourselves. Some of us bristled at the feeling of being a church-on-display, where people came from far places to see that guy who wrote those books or the band who sang those songs. But we also, simultaneously, kind of liked it. It became a drug, of sorts, this being “known.” The drug caused us to overlook things that should never have been overlooked, and to obsess about things that should never, in the context of Church, be obsessed about.
Tragedy hit and complicated things significantly. Or perhaps it revealed how complicated things already were?
In 1995 three churches in Waco began within a few months of each other. One of them embraced the values of “sacred and simple.” They built a small building on a patch of land on the outskirts of town. It is off the road and hard to get to. If you miss an exit on your way there, you may as well forget about making it there on time, as you’ll have to cross the Twin Bridges over Lake Waco before turning around. They embrace silence, ancient Christian practices and being unhurried and unconcerned with being seen. This church is wholly countercultural in both form and content.
Another was built on the value of going out into all corners of the world and spreading the gospel to the nations, as well as to the stranger standing next to them in line at Starbucks. They are located on one of the major roads in the middle of town. There have been New York Times articles written about the activities of this church, and its “brand” is becoming a worldwide phenomenon by their planting of satellite churches in dozens of locales, from Houston to the Himalayas. This church hosts a worship and missions conference every year that attracts thousands of people from all over the world.
UBC started as a church primarily for college students. But peel away the demographic specifics of its original mission and you’ll find a congregation that has occupied a fascinating space between the other two Waco congregations that began that year. In embracing the values and stories of the Emerging Church movement, it looked backwards and received guidance from early and medieval Christianity, to the saints and sinners that have been lost to evangelicals hell-bent on creating as much distance from Rome and Istanbul as possible. It allowed room for darkness and doubt that wasn’t present in the world from which it sprang. Yet the church didn’t neglect the contextualization of this message into contemporary forms of worship and practice. Instead, it took “being seen” to an entire new level, producing music and literature that was consumed by masses of young believers, and attracted thousands through its doors.
But a question emerged: Was this an ancient-leaning church wearing contemporary, evangelical clothing, or a Contemporary Evangelical church using a newfound appreciation for ancient practices to attract people? Everyone under its roof had different answers to the question. What was significant, though, wasn’t the diversity of opinions, which exist in most healthy free-church congregations. What stood out to anyone with an astute eye was that few people in the church were aware that there was a diversity of opinions, and even fewer believed it mattered.
But it did matter. It still does.
It matters because once the final benediction has been spoken on a Sunday morning, the “Church gathered” scatters into the streets and communities to “do life together,” to make use of a popular buzz-phrase in emerging church communities. In doing life together, it matters whether you are receiving wisdom and guidance from leaders such as John Piper, Francis Chan and Louie Giglio, or from Barbara Brown Taylor, Rob Bell and Anne Lamott. Each of these preachers, writers and thinkers represent more than just differing ways of talking about faith. They represent different ways of being in, and approaching the world as followers of Jesus.
Much of the joy and pain, hope and heartache I experienced during my time at UBC was a direct result of the diverse ways in which we approached faith, as well as our inability (or unwillingness?) to communicate the differences among us.
I always sought to answer the question of who we were with this: We were a church. Somewhere along the way we all became enamored with the story of Jesus. Some of us were captured by the way of The Nazarene as children, and despite years of familiarity with his story leading to borderline contempt, we held on. We figured if there was anything that could keep us following him, it would be this church. Others discovered Jesus at UBC, and challenged our assumptions about who He was and where he was leading us.
We “did life” together. Like humans do, we hurt each other. But like people compelled by the Spirit of God, we tried to bring healing in equal measure. We laughed a lot and told stories. We created a myth, the good kind of myth (are there any other kinds of myth?) that leads to meaning, identity and understanding.
We cried together. On the cold, sterile floor of a hospital waiting room, we collapsed into each other in anguish. On the banks of the Brazos River we wiped away tears as children and adults went under the water and came back up again, new people, unaware that our contorted, wet faces were as much about our past as it was their future.
We danced to Coldplay, swinging Christmas lights over our head. We watched as one of our own became a “Christian celebrity,” and we tried to figure out what to do with that.
At 20, UBC is still incredibly young. Like most young adults, it has a lot to learn. But it is old enough to teach a few things as well. Its lessons are as relevant to institutions and families as it is to individuals and friends. They were learned by trial and error, and by the telling and retelling of thousands stories of its people who came and went over the years.
This is mine.