In 2003 I turned 29. UBC continued to be a church primarily for college students, but a small movement was underway of Baylor alumni staying in Waco for a few years after graduation. Much of this was because of the energy created by UBC. In addition to this, a few couples in their 40’s and 50’s found themselves attracted to our community and made their home with us. This began to change not just the makeup of our Sunday morning gatherings, but also the leadership structure of the church. Whereas before, Bible studies and other groups were led by 19 and 20 year olds, now there were some people with a little bit of life experience joining them.
This was not a massive shift, mind you. Of the roughly 800 people attending our worship services, at least 700 of them were students. College life was still the reference point for everything said from the stage and in publicity materials. The church calendar was the Baylor academic calendar. When a Baylor semester was coming to a close, so was the UBC semester. (To be fair, this isn’t out of the ordinary, as the ebb and flow of most churches are dictated by academic calendars.) In a reversal of trend from most evangelical churches, Easter and Christmas were the least attended services, since the great majority of our congregants were not in town for those holidays. We didn’t even have a service on the Sunday nearest to Christmas, since everyone was away. If someone in town wanted to visit on that Sunday, then there were plenty of other churches for them to attend.
In fact, that was the general attitude about other church options during those days. It wasn’t meant to be aggressive or dismissive toward anyone, but the feeling was that if you were not a student, and specifically a Baylor student, you could join us on Sunday mornings and even become a part of the fabric of the life of the church, but you needed to be know that all of our energies will be spent toward ministering to one particular demographic of people. If you join us, this should be where your energies are spent as well. If not, go somewhere else.
This began to make me a little uneasy. I had a less-than-stellar experience working at Baylor and, for a time, the Baylor culture had soured on me. I wasn’t initially attracted to UBC because it was the “Baylor church.” I was attracted to it because I was made to feel at home among its people. I was valued for what I could offer the Baylor students who attended UBC, and welcome to allow them to offer me a sense of community and family. But it was clear: This was all about them.
I wasn’t quite capable at the time of articulating how I felt to Kyle and others in the church leadership. But I knew that if we were going to be a place that encouraged vulnerability then I needed to model that. The best I could come up with was a concern that perhaps we shouldn’t just be focused on Baylor students, but that there were other students as well attending our services who may feel left out at all the Baylor-centric conversation emanating from stage. Waco is home to two other institutions of higher learning—a community college and a technical college—and a few of these students ended up at UBC. I broached this subject with Kyle and Ben, a recently hired community pastor charged with creating a sense of belonging among those who attended UBC, and was told that we need to focus on our original mission of reaching Baylor students.
But the fact was that reaching Baylor students was only the implied mission of the church. The actual stated mission of UBC was that we are a church that “Challenges people to know God.” There was language about being rooted in a particular place and reaching out to younger generations, but the word “Baylor” and “student” never made it into the official documents. Whether this was incidental, or indicative of a latent belief that the mission of the church should be broader than its original focus, I can’t be sure. But I am sure of the fact that it was always bound to cause some confusion as people transitioned out of college and stuck around the church.
The “mission to Baylor students” motif, and my discomfort with it, set me on the path of another journey of belief with regards to what happens in corporate worship. I began to notice that after a win for a Baylor sports team (which were extremely rare in those days,) we would be led in a mass “Sic ‘Em” by the people making announcements at the beginning of the worship service. Even though I had been a Baylor fan as a child, and moved to Waco to work at the university, I still felt a little like an outsider to its traditions by virtue of the fact that I had not attended the school for my undergraduate degree. The “Sic ‘Em” before worship only served to heighten my sense of alienation.
During this time I was also exposed to ideas that were radically reshaping the way I felt about corporate worship. I attended Truett seminary for a semester in the fall of 2002 and enrolled in a Christian Worship course with Dr. Terry York, an accomplished hymn writer and professor of church music. He stressed how corporate worship, that is, those times when the church gathers together to sing, hear the Word of God proclaimed, and pray, is to be about God, and God alone. (How this was revolutionary to me is, in retrospect, quite baffling.) He warned against what he termed “Worship and…” within any congregational gathering. What he meant was that the worship of God is to take center stage when we gather, and when we add an “and” to that, we must be careful of breaking the first commandment of not putting any other gods before God.
Where this most plays itself out in America is the creeping in of nationalism into our worship services. Most Baptist hymnals contain certain patriotic songs—America, The Beautiful, My Country ‘Tis of Thee, and even the Star Spangled Banner. I never recognized it until Dr. York’s class but until I began attending UBC I had never worshipped in a church that did not display the American flag proudly somewhere in the sanctuary. On veterans day in the church I grew up in we recognized the veterans, on the fourth of July we sang the patriotic songs, and recognized the veterans. On Memorial Day we recognized the veterans. There was a lot of veteran recognition. This was never questioned, but was always just the air we breathed.
Dr. York was careful to delineate between patriotism and nationalism. Patriotism is a love for one’s homeland and can contain a good amount of humility, when practiced correctly. One could walk into a worship service and carry their patriotism in with them. But a belief that only God is God, and demands that no other gods be held before God, will make the patriot embrace the tension that, while love for God is not exclusive, it should always be supreme in our lives. Patriotism recognizes that everything belongs to God, and our love for country is always subservient to our love for God and always must take a back seat. A Christian patriot will be very uneasy about wearing their patriotism on their sleeve in a corporate worship setting.
But patriotism, as has been seen very clearly in our country over the past 15 years, can very easily slip into nationalism, which contains very little capacity for humility. Nationalism presupposes a triumphalism and exceptionalism that says “Our country is better than your country,” and relies heavily (for the Christian nationalist) on God as justification for our nationalistic tendencies. The Christian nationalist does more than simply love their country. They hold tightly to a belief that God has made our country exceptional in a way that other countries are not, and that our country has a particular place in fulfilling God’s purposes in the world. And if this is the case, then why wouldn’t we blend in the songs and pledges of our country with the worship of God? In fact, if this is all the case, then pledging allegiance to the United States flag in a worship services is not “blending in” at all, but a part of our worship of God.
What is most intriguing about Dr. York is that he is a veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He speaks of getting teary eyed during parades when the Stars and Stripes pass by. He loves his country with a deep love. But he understands that if God is supreme over all of our allegiances, then that includes our allegiance to our country. And sometimes our allegiance to God may require us to do and say some very un-American things. He challenged me to order my allegiances wisely.
Cheering “Sic ‘Em Bears,” or spending time acknowledging our local athletic team’s victories, is not exactly the same thing as blending nationalism into corporate worship, but there’s not as much daylight between the two as we might like to think. In addition to the problem of alienating outsiders (people not connected to Baylor,) the practice can serve to confuse things. Are we here to worship God, or to worship God AND to create a sense of camaraderie when the team of the majority of people in attendance won a game? This may seem like nitpicking. It almost certainly seemed like that to Ben and Kyle and others when I brought up this concern to them. But during this time I was developing a very keen sense that what we do and say during corporate worship actually matters, and that a certain amount of thoughtfulness was missing in our attempts to be a new kind of church.
This was a crossroads, the first of many that were to come. Was my discomfort and alienation enough to cause me to search for another church, or would I remain at UBC? This is what we do in the south, and is a relatively recent phenomenon within the history of Christianity—the ability to choose where we will worship and, as an extension, choose to no longer worship at that place. And in Waco, TX, the choices are numerous.