In the spring of 2005 a prominent pastor in the Emerging Church movement decided to resign from his position in Baltimore to focus on writing and leadership responsibilities within the burgeoning group of churches, pastors and young Christians who were exploring what faith will look like in the new world influenced by postmodern thought. His church wanted him to help them locate his replacement, and he suggested Kyle for the position.
At this point Kyle had written and published a book, and was in the process of writing another. He had transitioned from being a fairly bad preacher to a very good one. Conferences were asking him to speak at their gatherings and he was becoming a “rising star” of the Emerging Church movement. At the same time David and his band were becoming prominent in their own right, recording and releasing arguably some of the greatest modern worship music in the short history of the genre, and Kyle’s association with them helped make him a known “commodity.” So it was natural that this pastor/author would reach out to Kyle to be his successor.
From the beginning of the process it was assumed that I would move to the northeast if Kyle were to take the position. I had fallen deeply in love with UBC, but Kyle and his family were the main reasons I was there and felt so cared for and connected. I was working at a national retail chain and could easily transfer to a store in the area where he moved. For several weeks leading up to his visit with the church, I had all but packed my bags. I was especially moved by the fact that Kyle and Jen (his wife) had also considered it a foregone conclusion that I would go with them. It seemed that we belonged together. I was untethered by commitments, and they wanted to feel they had a piece of Waco with them, so it made sense.
He was intrigued by the church when he visited. It wasn’t UBC, but it had its own charms. For one, unlike UBC, it was multi-generational. It was also more racially diverse than UBC, if not socioeconomically. Since its membership consisted of professionals who worked in a large metropolitan area, he would have been more financially secure than in Waco. Because of their previous pastor’s activities they were used to, and welcoming of someone who wanted to spend time writing and speaking at events across the country. It was a good fit, but it wasn’t Waco.
After he had returned to think and pray about the possibility, he decided against taking the position, with community being the deciding factor. The area in which the church was located was marked by suburban sprawl, and its members lived in numerous towns and cul-de-sacs, all disconnected from one another. Their jobs and location made it difficult for them to have any sort of life together throughout the week, so Sundays were the only time they saw each other. It was a very homogeneous area, devoid of any social or economic diversity. His children would likely attend schools with very few of the friends they were seeing at church, and developing relationships with anyone, and especially other young families, would be near impossible. He would have been a pastor on Sundays and a manager of church resources throughout the rest of the week, which was not what Kyle was born to do. He was born to engage and connect.
And like it had done for many of us, Waco had wedged its way into Kyle’s heart.
A few days after he turned down the offer to move to the northeast, he and I met for lunch at Tony Demaria’s, a popular BBQ restaurant in East Waco. It’s a place that makes a limited amount of brisket a day and remains open until it sells out. It attracts all levels of Waco society—students, Baylor professors, the homeless, doctors and lawyers. As we stood in the long line together, an old, black man in overalls and muddy boots was carrying on a conversation in front of us with a young white man in a three piece suit, likely a lawyer of some kind. They were talking about dogs they had owned in the past, conversing about which ones were good for hunting, which were good companions, and which were good for nothing. Their conversation was easy and entertaining.
Kyle and I looked along in stunned amazement. After a lull in their conversation he looked over at me, giggled and proclaimed, “I think I made a good decision,” noting that witnessing such an exchange would likely not occur in a Baltimore suburb.
By deciding to stay in Waco and at UBC, Kyle was making a choice that affected not just him, but his family as well. It also made him rethink the future of UBC and whether the model of being a church primarily for Baylor students was sustainable in the long run. By 2005 the student population still made up well over 85-90% of the Sunday morning attenders, but this percentage was significantly lower than the 99.99% of students that began the church. Along with the first wave of students who had decided to stay in Waco after graduation, and those like myself who arrived as young professionals, were second and third waves of graduate students and young people who were finding their way to the city as economic and social opportunities began to expand.
Many of these new people arrived because they loved the student-centered atmosphere. But some of them (also like myself,) made a home at UBC because they resonated with what was in the air—A feeling that they could practice their faith without posturing a certain manner of piety, the openness to question and to come up with new models and approaches to God, and a sense of creativity and inquisitiveness exhibited by those who had come to be known as “UBC’ers.”
It became clear to Kyle that if UBC was to survive as a church, and not simply a parachurch ministry that relied on outside funds for it’s survival, then we needed to find a way to nurture and grow this group of people. And it wasn’t just about money, although it was about that. There was a sense in which everyone at UBC, students and non-students, understood that if we made the church our home we were, by default, signing on to be primarily in service to young people, regardless of how at home we felt in the church. At the same time, we were living our own lives separate from the academic calendar. We were in town for Easter and Christmas. We were asking questions about singleness, children and marriage. We were thinking about 401k’s and how in the world we were going to pay for student loans before our 100th birthdays. We were trying to navigate how friendships and relationships can survive without the built in community-building activities offered by university life. In the midst of expending our energies caring for students, who was going to take care of us?
In the summer of 2005 Kyle called together a roomful of graduate students, postgraduates and young professionals who were making a home at UBC to discuss these things. Like many significant conversations that have happened in the years since, this particular one felt awkward. But it was, in the long run, a pivotal moment in the life of our church. We discussed how to reach out to and expand the base of the non students. Out of this came a new Sunday School class, dubbed “The Other Side,” for those on the other side of graduation. We also talked about advertising in teachers lounges, professional organizations and other places frequented by adults new to the area.
Though we appeared unified in our initial goal, in retrospect many of us in that meeting were on different pages in ways that would not be revealed for many years to come. That meeting energized some of us because, finally, we were starting to address the difficult financial situation brought on by having a congregation made up largely of people with little, if any, income. An expanded giving base would allow us to do more for students, without having to ask large donors from outside to pay the tab, so to speak.
Others, like myself, were energized because, finally, we were starting to address the fact that some of us were not students, and though we had nothing against students, we wanted a church that made people in other demographics feel welcome. In fact, we wanted a church that we would still feel at home in twenty five years down the road. Until this conversation, though I led small groups and preached occasionally on Sunday mornings, I felt like an outsider in a place that I loved.
For most of us in that room, it was the first time we were asked to give voice to anything concerning the overall direction of the church. Up to that point the Leadership Team that acted as the primary overseers of the church was made up of staff members and students or graduates who had come to the church as freshmen in college, not those of us who came from outside the target demographic of the church. We were thankful for the opportunity, and excited about the possibilities to come.
We were unaware that the catalyst for bringing UBC into the “real world” was just around the corner.