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The Waves Church meets on a Sunday night in Stauffer Chapel.
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One hurricane, two churches

Pepperdine University launched a second Church of Christ on the Malibu campus, offering a choice between a multigenerational congregation and student-focused worship.

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MALIBU, Calif. — Two Churches of Christ met for worship at Pepperdine University on the day Hurricane Hilary arrived. 

“There’s a storm a-brewing,” minister Eric Wilson told those gathered at the University Church of Christ Malibu.

He wasn’t talking about the hurricane. He was talking about life.

“‘Come unto me all you that are weary and heavy laden.’ Come if you’re tired and been carrying too much,” the preacher said. “This is Jesus’ offer: ‘I will give you rest.’”

Technically, Hilary was a tropical depression when it hit Los Angeles County on Aug. 20. But the National Weather Service hadn’t issued a tropical storm warning here since 1997. Malibu, a coastal community about 35 miles northwest of Los Angeles, worries more about fire than rain. 

The University church met at 10 a.m. that Sunday, much like it has since 1970 when Christians first came together in the basement of the L.A. County Courthouse in Malibu. Most Sundays, members gather in the university’s iconic Stauffer Chapel. But the first services each fall meet in the adjacent amphitheater where back-to-school crowds can gaze at the Pacific.

The Waves Church planned its first-ever service by the campus fountain. Then Hilary arrived, soaking the usually sun-drenched campus, and both Churches of Christ moved indoors to Elkins Auditorium. Waves will also meet in Stauffer going forward, but on Sunday evenings.

Tropical Storm Hilary soaks Pepperdine University's campus.

Tropical Storm Hilary soaks Pepperdine University’s campus.

An a cappella praise team led the morning worship. A couple with a guitar led the evening worship. Both churches served communion. Crowds of about 140, made up mostly of students, attended each service.

Although church and university leaders describe both congregations as entirely autonomous, the University church has been — from its beginning — enmeshed with Pepperdine through common leadership, facilities and shared resources. 

Pepperdine provides “essentially the salary of the campus minister,” along with the rent-free use of all facilities, President Jim Gash said. In addition, the university allocated two on-campus condos purchased by the church for its minister and campus minister. 

The new Waves Church, led by board of regents member Alan Beard and his wife Sharon, Pepperdine’s dean of students, does not receive a cash subsidy but has free access to campus facilities. It was allowed to purchase an on-campus condo for minister Taylor Walling and his family, who recently moved to Malibu from The Hills Church of Christ in suburban Fort Worth, Texas. Donors are covering other expenses.

Waves was established at the behest of the regents’ Faith and Heritage Committee at its June 15 meeting. The committee, composed of trustees who are Church of Christ members, wields significant power, including tenure recommendations. Its primary responsibility, according to member Alan Beard, is oversight of spiritual life, “everything from Bible lectures to campus ministry.”

Where do students worship?

But how many Pepperdine students go to church anywhere on Sundays? Not a lot, and they’re scattered.

Only about 8 percent of Pepperdine undergrads are members of Churches of Christ, according to Gash, who is a member at University but also plans to attend Waves. He went to both on hurricane Sunday. 

Gash was an elder at the University church before he became president. Subsequently, the congregation shifted to leadership by a seven-member Pastoral Care and Oversight Council, three men and four women chosen by the congregation.


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A few students attend a handful of congregations within 30 to 45 minutes of Malibu. All feature a cappella worship and broad though not identical leadership roles for women. Most are small. Most California churches are.

Other students — perhaps 100, Sharon Beard said — attend the evangelical Vintage Church Malibu. Vintage pursues the student population with carpools and weekly small groups, which, according to its website, meet on campus. Vintage’s influence on campus was the subject of extensive reporting last year by The Graphic, Pepperdine’s student news organization.

Regardless, most students do not go to church anywhere. The percentage of college students nationwide who attend religious services regularly has dropped precipitously over 30 years. 

Last year, students could choose from a cappella worship services at the University church on Sunday mornings; Wednesday night instrumental worship at The Well, sponsored by Pepperdine’s Spiritual Life Hub; or The Table, a Saturday evening instrumental worship and meal sponsored by the University church but funded by a donor through the president’s office. Gash said the Texas donor reported that his financial situation had changed, and The Table was canceled for this year.

This year is pretty much the same, except instead of The Table, other donors are supporting Waves.

The Waves Church meets on a Sunday night in Stauffer Chapel.

The Waves Church meets on a Sunday night in Stauffer Chapel.

The ‘Why?’ question

So why does a campus with fewer than 4,000 undergrads need two Churches of Christ?

Alan Beard says it’s all about how Christian universities see students. Pepperdine attracts a lot of Christian students, but not necessarily from Church of Christ backgrounds.

“We thought there was an opportunity to look at Pepperdine in a new way — as a mission field — and try to reach students while they are on our campus,” Beard said.

To Walling, a second church provides an opportunity to minister to students in different ways.

“If the Church of Christ and Restoration Movement have a diversity of expressions, then it doesn’t feel out of step for there to be a diversity of expressions on a campus that has that heritage.”

“If the Church of Christ and Restoration Movement have a diversity of expressions, then it doesn’t feel out of step for there to be a diversity of expressions on a campus that has that heritage,” he said.

Gash said Pepperdine hasn’t always been involved in spiritual life programming, but he wants that to change. “That had been largely delegated to local churches, but it’s important to me for the university to be clearly involved beyond the classroom in learning.”

Not everyone is so optimistic. 

People are already talking,” said Amy Doran, who heads the University church’s finance ministry. “Is this the beginning of the end of University church? If it starts faltering, are we taking out UCC and putting our resources into the new one?”

The Beards told University church members there was no reason for such fears. But, Doran said, “It’s a weird place to be. It’s a weird spot for all of us at University church.”

For students, it comes down to a choice between a multigenerational church vs. one focused exclusively on students. 

Multigenerational church

Falon Barton became a Christian as an undergrad through relationships she established at the University church. She’d never heard of the Church of Christ. She’s been campus minister there since 2021. 

“This is the community that has loved me and shaped me into who I am today,” she told students, encouraging them to find a multigenerational church somewhere.

That philosophy was evident in those leading in worship at University: children, parents, students and gray-haired faculty.

Falon Barton speaks at the University Church of Christ on a recent Sunday.

Falon Barton speaks at the University Church of Christ on a recent Sunday.

“You bring life to them,” Barton told the students. “We really focus on bringing college students here because we need you to worship with us.”

Barton said 50 to 60 students attend University’s worship most Sundays, and about 200 are involved in other activities including small groups, which have been part of the congregation’s campus ministry for decades. This year’s iteration is Unfiltered, focusing on students who are “nones, dones and almost dones,” Barton said, using terminology that describes young adults’ relationship with religion.

Once a month students also will be invited to a community life communion — communion as a full meal in members’ homes.

Stacy and Steve Rouse, members of University’s Pastoral Care and Oversight Council, have seen multigenerational ministry play out in students’ lives.

“We talk a lot about being an intergenerational church and a sending and receiving church. That presence is really powerful — saying, ‘We want you to be part of the life of this church.’”

“We talk a lot about being an intergenerational church and a sending and receiving church. That presence is really powerful — saying, ‘We want you to be part of the life of this church,’” Stacy Rouse said.

“It was a surprise for a new church to be created,” Steve Rouse added. “But it doesn’t necessarily mean we need to change.”

Barton also was surprised. The Pastoral Council was told of the plan just days after the regents’ decision. A few days later, the University church staff was informed, and on Sunday, June 25, council member Lucy Perrin read a letter from the Beards to University members.

“I know this is a lot to hear and absorb,” she told members. “The council is only days ahead of you.”

Amy Doran and husband Chris, a religion professor, watched online from Argentina when the letter was read. Chris is also outgoing Seaver faculty president. They’ve been at the University church for more than 20 years.

“My initial reaction,” the professor said, “was, ‘This is going to hurt a lot of people I care about, some of whom are part of the founding of the church.’ And second, ‘This is a really stupid idea.’”

“Throwing money and resources for a nighttime service has been tried by churches across the country with no success stories,” he added.

Amy Doran agreed. “It felt so dismissive of the work that University church does.”

More than that, Chris Doran added, “There’s a significant concern, and in some cases fear, that saying anything about this particular effort that could be perceived as critical could be detrimental to people’s careers.”

Student-focused church

The night of Waves Church’s first meeting, Hilary blew in full force. Ten minutes before the scheduled start, just a dozen students had arrived, but by a few minutes after 5, the crowd had grown. With lights dimmed, prerecorded music faded as the guitar player began worship: “I get to be the first to say, ‘Welcome to Waves Church!’”

Taylor Walling was on vacation when Alan Beard called him in late June. 

“He said, ‘We are starting a church on campus, and I want to talk to you about being the lead minister,’” Walling recalled. 

The Waves Church praise team leads worship on Sunday during Tropical Storm Hilary.

The Waves Church praise team leads worship on Sunday during Tropical Storm Hilary.

Walling, a 2009 Oklahoma Christian University graduate, believes college students should have a spiritual home throughout the college years, “and it should be a local congregation.”

Beard and Gash have been clear that Waves will focus exclusively on students — no children’s ministry, no youth ministry, no senior ministry. Because other churches in the region don’t have Sunday night services, Beard and Gash anticipate some families will also attend Waves in the evening.

The Beards plan to do that. They have been closely connected to the university since their student days. Professionally, Alan’s career as an entrepreneur in marketing, entertainment and technology includes a premier list of past clients: AT&T, Disney, Fox, Coca-Cola, Sony, Universal and others. Yet for 19 years he directed Won by One, Pepperdine’s a cappella singing group. Sharon has worked at the university since 2003. They love Pepperdine.

Alan brought that entrepreneurial energy to the creation of Waves, and the couple has planned every aspect of the start-up, from naming it to finding a minister. (Waves is the name of Pepperdine’s mascot.)

Sharon said they’ve handled logistics, reserving rooms, creating logos and dealing with the legal paperwork necessary for starting a church.

“We’re definitely learning as we go,” she said, “thinking about how we’ll reach students and get them to come. We’ve been in constant conversations with different groups of students and trying to do our best to communicate with University church and anyone who has questions.”

“I’d be lying if I didn’t say there’s some fear, some insecurities. … But when I think of the future of this church, it’s important to know no one on the team is building this church. Jesus is building this church. We’d love you to be part of that building project.”

Walling’s first sermon at Waves was from Matthew 16:13-20 and focused on Jesus’ questions: “Who do people say that I am? Who do you say that I am?”

“The first question is a matter of information,” Walling said. “The second question is formation.”

The minister talked about answering those questions amid the challenges of life as a college student:

“You’re going to take a class that will challenge your assumptions — you’ll have a conversation with a friend, an unexpected struggle or a tragedy. And we find ourselves wrestling again — what do I really believe?”

As Hilary raged outside, Walling assured students that working through the questions is worth it.

“I’d be lying if I didn’t say there’s some fear, some insecurities. … But when I think of the future of this church, it’s important to know no one on the team is building this church. Jesus is building this church. We’d love you to be part of that building project.”

CHERYL MANN BACON is a Christian Chronicle contributing editor who served for 20 years as chair of the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication at Abilene Christian University. Contact [email protected].

Filed under: Churches of Christ in California multigenerational churches National News Partners Pepperdine Pepperdine University Top Stories University Church of Christ Waves Church

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