How 150-year-old University Christian Church Is Reaching People Today

How 150-year-old University Christian Church Is Reaching People Today

This historic church with a star-studded history is moving from reputation reliance to strategic messaging for a new generation of ministry.

By: Cory Edwards | Case Studies Church Branding Communications & Marketing featured Habits & Culture

A Texas-sized History and Impact

>>Check out University Christian Church’s new branding here!

University Christian Church (UCC) sits prominently in Fort Worth, Texas. With a southwestern elegance, the high steeple boasts a long history of community impact. It’s also
the place to get married in Fort Worth.

Dr. Russ Peterman, Senior Minister at UCC, attended services with wide eyes as a Texas Christian University (TCU) student (TCU started UCC back in 1873). UCC’s scale and beauty overwhelmed the bright-eyed college student from a small Texas town.

“It was here in a worship service that I had a very profound call experience upon my life. UCC is kind of sacred ground. I always feel the need to sort of take off my shoes when I walk in the sanctuary because it really is a place where I encountered the holy and the sacred in a very real and tangible way. I have always looked upon this congregation as being an amazing church.”

For the first 50 years of its existence, University Christian Church served TCU’s students and staff. And it eventually became an autonomous congregation in 1933 at the onset of the Great Depression. UCC became a well-known landmark with an influential voice in the community, participating actively in the civil rights movement. And it is a flagship church in the Disciples of Christ denomination.

A Presidential Reputation

On November 22, 1963, Dr. Granville T. Walker, the long-standing senior minister of UCC, gave the benediction for John F. Kennedy’s last breakfast hosted by the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce. Dr. Walker needed no introduction to President Kennedy as he greeted everyone at the head table at the star-studded event. Unfortunately, just hours after their meeting, JFK was tragically assassinated in nearby Dallas. 

The Dream Job

Many years after his call experience, Dr. Russ returned to UCC on a trip from California, where he was living at the time.

“As the organ started playing and the people started gathering I leaned over to my wife, Kelly, and I said, just so you know, this is my dream job. 

“That was the last time we had that conversation until UCC reached out to me about four years ago to come serve as their pastor. So this is in many ways sort of a dream come true for me.”

Community Involvement

Since taking the pastorate, Dr. Russ has worked to get UCC involved in the community. Their Children’s Closet ministry provides low-income students with the required uniforms to attend Fort Worth Independent School District (ISD) schools.

“I think it’s been really important for us to get back out there and to start serving the community a whole lot more than what we’ve done. That’s been one of the areas of emphasis, especially during this pandemic.

“We’ve been working really hard about getting out there—to be a part of what God is doing rather than expecting people to come to us. We have this beautiful sanctuary where everybody wants to get married. But there was still this sense of, well, all we have to do is open the doors, right?”

Becoming More Outwardly-Focused and Forward-Thinking

UCC’s historic influence remained strong for many decades. But, says Dr. Russ, the church inevitably faced the challenge to move beyond what it had once been.

“Back in 1963, UCC needed no introduction. And I think many folks still look at UCC as this great institution, but I think in many ways, a lot of our shine had worn off a little bit. We had been relying on our reputation way too much.

“So we really wanted to be more outwardly focused and forward-thinking instead of relying on that reputation. We didn’t want to drive into the future with both hands on the steering wheel while looking in the rearview mirror.”

The COVID-19 pandemic drove UCC to get future-focused—faster.

“In the midst of the pandemic when all of our ministry had shifted to digital, it became very clear very quickly that strategic messaging was more important now than ever. That was our most glaring weakness, right? Because we had been relying on our reputation for far too long. 

“We had become sort of inwardly focused and not outwardly focused enough to say: These are the people we’re called to reach.”
“We couldn’t say: Here’s the message that we have for those that we’re called to reach as opposed to a message focused on us.”

Focusing on Those We’re Trying to Reach

During the pandemic, Dr. Russ and his team took advantage of the extra time to hone their message and focus their outreach efforts. They hired ArtSpeak to develop their strategic message, visual identity, website, and ongoing media. 

“We recognized that this is not about us, you know? That it’s all about those people that God is calling us to reach. We’d been relying for far too long on just sort of the attractional model of church, right? 

“You just do the best you can and hope that you can attract people to you, but that doesn’t work in this culture. We became much more focused on those we’re trying to reach rather than tooting our own horn.”

Strategic Messaging

ArtSpeak helped refine University Christian Church’s already robust mission, vision, and values. We also helped define other core characteristics like reputation, advantages, distinctives, and success metrics. UCC’s core led to a set of Pulse Words that described how communications would feel across all mediums: visual, spatial, verbal, and written.

We collaborated to define UCC’s audience with insights from congregants and staff gathered while onsite in Fort Worth. We also performed demographic research for their immediate area. We took these insights and developed several personas with specific hopes, fears, and challenges.

With the personas in mind, we developed a message that would resonate with their hopes and fears. This consisted of a set of value propositions, a brand promise, a one-liner, and their Core Story that placed their audience on a hero’s journey and UCC as their guide toward a brighter future.

Visual Identity

We developed University Christian Church’s visual identity with their strategic message at its foundation. Their visual identity honors the past while creating a fresh visual expression. It both appeals to their audience’s sensibilities and invites them into the heart of God’s work at UCC.

UCC’s logo is a refreshing take on the St. Andrew’s cross, a symbol integrally connected to their denomination. Their logo remains rooted in UCC’s history while inviting their audience into a journey of curiosity and generous connection.

Their colors, typography, and graphic elements are all anchored, warm, and inviting while infused with bright, delightful, contemporary accents. 

See their Style Overview here.

“This is not about us anymore.”

UCC’s new brand has created a palpable momentum amongst the congregation.

Although messaging is only about 10% of all a church can do, Dr. Russ says their clear, concise message is what makes the other 90% possible.

“It has been incredibly well-received. People are loving it. And I’ve had a couple of established members say, you know, I’m not sure that I like the new visual identity. 

“But what’s been great is I’ve been able to say, that’s okay, Mrs. Doubtfire, you’re not our target audience, you know? This is not about us anymore, right? This is about those that we’re called to reach. 

“And they can just kind of step back and go, ah I get it, I get it. And so it’s been really well-received.”

Dr. Russ recounts how their new brand invites reluctant congregants back to in-person services: 

“This is drawing people to come back. It lets them know that we’re not just returning to the church that we were before we shut down — that we’ve used the shutdown as an opportunity to recreate and reimagine ourselves. 

“So that it’s not about going back to where we were, but about moving forward into the future that God has called us to be, to live into His dream for us.”

As part of their efforts to invite people into UCC’s future story, they turned their Core Story into a short promotional video. We also strategized with Dr. Russ to develop an accompanying brand launch sermon series based on their Core Story.

Open-hearted Church for Curious-minded People — Without the Robes.

Ten:10, University Christian Church’s new, contemporary service, invites a new generation of families to a low-barrier experience.

“As a 150-year-old University Church, we are very traditional in our worship service. We have worship services with the bells, and the big loud organ and the huge choir and all that kind of stuff. You know, I wear a robe on Sundays. 

“We’re very aware that that doesn’t speak to everybody. And if we’re gonna be across the street from a university and reach some of those younger generations, we’re gonna need to reinvent ourselves. 

“And so we’re starting a new service that we’re calling Ten:10 based on John 10:10. It’s gonna be more of a coffee house-type feel. There’s a lot of energy and a lot of excitement.”

Dr. Russ and staff determined Ten:10’s launch date with their strategic messaging.

“We were about to kick this off right before we shut down. We thought maybe we should start it as an online service, right? Kind of grow this following online, and you guys said, ‘Woah, woah, woah, what about if we roll out the new service and brand at the same time?’ 

“And we all kind of looked around and thought, yeah, exactly. And so this new service comes out of this new strategic messaging. 

“So all of this is intertwined as part of University Christian Church’s future. On August 15th, we’re gonna launch this new service, and we’re really excited about it.”

“The best investment we’ve made in decades, hands down.”

Speaking to fellow pastors, Dr. Russ says:

“I can hire somebody to create a new logo for us, right? But this is so much bigger than that. It’s taking this understanding of what we believe God is calling us to do and then being able to cut through all of the noise of the culture and the society and clearly articulate that. 

“And I had no idea how to do that, right? I mean, I can preach, I can tell you if I can look at a logo if I like it or not. But I couldn’t tell you why.

“ArtSpeak did such an amazing job of taking it so much farther and deeper and wider and helped us focus on those people that we believe God is calling us to reach.

“And I can unequivocally say, this is the best investment that this church has made in decades, hands down.”

Has your church relied on its reputation for too long? Has your attractional reach plateaued?

If you think you might need Strategic Messaging to reach more people — the people God’s called you to reach — we’d love to help. 

Fill out the form below for a free 30-minute consultation, and let’s reach people together.