Leap of faith

One pastor’s quest to build an Austin church

On a Sunday morning last summer, Pastor Steve Blake gathered a small group of fledgling followers in the recreation room of a Mueller apartment building. Just a week before in South Carolina, a mass shooting in a nearly 200-year-old black church had resulted in the death of nine people, including the pastor.

“How can focusing on Christ end hostility toward each other?” the sneaker-clad Blake asked the group of eight; then he walked around listening to the lively discussions. Sitting near a pool table, one group discussed forgiveness. Others brought up President Barack Obama’s eulogy after the tragedy.

Without a permanent home for its gatherings, the group had been bouncing around between places such as Barnes & Noble and apartment common areas. But Blake, 35, had bigger plans. He envisioned creating something that’s hard to find: an urban, multiethnic Christian church that appeals to Austinites disillusioned with traditional church models.

With no previous experience starting a church, lots of money to raise and no team to back him up, starting a church from the ground up would be one of the biggest challenges of his life. The journey would shake his self-confidence, test his marriage and take a toll on his physical and emotional well-being. The fear of failure would keep him up at night.

Others were counting on this dream, too. His wife, two young children and mother-in-law also left the lives they knew behind to begin this chapter.

“Some days, I’m like, ‘This is amazing,’ ” Blake said. “And other days I wake up overwhelmed, because the clock is ticking. Is this going to work?”

Pastor Steve Blake shares some insight from Scripture during a Sunday morning service at O. Henry Middle School. Photo by Ricardo B. Brazziell

A new spiritual path

“You’re from Jamaica?” People are always surprised when Blake tells them he’s originally from Kingston. With a biracial family and a slight accent that many people can’t place, he has never felt as if he fit in anywhere. He didn’t grow up very religious, and at George Washington University, where he majored in economics, he aspired to join the business world.

As a student, he earned a slew of academic awards and honors, but behind all of those achievements he struggled to find meaning. When he took some religion and philosophy classes and spent time volunteering at a church, however, he finally got a taste of the fulfillment he had been seeking. After graduation, he faced a life-changing decision — continue climbing the corporate ladder or throw himself into his newfound calling.

The calling prevailed. Blake left a banking job to become an associate pastor at a nondenominational church he attended in Maryland and spent the next decade there.

Blake’s wife, Tori, who met him in college, said she always knew he was going to be a pastor. “It’s something that’s always been part of the deal,” she said.

But neither of them had considered the possibility of starting a church until, after moving to Dallas in 2013 to be closer to family, Steve Blake was approached by a church planting network called Nexus.

Nexus, which offers mentoring and resources for new churches, asked both Tori and Steve to take an assessment to see if they could handle the challenge as a couple.

The Blakes learned that not only could they start a church, but they should. “That was humbling to hear,” Steve said. They set out to make this dream a reality.

“I’m very in the weeds, very detailed,” Tori said. “He’s very big picture and visionary, and so we bring those two together.”

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Startup church

During a trip to Austin in the summer of 2014, Steve and Tori, who had a job interview in the city, stopped at Central Market, where the latest issue of Austin Monthly captured their attention. It featured an interracial couple on its cover, and Tori, who’s African-American, and Steve took it as a sign.

Maybe in Austin, they thought, their multicultural family could really belong.

Without knowing anyone in the city, they moved here to build a new life and, they hoped, a church. Once they arrived, Steve Blake decided to get the word out in a truly Austin way; by attending events intended for local entrepreneurs and pitching the church as a startup. Just like a startup, he explained, he worries about raising capital, building teams, and creating marketing and branding strategies. Determined to make connections and recruit potential leaders, Blake also started hosting meetups.

But starting a church in a city like Austin has unusual challenges. According to a survey by Barna Group, an evangelical Christian polling firm, Austin has fewer churchgoers per capita than other Texas cities such as Houston and Dallas. And while churches in other cities “compete” for followers, Blake said, Austin churches go up against beloved events and entertainment options such as the ABC Zilker Kite Festival and the Pecan Street Festival.

“I agree that organized religion feels restrictive,” he said. “You think of church and you think of a building, service and all the rules. But in the New Testament, you see that it was about relationships, community and taking care of one another.”

His dream: Create a church that’s like a family. “I’ve always loved the word ‘catalyst,’ ” he said. “Personally, I want to be a catalyst, an agent of change.”

He decided on the name of the church: Catalyst of Austin.

Finding a home

In spring 2015, Blake drove around every day checking out possible locations for Catalyst. If he spotted an empty property, he stopped the car.

Through meetups, Craigslist posts and old-fashioned networking, some Austinites began rallying behind building a Catalyst community. Week by week they watched as their social media presence slowly grew and their Facebook likes mushroomed from zero the first week to 86 three weeks later.

“He’s creating a farm-to-table kind of quality,” said Danny Thomas, who learned about Catalyst through meetups, “where you have full license to be yourself.”

Still, since moving to Austin, Blake had already seen other churches close their doors. About a third of startup churches don’t survive past the fourth year, according to a study by the Center for Missional Research of the North American Mission Board. Firsthand accounts by pastors of failed new churches fill the internet as they share lessons learned and tips.

“We’re really banking on our relational appeal,” Blake said. “I don’t know what our growth will be months from now, but if one person walks in the door, then we’re going to see the value of each individual.”

Blake couldn’t wait for the day they could have a home base, but finding a location in South Austin or the Mueller area, the two locations where Blake thought the church would resonate best, wasn’t easy. It was a church in formation, and for some members, it was awkward. Worshipping in places like Barnes & Noble drove some members to wonder, “Is this church?”

Blake’s goal was to start services in September, so it was especially disheartening when yet another location — a dream space in the Mueller neighborhood — fell through. “We think we have a place, we start dreaming, and then, wow — we don’t have a home,” he said. “I feel like I got the wind knocked out of me.”

Soon after, Blake found a place in an unexpected space: O. Henry Middle School. It’s not exactly the modern, inviting feel he was looking for, he acknowledged last summer as he tried to reimagine the school gym, basketball hoops and all, as a cozy, welcoming church. Still, Catalyst was home.

As Steve Blake, left, leads a Bible study, his 5-year-old son, P.K., sneaks in for a listen next to Laurie Bonnell at the Blakes' home. Photo by Rodolfo Gonzalez

Faith and family

At the end of their informal Sunday gatherings last summer, Blake would ask members to consider making a financial gift to Catalyst. One day, someone pointed out that Blake looked physically uncomfortable each time he brought up money.

Blake knew that if he believed in the dream, he had to get more comfortable. Catalyst couldn’t launch in September without funding to convert the O. Henry gym into the church’s new home. Audio/visual equipment, coffee tables, chairs, gym floor coverings, drapes, signage and more cost about $40,000.

Starting the new church required more than $100,000, some of which was provided through partnerships with other churches set up by Nexus, the church planting network. Still, Blake had to raise the rest, including his salary. “It’s been a faith exercise,” he said. He feels the financial pressure every day.

When he sent a newsletter to friends and family asking for monthly pledges, he was disappointed that the response wasn’t overwhelming. “It can make you think things like, ‘I thought that person was my friend.’ ” He had to reconnect with people from all parts of his life for contributions.

“Calling up friends and family and making that ask is weird and uncomfortable,” he said. Sometimes when he least expected it, though, he’d receive good news, like when a friend in the military offered to donate $900 monthly. “Are you sure?” Blake texted him. “Absolutely,” he responded.

Terance Flowers gets a piece of cake from Tori Blake as Steve Blake fills a plate during a home Bible study gathering. Photo by Rodolfo Gonzalez

Not just a pastor’s wife

During Catalyst gatherings, Tori Blake was always on the move, posting to the church’s social media, taking notes, directing or helping out with the children’s ministry. “You’re not going to find me in the front row clapping or baking cookies,” she said.

When people would ask her if she stays at home with their children, Saylen, 8, and P.K., 5, many were surprised by her answer. “I’m a senior manager and work 50 to 70 hours a week,” she said. The term “pastor’s wife” makes her cringe a little because of the stereotypes that come with it.

When Steve Blake has to be treated for involuntary muscle twitches as a result, in part, of recent stress, Tori reminds him to slow down and acknowledge the hardships along with the wins. “I want him to be honest about his fears, because he has a lot on his mind,” Tori said. “A strong point in our marriage is our love and devotion to ministry and serving God. That’s something that we both share.”

Mentors had told the couple to be careful not to let Catalyst overrun every aspect of their lives, but with their personal and church life woven so closely together, it was often hard to do.

One evening last summer, as Catalyst members arrived at the Blake home for Bible study, Saylen and P.K. headed upstairs after dinner to play with other Catalyst kids. As Bible study began, thumps from the children running around upstairs could be heard as they laughed and played.

It can be hard sometimes for the children to understand, Steve Blake said, that he’s working even when he’s at home. “Before you know it, even when you’re home, you are not mentally there,” he said.

Tori and Steve made a point to carve out time for themselves, too, where they weren’t talking about church or ministry. “We’re trying to be cautious,” he said. “We want to make sure our marriage and children come first.”

Members of Catalyst of Austin worship during morning service on Sunday, Sept. 20, 2015, at their new location at O. Henry Middle School. Photo by Ricardo B. Brazziell

A church is born

On Sunday, Sept. 20, Steve Blake woke up before his alarm. Over the weekend, he had caught a cold and had surrounded himself with Vicks and a humidifier. One question was looming in his mind: Will anyone come?

For months, he had prayed for the day he could introduce Austinites to a full Catalyst worship experience. As he stood outside the O. Henry gym, transformed with drapes into an intimate space featuring cafe-style seating, he tried not to stress about all the details, such as setup, music and the children’s group, his team was handling. After all this time and all this work, would anyone will give a new church a chance?

When he saw new faces coming into the school, a sense of relief washed over him. Tori and the children welcomed the crowd of more than 40 people before Steve stepped to the front.

“Today is a profound day for us,” he told the crowd that day. “When we moved here, we didn’t know one person. … I want you to know a little about me.”

Blake looked out at all the people he had brought together, from tech entrepreneurs to neighbors, and shared his personal story. He told them about life in Jamaica, his baptism in a dorm room bathtub and the passing of his father.

But while it was a great day, not all of the seats were filled, and Blake was already aware that it would only get harder going forward.

He had gotten them there once, but would they come back?

Early adopters, early abandoners

In a brand new church, everyone has a role. Even though other pastors reassured him it was common, Blake still worried when he noticed key people were missing some Sundays.

“Early adopters are also early abandoners,” Blake said.

Some members told him that it was too much of a commitment. Others moved away. Some didn’t like the emphasis on multiculturalism.

“It’s been hard for me to see some people move on,” he said. “When I invest in others, I feel like we’re going to be friends forever.”

In mid-October, despite his tight budget, Blake decided to spend $2,700 on advertising postcards that would reach 10,000 homes. Marketing research had indicated that he could expect up to 25 households to respond. The next Sunday, Blake waited by the church doors, eager to greet all the new families.

No one new showed up.

“It’s an emotional blow,” he said. After telling Catalyst members about the money spent and asking them to prepare to welcome new families, he felt wounded as a leader.

By Thanksgiving, Blake was fatigued and emotionally spent. Many of the leaders who helped launch the church had never had ministry roles before, so when Catalyst members needed spiritual guidance, they turned to Blake. He tried to shepherd and encourage them, but he was feeling drained, too.

At home, Tori noticed that despite their attempts to put their marriage and family first, their lives were coming off the rails.

“It’s not a secret in the pastoral world that many have strained marriages because of lack of boundaries, and I don’t want to be like that,” Steve said. “If we’re not making deposits on our marriage, even though we’ve been married almost 13 years, and just keep making withdrawals, then eventually you just end up feeling disconnected or like co-parents.”

He had thought at one point that if they could just get the church going, then everything else would figure itself out. “But everything else isn’t figuring itself out,” he said.

Brett Sheppard hands out crackers and juice as Catalyst of Austin church members take communion. Photo by Ralph Barrera

A new year

Around Christmas Eve, the Blakes took a short trip to the River Walk in San Antonio. Feeling the need to recoup emotionally, Steve decided to go back a few days later, but this time on his own. In the San Antonio winter, with colorful Christmas lights reflecting off the water of the River Walk, Blake prayed and reflected on the year. He was suddenly filled with gratitude and awe.

“Did this really happen?” he said. “I started 2015 with just a dream, felt like I had a calling, and now there’s actually a church and people. It really happened.”

Despite the bumps along the way, Catalyst had doubled its attendance to 80 members by January. It was an organic growth as members, many of whom hadn’t belonged to another church or felt angry with traditional church models, spread the word to their circles of friends.

“I’ve been to different churches before, but Catalyst means a lot to me now,” said Jessica Cowan, 31, who grew up Catholic but found a connection to the Catalyst community that she hadn’t felt before. “I love them like family.”

Determined not to fall back into the traps of the fall, the Blakes changed their family schedule to regain work-life balance, and Steve switched from a “come one, come all” recruiting strategy to looking for an experienced pastoral team through church staffing websites. He soon received responses from around the country.

When Jeff Johnson, 27, and his wife, Dana, 25, attended their first Catalyst service, they thought they had interrupted a gathering and were thrown by the small group setting around coffee tables. Soon, though, they became an integral part of the Catalyst team.

The couple moved to Austin from Long Island, N.Y., for their indie rock band, the Upafter, and soon the couple were also performing at Sunday Catalyst services. “It feels authentic, and, as a pastor, Steve is very genuine,” Jeff Johnson said. He had an offer to work for an established Austin church but decided against it for the opportunity to build something at Catalyst.

Associate Pastor Gabe Tovar, right, joins in prayer at a Catalyst of Austin church service. Photo by Ralph Barrera

Shake-ups

Many American churches, Steve Blake said, get caught up in the ABCs of church — “that’s attendance, building and cash. We forget the D, which is discipleship, a term we use in the Christian world. Jesus didn’t come to make church attenders. His last words in the Gospel of Matthew were go make disciples.”

Blake wanted to go back to basics — make disciples.

But this spring, the shake-ups kept coming. Blake learned that Catalyst would soon lose its home at O. Henry due to summer construction.

Could a new church survive a move just a few months after launching? Thinking of Moses and the Red Sea, he wondered, “Man, when is the sea going to open for us?”

On Easter Sunday, on what Blake called the “Super Bowl of the church world,” he was consumed by anxiety. Despite the unsuccessful postcard marketing effort in October, he had sent out another batch in hopes of drawing new families to the Easter service. “Could this be our breakthrough?” Blake wondered. On Easter, not one person showed up as a result of the mailer.

In spite of that, Catalyst still gathered one of its biggest crowds — about 80 people — that day. It was hard for Blake to appreciate, though, because he noticed something else. Essentially none of the early Catalyst team showed up. He preached, but inside he felt angry and discouraged.

“I shouldn’t feel like a failure on Easter,” he said.

“Even though it probably isn’t personal, it’s hard for him not to take it personal because he is a very relational person and gives his heart to people 110 percent,” Tori said.

Later that night, Steve tried to put everything in perspective. He thought of people such as the Johnsons who had decided to stay. He thought about Tori, who had been with him the whole way. And he remembered people like Gabe Tovar, a pastor from California who moved to Austin to help lead Catalyst as an unpaid associate pastor.

“To me, it’s not a risk, but a faith-filled adventure,” Tovar said. When he read Steve Blake’s description of Catalyst online, Tovar said he “couldn’t shake the desire to be a part of something bigger.”

Red Sea opens

Blake had been desperately searching for a new Catalyst home since receiving the news about O. Henry.

But his first choice, the charter school Austin Achieve at 5908 Manor Road in East Austin, had bad news. A day after Blake pitched the idea to administrators, a bigger church offered them a better deal.

While the school decided between the churches, the Blakes took a trip to Houston. As his family was getting ready to go to a children’s museum, a message from the school popped up. Steve’s eyes filled with tears as he read it.

A school administrator said that Austin Achieve actually started in a church and now wanted to pay it forward by helping Catalyst.

“I feel like that was our Red Sea moment,” Blake said. “If these lessons of life and faith that I’m learning can be translated to the people that I’m pastoring, then we’re going to have an amazing church.”

Emotions run high as Catalyst Pastor Steve Blake pulls Jesse Mendieta, 40, out of the water after baptizing him under the Montopolis Bridge in May. Photo by Rodolfo Gonzalez

River baptism

On a rainy Mother’s Day afternoon, the Colorado River rushed under the Montopolis Bridge where a crowd gathered for the baptism of two Catalyst members. For Jessica Cowan and Jesse Mendieta, 40, the day symbolized a new start.

“It’s a big step,” Cowan said with a nervous smile. “What if I’m not prepared for what God has planned?”

After the death of her father and serious medical issues left her feeling broken, she leaned on the friendship of many Catalyst members. It had been a long journey, she said, but she was ready for a fresh chapter.

Mendieta grew up in Montopolis, and being baptized there felt especially meaningful. Having struggled with drug addiction and depression in the past, the road to his baptism wasn’t easy — in fact, he had been pushing it off for weeks, worried that he wasn’t ready. But on this day, with his family gathered near the river, he was looking forward to a more hopeful future.

Mendieta and Blake, both wearing shorts and their Catalyst of Austin T-shirts, stepped into the nearly waist-high water. Mendieta grabbed Blake’s hand before the baptism, overcome with emotion. He covered his face as the tears rolled, collected himself, then submerged in the water with Blake’s help.

“When I rose I just felt like I’m His,” Mendieta says. “It’s hard to explain, but I know the Lord is the way.”

Steve Blake wanted to be an agent of change, but he has found that launching Catalyst of Austin church has changed him. Photo by Ralph Barrera

A new beginning

In mid-May, Catalyst hosted its first Sunday morning service at Austin Achieve, and with the gym floors covered, retractable basketball hoops out of sight, and coffee and pastries at the entrance, the vibe was cozy. The newly baptized Mendieta sat among the crowd of familiar Catalyst faces and newcomers.

“Today’s a powerful day,” Blake said. “I had a dream about helping people follow Jesus. It’s been an amazing dream, and days like this make it worth it.”

Blake’s not the same pastor, husband or father he was when he first had a vision of this church. These days he’s prioritizing his physical and spiritual health. He’s seen an improvement in his muscle twitching since last year but still monitors it. He’s taken up Bikram yoga and started shedding his post-Catalyst weight.

“I had a dream about helping people follow Jesus. It’s been an amazing dream, and days like this make it worth it.”

Steve Blake

The Blakes recently attended a marriage enrichment retreat in Malibu, Calif., for pastors and wives, and they try to go on weekly date nights. They’ve started picking the kids up earlier from school, so they get more family time together. And Steve bought himself a symbolic office chair that has made it easier for the kids to know when he’s working, even if he’s at home.

When he started, he had hoped to be a catalyst for change in others. Now, he realizes he had it backward.

“It hasn’t been about me starting a church,” he said, “but about God using the church to start me. In this past year and a half, I’ve been started.”