Rev. Eric Huffman Tells the Story behind “The Story Houston” Worship Community’s Two-year Anniversary
Preacher’s kid Eric Huffman reflects on his own story and crisis of faith, as he gives the backstory leading up to the launch of the newest worship community within St. Luke’s UMC.
“I grew up in church, at Red Lick UMC outside of Texarkana,” shares Rev. Eric Huffman, pastor of The Story, Houston, and son of District Superintendent Chuck Huffman. “I was super-involved in everything: UMYF, Choir, Church Council, Annual Conference, Conference Youth Ministries, Jurisdictional Youth Team, in fact, I was the churchiest kid I knew.” Eric recalls being in eighth grade when his dad became a pastor. “Seeing him preach the Word every Sunday really inspired me and sparked my imagination,” shares Eric. “I think that’s when I started to think maybe I could be a pastor, too.”
But he wasn’t sure so he went to college to major in Psychology. He knew he wanted to help people, and thought becoming a therapist was the best way to do that. Little did he realize, his spiritual journey into church ‘planting’ was about to make an important turn. “My freshman year at Lon Morris College, I realized there weren’t any great options for student-led worship on campus, so I (along with the woman who would become my wife and co-pastor, Rev. Geovanna Huffman) planted Stepping Stones, a weekly worship service for students, by students.”
The Agnostic/Atheist Phase
Eric and Geovanna transferred to Centenary College two years later, and planted Stepping Stones there, too. “Thinking more seriously about becoming a pastor, I changed my major to Religious Studies and began taking more religion and philosophy courses. Suffice it to say, being a Religion major was not what I expected it to be. I came out of that semester with a severely bruised faith. For the following year, I described myself as either an agnostic or an atheist.”
When Eric was 21 years old and knee-deep in philosophy and religion classes, he wrote this credo to outline his beliefs at the time:
I believed people have created God in our image.
I believed the Bible was just one of many religious texts and should be scrutinized historically and morally, but not trusted spiritually.
I believed Jesus became a figurehead of a religion Paul and others started. I believed Jesus may not have really existed at all, and if he did, he certainly didn’t rise from the dead.
I believed the divinity of Jesus was an invention of political expedience during the Constantinian era.
I believed the Church was the source of more harm than good.
A God Moment in a Godly Place
Even though Eric eventually went to seminary and became a pastor, it took him several years to rebuild his faith in Jesus. In fact, he shares, “My greatest conversion moment came 10 years after I became a pastor, when I visited the Holy Land with an archaeologist friend. To me, the reality of Jesus’ existence, the impact of his teachings, the convictions of his earliest followers, and the evidence of his resurrection were too overwhelming to ignore.”
Preacher Papa Huffman shares that, “When Eric was going through his crisis of faith, I knew some of that was going on, but I'm not sure I ever understood the depth of that crisis for him. We had some discussions about it, but never really long, in-depth talks. I had seen others struggle in similar ways during my seminary days, and had come to accept that as part of the growing process for those called to be pastors. We need for our faith to be challenged, to be pushed to the point where we question almost everything we have come to believe so that --- when we come out on the other side of that struggle --- that questioning and wrestling with God, we are better prepared and equipped to help others who may know nothing of Christ or Christianity, and those who are struggling with faith questions themselves.”
Chuck saw God at work during this time in Eric’s life, “preparing and equipping both he and Geovanna for something great, something beyond what any of us could have imagined at the time.”
Fast forward to more recent years, when Eric and family moved to Houston from Kansas City in July 2014 and began building a launch team. The Story Houston launched weekly worship on February 22, 2015, in the gymnasium of St. Luke’s UMC, welcoming an average of 220 people in the first six months. The leadership team launched a second worship service in November 2015 and by the end of the first year, saw 350 in worship.
Reflects Eric, “In the first half of 2016, we crossed the 400 threshold, and in September we moved into a new building, which allowed us to continue our growth trajectory. From September through December 2016, we averaged 525 in worship, and in January 2017, we saw a jump to around 635.” He adds, “On January 15, we added a third worship service, a Sunday evening Country-Bluegrass service, kind of an urban Cowboy Church experience.”
The Story Houston’s mission is relevant to many in that it seeks to inspire nonreligious Houstonians to follow Jesus. “Our aim is decidedly outward,” he shares, so, our marketing, programming, preaching, and discipleship is aimed at skeptical, agnostic, and/or spiritual-but-not-religious Houstonians.” To reach this crowd for Jesus, leaders committed to five core practices:
- Go where the people are, meet them on their turf (through Events and Missions)
- Create an unassuming, approachable atmosphere
- Be honest about our questions and nonjudgmental about doubts
- Help people make connections and forge authentic friendships
- Invite people to sacrificially serve those in need, here in Houston and abroad
Adds Chuck, “What I think God celebrates about Eric and Geovanna in ministry is their intentional focus on reaching people who are unchurched, people who either have no relationship with Christ or are seriously struggling with faith-questions (the very people, I believe, who God was preparing them for). Eric is so open and honest with them about his own struggles and that vulnerability helps others to see that they are not alone.”
Adds Chuck, “I am also quite proud of the ministry team that they have become - their gifts for ministry complement each other so very well. Geovanna often works behind the scenes, but her ministry is so valuable to the overall mission of The Story Houston. One other thing that makes me proud is Eric's preaching. I only wish that I could preach so well!”
Leading with Impact
Video producer Julie Mirlicourtois calls Eric a “phenomenal leader.” Notes Julie, “He's created an environment that allows us to be extremely creative. He entertains all of our ideas in an encouraging and respectful way. He inspires us to push the envelope. Most importantly, he always keeps us focused on our mission.” She sees and feels God at work within the staff and membership in visible ways. “I'm a TV producer with no previous experience working for a church, but once I became a member of the church, I was so moved by The Story's culture that I had no choice but to let Jesus into my heart and later accept a job here. I've never been more excited to come to work. The values preached on Sunday mornings are the same values applied behind the scenes. It's one of the most authentic, Christ-centered teams I've ever encountered.” She has the pleasure of filming member testimonial videos on a regular basis. “It's not hard to find compelling stories because amazing things are happening within The Story Houston every day.”
Eric’s leadership style is that of an encourager. “I care about people, and I want my staff and lay leadership to know they’re valued and empowered.” His “go to” energizing resource is the podcast, specifically: The Andy Stanley Leadership Podcast, Craig Groeschel Leadership Podcast, and The Carey Nieuwhof Leadership Podcast. Most pastors agree that one of the harder daily leadership lessons continues to be the reality that “the church’s mission is more important than any individual’s feelings (even when that individual is standing right in front of you),”notes Eric. “Making decisions (especially staffing decisions) based on one person’s emotions can be extremely detrimental to the church’s mission.” Also, I have learned that taking regular, extended time away is sometimes the best thing a leader can do for him/herself and the mission of the church.”
Another lesson: knowing your target audience. The Story Houston uses creativity to get noticed in a non-churched culture, including video ads at a local theater during a major movie release. Adds Julie, “We have monthly brainstorms to come up with our social media videos, often targeting non-religious Houstonians. Our funny videos are often inspired by viral videos we see online, like our "Carpool Karaoke" video that's gotten over 10,000 views and made local news. It may seem random at first to see two pastors, a local rap legend, a meteorologist, and a fashion designer in a car together, but everything about that video was very intentional. As a result, we were very successful at reaching a larger audience and communicating the messages we intended to communicate.” The ‘kingdom payoff,’ she believes, is catching people off guard. “Instead of telling nonreligious Houstonians that we're not your typical church, we're showing them through these videos.”