When the willows sway in South Barrington, the evangelical world notices. So Willow Creek Community Church provoked headlines in 2006 when leaders said they would end Axis as everyone knew it. As recently as 2001, about 2,000 young adults had gathered on Saturday nights for alternative music and relevant teaching. But before temporarily closing in 2006, Axis attracted fewer than 400 twenty-somethings. How could a trend-setting ministry decline so severely in just five years?
Due in no small part to Willow’s example, ministry leaders across the country once viewed separate, age-targeted services as the key to reaching a generation largely absent from the churches built by their Boomer parents. Little more than 10 years after Willow launched Axis in 1996, many of these once-prosperous twenty-something ministries have folded, spun off, or morphed. Leaders from these ministries have learned differing lessons from the experiment. Some are now advocating new messages for reaching the emerging generation. Others have changed their ministry’s structure. Still more want better biblical preaching and radical discipleship. All have been provoked to think deeply about the nature and implications of the gospel and have seen their ministries leave lasting effects on the larger church.
Only one thing surprised Dan Kimball about the Axis reorganization: it took 10 years. Kimball, who teaches and oversees the Sunday gatherings for Vintage Faith Church in Santa Cruz, California, has tracked many young adult ministries over the years. He estimates that 90 percent of worship services targeting a younger generation run into serious trouble after three years. One factor is the way these age-specific ministries isolate young people from the rest of the church.
He talked to Axis leaders, including Nancy Ortberg, for his 2004 book Emerging Worship. Ortberg told him that the Axis staff interacted little with other Willow Creek leaders. As Axis participants aged, few connected with other Willow Creek ministries. Trouble was brewing. Kimball questioned whether a ministry based on generational preferences could long survive.
“If we are talking about a mindset, then to make someone switch to another approach to spiritual formation and worship when they reach a certain age is a difficult undertaking,” Kimball wrote in Emerging Worship. “It would be like birthing a Korean worship service that uses Korean language, Korean music, and a Korean mindset in all their communications, and then—when they reach a certain age—telling them they can’t worship as Koreans anymore.”
Kimball learned this lesson the hard way. In the mid-1990s he served as the young adults pastor at Santa Cruz Bible Church where he began experimenting with a new worship gathering. He darkened the room, arranged the chairs, lit candles, and served coffee. While these moves seem cliché today, they were radical for the time. Within a few years, Kimball’s experiment had become the church’s largest worship gathering. Then the questions started. When will the twenty-somethings start coming to “normal” church?
“So what began as a very exciting missional adventure slowly turned into a tension-filled dilemma. It felt like two churches in the same church,” Kimball said.
Church leaders opted to introduce commonality across generations. The two groups shared a small group structure, music ministry, and even sermons. The strategy didn’t work. Though he started with candles and coffee, Kimball had begun to realize that his generation thought about community, evangelism, leadership, and communication very differently than the older leaders. The relationship had to change, so he decided to end the next generation ministry at Santa Cruz Bible and plant a new church. For the first year, Vintage Faith Church rented space from Santa Cruz Bible Church. Later it merged with another aging congregation. They had facilities; Vintage Faith had people. Those from the older church who persevered through the merger have become grandparent-like figures to the twenty-somethings at Vintage Faith.
“I feel that if we can see church as the people, and not just define church by the worship gathering, a lot would be solved in bridging generations,” Kimball said. “We could focus more on the older mentoring the younger, the older opening their homes and being sages and guides to the younger. Instead we focus so much on getting the twenty-somethings into the main worship gathering. But just sitting in a room for an hour and half looking at the backs of everyone’s heads does not make something intergenerational.”
Not even Kimball knows the exact origin of twenty-something ministries. As more young adults delayed marriage and parenthood, there developed a need for adult ministries that were not family-based. The simplest solution was to follow the model of high school and college ministries. The result was age-specific programs that functioned like youth groups for young adults.
This approach appeared to be working until “Gen X” became a catchphrase in the 1990s and Boomer church leaders noticed their conspicuous absence. Churches across the country began launching worship services designed to attract the missing generation. Willow Creek had Axis, McLean Bible Church launched Frontline, Applewood Baptist in Denver began The Next Level, and North Point in Atlanta started 7|22. The “church-within-a-church” model became the preferred strategy for reaching Gen X.
Daniel Hill attended the first-ever public Axis service in 1996. He remembers it being dark and sad. A young woman dressed in black and wearing black makeup read poetry, fitting the stereotype of Gen X as cynical and pessimistic. But the young adults attending the service were ambitious young executives like Hill. He had moved to the western suburbs after college to work for an internet startup company.
Bill Hybels captivated Hill during a leadership conference when he described the local church as the hope of the world. After this transformative experience, he became more involved in Axis as a small group leader. Then he began to coach leaders and grew close to the Axis staff. But during one severe conflict, every Axis staff member except one quit. The interim director asked Hill to carve out one day per week to help the struggling ministry. By the end of the summer in 1997, Hill had joined the staff.
When Nancy Ortberg took over Axis, she saw promise in Hill. She had little interest in discussions about the emerging church, so she dispatched Hill to represent the Willow Creek Association in meetings with Mark Driscoll, Doug Pagitt, Brian McLaren, and others. While working for Axis, he moonlighted at Starbucks and engaged in regular evangelistic conversations. Hill began to feel restless. Like Kimball, he began to see that his generation sought more than a new worship style. Hill was developing a burden for racial reconciliation and social justice, but he felt constrained by the affluent suburban location of Willow Creek. Ortberg encouraged him to dwell in the tension.
Hill decided to experiment with starting an Axis ministry in Chicago. But he despaired when he sensed an expectation that the urbanites attend services in the far northwest suburbs.
“There is a collective sense in the emerging generation that one of the areas of failure in the modern church has been its inability to preach and live a gospel that cuts across racial, cultural, and socio-economic lines,” Hill said. “But people are struggling to know what to do with that sense.”
Ortberg observed that Hill’s loyalties were divided between Willow Creek and the city, so near the end of 2002, she finally nudged him from the nest. He left Willow Creek and founded River City Community Church in Chicago’s Humboldt Park neighborhood.
The younger generation’s commitment to social impact, as seen in Daniel Hill’s story, came to impact Axis when it reorganized in 2006. Nine full-time Axis staff and ten interns found other employment within and outside of Willow Creek. Only John Peacock remained. That fall he began rebuilding Axis from the ground up. As the millennial generation replaced Gen X, the time-tested combination of relevant teaching and cool music no longer sufficed. Media-savvy young adults could download all the great teaching and music they wanted for their iPods. Nothing seemed to impress them.
Peacock, 29, recognized he would need to equip twenty-somethings to go and serve as missionaries in their own zip code. He launched missional community hubs, where a core group of four to six young adults move into an apartment complex or condominium unit. Meeting three times per month there, the missional community hubs focus on prayer, Scripture, and community. Keeping with Willow Creek’s mission, the small-group gatherings must be accessible to unbelievers. Outside these Tuesday night meetings, missional community hubs host social events where Christians can mingle with unbelievers. They also serve their neighborhoods with justice and compassion initiatives. Those who want to invest even deeper can meet in gender-specific life transformation groups where two to five young adults study Scripture and hold each other accountable. Everything Axis does today comes back to the need to build tight-knit communities in order to reach the millennial generation.
“The model must be relational,” Peacock said. “If it is based on the big event with one person teaching, I just don’t think it’s going to work. We’ve learned to break these things down into smaller communities where people actually know each other. We didn’t come up with it, but our mantra is, ‘People belong before they believe before they behave.’ Many people in this generation are already coming in with distrust toward God and the church. The more relational environments we have, the more trust can be built and people will be more open to exploring Christianity.”
The hubs come together only one time per month for the Axis Experience, where Peacock teaches briefly, a band leads worship, and representatives from the missional community hubs celebrate stories together. But even these gatherings have been broken down into smaller segments. Peacock leads the Axis Experience in South Barrington at the main Willow Creek campus on the first Friday of the month, but the first Saturday he leads a similar meeting in Chicago near Wrigley Field, where many young adults live.
A commitment to relationships rather than events also explains Peacock’s drive to partner Axis members with mentors. There are currently more than 30 people over the age of 50 attending Axis gatherings and actively mentoring younger believers. Those involved in the eight urban hubs are also a bit older than the suburban demographic. According to Peacock, the city groups range between the ages of 24 and 34. He isn’t sure whether these older members will stay involved with Axis or transition into other Willow Creek ministries, but he has encouraged them to mentor younger leaders.
If small, home-based, relational groups are the best way to reach twenty-somethings, then one question begs to be asked: What will happen to Willow Creek and its massive auditorium? Peacock says Willow Creek’s senior leadership sees Axis as a research and development department, and Bill Hybels has been one of their “biggest fans.” But does the Axis shift indicate that Willow Creek will need to put even more emphasis on its small groups and perhaps scale back its Sunday morning services? Or will today’s nearly 400 Axis members, 95 percent of whom are single and without kids, grow into “Big Willow” as they age?
“I do think when variables change in their lives, like getting married and having kids, that will adjust some things,” Peacock said. “However, this generation’s desire to connect will always be there. I don’t think that when they turn 30 they will suddenly want something different. But we’ll need to be flexible to adapt to their lifestyle and life stage.”
Peacock has already shown flexibility in his leadership style, which he describes as open-source leadership, likening it to Wikipedia. He establishes a baseline of trust but then unleashes other leaders to do the work of ministry. He and three other staff members spend the bulk of their time developing lay leaders, equipping all believers to live up to their priestly calling. To make this decentralized structure work, Peacock has laid out strict training requirements for prospective leaders. Over four weeks he and other staff imprint leaders with the Axis vision so they can shepherd missional community hubs and deal with day-to-day crises. Driven by principle and necessity alike, Peacock said working with younger generations demands a new leadership style for fellow staff and lay leaders.
“Your staff culture has to represent the culture you’re trying to create in the wider church,” Peacock said. “That’s one of the biggest misses in contemporary church work. You have a business-run, top-down, bottom-line culture yet you’re trying to bring around a loving, transformative culture in your community. It just doesn’t work.”
Integrated, Sort Of
Justin Buzzard was hired by a church that couldn’t help but notice the obvious lack of twenty-somethings attending worship services. Central Peninsula Church in the Bay Area of California charged Buzzard to preach the gospel to the least-churched age group and cast a vision for them to live radically centered on God and his gospel. Three years later, the church’s twenty-something ministry claims about 150 members in a church whose attendance tops 2,000.
Buzzard, 30, has found a receptive audience among young professionals who moved to the Bay Area for work and longed for community. Many had some religious background which they had rejected. Some who grew up in the church had heard distorted messages more concerned with good morals than grace. The welcoming community at Central Peninsula allowed them to take another look at Christianity.
Buzzard’s approach is a departure from the “church-within-a-church” model pioneered in the ’90s. Rather than building a next generation worship gathering Buzzard regularly reminds the young adults their ministry is no substitute for the local church. Sunday morning is more important than Thursday night, he says. The body of Christ needs them to serve children, mentor high schoolers, and glean wisdom from aging members.
Having learned from the example of other next generation ministries, leaders at Central Peninsula Church suppressed the tendency toward intergenerational dissension with one key decision made when hiring Buzzard—he regularly preaches before the entire congregation on Sunday mornings. The church doesn’t see him as a youth pastor for young adults, but as another shepherd and teacher for the whole congregation. Just listening to a young preacher and seeing many young faces in the congregation has reminded the church that their God is mighty to save.
“The Baby Boomer’s strategy was getting the people most likely to attend church,” Buzzard said. “Our strategy is to find those least likely to come to church.”
Beyond preaching the gospel and loving people, Buzzard doesn’t claim any special strategy for reaching twenty-somethings. In fact, Buzzard said he approaches church elders twice a year to tell them to shut down the twenty-something ministry. But these leaders continue to recognize a need to set aside at least one teacher who will focus his efforts on young adults, injecting the larger church with life, vitality, and sound doctrine. It’s the best job in the church, Buzzard said.
“My very strong opinion is that twenty-somethings want and desperately need someone to yell at them from the Bible,” Buzzard said. “They need a pastor, an authoritative voice in their life who will stand up and proclaim God’s Word, to proclaim the gospel.
“I’m always saying that this is a prime, ripe season in your life to catch a vision for God and get centered on Christ. The choices and decisions you’re making during this decade are setting a trajectory for the rest of your life. The older you get, the harder it is to change. A lot of older folks in our church say they wish they could have done their twenties differently.”
Over the long term, Buzzard wants the twenty-something ministry to be the hose that waters the rest of the church, encouraging older members to take risks for Christ.
Adopted for Life
While Buzzard joyfully if reluctantly leads a separate ministry for young adults, several others have folded for good. Shortly before Axis reorganized, Jarrett Stevens moved to suburban Atlanta where he led 7|22, a twenty-something ministry at North Point Church. But church leaders recently closed down 7|22—not for lack of interest, but because the larger church had taken on the ministry’s ethos. It had simply become redundant.
“So many churches have responded positively to what was being experimented with by twenty-something ministries,” Kimball said. “Now these experiments are being adopted into the life of the main church itself.”
Nevertheless, churches differ on exactly how to experiment with twenty-something ministry. Some younger leaders have favored independence, concluding that older models neglected discipleship and commodified the gospel in order to build bigger churches. Some have forsaken centralized teaching and large worship events in favor of small group discussions. Yet others advocate stronger preaching, heavy doses of doctrine, and passionate challenges to apply the gospel.
But across the spectrum, twenty-something ministry leaders say reaching the millennial generation will require more than playing mainstream music, dimming the lights, and talking about sex. All see deep, genuine community as a crying need and key avenue for communicating and displaying the gospel.
Collin Hansen is a Christianity Today editor at large and author of Young, Restless, Reformed: A Journalist’s Journey with the New Calvinists.
Copyright © 2009 by the author or Christianity Today International/Leadership Journal.
Source: COMMUNITY LIFE