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.