Axis Denied (part 2): What should we learn from the demise of Willow’s Next-Gen ministry?

In part one Dan Kimball, pastor of Vintage Faith Church in Santa Cruz, California, discussed the inherent difficulties of the church-within-a-church model that has been popular with churches wanting to reach the next generation. In many cases the divergent values between the mother church and the alternative "Gen X" service cause friction - with the younger leaders usually getting burned.

Seeming to contradict Kimball's experience, Scot McKnight reports that Gene Appel, a pastor at Willow Creek, said "that it was Axis that had led to dramatic changes in the rest of the church." And Willow had adopted enough of the younger generation's values "to call into question the viability of Axis having a separable service." Was Axis really a victim of its own success?

In part two, Kimball shares his story of leading a Next-Gen ministry within an existing church, and bids a heartfelt farewell to Axis.

What is the answer to the church-within-a-church dilemma? I don't know. For me, after leading an alternative worship gathering within a church for many years, we finally planted a new church. Like many others who launched an alternative gathering within a church, we realized that tension eventually arose because of the value and philosophy differences needed to minister to different populations. It turned out that our mother-church (which is a wonderful church) did not want us to truly change beyond just the worship style itself. We were expected to conform to the systems and values of the mother church. We found that it just couldn't work, because the need for different values and philosophy of ministry from the mother church was the very reason we needed to start the new alternative gathering in the first place.

I truly wish these alternative worship gatherings and ministries within a church could work, but they usually don't. I have hope for the future with them, as senior leadership in some churches is open to what it really means to launch something that is "alternative" in more than just style of worship. I believe that it is possible to have both generational and worldview(s) differences within the same church. But it is important to recognize that having an "intergenerational church" is not about just seeing people sit in the same worship service for 60-90 minutes. We do that in movie theaters, and that is not community. Intergenerational relationships occur outside the worship gatherings, so focusing all our energy on the worship service does not produce an intergenerational church.

Displaying 1–10 of 23 comments

Allen Skillicorn

August 16, 2006  11:04am

Great comments! Maybe culture does move too fast for the traditional worship center (Church). Personaly Willow's service still appeals more to my parent's than myself. The age of the teachers is less important than the life changing message. Ministry is more than the service though. It community, spreading the good news, and serving our neighbors.

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John H Pavelko

August 01, 2006  1:02pm

The story of Axis is a case study of the weaknesses of the institutional church in the post-modern world. Change happens too quickly for such a large institution to adjust. Culture is no longer passed from one generation to the next. The mixing of two generations is as difficult as mixing Jews and Gentiles in the first century. Willow Creek wanted to start a new ministry but perserve the same institution. They thought that by changing the music , the liturgy and a few other cosmetic changes they were thinking outside their box but the needs of the institution still restricted them. I compliment them for trying. However, their lessons should tell leaders that a radically different model must be tried in the future. One that is not stymied by a religious institution.

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Jason Dye

July 24, 2006  12:22pm

Jay, So what i don't understand is how unchurched people who have no past history of the Church or of what an understanding of the holiness and worthy-ness of God looks like, are turned off by the Church. how could they be turned-off by something they don't know in the first place, or have no experiential knowledge of? but beyond this questioning of semantics is the question of sustainability. is what is being presented as the glories of Christianity (or of following Jesus the Lord, or of having this relationship with God through Jesus, etc.) compatable with the reality of the walk of Christianity. or, is the courting true to the marriage? and i guess that's a question for 'emerging' and 'traditional' churches (neither of which, by definition, i have a problem with - my bone was with this idea of an 'attractive gospel', which i think is a dangerous idea).

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July 21, 2006  9:43am

Wow Dan...where do I begin. You say you are sick of hearing that the gospel has to be relavant. I guess I am sick of hearing people say that "seeker churches" are watering down or compromising the gospel. On the contrary, we are being creative to attrack spiritual seekers because they have been turned off by traditional churches. Our church consists of %80 unchurched people that are spiritually starved and are looking for God. We realize that need and also realize that traditional churches are not necessarily reaching that demographics. When I see unchurched people being saved and then their lives being changed, it is so authentic and pure when it comes to true servanthood. These unchurched conversions have no history of previous ways of worship so they see God in all his glory, not in a way we were taught in Sunday school 30 years ago. I like to think of our church the way Jesus felt for the lost souls and sinners that had no hope of redemption. As for your comment about not preaching the consequences of sin, we do preach the wages of sin, but just dont hammer it down there throats every chance we get. There have been bible thumping preachers using this approach forever. We allow God to convict their hearts and the Holy Spirit to change their sinful life style. We prefer to reach people with the hope of Jesus' forgiving power, not through the fear of going to hell.

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Shannon Caroland

July 21, 2006  8:33am

Nathan W. You nailed it.

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July 21, 2006  7:48am

I attend a "mega-church" that focuses relevant teaching of today's problems, anything from debt reduction to finding a mate. But I notice on many Sundays scripture is not even mentioned. I realize that seeker churches are not threatening and you leave their cafe after having a Latte feeling good. But it appears since the inception of the church over 2000 years ago, growing in your love for Christ has gotten watered down. Even though I enjoy the programs and children's ministry of my church, I'm starting to wonder if I'm really growing in Christ or just going to church for the entertainment.

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subversion inc.

July 20, 2006  3:42pm

Dan- I have to say that I have a hard time discovering at any point the Biblical connection (with context in mind) between the idea of the Gospel and it's apparent polar opposite, an eternity in hell? It's not that I don't believe in Hell, but I think the Gospel is more than just making sure people don't go there. It seems as if Jesus' preaching of the "Gospel" had more to do with subversion, breaking the cycle of self-immersion, and restoring the lives of people through feeding them and healing them. Hell, if we see Matthew 26 correctly, is for those religious people who DON'T follow Jesus' lead, not those who don't know Him. Maybe this is far fetched, please let me know. It does affect our discussion here a great deal. I think perhaps the wedding of patriotism and theology/ecclesiology has more to do with the corruption of the Gospel than people not knowing the "reality" of Hell. this is an interesting conversation because it really depends on where you're from. if you're from Willow, chances are you have a more subdued opinion of the shift. if you're from rural Illinois (like me) you have an opinion somewhere between curiosity and cynicism. the fact is that much of what we believe to be Biblically-rooted ecclesiology is modernist/Enlightenment centered and hyper-individualistic. the "this is just marketing crowd" is right, but so are the "relevant" folks. it's life: context, context, context. Jesus was thoroughly Jewish and intended to complete the eschatological hope of Israel by replacing it. He spoke and acted in a context of empire–we would do well to let those ideas and more influence our understanding of Scripture and the church.

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July 20, 2006  8:41am

Jay, The problem is that the true gospel isn't being preached in many of these "seeker" churches. Instead, cute phrases such as "God has a wonderful plan for your life if only you'll let him into your life" are used. No mention of the horribleness of hell. Sin is rarely mentioned, and if it is, it is recoined as a "failing". Is this what it means to be relevant? To take the hard edge off the truth because it seems offensive? To come up with "new" descriptions for centuries old Biblical terms that describe exactly what God intended them to describe? I am so sick of hearing that we "have to make the gospel relevant" to today's generation. The Gospel, when given in its totality, will always be relevant and will always accomplish the work that God intends for it to accomplish. I love some of today's contemporary music, but I don't need to be wowed by the hottest praise band on stage, I don't really care if the speaker seems "hip" with his untucked shirt and earring. I want simple, straightforward teaching from the Scriptures that isn't watering down the Gospel by eliminating point-blank discussion on the horribleness of an eternity in Hell without Christ, the exceeding sinfulness and depravity of each one of us that condemns us to such an eternity, and the absolute holiness of an Almighty God who in His justice sacrificed His own Son in our place. This salvation is received only through repentance and faith in Christ. I'll tell you what I am discovering...this generation is looking for spiritual leaders who will quit seeking to be "relevant" with the Gospel and simply stand up there and boldly proclaim it without fear or compromise. These are the churches that the next generation will flock to - and they won't care if the speaker is wearing a tie and wingtips.

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Nathan Woodward

July 19, 2006  5:08pm

I really resonate with Shannon's story on one level. That sacrificing of self-interest is the key to multi-generational and multi-cultural worship. It says, "worshiping together is more important than worshiping my way." There may be some congregations where GenX'ers are loathe to integrate, fearing their special service will be diluted. But the challenge for my church is getting them to understand how the only way they will survive is by sacrificing their own preferences in order to speak to a new generation, a culture vastly different from the one they were raised in. As mike commented, the resistance to integration often comes from older generations. My continuing frustration is that they have not learned the need for diversity, for children and old folks and boomers. And I think it's a bit of a straw man argument to say we should stop trying to please everybody. Clearly, what Axis was trying to do was to speak to a group of people in a language they could understand. The challenge of inter-generational is not to please everyone, but to foster communion of the saints. Our hope is, in the words of the Psalmist: "One generation will commend your works to another; they will tell of your mighty acts." (Psalm 145).

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July 19, 2006  12:49pm

I just saw the 'Catalyst' conference e-brochure and just about spilled my drink. I love Eugene Peterson, John Stott, and Donald Miller, so how could they lower themselves to be apart of such low-brow marketing (kind of like Christian cruises)? What does that have to do with 'generational' ministry? Axis forces people to think in terms of marketing demographics, not people. Net, I'm glad Willow took the step. Fundamentally, our leadership structures from top to bottom are out of whack. I don't how many 'cool', 'emergent' articles about being on the cutting edge start out with assumptions that you have to catch the people who are the culture influencers if you want to have influence (codeword for: no nerds allowed in church leadership, they must be 'cool' according to the world's standards). We all have to move to New York, Seattle, Chicago, and LA if we really want to influence the culture. Jesus came from Galilee which was the rural equivalent of West Virginia or Appalachia and he brought Jerusalem and the world to its knees. I wish we would choose leaders and directions based on their willingness to serve God at any cost rather than on their cultural resume. Axis going away is a step away from that, but it remains to be seen whether the church as a whole can get away from the leadership mindset that equates worldly success and relevance with Godly relavence. The Church is still a place where socio-economic oppression and status is perpetuated... until we realize that, no model is going to truly work in God's eyes.

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