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

Ten years ago the leaders of Willow Creek Community Church realized that 18-30 year olds, popularly known as Gen X, were largely missing from their church. In response, the "seeker-driven" church launched Axis to help "the Next Gen connect with God through high-intensity weekend services with relevant teaching, worship and art." Willow became one of the first churches to experiment with the church-within-a-church model, and many others followed Willow's example hoping to reach Gen X.

This week Willow Creek announced the end of Axis.

Gene Appel, lead pastor of Willow's South Barrington campus, said that leaders have been asking God for months for a new vision for Axis, and they sense an emerging desire to be a "diverse church with an intergenerational vision." If Axis's launch ten years ago signified the start of the next-generation-church-within-a-church phenomenon, what are we to make of Axis's demise? Has Gen X ministry been a failure, or was Axis a victim of its own success - a transition ministry that has outlived its usefulness?

Dan Kimball, pastor of Vintage Faith Church in Santa Cruz, California, and author of Emerging Church and Emerging Worship, has written about the end of Axis. In part one of his post, Kimball discusses why the church-within-a-church model is difficult to maintain.

I don't know all the behind the scenes discussions that led to the decision to end the Axis worship gathering at Willow Creek. I have talked with some of the Axis staff throughout the years, so I have a general understanding of the history and changes made since it started. I even wrote a chapter specifically about Axis in the Emerging Worship book. But whatever all the reasons for shutting down Axis were, I can say, it saddened my heart. But I was not at all surprised. In fact, I am surprised it didn't end sooner.

With Axis, Willow Creek was one of the first churches to experiment with launching an alternative worship gathering within an existing church. Over ten years ago, Willow was noticing that value differences and cultural differences between generations were emerging. Despite the great success Willow was having with older generations, they realized they needed new expressions of evangelism, worship, teaching, learning, and spiritual formation for those younger people they were not seeing in the church. Needing new expressions of ministry for different cultural populations should be a natural thing. To my understanding this was the reason behind the birthing of Willow Creek itself back in the seventies.

Displaying 1–10 of 39 comments

kevin Butterfield

July 23, 2006  11:06pm

There is still one problem that needs to be addressed. That is that most churches have great youth, children and family programs but where do you fit in post High school and pre-minivan. Most churches are missing the 18-30 crowd. You can rally all you want against new methods and call them fads and gimmicks, but is the alternative working at reaching young people. Have you as an older person mentored the next generation apart from a flannel graph latley. I agree that there are lessons to be learned and growing pains to be endured, but it is no different than when churches adopted Youth Ministry as a mission in the 70's and 80's. The key is we need to reach young adults that are making crucial, life altering decisions. And we need to build multi-generational relationships. One of the reasons we are in this boat is because these young people have never had real parents and real families. Including the church. I am the pastor of a "church within a church" and I can tell you two things for sure. 1. We are reaching people that were not reached before. 2. We NEED spiritual mothers, fathers, grandma's and Grandpa's, and we need them now. We need to be able to address cultural shifts and give them spiritual roots. Now you wonder why this is getting messy. Most churches don't want to or don't know how to handle these two issues.

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July 22, 2006  5:23pm

I'm sorry, but the key to evangelizing to, converting, and retaining "young adult" membership is to teach them and pound into their head that the greatest commandments is to "Love the Lord your God" and "Love your neighbor as yourself." Trying to keep the "college and career" sheep with entertainment and such superficial drivel will fail once the gimmicks wear off. The fault is not what the church has to offer the 18-35 year olds. Its what the church is teaching them. I see it all the time in my friends, when the supposedly "strongest young adult Christians to have moved into the area" jump from church to church, not accountable to anyone, but involved in almost every "Christian college event" between churches, with the only truthful excuse being "I couldn't find a girlfriend at such-and-such church." Definitely shortsighted and need to learn the "seek ye first the kingdom/righteousness of God, and everything else will be granted unto you" of dedication, surrender, and servanthood as God's people. What needs to happen is that these C&C kids need to GROW UP and be adults. God: first, girlfriend: 9th, self-entertainment: near-dead-last.

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Dan Kimball

July 19, 2006  5:35pm

Just a note - I am on vacation so I am trying not to get involved emotionally in any blog conversation - but I just looked and wanted to express that I personally have never attended Axis, but I have attended Willow Creek several times. In my personal experience there I never felt anything at all was "watered down" as the last comment expressed (especially in the mid-week New Community gathering that I went to twice). I have also listened to Axis messages and didn't feel anything was watered down either, but they were carefully speaking to a certain group for a specific purpose. There were other options they had for deeper study if one desired it. I get very discouraged when I see believers in Jesus making very negative comments about other specific people or specific ministries - especially with certain tones and what I would consider poor attitudes. It is easy to poke at negative things in churches or ministries you may not agree with, and I try to repent when I catch myself ever doing that. This post was not intended to be any form of stirring up and venting negativity towards churches you don't agree with. But discussing the difficulties of intergenerational ministry and the alternative worship gatherings that are usually great-hearted attempts of seeing emerging generations learn about Jesus - and thanking Willow and Axis for their attempts and pioneering efforts (as I expressed in Part 2 of the post). Dan

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July 19, 2006  2:18pm

This is quite interesting... Having attended Axis several times, I can tell you that it seemed to me like a youth group meeting for young adults. The philosophy seemed to be "lets entertain them, give them some watered-down "relevant message" (not too much though because we don't want them to be bored and heaven-forbid that we might speak too much truth which might offend), make sure you have lattes available, and promote with a slick Willow marketing campaign... Thank God he delivered me from this foolishness! Then I visited Harvest Bible Chapel pastored by James MacDonald in Rolling Meadows. As a Gen-Xer, my life has forever been changed by the simple, no-holds-barred, exegetical approach of Harvest. I've since moved from the Chicago area and I am delighted to know that a Harvest Bible Chapel may be planted in my area within the next year. Praise God because it has been hard finding a church now that there are so many Willow Creek, watered-down clones that have spread across the landscape of our country today. God have mercy.

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July 19, 2006  1:50pm

I am typing this from Willow. Many of my friends serve in the Axis ministry and it has been a trying but growing time for them. But, when you have an avg. attendence of 300 or so, and many staff to support it, AND your primary speaker has taken another job, things need to be reassessed. Rather than get into all that, let me make a few observations: Why do we tend to think of success as something that continues ad infinitum? Why can't churches (or gatherings) pop up here and there, live for a while and morph into some other thing or things? The church is people. Many people connected with Axis have gone other places to do other things and have affected way more people than if they would have stayed here. So, in a way, Axis has grown. As Kimball mentioned, the church within a church model is difficult at best, and is further confounded the less it refers to itself as such. In this age of tech, why do we need "mother" churches to house and fund new ministries, especially when the target of a new ministry is people outside of the "mother" churchs demographic. The 3M company is a leader in inventions, think Post-it, among others. They form new companies to start new things and give them automomy and funding. This can be only a formal procedure in some cases, but in theirs, it seems to have contributed to great success, and even created products that were not even the original goal. Willow will adopt a new strategy, Im sure. It will be a good one for most people. But many other strategies will be needed to deal with this generation and the next. Sometimes something must die to give birth to something new, funny how our whole religion is based on that same premise.

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Chad Baier

July 19, 2006  1:41pm

I agree Mark Martinson. We like the hype, we love to draw them in with the loud music, etc. It becomes a club more than anything else. It's good for the short run of things, but where are these people going to be in 20, 30, 40 years? I know too many people that have invested a number of years within a ministry. That ministry ended, and now, as time passed, they are lukewarm in their faith at best. In most of their faces, I see no spark of the freedom in Christ they once knew and embraced. Is that the churches fault? I'm not so sure. Ultimately, we are responsible for the watering of our faith. And I can't blame anyone for giving their best, God-given shot with the tools that God gave them and blessed them with. But God's grace covers a multitude of short comings, does it not? I for one allowed myself to be one of those types of people: The pastor left, the sheep scattered, and I decided to quit. Quitting got me into all kinds of mischief. Lukewarm at best, ice-cold at my worst. But God...Wow! His grace is sufficient for me. Time has and still is healing those wounds that I afflicted upon myself. Praise God. I pray God's peace, mercy, and grace upon all at Axis, Willow Creek, and many others like them.

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Linda Grenz

July 19, 2006  7:31am

Ten years ago "18-30 year-olds" were different from today's 18-30 year-olds. So perhaps what we are seeing is not a "failure" but merely the passing of a generation. Given what I see/read about that generation in today's culture I suspect that they need something very different from what the earlier generation needed. Perhaps that folks at Willow Creek sense this and may come up with a more appropriate mission strategy.

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Matt Martinson

July 18, 2006  3:56pm

Generational ministries are great for getting people in the door. The problem within them is twofold: they seem contradictory to what the church is called to be, and it's difficult to keep people connected to the church once they have outgrown their ministry. As a youth pastor I faced this constantly before finally realizing that I'd been trying to connect kids to the youth ministry and had failed them because that was all they knew. Being the church means we are all connected to one another and Christ, and I'm glad to see that is becoming more obvious for more churches.

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Brian Hawes

July 18, 2006  3:54pm

I'm a bit disturbed by the tone of many of the responses to this article. It's easy to bash style and methodology. It's easy to claim that Jesus wouldn't have ministered that way. But the truth is that we all are tasked with relating the gospel to the particular culture we're in without compromising truth. The culture in South Barrington, Illinois is much different than it is here in Sodaville, Oregon. Let Willow Creek do whatever they feel God leads them to do in reaching the people of their area for Jesus Christ. Do what God calls you to do in your area, for your culture. The world looks at our division and laughs. Let's show them our love for one another and unity in the Spirit. Then maybe they'll start listening, both in Oregon and in Illinois and all over the world.

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Barry Morse

July 18, 2006  3:02pm

I have never attended Willow Creek but I know ithas been influential on a lot of churches nationwide, as has FellowShip Church(Ed Young Jr.). I was saved at fellowship church Aug 18, 2001. And a big part of the reason I was reached was the format of the service. Contemporary praise and worship followed by a great message that explained the gospel to me in a way I had never heard before. The point I am trying to get to is that many many people are being brought to Jesus through Fellowship Church and churches like it, of which I will be eternally grateful.

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