Ten years after launching Axis as a Generation X "church-within-a-church," Willow Creek Community Church has folded the young-adult service into its main congregation. As of July, the ministry by and for 20-somethings no longer meets separately on Saturday evenings, although it continues to host social and outreach events.
Considered groundbreaking at its inception, Axis had suffered a steep decline in attendance, falling from nearly 2,000 worshipers in 2001 to about 350 more recently. The ministry's longtime teaching pastor, Jarrett Stevens, also left in June.
Integration will better fulfill Willow's multigenerational vision, said interim pastor Steve Gillen. He said Axis didn't connect young adults with the rest of the congregation. Once they outgrew the service, Axis members found it hard to transition into the rest of the Chicago-area megachurch. Young adults also struggled to meet and develop relationships with mentors in the larger congregation. Besides, Gillen said, the main congregation adopted some Axis distinctives, such as a focus on community service.
Willow's decision will reverberate, said James Wilhoit, Wheaton College professor of Christian formation and ministry. The Axis shift won't deter successful ministries, he said, but it may have a "quieting effect" on churches considering the launch of a young-adult service. "It's a model that will no longer have the imprimatur of Willow Creek," Wilhoit said.
Young-adult services still thrive in other churches. Twelve years ago, McLean Bible Church in Virginia started Frontline, a youth-initiated and youth-led ministry similar to Willow's Axis. Since then, total attendance for McLean's two congregations has grown from 1,000 to between 10,000 and 14,000. Unlike Axis, Frontline encourages young adults to serve in the broader church's ministries. Rich Hurst, director of young adults at McLean, credits his senior pastor's support of younger leaders for much of Frontline's success.
Despite some positive examples, many younger leaders find their growth stunted in churches-within-churches, said Doug Pagitt, pastor of Solomon's Porch, an emergent congregation in Minneapolis. More importantly, he said, such churches struggle to reach younger Christians who grew up in a postmodern culture.
In addition, churches-within-churches share a shortcoming endemic to the entire seeker-church movement, Wilhoit said. By marketing to niche groups, such churches "institutionalize fragmentation." Young people are actually yearning for a holistic community, he said, "rather than something that looks like a club"one of the things Willow discovered.
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