Are the changes mainly generational or are the changes bigger than that?
I read on two blogs about the announcement earlier this year regarding the ending of the Axis worship gathering at Willow Creek Community Church in the Chicago area. I don’t know all the behind-the-scenes discussions and what led to the decision to stop the gathering, so I cannot make any guesses about the actual reasons behind the reasons.
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 my Emerging Worship book. But whatever the reasons for shutting down Axis, I can say that from an outside perspective it saddened my heart—but I was not at all surprised. I am surprised it didn’t end sooner actually.
Willow Creek was one of the first churches to experiment with launching an alternative worship gathering within an existing church. I have followed what they have been doing before Axis even launched. There were really good reasons behind it; they noticed that even in wonderful large megachurches, there are value differences and cultural differences in local populations and between generations.
Because of these differences, if one is truly being a missionary to various cultures within a larger culture, various expressions of evangelism, worship, teaching, learning and spiritual formation will occur. This should be a natural thing and, to my understanding, was the reason behind birthing Willow Creek itself back in the ’70s.
Generational vs. Worldview Differences
When launching a new worship gathering in an existing church, the question is: Are the changes mainly generational (music style, appearance, language), which are ongoing? Or are the changes bigger than that in worldview(s) and more about how people learn, specific values people have and how people think of God and the spiritual world?
If it is just a generational change, churches might as well just change the music, add some candles, create a hip environment and play a video of the senior pastor. That’s doing some outer dressing work, and I think that if we really peeled back the layers of the majority of these alternative services in existing churches, that is what you would find.
The generational-focused worship gatherings may have a younger pastor with a goatee or funky glasses who wears his shirt untucked and looks like he could be a member of Death Cab for Cutie.
They have some freedom, but their hands are tied too, leaving them unable to make holistic change to the church at large—as the whole thing needs to fold into the systems and values of the larger church they are within. There are value differences and philosophical differences between cultures and generations, so that is only natural and should be expected. That tension is part of the mission of doing this. Because of the power structure, they report to the senior pastor or executive pastor. To some degree, and I say this with respect, it can become a glorified youth ministry.
But when these new worship gatherings within a church are only generational and not considering the worldview changes, what mainly happens is that they then cater to those who grew up in that church or another church. People come to where they have better music, a cooler environment and can be around others their age and do the healthy single flirt. However, if the changes in culture are bigger than that, then it is absurd to think that creating a different aesthetic environment and changing the music is really being missional.
If we are specifically looking at a mission to our culture, then it means looking differently at community, spiritual formation, evangelism, membership, leadership and communication. The whole culture of a church will change—not just what happens in a worship gathering.
This is why so many worship gatherings launched within a church in the last three to five years, which are truly more missional, end up imploding. Often it is due to a clash between the senior pastor and the younger pastor, who have value differences and struggles as they try to squeeze a new cultural form of ministry within an existing church.
The power lies with the senior leadership, so the decisions are made from top to bottom. The alternative worship gathering is not at the top tier in leadership structure within a church, so it usually gets changed by the wishes of the upper leadership to fit within the whole—lots of conflict, pain and difficulty in many cases, and I have so many stories of sad things that occurred in staff situations.
Axis certainly served a purpose and perhaps stretched things as far as the larger church could extend to. I remember it used to have around 1,800 people when it was thriving.
I was close to an Axis staff person at that time and heard about wonderful things going on there. I assume Willow Creek will have specific college and twentysomething activities and retreats going on to cater to that age group specifically in the absence of Axis. But it is the story of the end of yet another one of the alternative gatherings.
Alternative Worship Gatherings
The common way to do alternative worship gatherings is to launch the teaching via video, where the senior pastor is seen on a video screen, the music is more hip and youthful, and candles and other aesthetically oriented objects are added to the room.
In terms of churches launching actual worship gatherings with a different pastor and team—one of the only ones I know that has made it long term is Frontline, part of McLean Bible Church in Virginia. They have lasted the longest to my knowledge, and I respect them for going through all the struggles and tension, yet still pushing onward.
I have also been at and met with the staff at the Upper Room in Minneapolis, which is part of Christ Presbyterian Church. The Upper Room has been meeting for several years as well and seems to be doing OK.
I also am trying to keep a pulse on Illuminate at Overlake Christian Church, a megachurch in the Seattle area. Mike, the pastor of Illuminate, is a really sharp thinker, and when I met with him, he was asking all the right questions. However, they have a situation developing where I recently heard that attendance at Illuminate is surpassing the existing gatherings from the main church. That should cause some interesting discussion internally.
What is the answer? I don’t know.
In my specific situation, it turned out that after leading an alternative worship gathering and ministry within a church, we had to plant a new church. The more we pondered “what is church?” and all of the things that caused tension and questions because of value and philosophy differences in a single church, we realized that the differences were too great. The mother church did not want to allow us to truly change beyond the worship gathering itself, but more or less conform to the systems and values of the mother church.
The mother church actually began adopting some of the things we were doing by introducing more contemporary music and adding art to their worship gatherings. But those are externals, and without rethinking spiritual formation, evangelism, community and leadership holistically, it didn’t work. If we are truly missional, the things we need to rethink are much bigger than the worship gathering itself.
Frodos Need Gandalfs
I wish that churches could launch alternative worship gatherings within churches and see them continue. To me that is the best way not to constantly spend money on buildings and facilities, and even if there are alternative worship gatherings that have a generational attraction to them where they worship at different times, they can create relationships and community outside of the worship gathering.
One of the best things we had going at Graceland (the alternative worship gathering within a larger church that I led in Santa Cruz, Calif.) was older couples from the main church mentoring the younger. Many of the older couples did not go to Graceland, but they had a heart for younger people. That was beautiful—and sadly that is missing from many younger church plants.
I believe that Frodos need the wisdom of Gandalfs. Younger people in the church desperately need the wisdom of older people. But it doesn’t mean you develop intergenerational relationships by sitting in the same worship gathering. It is what happens outside of those worship gatherings, so I am perplexed when churches force it by keeping different generations in the same room for the 90 minutes of a worship meeting.
It seems odd that this is seen as being “intergenerational” as all you are doing is sitting in a chair looking at the backs of heads, watching someone speak on a stage and singing together.
I don’t see intergenerational relationships occurring that way, especially in larger churches where everyone floods out after the service. That isn’t any different than attending a movie together.
You do have the same emotional and learning experience, but then you leave without relationships being built. Relationships occur outside the time you sit in a chair and watch what happens on the stage and join in with the singing. Then there’s the impossibility of pleasing anyone “stylistically” for worship when you try to combine all age groups—it causes frustration any way you look at it.
Some Questions to Ponder
Before undertaking the task of starting an alternative worship gathering, a church needs to ask itself some questions about its motives, intent and focus. Maybe this kind of self-examination will lead to more successful alternative worship services in the future.
1) What is the purpose and goal of this new gathering? Is it for Christians in a church to have music they like and sermons to which they can relate? Is it to rescue wandering young adult Christians? Is it to see non-Christians become part of a church?
2) How does the gathering fit within the context of the whole church? Is it seen as an equal to the other worship gatherings and the rest of the church, or is it meant to feed into the other gatherings? I personally don’t believe it should be a “feeder” to the other gatherings, but a feeder into the overall life of the church instead.
3) How will people become part of the overall life of the church? Will it be through men’s and women’s ministry? Mentoring? Global missions trips and compassion projects? What are the ways you could see people “being” the church without depending on the worship gathering to define that for them?
4) What is the role of the senior pastor in the new worship gathering? How will communication occur between the senior pastor and the leadership of the new gathering?
Ultimately, all we can do is pray for God’s guidance in developing missional mindsets when ministering to culture.
Oh Jesus, lead Your Church. Keep our own human egos and control issues out of the way so we can let others lead who are in tune with different cultures that we may not be in tune to. May we yield to those placed in leadership above us if serving on a staff.
This is Your church, Jesus. May we never forget that and may we serve You in the way You want us to for Your kingdom and the mission.
Farewell, Axis, and cheers to you. You served a wonderful purpose in the kingdom and helped so many people through the years and inspired so many of us to experiment with launching new gatherings within a church. Thank you for pioneering new experimental ways. Your influence and inspiration challenges us all.
Dan Kimball pastors at Vintage Faith Church in Santa Cruz, Calif. He is also the author of The Emerging Church and Emerging Worship (Zondervan).