When Cool Music Isn’t Enough

guitarThe latest issue of Leadership Journal has a fascinating article on ministry to twentysomethings.  It tells the story of “Axis,” the young adult ministry of Willow Creek Community Church in suburban Chicago, one of the nation’s first true megachurches.  Axis started in 2001 with 2,000 young adults gathering on Sunday nights for alternative music and relevant teaching, but by 2006 attendance was down to 400. 

What happened?

When John Peacock tried to reorganize Axis in the Fall of 2006 he recognized that twentysomethings would no longer show up just because the church offered a combination of cool music and relevant teaching.  “Media-savvy young adults could download all the great teaching and music they wanted for their iPods.  Nothing seemed to impress them,” he said (p. 27). 

And so Peacock decided he would equip twentysomethings to serve as missionaries in their own zip codes.  He launched missional community hubs, where a core group of four to six young adults move into an apartment complex or condominium unit.  Meeting three times per month there, the missional community hubs focus on prayer, Scripture and community.  Keeping with Willow Creek’s mission, the small-group gatherings remain accessible to unbelivers.

And they’ve been successful.

“The model must be relational,” Peacock said.  “If it is based on the big event with one person teaching, I just don’t think it’s going to work.  We’ve learned to break these things down into smaller communities where people actually know each other.  We didn’t come up with it, but our mantra is, ‘People belong before they believe before they behave.’  Many people in this generation are already coming in with distrust toward God and the church.  The more relational environments we have, the more trust can be built and people will be more open to exploring Christianity” (p. 28).

A commitment to relationship rather than events also explains Peacock’s drive to partner Axis members with mentors.  There are currently more than 30 people over the age of 50 attending Axis gatherings and actively mentoring younger believers.* 

This is interesting input in the ongoing conversation about how we will be doing church fifty years from now.  It sounds as if the younger generations, at least, are looking for something a little more substantive than cool music.

*Information gathered from “The X Factor” by Collin Hansen in the Summer 2009 issue of Leadership Journal.

5 thoughts on “When Cool Music Isn’t Enough

  1. Twenty-somethings not participating in traditional church have the same need of people as those gathering in the church. They need relationships.

    The key is that the now-not-church-going-20-somethings may have done church til 17-18-19 years but after that transition from High School to college or to the work world, they found other communities to belong to.

    Most churches don’t have a intentional community for that age group because so many are off to college somewhere else or they enter the work world with hours that conflict with traditional Sunday morning gatherings. Besides most of their church friends most likely are no longer consistantly attending.

    They begin to associate with others from all kinds of spiritual and social backgrounds. They will look for communities associated with thier work or college relationships. Communities that accept them and give them new experiences

    The good news is that if they attended church as a younger person, they may carry inside of them all of their church teachings and may have traits of compassion and a sense of justice for the underdog. However, thier attachment and loyalty will be with their most influential community. And that will be where they put their energy, derive their self-definition, seek happiness, form behavior for acceptance and survival and give of themselves.

    Reaching any person outside the traditional church, disciples must know what their calling is and what gifts of outreach God gave them and then specifically and intentionally go under the direction of the Holy Spirit to those…. offering the hand of friendship, Christian love, caring and the understood purpose and span for the connection.

    I believe when attempting to connect with 20-somethings who are not in the church, called Christians need to leave judgment and assumptions out of it and rely on God to show His love and desire for relationship through you/me …keeping hold of the reasons for thier/my faith and own choice to have a relationship with God.

  2. As a 20-somthing myself, I think there are a lot of things that weigh on us that cause us to not attend church as much. First, I think Dawn has a good point about the new environment as we go away from home, where I find it difficult to find a church I enjoy and feel a part of as much as I do at FBC Richmond where I grew up. Second, I really like that you, Dr Somerville, and John Peacock point out that we 20-somethings are looking for something a little more substantive than just cool music. I sometimes feel like that is some churches only way to ‘handle’ our age, and I definitely think we’re more substantive than that.
    In fact if anything I think we’re too much so. Many of the people I know in college are open to discussing religion even if they’ve never gone to church, but pure faith is difficult for them when everything else we’re taught is to find evidence, proof of everything before it can be considered ‘real’. I know personally I fall into that trap sometimes. The religion I get from school is very historical, and I often like that. Part of what I like about your sermons so much Dr Somerville is that you put things in historical context – for example your “Reading other people’s mail” series – I feel like ’20-somethings’ who weren’t raised in the church or involved would not even know what the epistles were. And those that were raised in the church probably don’t fully understand the context those letters either. I know I don’t. To give a picture of whom Paul (or whoever wrote in his name) was writing to, and why, is something we can connect to. I find it fascinating using history to develop faith. My good friend from college, who is now in Wesley Seminary, always said, “God gives us just enough.” When he and I wanted it, God gave us just enough evidence to make us keep seeking. Never enough to prove anything, because it is by faith we are saved, but just enough to make us always want more. To make the idea of not believing seem like dying of thirst with a glass of water next to you, and refusing to drink it.
    The problem then is, like the C.S. Lewis book ‘The Great Divorce’ says, “There have been men before now who got so interested in proving the existence of God that they came to care nothing for God Himself… as if the good Lord had nothing to do but exist!” I know that faith, in the end, is all we need, but the more I learn in studying the Bible and its context, history, and the people in it, the more faith that I seem to have. And that seems trivially true when I say it like that. I think a lot of people my age are like that, we are aware that all we need is faith, but we want to know more. If we can’t dig in and learn more about it all, then why do we go to church? Is it just a ritual? Do we do it to feel good about ourselves or make others think we’re good? It seems like it should be, at first, because we truly desire to know more. And hopefully, that desire will lead to us wanting to do more, because after we are saved our goal should be to love others the same way we were loved and brought to the church. Eventually, it will lead us to be more like Christ.
    This idea of smaller ‘communities’ (or ‘families’ might be better, after last Sunday’s sermon) of love, I think, is right on point. The next line in that C.S. Lewis book is, “There have been some who were so occupied in spreading Christianity that they never gave a thought to Christ… it is the subtlest of all the snares” (74). I think that is what a lot of churches fall into when it comes to our age members. They see lower attendance for us and enter into business advertising mode to try and draw in more of us. Some churches are so worried about getting us there with cool music that they forget to just love us. But that, in the end, is what Jesus did. It’s what He does every moment of every day, and that is how He wins us over. And in that same way, the church can win us over. And then, when we are that loving family, we can rejoice together in worship to that cool music.

  3. Great comment, Troy! Thanks so much for your thoughtful interaction. You’ve given me (and others) a lot to think about.

  4. Thanks Troy for what I think is valuable insight and knowledge for me to understand more of what is in the hearts and minds of 20-somethings. I hope I can be part of growing that loving family of the church welcoming all.

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