Case Study: PhoenixOne. Bursting at the seams with young adults.

How do we engage the post-modern 25 year old? Certainly it isn’t easy. They are very conflicted. On one hand they distrust large events. On the other, they flock to things with momentum -in Phoenix that is PhoenixOne, a gathering of 20-something “young professionals.” In existence for 18 months, it is now attended by more than 1000 young adults.

What is PhoenixOne doing to gather the crowd?

First, they use technology well. All 1000 of them facebook and tweet the meeting. It is very organic in it’s invitation.

Second, they are relational. They work very hard to connect with people and help them connect with one another.

Third, they are in a place of “otherness.” They meet in a 100 year-old church-ancient by Phoenix’ standards. It is quiet. Solid. It feels stable – like a church.

Fourth, they bring in communicators who speak to their experience. Most of them are known names who have an audience already. They go for high content/good presentation over low content/great presentation. They have thoughtful speakers rather than uber-motivational types.

Francis Chan

Fifth, they have ditched the really big band for a guitar, piano and drums. It is actually quieter than the 40 year-old’s “relevant” church.

Sixth, they use technology, and they experiment with ancient liturgical forms. Chant, candles, confession, contemplation have as big a role as slick graphics. Young adults are rediscovering mystery, symbol and narrative…artfully done.

Ancient liturgical experience explained.

Seventh, they get people to work in the world for good. While the over 35 world is busy saying young adults are selfish, PhoenixOne has them active doing things for good. Young adults actually do want to do things-just not like we do them. We want to make church like the world and work in our churches to avoid the world. They want to make church churchier and then work to take Jesus into the world.

Eighth, and this one is important, they work to work together through difference rather than ignore difference. The mega-model ignores history and denominational backgrounds, to the point of hiding denominational affiliation, they engage in thoughtful dialogue around being blessed by the fullness of Christian tradition.

Are you noticing the relationship between the cultural realities of 25 year olds and how effectively reaching them includes both connecting them to one another and the world, and artfully adapting classic Christian worship practices and disciplines to connect them with God? 

The leader of PhoenixOne is my friend, Jeff Gokee. He is a student of his culture who is not afraid to innovate. When young professionals fill out “connections” cards, he reports, they list two or three different “home” churches:  One church  for music, one for teaching, one  for small groups…and PhoenixOne. Jeff says, “that is a crazy fact that is shaping how we do church in the future.”

Jeff confirms my two over-arching points: a “go” rather than “come” starting point and relationships blended with authentic ancient-future worship when they do arrive. About relationships Jeff says, “I believe the local church is truly is the hope of the world.  I have spent most of my life as a pastor trying to get people to come into my church context instead of going into theirs…I believe in order to re-engage this generation we have to be incarnate in their culture the way Jesus did 2000 years ago.  He goes to the women at the well…He visits Zaccheaus in his home…and he comes to all of humanity on the cross…we need to have a relational revival, because this generation wants to be known.” Worship, says Jeff, “is not just about singing and doing…it’s about being with God.  Sometimes that happens with a big band, sometimes that happens in silence, sometimes it happens when your clapping and don’t know the words. We don’t have to create worship…it’s all around us, we just get to join in wherever it’s happening.”

It is a new day for the church and the culture. There is an old expression from biology: Adapt or die.

Hopefully we will learn to listen to our young adults, read the tea-leaves of our culture and relearn what the early church knew – How to live in the world as a distrusted minority that prayed the Scriptures, worshiped with life-giving narrative and sacrament. They ventured forth from that rich transformed community to serve the world and spoke of the power of God in Christ everywhere they went. We can do this. We have done it before. We can do it again.


15 thoughts on “Case Study: PhoenixOne. Bursting at the seams with young adults.

  1. Experimenting with ancient liturgical forms? Is confession one of those things that is experimental? I hope it’s a tenet of their faith. 1 John 1:9,10.

    • Hi friend,
      Public corporate confession is generally not part of evangelical worship practice-no matter how biblical it might be. Neither is auricular confession…or the practice of in-service reconciliation (passing the peace).

      Confession is usually assumed to be a private practice between brothers and sisters in the faith in a Matthew 18 manner.

  2. We practice a corporate confession in our worship service. It keeps our feet on the ground and helps us to realize that we do need a Savior…and not a ‘self-help’ guru. And then the pastor, or whomever, gives the absolution…where the real power is for the hearer (Romans 1:16).

    Whatever else we do (and we do have varying worship liturgies), for us, that is a must.


    Very interesting post, by the way. I like what Jeff is doing.

    I would hesitate to bring in ‘speakers’ without fully knowing their beliefs, though.

    I have heard some quite dreadful things come out of the mouth of Francis Chan. Sending people back into themselves for the assurance of their salvation seems to be a speciality of his.

    I’d bet anything that he disdains the Baptizing of infants and that he views the Lord’s Supper as symbolism.

    When there is no real presence of the Lord in the sacraments, these “free-will” types will turn everything back onto ‘you’.

    If that’s the case, I’d prefer that the young 20 somethings stay home, rather than be infected with the despair and pride that results in that kind of “preaching”.


      • That’s good news, Matt. When he has a good understanding of the external Word (in the sacraments and in the preached Word) hopefully he won’t let those who despise them and love ‘the self’ get after his sheep with religious (ladder-climbing) projects.

        Chan is one of the worst offenders along those lines.

        Anywho…for what it is worth.

        • Hi Steve, I have not read much of Chan (except for erasing hell-which I found no where near as thoughtful as Galli’s God Wins response to Rob Bell) and therefore am not exactly sure what you are talking about.

      • A few months ago I read some quotes from Chan about so-called Christians vs, “real Christians” who were on fire for the Lord…etc..

        That kind of preaching is law banging and is assurance robbing. I would not expect anything else from a “free-will”, decision theology Christian.

  3. Interesting. I’ve been following your blog after a friend linked me here, and discovered I was local. I may have to check this one out.

    • Hi Stacy,
      PhoenixOne is really interesting. It occasionally bounces into youth groupy stuff, but it is led by great people trying hard to figure out a new thing. Meet their leadership! Let me know how it goes.

  4. Thanks for this post. I’ve been busy for the last several days, so it’s nice to stop by here and see this. There is a tension between wanting something “solid” and the call for “adapt.” How that tension is addressed will say a lot about PhoenixOne over time.

  5. Hello Fr. Oliver. Good to have you back! I think you are absolutely right about PhoenixOne. They would say that they are an experiment and a work in progress. They would probably also say that they have been shaped by market-driven models…although no American is fully cognizant of the level to which that is true for us. Their interest was initially that liturgy “worked” for them. They wanted to bless their people with what blessed them.
    PhxOne is carefully avoiding becoming a church and does want to bless people with an ecumenically wider vision of the faith. “Unity” is big for them. My gut feeling is that they will always be an onramp for the curious-and that is a good thing. They are inviting everyone to join them at the table. Given their leadership’s experiences and growing relationships with Catholics and Anglicans (I do not think they know any Orthodox yet), I do see them doing less youth-groupy type things and more formational, contemplative and ancient practices as time goes on…they will want to, and it appears the market will demand it.

    • Hi Slibno. Thanks for weighing in. It has become pretty large. It has taken a step back this year when they had to relocated from the “ancient feeling” downtown location in a turn of the century Presbyterian church to a Baptist church that seats 3500 in the suburbs. It ruined their vibe and they went back to around 450. They are moving back to the downtown location and it will probably turn around. It is a young adult group though, rather than a church. Many of the large churches in Phoenix have given up on staffing for young adults as they cannot generate enough numbers to justify a full-time person.

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