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.

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Why the big-box church works for the over 35 but not the under 25.

Last year the church that kicked off the California suburban-megachurch movement, the Crystal Cathedral, was sold to the local Catholic Diocese. The decline is being seen in an attendance drop off among 20-somethings in most suburban model churches…and many leaders in those churches report that they are nervous…

Church for the over 35.

Church leaders have spent a decade wondering why the Seeker-Relevant-Saddleback-Mega-church model that works so well for upwardly mobile people 35 and older, is not working for people under 30. I believe the answer is deceptively simple: The world changed.

Ask yourself, “What world-shaking event occurred when today’s 25 year olds were early teenagers?” The answer: 9/11.

On 9/11 our fundamental understanding of what life was like changed. Forever.911

Put yourself in the mind of an over 35 year-old: In the formative years of those over 35 the world was a pretty nice place. A safe place. We knew that if we worked hard and got an education we would have a good job, make money in the market, move up the social and economic ladder, and retire comfortably on our 401k, the appreciation of our homes and Social Security. We were confident. Our viewpoint: The world was our friend.

Take a 25 year old today: In their formative years the world was not a very nice place. They do not remember an America that was not at war. People they have never met want to bomb their buildings and crash their airplanes. If they work hard and get a good education, they may work at Starbucks and will spend 20 years paying off student loans. The market is a risk and home ownership might be a loser. How can they risk being tied to a home with fluctuating value when they will have to change careers and locales multiple times? There will not be a pension. Their 401k is a crap-shoot. Social Security will be bankrupt. Will they ever retire? Their viewpoint: The world is not their friend.

The “Seeker” movement works for the 35 year old specifically because it is based on the premise that the world was our friend. On that premise we built churches modeled on the best the world had to offer – it was the church as Christian subculture: a shinier, happier version of everything secular. Think of what we imitate in our “relevant” church models: coffeehouse, concert hall, comedy club. They are all based on the idea that the secular world is a friendly place. Since, for 20-somethings, the world is definitely NOT their friend, we really shouldn’t be surprised when that secular model is not a big winner for them as “church.”

Author Dan Kimball noticed the beginnings of this cultural shift ten years ago in “Emergent Church.” In an attempt to reach unchurched millennials in Santa Cruz, California he assembled focus groups. He took them to different church environments. He found consistently that young adults wanted a church that was “churchy”…Ancient. Quiet. Solid. Holy. A place unlike the world. A place of “otherness.” Do you notice how those things whisper stability in an unpredictable, ever-changing world? Kimball’s young adults were actually surprised that the older crowd preferred “relevant model” churches. Their take: “If I wanted to go to the mall, I’ll just go. I want church to be church.”

How can the church engage the post-modern 25 year old? Certainly it isn’t easy. This generation is conflicted. On one hand they distrust large events. On the other, they flock to things with momentum. The good news is that today’s millennials seek the things from the church that the church did well for most of her 2000 years: community, a chance to make a difference in the world, and, most importantly, offer a transforming connection with the creator and redeemer of the universe. Unfortunately, we lost these as they eroded invisibly out from under the evangelical suburban cultural veneer. It is not too late. But it will take a new kind of church that is much less like the one we know and much more like the one the early fathers knew.

The big question is not whether the millennials will engage, but will the previous generations, builders of a church that fit a set of cultural expectations that are rapidly fading away, listen and respond by opening leadership opportunities to the next generation? Will the church develop new leaders, give legitimate responsibility to the next generation, and take new chances on historic ways of being the church?

USA Today: More Confirmation That 20-Somethings Are Bailing On the Church.

Money quote: “One in three (32%) are under age 30 and unlikely to age into claiming a religion, says Pew Forum senior researcher Greg Smith. The new study points out that today’s Millennials are more unaffiliated than any young generation ever has been when they were younger.”

Read the article: http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2012/10/08/nones-protestant-religion-pew/1618445/

Nancy Going, Veteran Youth Minister and leader of Luther Seminary’s youth ministry program who blogs on First Third comments: http://www.firstthird.org/blog/default.aspx?m=3924&post=1378 

Lets just stop pretending that this is not happening and start doing things differently to change it for the next generation- i.e. the kids in our youth group right now!