Clayton Walker on Reaching Unchurched Millennials
Experience Life Church was started in 2007 and has grown phenomenally, now with 5 locations. Clayton is the executive pastor and he oversees the campuses and ministries. He also speaks each week at one of the church’s campuses at Texas Tech University. The average age of attendees at Experience Life Church is 30 years old, not counting the kids’ ministry, so they have really learned to attract young adults and teens.
Listen in as Clayton talks about their work in reaching the younger generation.
Tapping into the next generation. // Having a younger membership is fun and always drives Experience Life Church to be innovative in their work, but it can also bring unique challenges. Over 60% of the young people attending were not previously involved in a church before coming to Experience Life. Reaching and keeping an unchurched group is difficult in today’s society. It requires a constant evaluation of what the church is doing and how well it is reaching that group.
It all begins with prayer. // Reaching out and ministering to others all begins with prayer at Experience Life Church. Each week they have midweek prayer gatherings as well as dedicated staff prayer time. The prayer gathering brings in hundreds of people who all come together to pray. Prayer time at Experience Life is fun and includes worship time and there are teams of people at each campus available to pray with people. Experience Life has found that this prayer time ignites a passion in people to reach the unchurched.
Try different things. // Experience Life Church started out as a cluster of small groups that met once a month, initially believing this was the model they should stick to. But it soon became clear that God was leading them down a different path to reach the unchurched. So they had to choose between sticking to their old way of doing things or or try something new. Henry Blackaby says, “Find out where God is working and join him.” The people at Experience Life leaned into that and their attendance exploded.
Go to them. // Texas Tech University is right in the backyard of Experience Life Church and there was a whole group of young people that needed to be reached for Christ. Clayton said they realized in order to reach these students, Experience Life had to go to them rather than expecting them to come to church. So they decided to plant a church on the university campus, allowing students to easily walk to church. They had 500 students come the first night and it soon outgrew the original meeting place and exploded from there.
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00:39 // Rich introduces Clayton Walker and welcomes him to the show.
01:02 // Clayton tells us about his role within Experience Life.
01:55 // Clayton talks about the challenges entailed trying to reach the young, unchurched.
04:48 // Clayton talks about the prayer meetings.
06:39 // Clayton talks about how they continue to adapt and change in order to reach their community.
09:27 // Clayton talks about Texas Tech Campus.
11:54 // Clayton compares Texas Tech Campus to their other campuses.
14:24 // Clayton talks about Protégé, their leadership development program.
15:18 // Clayton highlights the impact of prayer.
Helpful Tech Tools // Slack
Ministries Following // Life Church
Inspiring Leader // Greg Matte
What does he do for fun // Working out. Family time.
Rich – Hey everybody, welcome to the unSeminary podcast, my name’s Rich the host here and I’m just so glad that you’ve decided to spend some time with us. You know, here at unSeminary we want to take some time out to encourage you, we know that as a church leader you’ve got a lot going on, going into this weekend in ministry and we’re just honored that you would take some time out to listen in.
Today we’ve got a great conversation with Clayton Walker from Experience Life Church in West Texas. So glad to have you here. So your church was started in 2007 and it really has grown incredibly. About 4 thousand people attend in 5 locations if I’m correct. Clayton, why don’t you tell us a little bit about your role there at Experience Life?
Clayton – Sure, I’m the Executive Pastor and so I oversee our campuses and ministries and then one of those campuses is a campus which started on the college, Texas Tech University, on the college campus that we call Raider Church and so I actually speak at that each week, so I’m one of our teaching pastors too.
Rich – Nice, very good. My daughter’s high school are The Raiders, so I appreciate that, she’d probably love to go to Raider Church for sure, so that’s great.
Well even just that, that’s a great kind of entree into… first of all if you’re listening in and you’re not following Experience Life you need to, this is a great church, an innovative church doing all kinds of very interesting things and I’m hoping we’ll get to dig into some of it today, but as a casual observer, one of the things I’ve noticed is, you do seem to have, not only a focus but then also an ability to actually reach the next generation. I’d love to talk about that a little bit today. What are you learning on that front, as you kind of think about reaching out into this next generation?
Clayton – Sure, well one of the things that’s been really unique and it’s also brings its own set of challenges is that the average age at our church is 30 years old and that’s not counting most of our kids’ ministry.
Rich – Right.
Clayton – So that brings a unique set of circumstances. It’s fun, it does allow us to be innovative and things like that, but I’m sure as you can imagine, you know when you’re reaching that young of a crowd, it brings its own set of circumstances and challenges. So it’s not all roses, we’re reaching that kind of crowd.
We’re also reaching a group, where over 60% of them have said that they weren’t involved in a church before coming to Experience Life.
Rich – Wow.
Clayton – So it’s a very unchurched group, it’s a very young group, which again brings with it its own set of challenges.
Rich – Yes. I would imagine a lot of church leaders who are listening in today are saying, “Wow, like that would be great,” but that’s got some gold plated problems attached to it I would imagine.
Clayton – There’s no doubt. It’s very exciting, it’s fun to be around that kind of life change.
Rich – Yeah.
Clayton – But yeah, when it comes to raising up new leaders, having leaders that are ready, you know things like giving, small group leaders, all those kinds of things become a challenge, you know when you’ve reached that large of a percentage of unchurched people and that are also that young. We had, I think it was like 33% of our people have committed their life to Jesus at Experience Life.
Rich – Wow.
Clayton – So again that’s a lot of fun and it’s exciting to be around and it’s been a constant evaluation of, “Okay, what are we doing? What’s our mission and what do we need to do in order to reach those who are far from God, reach those who don’t have a relationship with Jesus?”
So whenever we’re faced with something, you know that we need to do or we feel like we need to change in order to reach that crowd, we begin to do that and I really think that starts with prayer. We have a base commitment to prayer at Experience Life. We have a prayer gathering here in the middle of the week, we have a staff prayer time every single week where our staff comes together to pray. So in a given week we’ll have hundreds of people coming together to pray because each campus has a prayer gathering where they come. So we pray and we really feel like that’s important because we want to hear from God about the people that he’s calling us to reach and what we need to do in order to go and reach those people.
Rich – That sounds amazing, pretty incredible. I think some people might be listening in saying, “Of course he’s going to say that, you’ve got to pray.” Why don’t you give us a sense of what happens at those prayer meetings, kind of dive in a little bit?
Clayton – Sure.
Rich – Then what is it that’s happening at those events?
Clayton – Sure, you know when we come together to pray I think a lot of people have an idea of a prayer gathering, especially if they’re younger, growing up and it’s boring and you know, it’s something they don’t really want to go to.
Rich – Right, right.
Clayton – But when we come together to pray it’s fun, it’s exciting, we worship. We have our campus pastors lead that time and we’re praying about things that we’re doing as a church. We pray about the messages and the series that we’re in and being obedient and the things that we’re hearing. We pray for people who are struggling, we have teams of people that are available during those services to pray with people who are struggling with any kind of life circumstance. Then because of the group that we’ve been able to reach, we’ll have people say, “Hey, are you struggling with this? Do you have this going on in your life?” and they’ll stand up and let people come and pray for them.
It could seem from the outside to be a very awkward thing, but I think you probably just have to trust for a church that’s reaching this kind of percentage of unchurched people. It’s not weird, it’s not awkward, it is exciting and we’ve really seen God just set the hearts of our people on fire for what he’s calling us to do, through prayer. That’s where the passion and commitment and vision comes from, to reach the unchurched, to reach those who are far from God, to be obedient to the mission that Jesus has given us. It comes from that prayer time.
Rich – Very cool. Now I imagine, earlier you talked about being willing to change and try some new things.
Clayton – Yeah.
Rich – What else have you had to do? That’s one of those things church leaders will say all the time, “Well we’ve got to be willing to try stuff. To reach people who no one else is reaching, we’ve got to be willing to do what no one else is doing.” What are some of those things that Experience Life has had to do, to change, to reach people in your community?
Clayton – Well when we first started our pastor, Pastor Chris Galanos really believed in a cell church. So we started out as a church of small groups, cell groups that were meeting and we were only going to worship together like once a month or so and those are still things that we do. We still do groups that follow more of a cell church model, but when we begin to meet together, it exploded. So you’re kind of faced with this decision, okay we had this model, we had this form that we thought we were really committed to and what we thought God was going to use to reach the lost in West Texas. It didn’t work that way.
Rich – Right.
Clayton – We had a choice, we could either keep doing what we were doing and go probably much slower, not reach the lost, because in West Texas people are still willing to come to an event, they’re still willing to come to a gathering. So when we met together it just exploded, hundreds were coming. The launch week of our church we had 3 hundred and something people come, the very first week and within a year we’re over a thousand. So we have this… do we keep meeting each week or do we stay committed to this form, this model that we thought God was leading us to do? Well we’ve always gone back to experiencing God, Henry Blackaby says, “You look for where God’s moving, you look for where he’s working and then you join him there.” So we see God moving and working in this weekend gathering that we really didn’t think would work.
Rich – Right.
Clayton- We really believe that, but it worked. We were seeing the lost coming, we were seeing people who didn’t go to church anywhere and who hadn’t been involved in church come. So we decided that Jesus didn’t call us to a model, he didn’t call us to a form, he didn’t call us to a way of doing things, he called us to make disciples, to reach the lost, to seek and to save the lost, just like his passionists and however that happens, we’re good with it.
Rich – Right.
Clayton – Whatever way that works, that’s the right way.
Rich – Right.
Clayton – It wasn’t our preconceived idea of what we thought was going to work, it’s whatever way was working to accomplish the mission. So that’s where we really say, “When it comes to anything, we’ve got to be more committed to the mission that Jesus gave us than to a model.”
Rich – Absolutely, so you’ve really obviously had to adapt to change over the time, big time. What else have you been doing, what are some of those other changes that you’ve, kind of, ended up having to foist on the ministry, to see you continue to reach people?
Clayton – One of the things as a church in Lubbock, Texas is we’ve got Texas Tech University right here in our backyard. It’s a college town. At Tech I think there’s something like 35 thousand students enrolled.
Rich – Wow.
Clayton – So we as a church, we had a lot of younger people obviously, we had a lot of college students but it was just like, we got almost an unreached people group in our backyard in Texas Tech and we began to realize how many students go to Tech and how many students were involved in a church somewhere.
Rich – Right, right.
Clayton – So even what we were doing, which was working well for the most part, we still realized we’re not reaching the number of college students that we’re comfortable reaching. So we decided that we were going to start something new. We began to evaluate, do we have environments, do we have places where these students could come and get plugged in and involved? We really began to realize, no if we want to reach this group, we’ve got to go to them, we can’t expect them to come to us, we’ve got to go to them. So we decided to plant, basically a church on Texas Tech’s campus.
Rich – Wow.
Clayton – It’s in a big auditorium, right there on campus, where students from all over that area could literally walk to church if they wanted to. So we started that, we actually started it at one of our campuses that is close to Texas Tech, just to launch it and see how it would work, see what would happen and we had 500 students come the first night.
Rich – Oh my goodness, wow.
Clayton – So it outgrew that building. That worship center seats like 400. We had people in our lobby and people sitting all over the place.
Rich – Oh my goodness.
Clayton – It was standing room only, it was crazy. So we immediately decided to move it to another campus. Well that campus was really, really far away. Where we moved it, it was far away from Texas Tech that is, so we moved it and we had like 700 students the next week.
Rich – Oh my goodness.
Clayton – So then we did that another week and then we moved it to the campus and we moved it to the auditorium and this past fall we had, our fall launch we had nearly a thousand students join us. So it was one of those things where we realized, hey, if we’re going to reach this group that we thought God was calling us to reach, we’ve got to go to them, we’ve got to do things differently, we’ve got to put a different, maybe a leader and leadership in place that will be more relevant to that group in order to reach that group.
Rich – So how does that differ from your other campuses? Kind of walk through that because I think you’re doing a bit different programing there. Give us a sense of what’s happening there.
Clayton – Our other campuses are all by video, whether that’s through satellite or if it’s on a backup file depending on how satellite is going that weekend. Our other campuses are on the same message, same series, things like that.
Raider Church meets on Tuesday nights at 9:00. So it has its own speaker, I speak there each week. So we do our own series and things like that there because, again we’re trying to be more relevant to that crowd. That’s another way in which we changed. When we were starting campuses we really thought, hey it’s going to be by video, we’re going to replicate a teaching team to all of our campuses, so that we can have campus pastors that are free to pastor people. But when we started this at Raider Church, we began to sense that’s not what we need to do here. So we again broke from the mold that we had been doing and again, to reach this group.
I think when it comes to anything we do and what we would challenge other people to do is, even in America we’ve got to live and think like missionaries.
Rich – That’s good.
Clayton – We’ve got to do whatever it takes to reach the people that God’s calling us to reach. We can’t be committed to a form or to a model, we’ve got to think like missionaries and do whatever it takes, change whatever it takes in order to reach that group.
Rich – Outside of the teaching at Raider Church, is the rest of the programming slightly different? Is it kind of geared specifically to those students? I’m assuming it is.
Clayton – Yes, you know the services are a little bit different, the worship’s a little bit different. A lot of the things stay very much the same, when it comes to groups, it’s the same group’s model. We don’t have a kids’ ministry there obviously, so that’s different. Probably in every other sense it looks like one of our other campuses, it’s just everything is geared, every series, the messages, all the applications, it’s all geared towards a college student.
Rich – Yeah and you obviously hit the ebb and flow of a college calendar, which is similar to a church calendar but different enough that even that, you have to be more sensitive to those, you know, when freshers arrive, that sort of stuff is a bigger deal for sure on campus.
Clayton – Yes it does have a different schedule that’s true.
Rich – Yeah definitely. Give us a sense too, from a leadership point of view, how are you leading at Experience Life? My sense is that, just even the way you’re leading is a bit different, in that God’s using that to help reach the next generation in your community.
Clayton – Sure yeah, you know we’re always looking for a new group, a new batch of leaders to come in because as we start new things, we need a fresh group of leaders. So we’re always looking at this next group of leaders that we’re going to need in order to start the next campus, start the next ministry, do whatever it takes. Is there another person that’s going to be more effective at reaching a certain group than we are?
So we started to think, probably a couple of years ago, called Protégé and that developed into something where we basically had a school of leadership, to raise up new leaders and that’s been one of the biggest ways we’ve had to change in our leadership development, just becoming intentional. We couldn’t let it happen to us, we wanted to hire from within as much as possible, but it wasn’t just happening on its own by accident, we really had to become more intentional about leadership development.
So Protégé runs about a year to a year and a half and we even hired a guy, that’s one of his main jobs is just to lead that and to be the Dean of Protégé and help us raise up future leaders.
Rich – Very cool. About how many students are in Protégé at a time?
Clayton – It will range from like 15 to 20 and there’s different phases to that. We have a phase one that’s kind of an intro to Experience Life. DNA. We read a book called Exponential that’s been really impactful to us and just kind of get a feel for who this group is. Then we’ll take some of those on to a phase two.
So phase one could have 20 people in it, phase two Protégé, which lasts about a year, could have anywhere from 10 to 12 probably in it.
Rich – Very cool. Good is there anything else you’d love to share with us before we jump on with the rest of our program?
Clayton – Man, I think when it all comes back to us, a lot of our passion and desire has come from prayer and I think we’ve seen the most impact in our church and in all of our campuses, even to things like attendance, we’ll see increase or people getting saved, things like that, as we pray more. So I think my challenge to any leader or church leader would be, what are all of the different ways we can gather people together to pray? Because we believe God will bless that rather than us kind of going out on our own and saying, “Hey we’ve got this,” and kind of doing that in our own strength and power.