What Worship Style Attracts the Millennials?

April 2, 2014

My son, Jess Rainer, and I recently spoke in Texas on the topic of the Millennials, America’s largest generation of nearly 79 million persons. Because we co-authored a book entitled The Millennials, we have had the opportunity to speak on the subject on many occasions.

We reminded this audience in Dallas of the birth dates of this generation, 1980 to 2000, and then proceeded to share our research. We had commissioned LifeWay Research to survey 1,200 of the older Millennials; the researchers did an outstanding job. We have thus been able to share incredible amounts of data and insights from these young adults.

The Question about Worship Style

As in most of our speaking settings, we allow a portion of our presentation to be a time of questions and answers. And inevitably someone will ask us about the worship style preferences of the Millennials.

Typically the context of the question emanates from a background of nearly three decades of “worship wars.” In other words, on what “side” are the Millennials? Traditional? Contemporary? Or somewhere on the nebulous spectrum of blended styles?

And though Jess and I did not originally ask those questions in our research, we have sufficient anecdotal evidence to respond. And our response is usually received with some surprise. The direct answer is “none of the above.”

The Three Things That Matter Most

You see, most Millennials don’t think in the old worship war paradigm. In that regard, “style” of worship is not their primary focus. Instead they seek worship services and music that have three major elements.

  1. They desire the music to have rich content. They desire to sing those songs that reflect deep biblical and theological truths. It is no accident that the hymnody of Keith and Kristyn Getty has taken the Millennials by storm. Their music reflects those deep and rich theological truths.
  2. The Millennials desire authenticity in a worship service. They can sense when congregants and worship leaders are going through the motions. And they will reject such perfunctory attitudes altogether.
  3. This large generation does want a quality worship service. But that quality is a reflection of the authenticity noted above, and adequate preparation of the worship leaders both spiritually and in time of preparation. In that sense, quality worship services are possible for churches of all sizes.

The Churches They Are Attending

Millennial Christians, and a good number of seekers among their generation, are gravitating to churches where the teaching and preaching is given a high priority. They are attracted to churches whose focus is not only on the members, but on the community and the world. Inwardly focused congregations will not see many Millennials in their churches.

And you will hear Millennials speak less and less about worship style. Their focus is on theologically rich music, authenticity, and quality that reflects adequate preparation in time and prayer.

But they will walk away from congregations that are still fighting about style of music, hymnals or screen projections, or choirs or praise teams. Those are not essential issues to Millennials, and they don’t desire to waste their time hearing Christians fight about such matters.

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250 Comments

  • Dave Westlake says on

    In all of the talk about worship styles with an emphasis on the preaching and teaching, is there any discussion about the issue of time of service and order of worship? I ask because in many churches I have served and observed it does seem as if the order of worship is chiseled in stone, and as the one hour mark for the entire service approached people begin to look at watches. I have even heard of people taking notes on what time the pastor begins the sermon, what time the pastor ends it, and then remembering what time the clock said when the benediction was given. This occurs even when Communion is being offered and received. Thanks in advance.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      I am not aware of the specific discussion. It might be a topic for my research and future posts. Thanks.

  • Mark Lindsay says on

    From my research, millennials are indeed looking for richness, authenticity, and quality. The good news is these can be found in any type of church. Furthermore, absent these attractional values in their church, millennials appear to be flocking to “attractional churches” that openly model them.

    However, from my research I believe that this is a second choice for most millennials. The real solution for the typical church trying to retain millennials is not to try to offer something attractive to them. The real solution is to understand what they value in life and to intentionally invite them into the leadership “conversation” of the church. Any changes that need to take place in view of millennial values can then happen organically as a simple function of their valued presence. The church that understands their drive for success, their commitment to diversity, their desire to be trusted, and their openness to change rules to fit the need, and that acts upon that understanding, will be set up nicely to retain this generation as a foundation for a sustainable future.

  • Mark Dance says on

    Our church is relocating next door to a college campus on Easter, and I was hoping that I could connect with Millennials by simply untucking my shirt when I preach. You have blown away my strategy with your blog Dr Rainer!

    On a serious note, I do fear missing this and any opportunity to reach Millennials. All pastors should take comfort in knowing that any church can deliver on good THEOLOGY (music/preaching) and AUTHENTICITY. Although QUALITY may not seem as important by comparison, I agree with the Rainers that it is very important to Millennials as well as their Boomer parents. If we don’t prioritize quality in our worship planning and budgets, the Millennials won’t prioritize coming to our churches.

  • Thanks for reminding us of their focus on the biblical, theological and historical worship content instead of the musical style. It is pretty refreshing and the rest of us could learn from this generation. If music is the primary driver it will continue to get most of the blame. Beginning with the biblical and theological content, however, allows that music to spring forth from a solid foundation.

  • I’m a Millennial that works for a medium sized church and faithfully attends and serves a small church in a nearby rural area.

    Both churches say the same thing. They want to attract “young people”. They want to “embrace new ways of communicating and connecting with people.” Yet there is still a hesitation to do so. When it’s time to make a decision about doing something new, both churches want to just barely dip their toe in the water with the new idea. Without a genuine commitment and support of an idea, it has no chance of succeeding.

    I understand that uncharted territories are scary. But you can’t let fear of failure or fear of the unknown paralyze you. Put prayerful thought into the decisions you make, but then make them with conviction. If you succeed that’s great. If you fail, you now have more knowledge and experience to help you make your next decision.

    I guess what I’m saying is just do something. Trust that God will lead you where you need to be.

  • Michael Banak says on

    The worship music should be as theologically / doctrinally sound, rich and true to the Word as the sermon. You shouldn’t be singing the same songs week after week just as you shouldn’t be teaching the same bible verse week after week. The style of music should not matter as long as the Words hold true to the Word, are Theologically deep and honor God. The words of the songs shouldn’t be shallow and solely emotional and repetitive.
    The reason the classic hymns are called “Great Hymns of the Faith” is because they were faithful to the Word and spoke to our minds and hearts and were not written to whip us up into an emotional frenzy, they were written to glorify God (not us) and not fit this current manipulative style. I would question some of the Millennials as to what they consider Theologically Rich music, because some of the quote “Worship” music that is being PERFORMED at their churches is not Theologically Rich, but Theologically void. Just because you sing Jesus I love you and my life is meaningless without you and I can overcome the world fifteen times, that is not Worship music and that is what you see at these large, mostly Millennial attended, Churches.

    • Michael,

      There are plenty of “hymns” devoid of theology as well as new songs. My argument is always about where you are looking.

      I might also remind you that a lot of modern songs are taken directly from scripture. Many of which come from the Psalms.

      Col. 3:16 Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly teaching and admonishing one another in PSALMS, HYMNS, and SPIRITUAL SONGS, with THANKFULNESS in your hearts to God.

      God calls us to a variety of expressions in worship. I find most churches don’t teach Biblical principles about worship and most Christians don’t have proper theological formations on the issue.

      Oh and about repeating things over and over: Psalm 136 has 26 verses each of which ends with the phrase “for His steadfast love endures forever.” Seems like repitition can be glorifying to God. Unless you know something David didn’t.

      Apparently you skipped the last paragraph of the article:

      “But they will walk away from congregations that are still fighting about style of music, hymnals or screen projections, or choirs or praise teams. Those are not essential issues to Millennials, and they don’t desire to waste their time hearing Christians fight about such matters.”

      We have more important things to focus on, so I’m going to be off now and try to invite some people to Easter services.

      • Mike Banak says on

        Chad,
        You missed my points completely.

        Most of the quote “old” hymns are full of Theology, most of Modern Hymns are not, with the exception of the Gettys’ music.

        Where I am looking is some of these mega churches where there are a lot of Millenials in attendance

        Thanks for quoting Col 3:16, but a lot of these modern songs don’t fir in that category, just because you pull out a few lines from a verse and plop it in a song doesn’t make it spiritual.

        God indeed loves various types of worship, TRUE worship, and I agree most Churches don’t teach enough Theology or at all, let alone demand it from their worship music.

        Really, comparing Psalms 136 to some of the repetitious worship music today? Next you’ll say that the repetitive prayers of the Pharisees that were condemned should be glorifying then….Apples and Oranges there…

        And I did read the last paragraph, but again you miss the point, if they are having their ears itched by that type of music and the preaching that usually goes with it, why would they leave, answer they don’t because they are in agreement…

        Proper, God pleasing, God centered Worship Music is of vital importance, like I said before, it’s just as important that you come before the Lord with Worship music that is pleasing to him, honors him, exalts HIM! It is important to defend this just as it is to defend false teaching and if you don’t agree maybe you would accept my invitation to come to our church this Easter…

      • “Proper, God pleasing, God centered Worship Music is of vital importance, like I said before, it’s just as important that you come before the Lord with Worship music that is pleasing to him, honors him, exalts HIM! It is important to defend this just as it is to defend false teaching and if you don’t agree maybe you would accept my invitation to come to our church this Easter…”

        Don’t you realize that to God the most important thing is where our hearts are at? Acts 5, Ananias and Sapphira. Many other people brought a variety of things to the apostles but the these two conspired to keep some of their resources for themselves. God doesn’t strike them down because of what they bring but because they of their deceptive hearts and their lie. Worship is no different. Worship is a heart language. God looks at our hearts and whether he is glorified has to do with that, not whether the music was just right or not.

        And you are still over generalizing old and new music way too much. There are a myriad of new songs that are theological deep and sound (that aren’t Getty songs): “Man of Sorrows” – Brook Ligertwood; “This is Amazing Grace” – Jeremy Riddle; “Revelation Song” -Jenny Lee Riddle; “How Deep the Father’s Love for Us” – Stuart Townend; “Happy Day” – Tim Hughes; “Overcome” – Jon Egan; “Stronger” – Ben Fielding; “Worthy is the Lamb” – Darlene Zschech; I could go on and on.

        Just out of curiosity what are the “old” songs you are talking about?

      • Brett Chappell says on

        Gentlemen,

        This is exactly the type of exchange that turns millennials off.

      • Mike Banak says on

        Brett-

        If millenials are being turned off by my attempt to defend True Worship, not styles of worship, would they also be turned off by me calling out false teaching in the pulpit? They are linked, and if you are representing all Millenials here, I would just say that The Church should never conform and gear it’s music and teaching to attract any particular group of people. Preach the Word faithfully, sing True Worship songs and God will add to the Church.

        Again, if Millenials would be turned off by this, which I don’t think all do as you say, they don’t understand the importance of defending these issues and how important they are.

        Would you not agree that faithful preaching of The Word and God honoring worship music should be defended and we shouldn’t just let it go to make some people happy?

      • Mike,

        You are correct to say that the church shouldn’t conform; however, what turns off millenials is comparing “newer” praise music to false prophesy. This is a leap, and a jab at folks seeking to worship God.

        1. Psalms are full of repetition of praise, and even the angels are seen in Heaven repeating “Holy.”
        2. There are sheep stealing churches that do get it wrong, but the blog author and the commentators here have expressed this qualification, tacitly.
        3. I attend a church that uses an Organ (only) and has an expressed litergy. Re: Psalm signing, “old” hymns, and sound preaching so I’m not exactly a “homer” for the modern church.

        The problems that I see lie more in topical preaching. To me, it seems as though millenials as a whole don’t value exposition. “Lets talk about a topic!” or “lets have a small group discussion based on our feelings!” It is the same problem that we have in emphasizing the Love of God to the exclusion of justice, goodness, wrath, etc…

        1984 model here….

      • Mike Banak says on

        Derek-

        On your first statement, My apologies on not being more specific, I wasn’t implying that all newer music lack Theology, I am referring to the emotionally driven, empty your mind, repetitive kinds that are clearly written to whip up your emotions instead of lift the name of Christ. Like I said, I love the Gettys music, they clearly put thought into their words and are more concerned with the words being right then how the music makes you FEEL.

        So I’m not stating that contempoary music in the church means you’ll have false teachers, I’m saying that usually when you have the contempoary music I described above, you’ll have a Pastor who also lacks the ability to preach sound Theology, and you end up getting, as you say, nothing but Topical messages.

        Thanks for your reply, my only desire is that the Truth is being preached and we offer up to God honoring worship music he deserves, we should be as discerning as to what is being preached as to what is being sung.

        God Bless

      • You should check out http://www.grainworshipmusic.com. They just started up a year ago, but released an album that has a variety of styles, including a modern hymn titled, “Holy God, Who Lives in Heaven’s Light” based out of 1 John. We sing that one in our church from time to time.

      • This exchange was my favorite part of this page. …As a millennial that is.

      • Your arrogance and lack of gentleness in tone discredit you…..

      • Michael Banak says on

        PDAC –

        1) Holy God, who lives in heaven’s light,
        You rule in righteousness, through all Your glory shines.
        Search our hearts, uncover every sin,
        Unveil the wicked ways that dwell within.
        For we are dust, and like the flowers fade,
        But You are first and last, and never failing.
        Holy God, who dwells in heaven’s light,
        We bow in brokenness before Your throne.

        Beautiful, It teaches who God is, who we are and points back to God…It probably sounds amazing sung in a congregation…

        Thanks for sharing that!

    • Leo Makarov says on

      Michael, I’m with you 100% !!!!

      I guess I missed NOT being a millenial by 6 months. (June 1980).
      I sure hope more and more churches consider using more “traditional” hymns in their services.
      A 4 verse hymn often has the same amount, if not more, theology crammed into it than a weak sermon.

      The term “rich content” is a rather broad, unspecific term.

  • Trevor Huber says on

    As a Millenial myself, born in 1987, I agree with the type of churches myself and my friends enjoy attending. I know my wife and I choose a church which focuses on reaching the lost world around us as well as a church which talks about important life issues that we did not get in our more traditional churches growing up. These topics include sex and tithing which are talked about frequently in the bible but seemed taboo in our traditional churches growing up. As for as the, “Rich Content,” of the music I am not sure what that means. At my church we will use “Secular” music as well as contemporary christian music to prepare us for the sermon. I have never heard of Keith & Kristyn Getty. The Christian music I listen to is Fellowship Creative, Hillsong, For King and Country, Brandon Heath, Casting Crowns.

  • Joseph Young says on

    I am Millennial reaching Millennials and I agree with all three things that matters most. The Millennials I work with are truly seeking genuine community in seeking God’s truth. It doesn’t matter to me if it is traditional, contemporary, or in our traditional language, Hmong. I believe, we want to see the body of Christ worship our Lord in truth and in spirit, not just going through the motions. One thing I would like to add is more time for prayer and not just quick 2-3 minute prayers. Thanks for an awesome post.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Good word Joseph.

    • I suggest you get the litany out one Sunday and chant it at the beginning of the service.

    • Yes, agreed. Also, more time for public reading of scripture. I think millennials are more cynical than previous generations, and generally suspicious of anything that comes across as showmanship. When churches are afraid of interrupting the ‘flow’ of worship by reading scripture, the worship is probably not flowing in the right direction!

      Of course, all of these criticisms apply mostly to evangelical churches.

    • Yes, what happened to the people of God praying together? Why is prayer offered as a separate meeting, if it is offered at all? Why is prayer an after-thought–an oh, by the way, “bless the offering” “or us, please.”

      As I look back on the past 35+ years, music has become a church issue because it has become “the main event” on Sunday morning. No wonder millennials want authentic. So do previous generations who are tired of singing for 45 minutes as though singing is the means to connect with God. Hearing the Word of God and communing with God in prayer are the natural precursors to “worship” whether that is music, giving, service to others, or most essentially obedience. We are ALL in big trouble when we equate “worship style” with music style. Talk about reducing worship to the non-essential.

      A childhood pastor used to say when Satan wants to destroy the church, he gets into the choir. Now he just has to have the church focus on music, period.

  • Scott Foster says on

    Thom,

    I wondered with your findings pointing towards authenticity, rawness and an awareness of what is happening outside the walls of churches if you saw trends in millennials when it came to preaching?

    I agree with everything shared but am suprised many in this generation lean towards more prophetic, directive, expository teaching, not the topical seeker focused teaching. Being genuine is a huge value!

    • Thom Rainer says on

      I haven’t done the research on the preaching issue Scott.

      • While it may not be the only, shouldn’t the preaching and teaching of the Bible be the primary focus for when the body of Christ meets?

      • Andrew Mckinney says on

        I agree Craig. However, our christian culture has been far more vocal about worship music prefrences. Also our worship music is an easy target to identify as the reason for lack of growth or being divisive.

      • Dwight Osborne says on

        yes, Craig, it should be about the teaching. The Bible itself says, “Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of God. The person who made the comment that “I agree with everything shared but am suprised many in this generation lean towards more prophetic, directive, expository teaching, not the topical seeker focused teaching. ” There are several reasons why prophecy makes up 1/3 of the Bible, particularly in these last hours of the last days. The message of the church to the world should be the gospel, but as Billy Graham said, the message of the church to the church, should be the rapture, which is most definitely a prophecy issue and is the number reason why the church should be sharing the gospel with the world.

    • Holysoup.com has many blogs on the teaching issue. In a nutshell, millennials (and others) want to be part of a conversation…to be heard…not just talked at.

      • Geneva Nichols says on

        I totally agree with the being talked at, also don’t want a history lesson, bring that lesson down to what we face today.

  • Thanks for all you do to keep these things fresh in front of us! I actually dealt with this issue in my previous pastorate. It was an “us against them” attitude. There are now no millenials attending…sadly.

    God bless!

    • Thom Rainer says on

      That is sad indeed Mike.

      • john burns says on

        I am new to North America , fresh arrival and with a PR Card for BC . I attend a wonderful Baptist Church as a member – Sadly the Music has become an unresolved issue with deep roots now of 10 years + . We have a wonderful young Music/worship pastor but still the older generation is I’m afraid been swept aside . As and Irish Man I have come to love and appreciate the Gettys contribution to the hymns / songs if you will. Their Words full of a depth of truth and doctrine , melodic , and very worshipful and very memorable and I believe they will be the Classics of tomorrow – But I I really wish as a 60+ singer /soloist that the Getty s would seek out British Columbians and come and hold times of Concert/Worship services in the Churches here . I pray that God would move them to coming . I am a nobody but would be a willing helper to bring this to happen to bring Glory to God and leave a legacy of true and meaningful worship from the people .

      • As a millennial involved in worship ministry, this is just so sad for me to hear. I have tried so hard to reintroduce hymns and more diverse styles so more people feel included. And the church won’t let me. When I suggested the recruitment of a musician in her sixties, I was told that the church wants a ‘young, energetic’ image up front. What nonsense. I am young (if not particularly energetic), and I feel excluded by all this focus on youth. As Simon and Garfunkel put it, God is old. The Bible is old. What happened to respecting the wisdom of those who have more experience than we do?

      • Marie, your words are music to some of us. Your words are more refreshing and true than the original article. This gives me hope that there are still a few young adults that follow Christ with a pure heart, good conscience in sincere faith. Thank you for sharing.

    • I know the feeling of having management/leadership against you. I am not surprised that you lost a lot of younger people. Tragically, the younger generations aren’t wanted in many organizations. I am sure many of your congregation are proud of their accomplishment.

      • IYKE ABBE says on

        All we need is a balance and a little compromise by the older generation for the younger generation. The older already knows Him to and extent but we must cut some slacks for them just as we give in to our own willful kids sometimes we need to accommodate their excesses most times. We need them in all churches for the work sake Prov 20:29

  • Quality – what a wonderful concept. Having a broad spectrum of ages in our congregation we do face some challenges with music style, thankfully that is the only generational challenge we face. Our millennials have told me (because I asked); we are here to glorify God, the solid teaching and the music last. I am thankful that the younger crowd is flexible with music style and much more focused on solid teaching. Thanks for another great post.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Thanks Todd.

      • Glenn Zacek says on

        Oh do I know the “us against them” crowd. As I enter each ministry I hold one particular motto and that is you have to be a lot to a lot of people. I like a blended type of service. Something for everyone.

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