What Worship Style Attracts the Millennials?

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.

Posted on April 2, 2014

With nearly 40 years of ministry experience, Thom Rainer has spent a lifetime committed to the growth and health of local churches across North America.
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  • Stephen says on

    My wife and I have been leading contemporary worship in the Methodist denomination for over 14 years now and I have to say that my heart is deeply troubled that so many congregations still put so much emphasis on preferred musical styles (including our church). These worship wars do nothing but hinder our ability to be the church God intended us to be. Granted…..and I mean this sincerely……both sides have incredibly valid points (especially theological depth versus next generations and such). But, at the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter what WE prefer. What matters most is our obedience to God and our response to WHO God is and WHAT He’s done for us! It’s our job, as worship leaders, to usher people into the presence of God through the Holy Spirit in order to further the Kingdom of God! If we have to change the way we do things in order for God to be glorified…..so be it! The fact is: we GET to use music as a tool to evoke emotional responses and tug heart strings that help connect people with the Holy Spirit. Therefore, we have to get to the point where we focus more on being led by the Holy Spirit so that we can lead others instead of focusing so much on the preferred style of music. If Millennial’s don’t really have a style preference, but instead would rather have rich content, authenticity and quality, like Dr. Rainer says, then we should be praising God for the opportunity to worship Him in Spirit and Truth, the way Jesus told us to! So, I say, let’s stop the bickering and get on our faces before the Lord!

    Thank you for such a great article, Dr. Rainer! – Blessings!

  • The sole focus of worship should be on God. Period. Not “entertainment”, not catering to special age groups or special interest groups. Your focus should be on the teachings of Christ, which have never changed for over 2000 years. Your time her on earth is to prepare for heaven in the most holy reverence. Going to church shouldn’t be a social club, coffee house, concert, etc. It should only be about reminding yourself of the enormous sacrifice Jesus made for everyone, even those who don’t believe. The Holy Spirit is your comforter, here to comfort us while we wait for Jesus to return. We should be more focused on our salvation. Not being entertained or worrying about losing “millennials” because the music wasn’t hip or modern. The Catholic Church is the only place I’ve found this after 45 years of Methodist, Baptist, Pentecostal, non-denominational evangelical, etc. churches. The Catholic church is accused of a lot of things (boring, dead, etc) when in fact, it’s one of the few that has remained the same. Eventually, people ego are truly seeking salvation find themselves on their knees, in a church being taught by a man who has dedicated his entire life, for real, to God. They finally come home.

  • Despite the popular use of the term, the continued use of “worship” to refer to “congregational singing” is problematic for a variety of reasons.

    My purpose in writing however, is to question the notion/definition of “rich content.” A book entitled” The Message in the Music” examined and challenged that very concept, conducting a survey of the most used songs on CCLI from 1999-2005. A theology colleague of mine and I continued that work using CCLI songs from 2006-2012. With some obvious limitations to the study, both they and we concluded that the most popular songs from CCLI could mostly be summed up in the phrase: “I/We praise you, Jesus.” There was some vague use of traditional Trinitarian language, placed mostly in Christological context, and some passing references to various aspects of Atonement. And that was about it.

  • When Jesus first began his ministry on what we call today “The Sermon on the Mount,” he said in Matthew 7:21, not everyone who saith unto me Lord, Lord, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only those who do the will of the Father who is in heaven. This is the key principle which was taught to me by Christian parents, pulpit ministers, Sunday school classes, etc. It doesn’t matter what we want, or the Millennials want, its what the Father in heaven wants. This was learned in the very beginning with the story of Cain and Able. Able’s sacrifice (worship) was what god wanted, Cain’s was not. We either have commands or examples of early Christians worship written in the inspired word of God. James 1:22 Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. NIV Had my generation taught this message from God’s word the way it was taught to me, the Millennials wouldn’t be looking for something suited to them, but what is suited for God.

  • This is what we are experiencing at our church: top quality, authentic music that is delivered with great passion, but no longer connects well with the people in our area. So, our members are becoming older and older, while the community in which we sit seeks out churches with contemporary worship music. Yes, the millennials are there, too, not at our church.

    So, while I understand the point of this blog, the reality is some music genres just don’t usher people into worship as in the past. That’s fine! It is, after all, about bringing people into the presence of God so they can worship Him, not about the maintaining a genre. Only God and His word last forever. I’m hoping that the best of hymns and choir music will remain, and I think they will, but standing on principle and missing out on bringing in people is not a worthwhile goal.

    Perhaps some here have experienced worship services that are contemporary and too shallow, and that’s the point of view they are coming from. Our services are the opposite; extremely deep and rich theologically, but not all that wonderful to sing and be a part of! The choir gets all the fun singing gorgeous pieces, while we observe and appreciate, but not participate.

    I appreciate what the Gettys are doing; hymns for new generations.

    • My quarrel is not with contemporary worship as such, but with the inconsistent attitudes I’ve seen among too many proponents of contemporary worship. They insist God can be worshiped with more than one style of music – which is true enough – but they invariably want to do nothing but contemporary worship. If the church doesn’t do the style of worship they like, they go to another church. They tell us worship isn’t about us, which is also true, so why do they insist on doing it their way and no other? It’s not about them, either. I’ve also seen too many of them try to force contemporary worship into congregations where it doesn’t really fit. When it doesn’t work out the way they like, they blame the congregation. I would find it much easier to accept their form of worship if they would simply practice some of what they preach.

  • Anthony Keve says on

    EVERYONE who are believers look for what the “Ms” want.

    Jeff H. & John M. Harris said what my 57 year old brain was thinking. A former catholic exposed to orthodox and several Protestant denominations that’s a practicing Pentecostal these days in a growing modern, large church

    I think Robert Wright’s testimony about “saying nothing” spoke volumes.

    Some hinted at preference; others like me, continue to stir the “worship war” pot.

    William Blackburn you hint (LOUDLY) at legalism.

    Victoria Boron: “They asked questions that theologically, the protestant church COULD NOT and CANNOT answer.” Whoever “they” were or are: Bring it on!

    Also you & Leah sell your late model cars. Victoria get a horse & buggy; Leah a Model T.

    John Gardner. “…perfectly willing to sing “older” songs…”
    Begs the question: do they have a choice? 15 years ago in rural Georgia, I, along w/the rest of the county didn’t have a choice.
    “…they appreciate the authenticity and passion of the older generations.” Suggests the younger generation can’t be authentic & passionate.

    Finally on music I’ve heard & read many assert “the new stuff doesn’t have what I grew up on.” A polite way to say “It’s different, it wrong.”

    I repeat what steve asked:
    Can someone please explain “Theologically deep” please? Thanks!

    I must be shallow because I love to sing & play the “new stuff”; stupid because I rely on Bible translations (e.g. NLT & NASB) I can grasp quickly. Further, people I look up to have asked me for my insight on things.

    I see you traditional/KJV-only fans winding up already. Don’t bother – I haven’t heard one fact-based argument yet – just opinions.

  • As a millenial myself, I look for a church with members who are not millenials.

  • I appreciate this post as it has helped me to define that, it’s not the lack of contemporary music that really frustrates me in our church worship service, but the lack of authenticity in the “worshippers” and in the song leader. The lack of preparation can be very apparent at times. My husband has been frustrated by the lack of professionalism in the music, as he spends many hours in study, preparing and internalizing sermons that communicate the truth of God’s Word. So, we’re getting part of it right, and a few people stick around because of that; but without the whole package, young people just aren’t going to choose this church. What’s sad is, these members don’t truly care enough to lay aside their own comforts to reach out to a dying world. And because of that, this church will die. They don’t even see it; but it’s as plain as day to me and my generation (and I’m not even young enough to be considered a “millennial”).

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