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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  • I’ve been serving the local church through music for the past 20 years. I’ve lived through some of those wars to the extent of almost calling it quits. Then I remembered it was a calling and not a job. I remembered that it was my ultimate responsibility to lead vertically rather than horizontally. Respectfully, my responsibility is to please an audience of One. As I grew, my worship planning took on a different pattern of approach. I began, and still do to this day, follow a tabernacle pattern for worship as it pertains to perspective: Outer Court, Inner Court, and Holy of Holies.

    Outer Court songs are songs that are from the perspective of man to man about God. (“All hail the power of Jesus’ Name, let angels prostrate fall,” “My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness,” “How great is our God, sing with me, ‘How great is our God,” “This is my story, this is my song, praising my Savior all the day long,” “He became sin who knew no sin, that we might become His righteousness,” etc.)

    Inner Court songs, the pronouns begin to shift from “I”, “me” or “us” to “You” and “Yours.” (“Lord, I’m amazed by You,” “Wonderful, so wonderful, is Your unfailing love,” “My Jesus, I love Thee, I know Thou art mine,” “Your mercies are new every morning, Your grace is sufficient each day,” “Great is Thy faithfulness, great is Thy faithfulness,” etc.)

    Holy of Holies, the perspective is on God alone with little to no mention of self except for acknowledging Jesus and His glory and/ or to signify His worth by one’s individual self alone. (“This is my desire, to honor You; Lord, with all my heart I worship You,” “Holy Spirit, You are welcome here,” “Here I am to worship, here I am to bow down, here I am to say that Your my God,” “Your blood poured out, my sin erased, it was my death You died, Hallelujah, the Lamb of God!”)

    Of course, not all songs are written in its entirety with the same perspective throughout. Every song in my church’s song library is classified by OC, IC, HH. Sometimes there may be two (e.g. OC/IC or IC/HH). Typically, my song sets will follow that specific pattern meaning that they start in the OC and finish in the HH. Of course, there are other musical elements involved such as keys, tempos, where moving from one song to the other is concerned, etc., but the perspective is almost always in that specific order. And I will hardly ever move backward per say (IC to OC). Consider it this way: If you were having a conversation with 2 of your closet friends about someone special, and then that special someone walks up, would you acknowledge them to only go back an exclude them in your original conversation? I would hope not. The same is true of inviting Jesus into our worship services through song. Once we’ve sung about Him and we’ve introduced Him per say, shouldn’t our perspectives remain fixed directly upon [to] Him? Afterall, the veil torn top to bottom made it possible for us to do so, correct?

    I’m not saying this is the only right way. Rather, I’m saying this is the way I’ve been planning services for the last several years and it is more gratifying for me in the sense of completeness, as well as eliminating much of the stress the music guys in the church are faced with today. Furthermore, it specifically does two things for me: 1) It eliminates self from the equation in a sense because you ultimately and intentionally seek to focus [perspective] on glorifying Jesus and, 2) I know that when it’s all said and done, I’ve selected songs based on the tabernacle premise and not man’s preference.

    Incidentally, I can’t take credit for this way of planning. It was taught to me by a mentor and friend who is now physically living in the presense of Jesus.

  • As a long time Baptist and Protestant I have read the comments here with some sadness. Modern evangelical churches now spend far too much time on Music Worship as a “thing”. Surprisingly, I have started visiting a local Catholic Church (do not judge unless you have as well. An Alliance friend converted to being a Catholic a few years ago and invited me) and much prefer the focus and flow and reverance of the services. A short focussed homily one one basic thought/topic (rather than 30-50 minutes of “teaching” of which 95% will be forgotten in 24 hours) and a LOT of scripture reading (which can speak for themselves under the guidance of the Holy Spirit). If you enter into this format with the proper spirit, it is wonderful and I leave feeling nourished and challenged.

    I suspect, as my friend will say, that as we split from the Catholic church 500 years ago it took us out of a historical 1500 year stream where modes of gathering and approaches to worhship were honed and adjusted and determined by wise men to be proper.

    I have been on worship teams and lead them…and I would argue that in recent decades (since we dropped the hymn book) and made music worship such a focus we have created a monster that consumes far too much time and debate. I can cite too many sad examples of the “flavour of the month” from our Pastors and a continual cycle of “what must we do to keep this relevant”. It is tiresome and is not bringing people into the church (even if you only look at it from that pragmatic perspective).

    God forgive us and guide us.

  • It is heartening to see that Millennials are interested in rich content and authenticity over superficiality and entertainment. However, it is wishful thinking to believe that content and authenticity can be divorced from style, for style is what communicates the seriousness and richness of the text being sung.

    “Authentic” music can become “non-authentic” if its “style” strays very far from its message. Music without words communicates volumes, and, while its message is not nearly as specific as the words, it is not neutral either. Hollywood understands this.

    Baby Boomers promoted the idea that music is amoral, Generation X accepted it, and now Millennials do not even question it. This view is divorced from historic Christianity, and we need to stop living in our alternate universe that believes style is neutral/amoral and doesn’t matter.

    May God give us the grace to lovingly discuss not only the need for rich theological texts offered in authenticity and quality, but the need to do them in a style that is honoring to God and clearly communicates the holiness of our Lord Jesus Christ.

  • Great stuff, thanks. Any thoughts about when the best time for worship is for millennials? We’re thinking through our current worship schedule and exploring what time of day on Sunday or what other day of the week if not Sunday will be most effective in reaching 20-somethings. Any ideas would be appreciated!

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