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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  • For decades our family attended a church with a content-rich, contemporary style of worship. One of the wise ways one of the pastors led us was having a multi-month series called “It’s not about the style” During that series the worship music used each Sunday was a distinct style, everything from traditional sacred, country, accoustic, rap, rock, etc. Basically it guarenteed that most everyone would have at least one Sunday service where they were worshipping in a style they didn’t like (something to offend everyone). Years later, when our family joined a very traditional style church with pipe-organ and hymnals, that series served me extremely well. I can’t count the number of times when a hymn would start up and everything inside me would wince because I didn’t care for the style. The phrase, “It’s not about the style” would echo in my mind and I would adjust my heart to worship God outside my realm of comfort.

  • Mike Tourangeau says on

    Great article! I grew up in an independent Baptist world with mainly revivalistic songs from the 50’s. The first time I heard the Gettys or Sovereign Grace music, something clicked, I could never sing mindless dittys again!

    To be fair there are some bad newer songs, but listen closely to Across the Lands. There is a feast there!

  • In the big cities, I think the younger professionals appreciate the really old, liturgical services with a homily focused on Jesus taken from the gospel of the day. These churches still play the organ and have a cantor with the congregation singing the responses. Thus, congregational participation occurs. During advent the evidence that Jesus was the messiah as foretold by the prophets made a lot of sense. They also don’t want the difficult, ugly topics left out of the homily. They want to sense that the minister or priest understands the modern world and everyday life, and that the clergy, regardless of gender, are learned and act professionally, not folksy.

  • I think our churches are suffering from a lack of authenticity in many respects. Our worship seems to be the most prominent place though. When you have people attempting to act like something they’re not in order to attract a certain demographic it comes across fake and this generation can instantly see that. Being who Christ has called you to be and not trying to act an age or style that you truly aren’t is a large key in this situation. I think the churches who truly reach people in our day will be intergenerational in their approach where the generations are fully integrated and not separated by things like musical and preaching styles.

    • Mark Dance says on

      Good input Ken. I agree with you 100%. Our 92 year old church is a very intergenerational church family. Each generation longs to be connected with the other generations, as opposed to being faced off in a worship skirmish.

  • Thom,

    Thanks for this. It served as a great touchpoint for me as I sent a vision document to our church’s leaders this morning about how we can help make our Sunday experience as a congregation into a robust component of our discipleship culture.


  • Here’s the thing: if your church is asking “what worship style is [demographic] interested in?”
    -You are still not getting it-
    Worship is not about YOU it is about God. You will never “appeal to [demographic]” as long as what you are seeking to do is be a man-pleaser. The only true “authentic” worship is the one which says “What will honor God and please Him?” and let the world think what they will.

    Stop asking what will please fallen sinful men, seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness.

    • Kat, I think you truly get to the CORE of the issue here. What will honor God, regardless of how I, or anyone else for that matter feels? What does God require of me?

  • As a borderline GenX/Millennial I have wondered (humbly) if this divorce in tastes in worship and music reflect a maturity on the part of this younger group or an immaturity on the part of the older groups. I don’t say this as a slight toward anyone…but I have been thinking a lot about what drives the older generation’s views on traditional church services and worship. It feels disrespectful to blame it on issues of maturity, but it a really easy point to run toward. It seems like if I could understand the underlying issues regarding the preferences of both (any) groups that it would make resolution easier to achieve. Any thoughts?

    Thanks for your posts. They are always appreciated. 🙂

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Isaac –

      I don’t think it is inherently generational. I see it more as a reflection of the way we have “done church” for three or more decades. Much of the focus has been on “what can the church do for me?” rather than “how can I serve God and others through the church?” As a consequence, we have created a consumer-driven church that demands we meet the comfort and preferences of church members. Certainly we should care for the genuine needs of church members, but many members today demand that the church be about their preferences as well.

      I wrote a little book about reversing this trend. It is called “I Am a Church Member.” I’m not plugging the book; rather I’m giving you a source that reflects another perspective.

      Thanks to you as well.

      • I’ve read part way through “I Am a Church Member” and enjoyed it so far. I went ahead and downloaded the app a while back, too. 🙂

        Good point. There are plenty of people across all the demographics of churches I’m familiar with who have trouble separating doctrine from preference and needs from neediness. It’s easier to pick those people out when I have a “us/them” mentality.

        Thanks for your response!

    • I think you are pointing the right direction and I agree with Thom that a lot of it is the philosophy of church membership. We have bred consumerism in the church (and by we I mean those who had major influence in and around the 1950s.) Ed Stetzer always says if the 1950’s come back most churches in America would be ready. I think that, unfortunately most of this issue is not a theological argument. Its a preference argument by a generation that is largely concerned with what the church should do for them, and one that is focused on “the good old days.”

      I also don’t mean any disrespect to those older than myself, but I think that Millenials have arrived at what the church is really supposed to be and I think its because we have an unromanticized view of the church. Alot of millenials didn’t grow up in the church. So those coming into the church don’t have any idea other than what the Bible says church should be. We’re largely not looking for what the church can do for us but what it can do in our communities and the world around us.

      If we are all selfless I think most of the things Millenials are looking for will naturally be found in most churches.

  • Thank you for this. I believe it’s time to stop the wars and begin working on quality, authentic (and a word you did not use) relevant worship.

  • Matt Jones says on

    As a millennial I love this post. I go to a church of blended worship styles (probably mostly contemporary, but by no means cutting edge). So many of the songs we sing, if I heard them on the radio I would flip the channel. But in church with the chorus of believers, they feel authentic. It is true that rich content, quality, and authenticity are what we long for, but the reason that I find older generations don’t often see that in us is that they have different definitions of what those things are. For the millennial, those three terms are deeply practical. We can’t feel like we have achieved them until we have put them in our lives and souls. Rich content doesn’t mean, good information as much as good applicable preaching. We are not afraid of thinking but we thrive on putting our thoughts to work. Quality also is practical, we will give you a pass on imperfections if you are actually trying. And authenticity is so important because without it, we can’t enjoy the application of worship. We are flat out disturbed at the thought of forgetting church as soon as we walk out the door. As much as we are aware of it compartmentalization is not something we can stomach. We are purist, which is why so many sermons and books these days (marketed to millennials) are titled with “radical” and the like. We are OK with sold-out and often feel out of place in churches because of that very fact. Worship wars disgust us because they define Christians who can’t give up a preference or style, and then we wonder how they could ever achieve “sold-out.” Us young folks need guidance, but not to be held back. Balancing wise guidance with openness to new ideas is what will set millennials free in our churches to be all that they can be through Christ. I have seen it work, and through Christ it is possible.

    • Mark Dance says on

      Thank you Matt for your fresh perspective as a Millennial. It is good for us non-Millennials to hear how worship wars affect you. I think every generation has had their fill of it. I would assume that these selfish skirmishes “disgust” the Object of our worship as well.

      • BINGO! How can God be honored by people who put their preferences and themselves ahead of everyone else? It is a heart issue not a music issue.

  • In other words the more we go around the more we come back to the same. God’s Word attracts people. It has always been that way, so far as I can tell, and I think it always will. So it isn’t style but His Word. So preach on good preachers with more of His authentic, rich and quality Words. I’m not a Millennial but the “Millennials” I see are all people just like me. They walk, they talk, they eat, and they all need a relationship with their Creator just like me.

  • Thom,

    Great post. What was the sample group used to gather these findings? Are you finding that these preferences have little to do with race and cultural preferences? In other words, would these findings hold if you asked a group of 100 urban, African American Millennials?

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Geno –

      The original sample group was 1,200 older Millennials (born 1980 to 1991). The sampling came close to mirroring the demographics of the United States. For example, anglos were represented by 61% of the total, African-Americans at 14%, Hispanics at 19%, and Asian-Americans at 5%. Females comprised 49% of the sample; and males, of course, the remaining 51%. Birth year representation was in line with actual numbers of births. Matters such as education, income, and geographic distribution reflect similar distribution of the entire generation.

      In terms of accuracy, at a 95% confidence level and a 50% distribution, the potential sample error is +/- 2.8 percentage points. The potential margin error for subgroups would be higher, though we saw no significant disparity in the responses of the subgroups to the entire sample as whole.

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