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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  • Heather says on

    Although I do agree that most people hate inward & self-centered churches, because they want inclusion, I feel that they lean towards more secular churches. I do not, however, agree AT ALL about our generation not caring for the music or hymnals. I, personally,will NEVER go to a church that doesn’t sing hymnals or have a choir. And if they jump around in the Holy spirit, even better! I feel most connected to God via music. There’s not much more a preacher can say that I can’t read from the Bible! If a sermon is over an hour long, I won’t stay! I remember missing Sunday school when I became “too old” & had to go to sermon. It’s boring. So no, I disagree with a lot of this, & I believe the next generation will be different.

  • “… theologically rich music, authenticity, and quality …”

    I recently picked up LifeWay’s most recent revision of the Baptist Hymnal while attending a meeting at a neighboring church. I was surprised to see that certain hymns referring to Christ’s death as an atonement for everyone and not just the elect – like “Whosoever Will” and “Whosoever Meaneth Me” didn’t make the cut. Neither did “Oh What a Wonder It Is”, with its “all who would believe in Him, He’d save them every one” or “Holy Bible, Book of Love”, which proclaims that Christ “died for everyone.” I suppose these grand old hymns, and others like them, were dropped to make room for some new millennial songs or perhaps reflected a shift in SBC theological leaning … but they contained theologically rich music which blessed past generations; wonderful hymns which future generations will miss out on.

    • J Sloan says on


      That is a most ridiculous comment. You’re obviously not a reader of this site. If you were, you’d know that Dr. Rainer is not making soreriological assertions here. To insinuate such is an indictment of your agenda.

      As for the merit of your claim, please note the scads of hymns by those of an Arminian persuasion in the hymnal. All the ones by Wesley for instance. The overlap of hymns in the Baptist Hymnal and Methodist Hymnal are extensive.

      You came to this post with an agenda just like you’re looking at the hymnal with the same. Take off the conspiracy glasses and enjoy the great view with the rest of us.

    • Frank Montgomery says on

      Dr. Rainer –

      Please accept this as constructive criticism. I know you like to have as open of a conversation as possible on this blog, even when you get criticized. But please don’t approve comments like this one by Max. He obviously has no clue what he is talking about. I know many of those who were on the committee for the 2008 hymnal. To suggest they had an agenda like Max did is ridiculous. In fact, there are more evangelistic hymns than in the earlier hymnal. When you approve comments like his, it distracts from a healthy discussion. Please keep the fringe and divisive people off the blog. Thank you for hearing me.

    • Sylvia Greystone says on

      Max –

      Are you serious? Are you really saying the 2008 Baptist Hymnal has a Calvinistic agenda? Do you have any idea of the background of this hymnal? Are you always this divisive? Good grief.

    • J, Frank & Sylvia – thank you for your perspective.

      Dr. Rainer – thank you for allowing me to post mine.

  • Dr. Rainer, thanks for your blog and I enjoy people’s responses although I seldom respond. I suppose my response to this post is that I don’t know what to do except keep on doing what I am doing but we aren’t reaching anyone.

    My church is extremely small, we average 26 in worship. I preach sound doctrinal sermons and stay true to the text. Do seasonal events. We sing traditional songs out of a hymnal with no overhead of any sort. We have a 25 year old young lady as our music leader that is very sincere and does her best and fits in well in our congregation. We have a 25 year old youth director also and I allow him to preach the last Sunday of each month. I am 71. The young age of these two leaders has not drawn any people to our church. We got the young people because we were told that would draw people of any age and our congregation was old. Hasn’t happened. We do have one couple who thinks we need to switch to a traditional service because it will bring in young people and the millennia’s. I have asked them for a model as proof of that but none is forth coming. I also challenged them to find a band but they apparently are only talk.

    I don’t know what else to do.-Bro. Les

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Les –

      Please know I have prayed for you and your church. Though I cannot offer specific solutions based on the limited information, I can suggest you focus on getting the church looking beyond itself. Perhaps you could start with some major project to help the community or a local school.

  • Bob Ricard says on

    I truly dislike when one breaks down the believers in Christ to different “groups”. There is but one Christ and to label some as a different group divides what should be a unified body of believers. One should concentrate on reaching all unbelievers and not worry about what reaches a specific group.

  • As somebody just barely included in the Millennial generation (born in 1980), these three elements pretty exactly describe my own priorities and preferences in corporate worship.

    One thing that has been a tremendous blessing to me serving as a worship leader in a growing church (Stevens Street Baptist in Cookeville, TN) for almost 15 years has been seeing that the generations that came before mine also seem very eager to be led by those who share these priorities. Their own preferences are different, certainly, but in my experience, their desire to see young people passionate about Christ trumps questions of musical style. At the same time, our Millennials (which are a very large demographic in our congregation) are perfectly willing to sing “older” songs that line up with the preferences of their elders, because they appreciate the authenticity and passion of the older generations. When I plan worship services, I never feel as if I need to “throw a bone” to anyone in particular. I have the freedom to choose rich content, knowing that because our people are led well in all aspects of the life of our church, they will follow their leaders and engage in the worship of the church. It makes for some pretty sweet multi-generational fellowship!

    • Thom Rainer says on

      You are indeed a part of a healthy church, John.

      By the way, I really admire your pastor. (Note to readers: The pastor is my son, Sam Rainer).

  • Thom,

    Your observations about content, authenticity, and quality seem accurate, but what, if any, is the role of style?

    I hear over and over again from our pastor and other ministry leaders that “style should not matter.” Several posters above state something similar. This seems to be an attempt to shame those who have been embattled in the “worship wars.”

    It would be very tempting to give my pastor a Lecrae CD (or another artist very different from his own taste) and see how long he could/would listen to it in his car.

    Lecrae offers deep content, authenticity, and quality; but I am guessing my pastor would not listen for very long. The same experiment could replicated with any person and any “style.” There seems to be something more going on than just preference.

    I’ve been curious for a while now what role style should play in worship, if any. Music has a unique ability to resonate deep within the heart of people. Consider how Saul was soothed by David’s harp.

    If music is so powerful, does style matter?

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Style does matter, in the sense that we all have our preferences on a number of issues. The biblical thesis running through many of these comments is that we should not insist that on having our way on stylistic issues. All believers should seek to put others (and their stylistic preferences) above ourselves.

      • Thanks for the response. If everyone truly put each others’ interest ahead of his or her own, would that lead to a “majority rules” situation? Would style then be dictated by the preference of the largest group?

        By the way on a separate note, the ideas in your original post probably apply to more than just music. I work with hundreds of millennials every day, and they have serious issues with the “programs” of the traditional church whether related to worship, discipleship, evangelism, or anything else. They want rich content, authenticity, and quality across the board–with authenticity being at the top.

        Great discussion; thank you.

  • Thanks.

    In regards to being too inwardly focused what does unhealthy look like (beside arguing over preferences)?

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Rickie –

      One source to answer your question would be my post “The Main Reason People Leave a Church.” You can find it in the search function on ThomRainer.com.

  • Mark Dance says on

    Wow- this is great feedback today about worship! I recommend the “Rainer on Leadership” podcast #037 about how to work through “Worship Wars.” (click PODCAST on top of this page). Dr Rainer talks about how to unify Bommers and Millennials in worship.

    I would also like to suggest a new follow-up podcast on worship that would address some of these questions and comments today. I know that my worship pastor and I could greatly benefit from getting more handles on how to improve our quality, authenticity and theology on Sunday mornings.

  • Leo Makarov says on

    What is meant by “MOST” in the survey ? Doesn’t seem legit until actual numbers are given. Most can mean 90% of people, or 51%. Which one is it ????

  • Good article! As a ‘Millennial,’ I’d say you’re pretty accurate in you’re assessment, at least from my perspective. I know that I personally am much more interested in biblical content and authenticity of expression in worship than I am any particular style. I get so frustrated by “worship wars” – the very notion is dripping with consumerism!

    I would add this: I think that it needs to be understood that “music” in church is a subset of “worship,” not the equivalent. I (and many others of my generation) am passionate that “church” (a gospel-centered community living together on mission) not be confused with “church services” (a weekly gathering). I think that these underlying issues are important to understand the way our generation views “worship” and “church.”

    • Great point, Chris. This goes back to what someone else was saying about definition of terms being so critical. I’m a millennial and I have had to do some serious thinking about what goes into a worship service. Our team at our church is just learning to really pull together a cohesive, immersive worship service on Sunday mornings. There’s been a lot of trial and error (especially with sound systems!) but our people have been patient. You can’t have quality without being intentional, and you need a team committed to glorify Christ with their labor of love.

      Ultimately, each church member needs to check their preferences at the door–the ones who prefer traditional hymns need to sing joyfully during the praise chorus, and the ones who prefer a modern sound need to let the weight of an older song sink into their souls.

      • Mark Dance says on

        Zach, what is an “immersive worship service?” I’m being curious, not critical. Thanks!

  • Immediately after reading your article, I forwarded the link to this article along with a big “Thank you” message to my pastor and worship pastor.

    Your article was a great reminder to me to be thankful for the opportunity I have to worship and serve in a church that does place such a high priority on the teaching, preaching, and pastors who invest themselves in order to provide such rich content that reflects deep biblical and theological truths. Thank you so much for the reminder.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      And your attitude of thanksgiving says much of your biblical character, Rodney. So I say “thank you” to you.

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