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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250 Comments

  • This post is resonating with millennials in my church reading it on facebook. What we found was ministering from our strengths and gifting (including worship) has created an exciting experience on Sunday mornings. We have seen success with focus on flow and joy rather than style. Passion with theological clarity is more attractive than formula. In our context several churches have pretty good worship services and preaching. What has resonated the most with both our multigen church and our community is the very intentional culture we are establishing. Everyone wants to be a part of something significant. Our goal is to love our community so deeply and without expectation that if we had to close our doors our city would weep with a sense of great loss. That has created a cultural mindset and plethora of ideas and excitement we see millennials responding to.

    I was curious to see if the metrics have been examined to see how important church culture is in reaching millennials and in church growth in general. If not, perhaps a topic for my DMin lol. Thanks

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Ben: Go to the home page of my blog and enter the search for “Millennials.” You will see several articles and podcasts to address your questions. Thanks!

    • Mike H. says on

      Ben, you made a great point about ministering from our gifts and strengths. Too often, we as leaders and churches begin with “who can we attract and how can we change who we are to do it”, rather than beginning with the ways God has uniquely gifted us and being comfortable with that. When we minister the way God designed us, we lead, live, and worship authentically — and that draws people in (not only Millennials) and inspires them to stay connected for the long run.

  • Unfortunately I think your study may have had a biased sample. There are many churches today still striving to have music worship that is theologically sound with rich content, authenticity in it’s “performance,” and with quality. I would say that style is important. I am a “millenial,” and when I hear the style of the world mixed with the rich words of those such as Getty, it does not bring peace. It brings unease as to me, this combination is a result of Christians trying to serve Christ while including the styles and music of the world.

  • Mikayla says on

    Wow! This is so true! I’m looking at churches right now and these are definitely the things I look at!

  • “we have sufficient anecdotal evidence to respond”.

    Anecdotes are not evidence at all, and are no basis for forming any kind of opinion.

    • Malcolm Dodd says on

      Chuck –

      As a researcher of more than two decades, I think you are jumping to a faulty conclusion. Anecdotal evidence in of itself may not offer significant value, but based on the massive research of the Rainers, I see great value. Because of their large sample, they are able to see derivative issues that could easily form their conclusions. They also have been shaped by their sample questions, which allows them to probe issues more deeply in informal interviews and conversations. Researchers are more and more seeing the value of some levels of anecdotal information. In the case of this project, I would accept their anecdotal findings with a great deal of confidence.

  • Ron Bean says on

    As a 66 year old elder-elder in a church full of millenials, I appreciate this. Content over style is a phrase often repeated. A service will often include “In Christ Alone” as well as “How Sweet and Awesome is the Place”. The Acts 29 people who come think we’re conservative while the conservative folks think we’re very contemporary. Piano and guitars, a violin, and maybe an occasional djembe but you can hear the singing over the instruments. The preaching is good, sound Biblical exposition and everyone understands what we’re doing. (And it’s been years since I’ve sung “Heaven Came Down and Glory Filled My Soul”)

  • If Millienials wanted “rich content” then Hillsong and Jesus Culture wouldn’t be nearly as popular. If they wanted authenticity then why are so many seemingly inauthentic leaders popular?

    I think some of my generation want these things, and many could care less.

    It’s easy to paint with a broad brush, but it doesn’t work that way in the real world.

    • Victoria F. Boron says on

      I’d have to agree with you wholeheartedly. Many of young, college educated adults (myself included) liked the modern approach to the protestant service, but, when I started wanting more, I saw through the facade. Unfortunately, many of my friends did as well, but instead of looking into their faith and the history of it more, to before the current model of churches today and the current theology of the day, they left the church altogether. Some are Buddhist, some are agnostic, some have adopted a completely Laissez Faire mindset toward religion, or now blame all the problems of the world ON organized religion. I blame much of the protestant church for lacking the glue to help these kids hold their faith together. And it wasn’t that they DIDN’T want to believe, but they thought “How can I? Look at this mess! Fighting about politics, scandal, lack of fiscal moderation, this doesn’t seem like the culture that Jesus would ever condone.”

    • Mikayla says on

      Totally agree…it’s the same stuff over and over again. It seem like they don’t take the time and effort to make good songs. There are so many cranked out at a time, so how could they be any good? I do want theologically sound, poetic, moving lyrics, not just singing “Jesus I trust you” and “I wanna live my life for you” over and over again.
      It makes me wonder if we are just super focused on the experience and emotional aspect of worship than anything else.

  • Victoria F. Boron says on

    What is ‘authentic’ worship? The modern church as we know it looks nothing like the church of the first few centuries of Christianity. If you are going to talk about authenticity and not reference the Eastern Orthodox Christian Church, it’s going to be very hard to discuss theology since what is preached and what is taught in the modern, protestant church is rather ‘new’ in the grand scheme of Christendom. My family and I left a large protestant church and became Orthodox and have found the richness that was lacking, the consistency in theology that was not in the Protestant Churches. Now, every church is made up of humans, so every church has to work hard to reach out in a relational way to all folks from all walks of life. However, the worship service itself should not be ‘catered’ to a generation, we do them a disservice when we do that. All too often, Church History is only referenced to the Reformation or ‘thank God we aren’t Catholic’, when there is an entire other side of the world (The Eastern Church) that has believed in the SAME theology since the very beginning of Christianity and never had the Crusades. They never adopted the requirement of celibacy in their Priests, they are allowed to marry and have a family, there is no theology of Purgatory and many of those Roman Catholic Theologies that came after the great Schism. If someone is looking for the consistency of theology, the richness of worship, and embracing the beauty of the history of Christianity, I would encourage you to look towards a Church that can trace it’s roots to the beginning of Christianity with complete theological consistency with The Early Church. If you notice, all reformation happened in the West from the Catholic Church, because there was gross abuse of power/money etc. and with the theology of the Catholic Church, however, there was never a need for that in the East with the Orthodox Church because of their continuity of faith and theology, it never needed reform. Thus, every off shoot of the Catholic Church has led to Denomination after Denomination, until wow, some churches are floating off on their own, creating ‘their own’ beliefs, and some with absolutely no accountability for it’s leaders to anyone, and how many congregations have ‘split’ because of it? Not to mention, in the USA, this generation care much more for social justice, and they are not satisfied with ‘if you’re not a raging conservative tea partier, then there’s no way you could be a Christian’ and that ‘the republican party is the party of Jesus (and guns)’. I have seen SO many of my friends that are in their 30’s that have LEFT Christianity all together, that used to attend the protestant, non-denom, top-notch praise and worship band, ‘best of the best’ in modern services that I used to go to as well. They asked questions that theologically, the protestant church COULD NOT and CANNOT answer. They see the gross waste, the lack of care for the environment…that is what this generation care about, and if their church can’t care about it, it’s hard for them to sit through a service, no matter what the lyrics of the songs the awesome praise band is singing. There is a rather huge movement of Protestant ministers into the Orthodox Church, and if someone (no matter what age) were interested the best book to start with is a book called “Becoming Orthodox” written by a former protestant minister, and Campus Crusade for Christ leader, Peter Guillquist who led a mass exodus from the protestant church to the Orthodox Church. This is quite common now, as my own Father is a former Protestant Minister in a Non-Denominational Church, and is now in Seminary to become an Orthodox Priest after the last 12 years being an Eastern Orthodox Christian. If anyone cares to read more, there’s nothing wrong with doing some research and asking questions, especially within Christianity and in reference to the early church. Here’s a link to a blog by a former protestant, turned Orthodox that might interest anyone. http://fromprotestanttoorthodox.blogspot.com/

    • This movement to Eastern Orthodoxy is a fad. I know that young people are looking for something stable and permanent in a world of dis-permanence, but Eastern Orthodoxy is so foreign to our culture and Protestantism roots are so deep that most people won’t give it a second thought. I have brought in elements of liturgical worship into our services and people appreciated it, but at the end of the day richness of content, authenticity, and quality as suggested by Rainer are the key components; the denomination is secondary…even Eastern Orthodoxy. The blog link you posted was from a guy who had a solid foundation in Christianity and he was looking for something he didn’t have growing up. I think he/you are the exception, not the rule. On the whole the service could be just about any theological persuasion as long as the paradigm is belong then believe and there are elements of mystery to make it seem more interesting. I base these opinions on the fact that I am a worship pastor in a reformed church that started 4 years ago in Ann Arbor, MI and has grown to 500 from 50 people when we started…all with 26-30 year olds like myself.

      • Greta Hoostal says on

        Happy Easter, everyone!

        I am Orthodox as well (convert of one year, from Lutheranism). There has never been any fad regarding Orthodoxy, because it has hardly changed since it was founded, at the first Pentecost. We never had ‘worship wars’, because the worship is basically the same as that of the Apostles, and we even use the Liturgy of one of the very Apostles, St. James, on certain occasions. The Liturgy more typically used is very simliar and hasn’t changed (except in tiny regards like praying for the president now instead of the emperor) in about 1,600 years.

        Participation in a fad is for the sensation of something new, and generally easy, and so is entered on a whim. But it takes about a year, sometimes longer, to be found ready to be received into Orthodox Church, and it is VERY hard—an enjoyable hard, of course, and not more than we are capable of, but it’s not for nothing we have been called spiritual Marines. For example, we have longer services, generally more of them, and we are supposed to stand throughout. Orthodox churches aren’t even supposed to have pews, except on the perimeter for the elderly and infirm to rest as needed. All hymns are sung a capella. We have a dress code of sorts: ideally, women should cover their heads (all hair all the time, like Muslims or nuns), men should wear beards and have uncovered heads (except clergy in certain circumstances), everyone should be in sex-specific clothes (e.g. dresses or skirts on women), and everyone should be dressed and should act very modestly. We have to go to confession, and it is not anonymous—the priest is a full witness and the person confessing has to put his hand on the holy Book of Gospels which proves the truth of the confession—it’s mortifying and makes one embarrassed to sin in the first place, knowing it will be known even to the priest. We have a very strict rule of fasting: no meat (except shellfish), no dairy products, no eggs, no olive oil, no alcoholic drinks, and no sex, not just during Lent or on Fridays, but about HALF the year, and according to a calendar; also no sex, food, or drinks (not even water) at all (except as medically necessary) from midnight until communion the next day. The sex is only for those who are married. Not only do we not write our own marriage vows, we don’t even have vows. The bride and groom are crowned as white martyrs, i.e. of complete self-sacrifice to one another. Women are to obey their husbands as they obey a king and men are to honor their wives as they honor a queen. Abortion AND contraception are prohibited. (‘Matrimony’ etymologically means ‘source’, i.e. of children.) Marriage at a young age (18?) is encouraged. Monasticism is even better. In the event martyrdom is at hand, it is expected we will accept it (e.g. think of the Copts and the Christian Syrians!). Divorce is extremely frowned upon and discouraged and rare, limited to adultery and possibly a few other situations. Remarriage is limited to 3 times and it is a penitential rite. We are given prayer-rules, i.e. certain prayers to be said at certain times of day (more prayers for those who are capable of them) and to be accompanied by the Sign of the Cross (to consecrate oneself to God) and usually prostration (bowing down like a Muslim more or less, but to our God, as people generally did in the OT, as they do in Revelation, and if you look at the original Greek, as Christ commands in Matt. 4:10). We are very pro-life, and often pacifists or at least somewhat so. Absolute monarchy is generally believed in. All that doesn’t sound to me anything like a fad.

        Here is an article that I think indicates non-faddish growth: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/10/06/report-finds-strong-growt_n_753447.html

        As far as foreignness goes, what about when the Apostles were sent out? They took a foreign religion, a Hebrew religion, to Greeks, Romans, Syrians, Ethiopians, Egyptians, Indians, and so on. The Apostles didn’t try to mold the people into Hebrews, but took what they already had that was not opposed to God and adapted it. The evangelized remained in their very non-Hebrew cultures but still were able to become Christians, and they did eagerly and gladly endured martyrdom. Those people DID convert relatively rapidly and in huge numbers in most places, so that’s not necessarily an indication of a fad. Their cultures did not change drastically, but the adapting took some time. First, the Liturgy was translated into the native language. In America, we have had the Liturgy translated into English, and where the Orthodox people have become largely English-speaking (converts and children of immigrants), an English Liturgy is used.

        In America also, we have the melting pot working on the cultural accoutrements, such as the music sung. The Russian and Ukrainian music lend themselves particularly well to that because they have a lot of Western influence, with polyphony and melodies that appeal to us Westerners. In my church we have mostly Ukrainian music and some Greek, and it is about half converts. There are over 300 households with membership and attendance is about 120 to 200 people, from even nearby counties. A very popular church, and the converting tends to be a few people a year. There are many other Protestants who have converted.

        If even that is ‘too foreign’, there are also Western Rite Orthodox parishes, which are basically the same as Catholic or Lutheran or Anglican except with Orthodox faith. Any congregation is welcome to join Orthodoxy and use either Eastern or Western rites. Here: http://www.allmercifulsavior.com/Liturgy/Liturgics.html is a repository of Western rites. Here is an example of a hymn from one: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kPVuQIDcXK8 . It is the Faith that makes us Orthodox, and outward appearance is the result, I think like this: Thou blind Pharisee, cleanse first that which is within the cup and platter, that the outside of them may be clean also. (Matt. 23:26)

        What we believe we didn’t have while growing up, or anytime before we came, was the True Church, the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church (the Orthodox Church is technically the Orthodox Catholic Church). …with Apostolic Succession as the Apostles demonstrated, with exactly the same Faith they had, and with the same doctrine and worship, like in the books of Revelation and Ezekiel, on earth as it is in heaven. My church was founded by mostly Macedonians, and so has exactly the same faith and worship as in Macedonia, and the Bible says, ‘Moreover, brethren, we do you to wit of the grace of God bestowed on the churches of Macedonia…’ (2 Cor. 8:1) Is that not a true verse?

  • The Question should be: “What type of worship pleases God and is acceptable to Him”.
    The Bible teaches, “What man highly esteems, God counts as an abomination.”
    The Bible teaches that the world hates God, so it is unbiblical to use music that sounds like the world and is acceptable to the world in an attempt to worship a holy God.
    Worship must be GOD CENTERED and not man-centered. Stop worrying about what pleases the millennial’s. Concentrate on pleasing God!

    • Robert Wright says on

      How do you know what is pleasing to God? You have an interpretation of pleasing. How do you worship God? Do you fall to your knees or do you dance in the street naked because both are pleasing to God. There is nothing in the Bible of how to sing praises to Him or the method to sing to Him. It says we will be singing praises to God when we get to Heaven. Wonder what type of music that will be? It may be some style none of us have ever heard. When we are in Heaven then we will know exactly what He wants and I believe there will be people there that most “élite” Christians will wonder how they ever got there singing with their hands in the air or standing while singing. Before you can start preaching to someone about salvation you first have to have them in the building. If there is nothing to excite them about coming to your building then they are lost. If they are 18 and older then the percentage of them that start going to church is very low. Something usually will drastically change in their life before they will talk to God for the first time.

      A few years ago I visited a church to see how they do multiple services. The first was a blended service with a hired orchestra. The second was all youth lead and very loud contemporary and the third was more traditional. During the second service, while the kids were singing with their hands in the air, these two older women came up to an Elder friend of mine. The one said to the other “Vic (elders name) what are you going to do about that in there”. The other women elbows her friend and said “they’re here aren’t they!”. Vic told me he said nothing at all. Everything that needed to be said was said. That is a person that understands why we have church in different formats.

      We have to focus on what brings people to God in the first time. If we did not grow up knowing God’s love (taken to church by parents) then something or someone has to introduce us to God. We have to start focusing on what will bring others to God and stop worrying about what we “think” praising God is. What you call praising may not be what someone else calls praising or what opens their heart to allow God to get inside. That may be repeating the same verse 12 times but if that is what it takes then God is pleased and will use that person.

  • John Cotten says on

    I have no research to back this up, but I believe that believers of every generation face much the same temptation when it comes to worship: to put other gods before I Am. The only difference is in the “gods” chosen. We tend to elevate the Worship Celebrity of the Moment, hanging on their every word, reading their every book, eagerly awaiting their latest recording. Sometimes we know more about them than we know about the Lord Himself. We almost treat them like high priests, through whom alone God speaks to us!

    After a season, that Celebrity fades and a new one steps center stage.

    This is no less true of those in their sixties or seventies than it is of those in their twenties or thirties, except perhaps that the younger one is, the more frequent the turnover.

    Regardless of our age, background or culture, may Jesus Christ alone be our sufficiency. “In Christ Alone my hope is found,” “all other ground is sinking sand.” Soli Deo Gloria!

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