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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  • Is there actually an age group that doesn’t value the three elements you listed? Seriously.

    I’m a complete baby boomer, and yes, I wanted to hear some “contemporary” music in worship, but not without the foundation elements you listed. I.e., I’d always rather hear traditional music that was authentic and well-done, than contemporary music that was not.

    • Thanks Timbo! I was thinking the same thing. I’m also a baby boomer, and I have always valued rich content, authenticity and quality in worship! I have to smile when the author says Millennials can “sense when congregants and worship leaders are going through the motions.” As if the rest of us can’t? Do Millennials have some kind of spiritual discernment missing in the rest of us? I don’t think so! I love the old hymns. I also love much of the contemporary worship music. But in either case, the music must have rich content; meaningful words that teach or express my heart to God. I get that each generation has its own quirks, but I think we do the Body of Christ a disservice when we label the generations and then play a guessing game as to what each generation wants from the church. Can we just stop doing this and agree that we all want the same thing? Let’s focus on making our worship services authentic, rich and of top quality, not because a certain generation craves these things, but because it’s the right way to approach our holy God.

  • Caleb Kolstad says on

    Dr.R- As a Millennial myself I have not observed this three fold worship (music) commitment among many of my peers. I see a much more self-focused, preference (radio) driven, emotion-led (rather than emotion filled) understanding of worship.

    I also do not believe many M’s are gravitating to Word-centered churches. Topical-evangelical fluff seems to be the favored flavor in my community.

    I do agree with you on your final point however. “They are more 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.”

    Of course what Kevin DeYoung talks about in his fine book, “What is the Mission of the Church: Making sense of social justice, shalom, and the great commission” is not fleshed out in very many local churches. http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/kevindeyoung/2011/09/15/what-is-the-mission-of-the-church-3/

  • livingauthentically says on

    yes, I agree with this and I am NOT a millennial….but I have given birth to four. 🙂
    I love so many styles of music…a WIDE variety is okay with me, but like millennials, worship is far less about the style than the authenticity and soundness of doctrine. Music prepares my heart to hear from God, and actually HEARing the words and being able to sing along, both with my mouth and my heart, is how that happens for me. Thanks for reminding us of these important truths, whether it is through millennials or boomers (like me).

  • First question that came to mind was: Do Millenials want what God wants for congregational worship?

  • It seems to me…the Millennials are for the “SHOW” not the “KNOW!”

  • Thank you Thom – I much appreciate your research and putting out there what you are finding. It certainly helps a young pastor like myself.
    Here is what I posted on the link to the FaceBook article:
    I missed being a Millennial by just two years (1978), but my wife is one (1980) and we both attest to this very thought. And I am thankful to be a part of a church that shares the same view, passion and goals behind the music ministry – using it to glorify and worship God. We are not caught up on what the article said, “fighting about style of music, hymnals or screen projections, or choirs or praise teams.” But rather are more concerned with “theologically rich music, authenticity, and quality that reflects adequate preparation in time and prayer.” We are called by God to be Highlands Baptist and not just the same as every other church around. I appreciated this thought from the article: “quality worship services are possible for churches of all sizes.” Thank you for this article – a great reminder and support to the reality.

  • So, I am a millennial myself, having been born in 1993. I loved this article, but one thing I would like to just throw out is on a comment I saw regarding this article on here. There was a person named Mike who posted about how the church he attends was afraid to jump in to newer ways of doing things. You said you were going to write on this. I am interested to read your article. I think one thing the church has not learned is how to use the community around them. Here is what I mean: I am a college student at a small Christian liberal arts school. I play tenor, bari, and am learning how to play bass saxophone. Except for one church that I believe has this problem that is being alluded to in this article and these other comments on the subject of politics and going through the motions, only one other church in our area uses a band. Yet, this university I go to has a great music program. All of these new churches are not hiring people who have studied music at any school. Most of them are going to the person who can play a guitar and sing. I have no problem with this to an extent. I have a problem when it is in the name of drawing the young people in. Last point. I listen to all kinds of music except for country and some other sub-genres, but let me give two artists names-Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue and Robert Glasper Experiment. Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue just performed at the NBA All-Star Game during halftime. His band is himself on trombone and trumpet, a percussionist, a bassist, a guitarist, a tenor sax, and a bari sax. Robert Glasper and his band one the Grammy for best R&B album two years ago with Black Radio. He, a few months ago, released Black Radio 2. I was reading an interview with Robert saying he wanted his next album to be a gospel album. When I look at these two artists, they are pushing the boundaries of music. But at least with Trombone Shorty, this clash of what a number of people would see as the traditional set-up of guitar, percussion, and bass is contrasted with instruments besides piano and other things. Now yes, both of these groups have some of the most talented musicians on the planet, but my point is the church as a whole, at least in the U.S., has lost creativity. Just some food for thought. Thanks, and have a great day all!

  • As a millennial who grew up seeing “worship wars” in my own church and in just about every church around us, I completely agree with your assessment. Most of the members of our youth group were put off by the focus on “style”. In their adulthood, many have moved away from the church they attended growing up, because of the lack of authenticity they perceived and irrelevant priorities of the church leaders. This generation tends not to respect or follow anyone they perceive to lack genuinely Christ-centered motives. Many of us feel that genuine places to fellowship and worship are few and far between in our areas. Also, genuine churches are not necessarily more “contemporary” or more “traditional”. I think it is also important to note that Millennials tend to have more respect for those who openly admit to having lived a sinful life and have genuinely repented than church leaders that they perceive to be prideful and arrogant. We trust those who are genuine. We would rather be in a Sunday School class taught by the man who lived a rough life in his youth but is now a strong believer, or the grandfather who has lived a faithful life as a layman in the church than one taught by a seminary degree carrying leader that we feel has prideful motives. Not that degrees are not respected, they absolutely are, but they must be validated by genuine love for Christ. Like you spoke about in regards to “quality”, it is so true that most are not impressed by a choir who perfectly performs difficult music but lacks genuine conviction. Sensing pride in a pulpit or in a worship leader will drive away a millennial quickly. We are seeking to be genuine so we want to sense that our leaders sincerely love Jesus and have had the same struggles we have.

  • Millenials want to see and connect with other millenials. At least, that is what I have noticed. If a church has no youth, or limited youth, then it is difficult to bring back from the brink no matter what the Church does because it has killed off the connections.

    • Mike H. says on

      As a children’s minister, my view on this is that, in the past, we have trained Millennials to only connect with their age-group peers by having our children and youth almost completely segregated from the other generations in the church as they are growing up. As a result, when they do become adults, they have a hard time connecting with others outside their own peer group. This approach is what “kills off the connections.”

  • Tina Matteson says on

    I’m a music director/worship leader in a medium-sized church in Texas, and it’s exciting to see our church growing steadily, mostly by millennials. I’m thankful we already have a great mix of ages, but there is something special about children running in the halls and new babies being born to our members that brings a renewed energy. As I work on planning our music, musical style is mostly irrelevant to me (although our band, praise teams and choirs have certainly developed their stylistic patterns over time), but theological content and appropriateness for our congregation, is hugely important. As I read your article I realized that we work very hard at the qualities you highlighted. And, in the area of authenticity, our staff has a very close, warm and comfortable relationship that only strengthens our ministry. Much like in a family, when the leaders (mom and dad) are in unity, life goes so much better.

  • Great article, and thanks for the research. I myself am just a millennial being born in ’80. I understand the mindset as well because I am a youth pastor. As with any “movement” there are by-products. What sort of insight might you have of potential down sides to this? Could the passion toward preaching and teaching delve into a world of legalism? Or, is this the perfect blend toward a successful and proud generation? Thanks for any insight.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Kevin –

      I think the greatest potential danger is both legalism and inward focus. I pray that this generation of Christians will avoid both.

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