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’m an older millennial, and I cannot tell you how hungry I’ve been for #1.

    My thought life, my walk with my God, and my meditation on the words of God’s people are often complex and require some philosophical and theological vigor.

    As such, I often desire to praise God in the same tone, and I get frustrated when all praise being done communally is simplistic and repetitive.

    I am refreshed to know that I am not alone.

  • Thom Rainer says on

    My apologies to those whose comments are not being posted in a timely fashion. We are checking into the problem on our side.

  • No doubt rich content, quality, and authenticity are most important. Makes sense. As far as walking away from “worship wars”, wouldn’t most of us like to do that? Sometimes its harder but in the long run more important to God’s purpose to stay and work things out. If worship never evolved, we’d still be singing Psalters pre Isaac Watts. Here’s my problem with discounting style: unless you have a worship leader who knows what they are doing, your services risk having no cohesion and flow if everything under sun is included, because “everything has merit”. Then the worship song with guitar and drums ends up next to the hymn in 3 verses with organ and its a goulash. Musical whiplash! A little focus and stylistic consistency is nice.

    I can buy that mills will leave if there is great animosity about worship style, but I also suspect if they don’t like the style themselves as well, they won’t stay either. That’s just human nature. We all want to worship in the way we think fits us best and have differing levels of tolerance for how outside this fit we are willing to go.

    Blessings from Alabama

  • I am a Millenial. I have been attending church faithfully (Sun. Mornings, Sun. Evenings, Wed. Evenings, and any special services or events we have) for 26 years. I was saved at the age of 12, and began my pre-teen years with a fervent service for the Lord. I had a couple years of teen rebellion – not wanting to get out of bed on Sunday morning, whining and complaining that Sunday School was boring… things like that, but for the most part I’ve been a committed Christian for most of my life. Our church still uses the King James Bible, sings Hymnals for our congregational songs, and is quite traditional in our teaching and preaching. My Husband, who is also a MIllenial and was not raised in church like I was, got saved 8 years ago in March and is now a Reverend and the Associate Pastor of our church.
    I believe bickering and arguing about music, technique and style of teaching/preaching is pointless and should have no place in God’s church. I for one adore the old hymns, but also appreciate listening to, at home or in the car, and on occasion sing a special of Praise and Worship music. I wholly agree and believe that not all P & W music, whether it be contemporary, old-school, or new age, is spiritually filling (at least for me), but I believe that each and every person must decide that for themselves. The Bible tells us that what convicts one, doesn’t necessarily convict the other, isn’t it safe to assume that it could work the same way with our Spiritual needs? What works best for you may not work for me, or vice versa.
    Jeremiah 6:16 says this, “Thus saith the Lord, Stand ye in the ways, and see, and ask for the old paths, where is the good way, and walk therein, and ye shall find rest for your souls. But they said, We will not walk therein.”
    Our church follows this “motto”, you could say. We are very traditional and old school. We have a few Millenial families, but mostly older generations. However, we do see more and more fruits for our labor as we pray and seek out His will for our church.
    I will say again that I feel there is no room to bicker and argue about the styles, fundamentals, and techniques of churches and what they choose to do regarding what they feel the Lord leads them to. In the end it boils down to one thing, preference. If you are attending a church that you’re unhappy with because its methods are not meeting your spiritual needs and the church is unwilling to change this, then maybe the Lord is saying it’s time for a new house of worship. Trust me, some people spend so much time complaining and trying to change the minds of others that they forget to listen to the Voice that tells us it’s time to let go and move on. The truth may be that the will of God is for that church to continue the way it is, or they may not be willing to hear or understand at that time, and maybe your future in serving the Lord lies elsewhere.
    I pray that we, as one, united church in Christ can all get along understanding that we all have separate unique spiritual needs, but one very special core belief in common… our love of God and all! May God bless each and every one of you!

  • Bill Mahan says on

    I’m looking in scripture trying to find where it tells me that Biblical leadership is to attract people to church. I didn’t think church was a spectator sport that was to be marketed like a broadway play or rock concert. I was under the assumption that the Bible told us to seek His guidance and not the world’s wisdom. Jesus came to seek and to save that which was lost. Seems like we seek to put seats in the pews and money in the plate.

    • Ezequiel Martinez says on

      Wow, I don’t feel alone in the world, finally someone with common sense who actually reads the Bible! I’m a little disappointed to see where Christianity is headed to trying to please everybody instead of teaching & preaching the truth. Allow me to invite you to read the Gospels and how Jesus spoke directly to the pharises & the scribes and anyone else listening. He was not trying to gather a big group and have everyone have a warm feeling in their heart and sing kumbaya waving their arms (John 6:59-67). Music in a church service should not be a big sensual broadway show (John 4:24). A church service is not for entertainment! It’s to edify the church and not nessisarily to make you feel good about yourself. If you’re looking for a place to make you feel good about yourself or if you attend a place like that then you don’t attend a church but rather a social club.

  • Randy White says on

    Content, authenticity, and quality. Which generation doesn’t want that?

    • thank you for that. Are these elements new? I think we need to be reminded of them and for that I’m thankful that the millenials want these things. But it wasn’t that long ago that people said abut my generation, these young people can spot hypocrisy a mile away! That was in 1972.

  • Jim Kelley says on

    I can see this in my own children ages 26 to 36. This article is right on the issue.
    I am traditional in that I love the hymns. I could sit in church and sing with a pipe organ “Holy, Holy, Holy” ; “May Jesus Christ Be Praised”; “All Hail The Power Of Jesus’ Name”; “The Churches One Foundation”. I also love certain contemporary songs and choruses that are substantive and correct doctrinally. I am really weary of the conflict over music and now- dress. It seems to me that if the teaching from the pulpit was as it should be according to Christ and the Apostles we would not be seeing the splits, error and acrimony now prevalent. I want to be able to worship God in Spirit and in Truth and not be distracted by inane singing by guys and girls on the platform in skinny jeans holding big microphones among smoke machines and intelligent lights.
    Check out http://www.dtbm.org.

  • Love the Traditional!

  • I interviewed this past weekend for a new position as pastor. The committee composition was definitely pre-1980 birth years. And they want the same thing that you suggest: good, solid, well planned worship with meaningful, thoughtful messages that call us into relationship with God through Christ and also call us out into the hurting world around us. I think many people of all ages are looking for exactly what you are speaking about.

    The difference I notice, however, is that the people in the 60-90 year old age range DO care more about the worship space itself including how it is arranged, that it be given some modicum of respect. Many in this age group do not want the space changed. The younger generations are less building oriented (due to cost in many cases, i.e. money that could be spent helping others rather than maintaining ourselves.)

    That also impacts at times the quality of worship as some of our spaces are so acoustically dead and visually distracting due to ill repair or dated, dingy walls with poor lighting that it can detract from the quality of worship for some people.

    I think your thoughts and many of the comments are right on target. Thanks.

  • Being a millennial and a worship leader, I can attest to this truth. My focus in choosing songs each week for my church is that there would be rich content in the lyrics, regardless of what style the music might be. One week not too long ago, we unintentionally had practically a hymn-sing in our service because the songs I had chosen were all hymns. I’m always seeking to choose songs that form a cohesive bond with what passage our pastor is preaching.

    The problem with the “worship wars” is that the focus is on the wrong thing entirely. Style should only serve to promote the message. A song should be singable for a congregation, simply so that they can focus on the words of the song. Mindless going-though-the-motions singing is worthless for everyone and robs the congregation of time that could have been spent truly worshipping our Creator. May that never be the case in our churches!!

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