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

  • Victor McQuade says on

    What is often missing in the music debate is the ability to get beyond the musical sentimentalism and emotional attachment to look at things objectively. Along with good content and authenticity should come music that is inherently easy to sing as a congregation. Keith Getty said it best. “If the congregation cannot sing a new song by the second verse then it should not be used.” I am always saddened by seeing half or more of the church who cannot participate in the singing because the composers and musicians are ignoring the musical limits of the congregation. Some objective analysis of why certain songs work musically and others do not would go a long way to making our services more interactive and as a result less acrimonious. I firmly believe that if the 2 issues of content and singability were addressed, we would see a much richer musical/spiritual experience across all ages.

    • That’s another great point. I recently attended a conference for bivocational and small church pastors, and the music leader did a really great job. He played a combination of traditional hymns and contemporary choruses, but he did the traditional songs in a way that young people would like, and he did the contemporary songs in a way that was not overpowering to the older folks. I personally believe if more music leaders were like him, many of the “worship wars” would die overnight.

  • It’s a losing battle.

    “You don’t do the old songs, we do this music for the young people, but where are they!?”

    Then you point out “well, we’ve actually been doing more of our songs from the hymnal”

    “Oh, sure, they’re in that new ‘hymnal’ but they’re not the good ones”

    Then you do a bunch if the songs they request

    “Well, you did them wrong. We are a mature baptist church, we deserve traditional music done in a traditional way” (exact quote)

    Meanwhile, the only thing people say who are leaving (who reference worship) is a lack of freedom and “here we go again” division.

    “Style” is 100% appropriate for a member to express preferences to a pastor, and 100% not something to debate/divide over.

    If you have a Worship Pastor or a Minister of Music, it is their prerogative, just as it is the Pastor’s prerogative what and how he preaches.

    If it’s not a good fit, then he can leave, otherwise, shut up and tell someone the gospel already.

    The church is so full of self-centered jerks who think history started when they were born. Good grief.

  • Being a twenty year old and in the generation that falls under this category, I want a church that does this:

    Love God and love people. Whether it be with the old hymns of our faith or some of the newer songs, as long as you loving God and loving people, that is the kind of church I want to go to. A lot of my friends, in fact, look for that same kind of church.

    Obviously, the teaching is important, don’t misinterpret my statement, but if a church doesn’t actively love God and love people, then I want absolutely no part of it, no matter how wholesome, authentic, or genuine their worship is.

    And with regards to on musical preferences, He is worthy of worship BEFORE you even like the song, so if a song physically prevents you from lifting Him up because you don’t like it, then it seems to me like that is an issue of the heart.

    One thing about contemporary music that makes it just as great as the traditional hymns, is that they have simple, easy to discern messages and it is written in modern language. I remember when I started going to church when I was seventeen, I had no clue what any of those hymns were talking about, and I think that would be the case with most other unchurched millennials. That, and as a worship leader, it is very easy to create a contemplative moment as the Spirit leads you. For instance, if I were singing a contemporary song, I could very easily just stop all the singing and create space for everyone to contemplate, pray, etc…I could even share what God is laying on my heart or pray as well. I feel with some of the hymns it is a little more challenging to do that. Contemporary songs may not be as theologically deep as the hymns are, but is that a requirement of a song? For it to have a lot of theology? Obviously, you want it to be theologically accurate and not spreading lies, but I definitely think it is nice to have some songs that are not as deep and that just proclaim a simple truth. I don’t look for the theological depth in the songs first, I look for it in the preaching of the Word. I do, however, look for theological accuracy in the music.

    And the quality part I do resonate with. As a worship leader, I definitely look to worship with skill in a manner most glorifying to God (Psalm 33:3), and I definitely look for it when I am looking for a church. It can be easy to lose the reverence and become distracted sometimes with straight up bad execution of the music.

    But once again, you can play all the music beautifully and have amazing teaching, but if you’re not loving God and loving people while doing that, don’t expect to find me there. Nothing worse than walking into a church I am visiting and not feeling welcomed or loved.

    Love God. Love people.

    • This may be the best post of the lot. Thank you. As an old dude and a pastor, I appreciate hearing this, Some one said, if you sing sound theological songs and have sound theological preaching your church will grow. That is simply not true. If the church is just sounding brass and tinkling cymbals, I hope it doesn’t grow.

    • Thank you, Jeff H for hitting the nail on the head. Best response of this entire thread!

  • One problem with the argument presented here, “style does not matter,” is the natural conclusion that is often drawn from it: “style does not matter” (i.e., style is a matter of “personal taste”); so we should not be arguing about “style;” the people we want to reach (attract?) are young; young people usually prefer a “contemporary” style; so, the argument follows, let’s have a “contemporary” worship service and if the older folks object, we can always just tell them, “style does not matter” (i.e., don’t be concerned about the matter–you will just cause divisions amongst us). Something very practical concerns are left out of the argument, one of which is our youth-obcessed society’s attitude toward older people, and if Christians cannot engage in honest intellectual debate about these matters without jumping to conclusions and resorting to calling each other names, as has been demonstrated in a few cases above, then I do not see much hope for the Church, absent, of course, the grace of God.

    Perhaps, first, we might consider using better terminology: I think most people are confusing musical “style” with musical “genre”–these are indeed different terms with different meanings. Genre may encompass style, or even a number of styles. A lot of people here have lumped all worship music that is not “contemporary” (which is itself a bad choice of terminology) into a category of “classical” style, as if there were one classical style–there is not. We could speak of Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, Romantic, and 20th century (and beyond) categories of classical music–all have unique musical styles and each historical periods encompasses more than one style; and they all encompass more than one genre (i.e., during the Renaissance, one would encounter vocal music written in genres such as madrigal, motet, canzona, and ricercar; during the Baroque one would encounter opera as a genre; etc.) There is no one “classical” style, just as there is no single style of Folk, Rock, or Jazz music. I believe that most people who speak in the worship music context of a “classic” style are really referring to musical genres that include music written for choirs and organs. The subcategories do not stop there, however, as traditional denominations have developed, over the centuries, types of music that highlight stylistic differences: e.g., you might hear different styles of choral music at Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Methodist, etc. churches and subspecies of each–the list goes on and on–and that is just Western music: there are whole different categories of music in the Eastern Orthodox churches.

    Why do we feel we must throw out 2000 years of Christian music history? Tell me what Protestant church is not doing it and I will join it. Was the Holy Spirit silent during all these years, and, perhaps more to the point, can we not benefit from hearing ‘older’ music written by Christian mem and women to whom God gave unusual spiritual and musical gifts? What we have today are whole generations of Christians who often lack discernment in church music matters because they lack musical education and were never taught how to sing. The fault for this situation lies as much with “traditional” church musicians (who did not find it fit to devote enough of their time to training the children of churches in musical matters) as it lies with “contemporary” church musicians (who don’t see any problem with the matter). When I read the Psalms, I see a lot of references to God’s people lifting up their voices to God in song. I don’t see a lot of references to football and basketball fellowship groups. Isn’t it logical to believe that, if God wants us to praise him in song, perhaps we should be willing to spend some time learning something about song and singing? I find it sad that we have generations of people today who will never experience the joy of singing in a church choir.

    One more thing: please consider the possibility that some styles of music have limited expression, thus, to say that “style is unimportant” or “one style of music is just as good as another style, and God does not care anyway” is perhaps thinking that is a little naive. As much as I may ‘like’ certain styles of Rock, and the musicians who perform them, and as much as I would concede that musical creativity is far from absent in these styles, they don’t hold a candle in creativity or musical genius to compositions written by (most) ‘classical’ composers. Leonard Bernstein, for one, proved that a good ‘classical’ composer could write great popular and Rock music; the opposite is seldom the case. Given a blank piece of manuscript paper and a day’s time, I think I would find more creativity and “inspiration” (using the term in its broad meaning) in what J.S. Bach would come up with over that which many of our ‘Contemporary” composers would produce. Aesthetics have value, and most of the Reformers acknowleged this fact. A skilled carpenter produces a better chair than that produced by an unskilled one. That does not mean that the product of the unskilled carpenter has no value.. To say or imply, however, that all styles of music display equal creativity or intrinsic value is more a reflection of the thinking of our age than a truth. There is a reason why people still listen to J.S.Bach and why medieval cathedrals still stand. Can we say the same will be true a thousand years from now about the worship music and spaces many write and build today?

  • Was the 1200 surveyed a random sampling of this population group or was it primarily from those currently connected with a worshipping community?

    • Thom Rainer says on

      The sampling was the total population group. There was a subset as you described, but it accounted for only about 15% of the total.

  • Mostly right on. The one thing is your first point. The Getty’s songs are great and all, but … “taken the Millenials by storm”??? I don’t think so, and the ccli charts/billboard charts/etc simply don’t show that.

    That position is held by Chris Tomlin and Matt Redman. And though I really enjoy their songs (plus the Worship Together/Hillsong music, that makes up the rest of the CCLI top 25 for the most part), I’m not sure I’d say these songs are theologically rich and deep.

    The Getty’s music tends to sit better in a more blended service – blended in music and blended in age. Not a millenial-mostly church.

    Unless I’m missing something here!

  • While I am thankful to God that the Millennials want rich content, authenticity, and spiritual quality to their worship, I wonder at the many statements regarding the types of churches they will or will not attend.

    It seems like they are abandoning the churches God in which they grew up instead of doing the difficult work of engaging them patiently and humbly regarding the truths above (content, authenticity, quality). Further, do the Millennials believe that they are stronger, more spiritually mature than the previous generation? Do they think they do not have much to learn from them? That’s not normally how things work. Usually one generation is strong in one thing while the next is strong in another. Together they are stronger—unless one side abandons the call to exhort one another while it is still today.

    So for rich content: Why not patiently and humbly appeal to the worship leader to sing songs of greater depth? Why not make it a priority to sacrificially disciple the worship team?

    For authenticity: Hypocrites are authentically caught in the desire to please people. Why not model authentic worship? Why not build relationships with hypocrites to see if God might be gracious to them and they might repent? OR, if the worship team is beleaguered, exhausted from their many practices, why not join up and add some strength to the team?

    For quality: Why not be a patient voice that calls for a holistic quality to music (i.e. spiritual and musical preparation), not expecting change in one or two years, but five or ten? How about hosting a prayer time for the worship team at your house, sparing no expense in showing your love for those who are attempting lead worship every week?

    If Millennials abandon their churches in their time of spiritual need, then they are also culpable for loving them too little. They may lack the patient love of Christ. Please Millenials, for the sake of the Church of God, patiently and steadfastly love your church!

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