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 am 49 years of age. DEFINITELY not a Millennial! Smack dab between Boomer and Buster in 1964. Yet, the three things you list as what is desired by Millennials in worship are what I desire in worship. As a former music director/worship leader, I struggle with churches who STILL haven’t understood that the music “ministry” is MORE than just a performance ministry. It MUST be a MINISTRY!

    Singing a song perfectly, with the rhythms and notes written on a sheet of music has very little to do with worship leadership and more to do with music education and training. Yes, we are to be developing QUALITY, but not at the expense of the experience of worship. We need to be HONEST in our deep gratitude and love for God, wanting to give our best to Him, but so in love with Him that we stumble over our offering to get closer to Him.

    Thank you, Dr. Rainer, for bringing up this topic… at the risk of facing change in your church, and change in churches across the nation. I pray that churches will see the need to shift further away from music education and performance and closer to the language of love which worship is to become.

  • Shalom Wilson says on

    Absolutely! As long as the message in the songs are Biblically sound, what does it matter what music it is set to? The very most important thing to me, as a Millennial and as a Christian, is that worship, sermon, music, service, teaching, and missions are Jesus focused. That is what works and what brings everything in to focus and perspective.

  • So true!!! Having been born in 1988 & being a part of this generation, this is VERY accurate.

  • I was born in 1988. I’ve been to countless churches of many denominations, both Catholic and Protestant, throughout the U.S. I also went to college for music education. I have never been turned off of a church by a style of music. The only thing relating to music that I have turned away from is when it looked more like an act. This supports the general comments in the article about authenticity of worship. I honestly think that most of the “contemporary” push is from people who are my parents’ ages…maybe assuming they know what young adults and teens want, maybe ascribing their own desires to the Millennials’.

    I cannot speak for all Millennials, but what I’ve noticed that is preventing my generation from joining a particular church (besides what was listed in the article) is the lack of belonging. I’m not talking about hearing “our music,” or getting overly-excited greetings from other members. I’m talking about an invitation and an outlet to take part in the church beyond Sunday service/mass. For me, it has been easy, because just about every church has some sort of choir/music group that I can jump into. Others, though, are left out of groups, especially those of us who are over 18 and childless. It may seem hard to have groups that welcome an age range that is made up of students who are going to and from college, moving around, odd work hours, etc., but it doesn’t have to be. Here are some of my suggestions:
    -Service groups composed of all ages are a great possibility. They can be more project-based, so you don’t have to be available at 4 pm every Thursday to participate. They allow participants to grow in a relationship with other members, and the best part is that it puts faith into action.

    -Bible studies that already exist within a congregation could be more open. Make them more publicized, let the congregation know that “adult,” “men’s,” or “women’s” Bible study means 18+, not 40+. If possible, be flexible with attendance. Most importantly, let there be open, raw discussion.

    -Churches with smaller numbers of young adults could have an inter-church young adult group. Careful, though, we want it to be more than just hang out time. It’s hard to justify leaving other obligations to go play volleyball if there’s not a bigger goal in mind.

    -Invite more young adults to take leadership roles in existing activities. Of course they have a sign-up, but sometimes a little push from someone who’s been involved with it helps. “You mean you actually want my help?” Think of how rewarding it will be for the entire congregation if young adults took more active leadership roles in children’s and teen’s groups. Think of how this music debate would have been resolved much sooner if there was a young adult on your church board who said, “I don’t think that part matters to us.”

    We want churches that feel like home. Places where we can love God and others, grow, serve, have responsibility (and a voice), and COME HOME TO (even when we’re away from our real home).

    • Great comments. I’ve been reading Ken Hemphill’s “Revitalizing the Sunday Morning Dinosaur”, in which he makes the case that Sunday School is still a viable outreach tool when used properly. The trouble is not with Sunday School as such, but the fact that we no longer use it in the way it was intended. Studies show that the vast majority of people come to a church not because of the style of worship or because of events, but because a friend invited them. As you stated so well, there’s simply no substitute for that “personal touch”.

  • Shawn Allee says on

    I am 28. Many people I know are around my age (who would of thought). The idea of music that you have presented is a good one. As you have said quality matters. In my, non-expert, opinion it deals more with the congregation than the worship style. Worship style is a more secondary thought. It comes down more to how the people will welcome/reach out to the ones they they are trying to impress. I have found more loyalty to Christ and the local church based more on how a congregation will welcome the mentioned age group.

    If “my group” of people enter into a great set and speaker but feel no community you will see them leave or attend elsewhere. Yes, we have our preference of music that we enjoy to hear, and we have a particular form of preaching we might like but overall if a church shows how to be the body of Christ, then we will stick around and be a part of the body. Include us, don’t exclude us.

    Overall great article. Thank you for your discussion with your daughter as it is very insightful too. Have a great day.

  • I completely agree! Let’s stop arguing over the superficial and go deeper! Not only will depth of theology and quality attract and retain Millennials, but it will improve the worship experience for all generations.

    May I add also that Millennials should be asked to contribute to the worship experience. While it’s great to sing Getty, Tomlin and Jesus Culture, give young adults the opportunity to express their creativity with original music and lyrics – but don’t stop there – allow for creative expression through all the arts – dance, paint, drama, etc. Community participation is essential in our churches.

  • Can someone please explain “Theologically deep” please? Thanks!

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