What Millennials Want in Worship

The collective wisdom of denominational analysts, church leadership gurus and congregational consultants is that Millennials reject traditional worship music in favor of contemporary music and churches that want to reach them must adjust their style of worship accordingly. I’m not so sure.


The millennial generation is the age cohort born from the 1980s through the early 2000s. Now coming into their own, Millennials are raising families and moving in large numbers into the workforce and positions of authority throughout the country.


But it’s from the perspective of religion that Millennials occupy such a strategic place for the church because so many studies seem to say that the group as a whole is rejecting religion—or at least the traditional religion of their parents.


I blogged a couple of months ago about my experience in the opposite direction. As a local pastor I see much more interest from Millennials in religion than the surveys indicate. I’ve discovered this age group to be as passionate about Jesus and as willing to invest themselves in local church ministry as any other age group, maybe more so. I’ve even found many of them to be unusually committed and capable church leaders.


Much of the connection Millennials have with the church is determined by the style of music used in worship


It’s a puzzling situation that the surveys show a declining interest in religion while at the same time many of us in pastoral ministry see a different situation on the front-lines of ministry. But a crucial piece of the puzzle hasn’t been talked about enough—the role music plays in the overall equation. I believe much of the connection Millennials have with the church is determined by the style of music used in worship.


Here’s where things get interesting. The prevailing opinion is that Millennials respond to contemporary worship music because it reflects the rock music they listened to growing up and continue to enjoy as adults. The mega-churches that more and more dominate the American church landscape seem to bear this out because almost all of them use only contemporary music in their worship.


Contemporary, traditional, gospel, liturgical, classical, blue-grass—there’s room in worship for all these and more


But there’s more to it, and many people and congregations are moving away from a purely contemporary worship to include other styles and traditions. Contemporary, traditional, gospel, liturgical, classical, blue-grass—there’s room in worship for all these and more. Millennials of all the different age groups within the church get that.


At least that’s we’re discovering at my church. We’ve wrestled with our worship style for several years and finally have come to a place in worship best described as “multi-generational,” integrating elements from all styles into a voice uniquely our own. It’s not perfect, and it doesn’t please everyone. But it’s turned out to be a style of worship that has a particular attraction for Millennials.


Here are some things I’ve learned about what Millennials want in worship music:


  • They want life. The style of music isn’t nearly as important as the experience of real spiritual vibrancy and life. Our folks sing the hymn “How Great Thou Art” with as much passion as they do Bethel Music’s “Spirit Break Out” because both songs have life.


  • They like volume. This is maybe the biggest point of contention between the generations and is something we continue to deal with. But the fact is that Millennials like loud music better than soft music.


  • They respond to multi-generational congregations. Worship being segregated by age is as repugnant to them as it is to separate it by race. A congregation filled with only white hair is no more attractive than one with nothing but young adults wearing skinny jeans. They’re drawn to worship that includes both.


  • They want worship that appeals to their children, participatory worship where people stand, express worship through the lifting of hands and demonstrate through their emotions what they believe in their heads.


  • They value excellence and authenticity at the same time. The millennial generation listens to music continually on their phones, in their car, at work and at home. They know when it’s done well and when it’s not. They also know the difference between heart-felt, authentic music and music that’s nothing more than performance.


  • They don’t like traditional hymns—except when they do. The growing use of hymns at events like the Passion Conference as well as by many younger worship leaders in their concerts are clear evidence of the return of hymns as an integral part of worship.


  • They want substance. Millennials are always stirred by the Bible and worship songs of all genres are most valued when they directly reflect the words of Scripture.


Millennials are vitally interested in religion and in the church, and understanding how they feel about worship music is key for congregations that want to be more effective in reaching them.