‘Millennials’ are those born somewhere between the late 1970’s and the mid-1990’s. Researchers are often perplexed regarding what makes millennials ‘tick,’ and churches often wonder how they might better attract millennials to their churches and make them feel welcome.
Although I am no expert on the aforementioned topic, I am considered a millennial. The greater portion of my life was spent surrounded by millennials. Several churches where I was a member were filled with millennials. My entire educational career was spent around millennials. So I have noticed some trends with millennials which generally hold true regardless of their geographical or educational background.
Here are three things I have noticed about millennials when it comes to worshiping God through song:
1. Millennials care more about the lyrical content of songs than they do about the music.
Millennials are quick to set aside their musical preferences. Most have been forced to do so because the older members of the church have always ‘called the shots’ regarding song selection in worship. So, as a trade off, millennials began focusing more upon the actual words of the songs than they did on the music.
Unfortunately, churches often elevate the importance of a particular tune over the importance of a song’s words. So they end up singing songs like In the Garden, a ‘favorite’ that has virtually nothing to do with biblical truth. In fact, the song mentions the ‘Son of God’ only one time and is apparently about an extra-biblical, mystical experience in a garden.
Contrast that with the millennial favorite Behold Our God, a song that speaks clearly of the greatness of our God and the sacrifice of King Jesus in actual biblical terms. The music is good too.
2. Millennials desire to sing to God more than they desire to sing about ‘churchy’ themes.
Many of the songs we sing in worship are about God rather than to God. There’s nothing wrong with that. The song above, Behold Our God, is an example of a song that is about God. When we sing God’s truth about God, we are caught up into his greatness and glory through the grace of the gospel. Our hearts are moved to worship through reflection upon his character.
However, in many churches we sing songs that lack doctrinal substance and are not directed toward God at all. Most songs about heaven fit into this category. Certainly there is nothing wrong with singing songs about heaven, but when we spend more time and effort singing nice things about ourselves, and never actually sing to God, what are we worshiping?
Consider the popular song Sweet Hour of Prayer. The song speaks of a believer’s joyous experience of prayer. Not really bad, in and of itself. But if prayer is so sweet, why do we focus on talking – or in this case singing – so much about it instead of actually doing it? When we sing songs directed toward God we are actually praying to him!
3. Millennials are drawn to the authenticity of ancient faith and practice.
One of the biggest myths out there is that older church folk like the ‘old hymns’ and ‘this younger generation’ likes ‘contemporary’ songs. Lots of people are quick to point out that every song was, at some point, considered ‘contemporary.’ Fair enough, but I want to make a slightly different point.
Three of my favorite hymns are And Can it Be?, A Mighty Fortress is Our God, and Be Thou My Vision. We sang these songs in two of the churches where I used to be a member. Both of those churches were made up of a significant number of millennials. In fact, we sang these songs rather frequently. We had A Mighty Fortress is Our God sung at our wedding. A page from an old hymn book with Be Thou My Vision printed on it hangs on the wall in my study. You should realize that I really love these songs. But it’s not just me. Other millennials do as well, and…
I haven’t sung a single one of them in almost four years…at two different churches.
In fact, I’ve learned that many people in my ministry context have never even heard of these songs. Think about that for a minute. Three of my favorite hymns…hymns that many other millennials love as well…are completely unknown to many older church members.
Look, music is not the sum and substance of worship by any means, but it’s no wonder we are watching our churches grow older and smaller. The generations of worshipers in our churches are radically, and I would say even sinfully, disconnected from one another. The oversimplified myth that older people prefer ‘the old hymns’ and younger people prefer ‘contemporary worship songs’ needs to die. It’s simply not true.
And Can it Be? was written in 1738.
A Mighty Fortress is Our God was written in 1529.
Be Thou My Vision was written in the 8th century.
When I attended churches that were full of younger people, we sang older songs like the ones mentioned above. When I moved my membership to churches where millennials are by far a minority in the church, I learned very quickly that we mostly sing songs written between the 1890’s and 1990’s. Those aren’t old hymns. They’re modern gospel songs.
Millennials are looking for something authentic. When we limit our worship to songs that were written in our grandparents’ generation, we don’t get that authenticity. The 1900’s, with its big industry, mass marketing, church growth movement, and phony televangelists was anything but authentic. The ancient Church has much more to offer. Christians have written hymns and spiritual songs for over 2,000 years now, and before that we had the Psalms.
Not that a hymns needs to be old to be good.
So What Do We Do?
People usually want to blame all the world’s ills on their song leaders. God bless those men and women! Your song leader is probably not the problem.
The congregation must change. Not theologically, not demographically, but organically.
Millennials in churches made up of predominantly older folks often feel like they’re invisible. Most people do not know, and sometimes do not care, about the preferences of millennials at all. When millennials do speak up, it’s seen as rebellious, whiny, offensive, or even ungodly. The preferences of older folks usually take precedence. Millennials must be ready to sacrifice their preferences on the altar of loving their older neighbors who may prefer a different type of music. They may even need to overlook the theologically anemic lyrics of some of the ‘favorites’ of older members for the sake of Christian unity.
But older members should genuinely consider if millennials may be onto something in their longing for meaningful, biblically-saturated, Christ-centered songs in worship, songs that are directed toward God, and have stood the test of time. Millennials want to know that you genuinely love them. Don’t be surprised when they’re turned off by people who want them to sing In the Garden, but complain if it’s even suggested that you try to learn some hymns that were written well before your time. We had to learn every other song we know now. Laziness isn’t an excuse for failing to love other people.