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Chris Thompson: What do millennials look for in worship?

Chris Thompson
ERIK HILL / Anchorage Daily News Chris Thompson, church visits blogger, photographed in ADN studio on Thursday evening, January 23, 2014. Erik Hill

For some years, churches have been wrestling with how to attract millennials. This term refers to those born between the early 1980s and the early 2000s. They are sometimes referred to as Generation Y. Or, they are characterized as the boomerang generation. This is because they've exhibited tendencies of moving back in with their parents, marrying late or having difficulty starting their careers.

Several years ago, Pew Research Center in its research study "Millennials: A Portrait of Generation Next" documented the fact that millennials are less religious, with only 15 percent of the study participants indicating that "living a very religious life" was one of the most important things in their lives. By comparison 52 percent felt "being a good parent," and 30 percent indicated "having a good marriage" was important.

Millennials number 79 million in the U.S. and represent the critical 14-34 age segment of the U.S. population. Churches are duly interested in this group as it constitutes the next generation of those who could be a significant part of church life now, and in the future. Thom Rainer, who researches church life and effectiveness with an organization called LifeWay, recently commented in a blog post, "What Worship Style Attracts the Millennials," on what three things matter most to millennials with regard to worship. Rainer points out that "style" of worship is not their focus.

1. "They desire the music to have rich content. Millennials 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 millennials by storm. Their music reflects those deep and rich theological truths," Rainer wrote.

As a result of the worship services I attend in Anchorage, I often comment about the weak theological content of the music being performed in these churches, often contemporary Christian. In some cases it's musical pablum, invariably with endless repetition.

By contrast, here's an example of a Keith and Kristyn Getty lyric for a beautiful contemporary hymn:

"When trials come no longer fear/ For in the pain our God draws near/ To fire a faith worth more than gold/ And there His faithfulness is told/ And there His faithfulness is told

"Within the night I know Your peace/ The breath of God brings strength to me/ And new each morning mercy flows/ As treasures of the darkness grow/ As treasures of the darkness grow.

"I turn to Wisdom not my own/ For every battle You have known/ My confidence will rest in You/ Your love endures Your ways are good/ Your love endures Your ways are good.

"When I am weary with the cost/ I see the triumph of the cross/ So in its shadow I shall run/ Till He completes the work begun/ Till He completes the work begun.

"One day all things will be made new/ I'll see the hope You called me to/ And in your kingdom paved with gold/ I'll praise your faithfulness of old/I'll praise your faithfulness of old."

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."

Often I find and write about local worship services lacking authenticity. There's no spontaneity, and participation by clergy and participants can be rote. Often it feels as though the church has an hour, an hour and a half, or two hours to fill and they'll do it any way they can. In my last column, I wrote about a church service where Church B exhibited a truly authentic, godly service, and many contacted me to find out who they were. People are hungry for a truly great worship service.

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."

Frequently I experience churches with quantity worship services. Huge amounts of music are presented with the volume turned up to 11, lots of show and spectacular showmanship. It's not uncommon to hear 30 to 45 minutes of such performances. The sermons are overkill with an hour or more of rhetoric, by pastors too busy to adequately prepare for them through adequate study and prayer. Rainer is saying millennials are passing these churches by.

Instead, they're going 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."

Rainer's thoughts offer huge challenges and opportunities for churches to attract this significant group. Will it happen? I surely hope so.

Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who visits local churches and writes about his experiences and matters of faith on his blog, Church Visits, at adn.com/churchvisits.