A Millennials Honest View of Worship

What Do Millennials Really Think About Worship?

WorshipDeeper.com had the privilege of interviewing Kyle Smith from the popular blog Swinging from Grapevines. His blog post “Please Stop Telling Us Why We’re Leaving the Church” about Millennials and faith went viral and put his blog on the map. That’s why I was so pleased when he accepted my request to share his personal thoughts on his generation’s real views on worship. So get ready to have your preconceptions challenged.

–Tim from WorshipDeeper.com

WD: In your popular blog post Please Stop Telling Us Why We’re Leaving the Church, you make a great point that the church is not feeding the minds of more highly educated Millennials. Are Millennials also bored with modern worship music, or are worship artists/worship leaders doing a better job introducing more thought-provoking songs?

Kyle: First off, I’d like to start with a disclaimer. In any of these questions I can’t begin to claim to speak for all Millennials everywhere. I can only speak from my own experiences and interactions, so here is a bit of information about my own context to help you better understand my answers. If you are from a different context and have experiences in the area of Millennials and worship please share your stories! I know I would love to hear them and I’m certain that Worship Deeper wants to hear them too.

Some about my context: I am a white, 23 year-old (at the time of writing this), pastor’s kid, who grew up in a conservative, Evangelical, Christian home in Northern Indiana. The church I grew up in was a small, conservative, Evangelical, country church loosely affiliated with the Anabaptist tradition. After high school, I went to Greenville College, in Greenville, Illinois, which is a small Christian college connected to the Free Methodist denomination. There I studied music, religion, and philosophy, eventually graduating with a Youth Ministry degree – thinking I was going to work as a youth pastor. I started working as the youth director for a small country church quite similar to the one I grew up in, but left that position within a year for many of the reasons outlined in the blog post mentioned above. I am now pursuing a career in music, and you can read more about this change here.

My answer to question,  personally, I have been bored with worship/CCM music for a long time. There’s only so many ways you can say, “We love God *THIS* much!” and I feel like they’ve all been used to a point far past cliché. It’s been this way for a while, and it doesn’t really show much sign of stopping from what I can tell. Granted, I’m out of the CCM loop. I actually stopped listening to and paying attention to the CCM scene a while ago and really haven’t missed it. I would learn new songs as needed when I was playing for church, but I really didn’t care much about them other than playing them week-to-week.

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WD: So, what about hymns? There’s been a great resurgence over the past few years. Do Millennials enjoy singing hymns if done in a modern style? What do you think is driving increasing popularity of modern hymns?

Kyle: I know that hymns have always resonated deeply with me, but I’m certain that this has more to do with my church growing up than anything else. We were a small country church, deep in Mennonite territory where there is a rich hymn singing tradition. So hymns evoke childhood memories for me.

In broader terms, I think that a lot of hymns are examples of songs that last for a reason. They are still around hundreds of years after writing mostly because they are well-written and speak to themes that resonate with people. It’s the same argument that classic rock/oldies radio stations use for marketing: “The Greatest Music of Forever!”  Such thinking causes people to pontificate about the good-ol’ days, “They just don’t make good musicians anymore! I weep for the generation that listened to Bieber instead of the Beatles!” When it’s really just music that’s been filtered through for forty years, and we’ve casually forgotten about all the crap that was written during that time that didn’t last. (Case in point, how many of you already casually forgot about last summer’s phenomenon –  “#SELFIE” by The Chainsmokers – until I just mentioned it?) Music everywhere, not just in the Church, oscillates between periods of new creativity and revering music that feels timeless. CCM is played out, has been for a while, so more timeless songs like hymns are on the upswing. In about 5-10 years, this will probably be reversed, it’s hard to tell.

WD: Describe the perfect musical worship set for Millennials. What’s the right mix of upbeat and contemplative songs? Is the preferred style electric guitar based, acoustic, or something else? Does any of that matter, or is there some other element Millennials look for in worship?

Kyle: I think this question misses the point entirely, and reveals something about how church leadership misses the point when they approach Millennials. We want a seat at the table in our own communities to help create positive, sustainable change. We’re smart, we can see what’s going on in our communities and we have good ideas on how to fix them. But instead of church leaders doing the hard work of going and asking individuals in their communities about what they would like to see happen in their churches, and *actually* listening, they’d rather have a representative, faceless voice on a blog speaking for a million people. It’s like the college board of all old, white, men pulling a black woman in to speak for black people and women everywhere as a “diversity double whammy.”

I’m not trying to insult this interview, by saying this, I thank Worship Deeper for the opportunity and hope it will lead to more, better discussions within congregations. What I am doing is urging church leaders and churchgoers who read this not to stop at reading this and pretend like you understand Millennials. Go talk to Millennials in your personal community. Ask them about their hopes, dreams, passions, what changes they want to see in the world. I’m certain you will get some good ideas, make sure you have the guts to follow through.

Millennials are an incredibly diverse generation, and we have embraced that diversity. The one unifying identifier I have encountered in people my age is a desire to be listened to as an individual person, not a faceless member in the mass of people.

So I guess the answer to the question is I think one the major things missing in a lot of Church worship services is diversity authentically built in the life of the community. For too long people have looked at what successful churches throughout the nation are doing and try to replicate it, thinking it will magically increase attendance. Don’t try and do what other people are already doing better. Go ask people in the congregation their specific ideas for your specific community, and actually *listen* to their ideas.

WD: On that subject, your blog talks about the great ideas Millennials have for churches…but nobody’s listening. Let’s say a pastor suddenly gave you free reign to change worship in whatever way you wanted. You not only can change the style but any element of it. What would the worship program look like when you were done?

Kyle: As stated above, it would completely depend on the church. I would want it to be an authentic representation of the congregation.

One thing I personally would like to see is more of in worship services is room for confusion and lament. As stated in an earlier question, we get it, we love God so much that we want to write songs riddled with middle school romance cliches. There is more to a relationship with God than just that. There’s screaming “What the F%&#?!?” when you’re angry at God and want change in your life and in the world. There’s saying, “I have absolutely no clue if you exist God.”

There’s even saying, “This is way too early in the morning, I’m still a little hungover from last night, the coffee wasn’t good, neither is the band, and to top it all off there’s a screaming child in the pew next to me. Why the hell did I come to church today instead of staying in bed? These people are just going to try and make me have some sort of epic emotional experience, I’m very uncomfortable with the whole thing and just want sleep”.

These are all legitimate emotions to have in a worship service – just as legitimate as “we love God *THIS* much!” However, it’s obvious that not many songs are currently being written about these emotions or worship space other than singing being created for these emotions to be validated.

These are scary things to deal with, but they are intrinsically part of the human experience. When we ignore them, we create a sense of denial about the world (how many sermons have we heard about how “Christians should be the happiest people on Earth”?) I think once we begin to engage all of these crazy, scary, messy aspects of human life with honesty in our worship, our worship will take on a whole new life.

Here’s an example of a song written and performed by a former classmate of mine, that I think captures the honesty I’m talking about. This particular song probably wouldn’t work well in a congregational singing setting, but why not write songs for congregational singing that capture the same honest confusion and lament? Why not create times in worship services for voicing emotions other than, “Hooray! Jesus Loves Me!”

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WD: I agree that sometimes there’s a disconnect between real, honest life and what we’re “allowed” to sing about in worship. Does this inconsistency or any other factor turn off Millennials when it comes to modern worship? On that note, how should the churchgoer explain worship to someone who is not yet a Christ-follower?

Kyle: I honestly have yet to figure out how to explain church music well to people, even to regular churchgoers. Worship services are weird. Plain and simple. Why are we all standing around trying to sing in unison to some unseen person or force? Why are there people having weird emotional breakdowns? It’s weird to me, and I’ve been inside the Christian bubble for most of my life.

I think the best description of the purpose of worship services was given to me by a college professor who described worship like a jazz musician practicing scales. The musician goes over this practice day after day so that when in a performance situation the musician can instinctively improvise notes that go well with what else is going on musically. The church practices week after week to teach people how to improvise well in life. A more in-depth discussion about this analogy of worship is probably in order, but also probably outside the bounds of this particular interview. If you are curious about this idea I would highly recommend the book Improvisation by Samuel Wells – where he uses the tradition of theatrical improvisation as a model for living Christian ethics.

WD: On the flip side, what are ways in which Millennials can use the musical part of a church service to invite friends?

Kyle: Here’s a possible elevator pitch, “Enjoy drunken karaoke on Saturday night? Here’s something more uncomfortable and performed worse. And oh, by the way, you’re sober, and it’s ridiculously early in the morning.” Now, this is in jest, but, seriously people, pretty much everyone has access to better and more engaging musical events in more fun venues throughout the week unless your local music scene is non-existent. Like I said above, church music is weird, even for those well acquainted with the church. Why would anyone want to come to this weird performance mostly by amateurs?

I don’t think the music of a church should be a part of the marketing, even if it is good, because there are million other places people can experience better music that makes them feel less weird and uncomfortable. The only exception I can think of right now – and I’m certain there’s others – is if you are talking to new musicians and offering them a low-key place to begin performing on a regular basis. This is a unique service that the church can offer the community and actually do better than anywhere else in the area. That’s the idea I’m trying to get at through this answer, people have access to tons of other, better services than what most churches are offering,  give people one, specific, unique, *real* reason to actually show up to church, and then people might actually start to be interested in inviting others.

WD: Taking this question down a different path, do Millennials have any desire to invite friends and co-workers to church (assuming a good church), or is there a more effective way Millennials are sharing about Christ?

Kyle: Personally, I don’t really have a desire to invite friends to church. Largely due to the fact that I have encountered so few churches doing things worth talking about in a positive way. I know, personally, I would rather just go grab a beer with friends and talk about life in all its facets as it comes up in conversation instead of actively trying to ask new people to come on a Sunday morning week after week. It’s more real, and feels less like a sales pitch because it *is* less like a sales pitch. It’s simply being a good friend instead of trying to force someone to change their religious beliefs. People respect that and will probably be a good friend to you in return. Being a good friend to people, actively and honestly talking about life in all it’s ups and downs, and most important *listening!* over some drinks is a hell of a lot more Christ-like in my book than trying some new marketing campaign to get more people through the doors of a church.

WD: What are some of your favorite worship songs and/or bands out right now?

Kyle: I’ve been out of the CCM loop for so long I honestly couldn’t tell you who’s still playing. As far as bands – not necessarily P&W bands – that were on Christian labels that I like and are playing now, Emery just put out a new album, and I think Haste the Day did too, both of which are pretty cool for Christian labels.

WD: Name some worship songs and/or artists that you grew up with through childhood and youth group.  Are there any shifts in worship, good or bad, since 10 or 15 years ago?

Kyle: Oh geez, all I could think of were songs like “Lord I Lift Your Name on High” “Shine Jesus Shine” and “You Never Let Go.” That probably says something – either about how much I paid attention, or what the songs were like – about the music during that time. I’m certain that if I heard something from that time I’d probably recognize it. I was more of the Christian alt crowd (Tooth and Nail, Solid State) than the P&W crowd anyways back in high school.

Anyways, I’ve found that most CCM moves about 10 – 15 years behind the curve of pop music. Very little musical innovation comes out of CCM labels because of their cautious and restrictive stance on music being “content-driven”. (Check out the book Imagine by Steve Turner for a more in-depth look at how working for CCM labels affects artists’ work). Ten to 15 years ago everyone on the cutting edge of CCM was trying to sound like U2. 5 years ago, everyone on the cutting edge of CCM was trying to sound like a folk-indie band. In 5 years maybe will get some Jesus drum and bass played with a mix of acoustic and computer instruments like Big Gigantic, Moon Hooch, or Nerve. In 10-15 years we’ll probably be hearing bright disco guitar like in Get Lucky, funk bass like in Uptown Funk, and big 80s-esque drums like in Pompeii.

WD: How do you think musical worship in churches will change in coming years? What does a worship service look like in five or 10 years? Do you think Millennials will have had something to do with those changes?

Kyle: I honestly have no idea what a worship service will look like in the coming years and whether or not Millennials will have a part in those changes. That will depend on whether or not the church is actually willing to listen to Millennials.

Some things that I would hope for the future of church services would be:

  • The inclusion of space for emotions like confusion, anger, fear, and lament like I discussed above
  • The discontinuation of perpetuating the idea that you need expensive equipment and software for a great worship service, there are plenty of open-source hardware and software options out there that can achieve the same if not better results as the premium equipment. An example: For visuals, stop using things like ProPresenter because everybody else is using it and start getting people in the congregation to learn how to program their own Processing sketches. The results will be more meaningful to the congregation and the community as a whole. Open-source options are more customizable to your congregation’s needs – making them a more accurate representation of your congregation instead of just doing what all the other churches are doing – and you have something unique and real to offer the community – local art, an opportunity to learn a valuable skill – both things talked about above as desired elements of a worship service.
  • I would like to see worship services become more tangible. Eat and drink more together. The Church has the tangible traditions of the sacraments. Use them! Don’t let worship solely be a mental or emotional activity. Lean into the physicality of your humanness and enjoy it as a gift from God and uphold earthy, tangible things as holy. Just an idea of how to do that in music – explore the area of digital music created by touch. There are inexpensive ways to create such an interface that makes any surface a playable, digital instrument like the mug of water in this video (here are the instructions of how to create the instrument). Imagine a prelude for a service that was music generated by congregants walking into the room and playing in a basin of water that created music as a way to remember baptism. That’s just one quite simple, and easily, inexpensively obtained methods of applying these types of ideas. So many cool ways of engaging the body tangibly, why are we not utilizing these things?

Thank you for your questions, and I hope that I’ve provided some food for thought. Above all, I hope you will take my answers to these questions and continue the discussion in your own communities. Remember to listen well! I would love to hear from you. Contact me here!

Thanks for your thoughtful and in-depth answers, Kyle. As Kyle said, let’s continue the discussion. Please leave your comments below and let’s inspire real worship in our churches and communities. 

–Tim

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8 comments on “What Do Millennials Really Think About Worship?Add yours →

  1. This website interests me. I love the work you did on your recent fast songs article – you introduced me to some great new songs – and I agree with your best hymns article. Those are most of the hymns I turn to when I want to draw upon hymns.

    That said, and I hope you don’t take this negatively, but I’m disappointed that you published this particular article, or at least Kyle’s answer to confusion and frustration about God. It reveals his misunderstanding of theological worship as we grapple with hard life issues. I guess it’s helpful in that it places context and qualifiers on his other answers.

    People don’t go to worship or church to hear the worship leader lead out of anger, frustration, or confusion – he even says doubt in God. Worship leaders have the responsibility to lead in biblical “spirit and truth,” not fleshly emotion and one’s own intellectual wanderings. Now, addressing frustration or doubt leading into an uplifting song (“Some of you may be questioning God, you may be doubting him, but God’s word says he is faithful; even when others fail us, when we fail ourselves, he never fails, and we can trust him…” cue song about God’s faithfulness in our brokenness) is important. The worship leader and the song should only address these concerns to turn confusion to scriptural clarity, doubt to faith. To lead those whose lives sift on sands of emotions rather than the rock of faith to the Word: Christ.

    As a songwriter, we are trained, and should have accountability, for our songs to go through a rigorous process of testing of by others to make sure the theology of each line and message is scripturally sound, but it does reflect the heart of the worshiper through different seasons. Those seasons are human and essential to powerful songs. But the goal is to mature a struggling Christian to become fixed on the person of Jesus and the absolute reliability of his Word, and find rich relationship there.

    Pastors and worship leaders must minister to the real confusion and lament Kyle refers to, but his answer (as well as the song he links) seems to indicate our spiritual aimlessness should characterize the message or tone of the service (because then it would be honest or real) rather than be channeled and disciples to grow in the midst of real confusion, to respond to it in a way that brings spiritual maturity, life, and newness.

    We all struggle. We should be real with them and discuss it. We do at my church. But the answers should always lead us, not the questions. That lifts us beyond the struggle. And songs that reflect that are what we all need.

    I only mention this because I like this website, I’m grateful for it, and I want to trust it when I return.

  2. Thanks for your well thought out comments JP. I agree we need to let answers guide us, not the questions. I debated whether to post the interview as well. It wasn’t without a little bit of thinking “oh man, this isn’t going to go over well with some readers.”

    But in the end I decided that Kyle’s views are representative of a certain segment of the body of Christ. We don’t have to agree with everything here but it is valuable to know the thoughts and feelings of some of our brothers and sisters in Christ. Some of what Kyle was saying reminded me of the words of David himself in Psalm 22:

    “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
    Why are you so far from saving me,
    so far from my cries of anguish?
    My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer,
    by night, but I find no rest.” (NIV)

    Can you imagine David – the guy who ripped apart a bear, lion, and a 9-foot tall Philistine – asking God why he has forsaken him? That’s almost unimaginable and, removing what we know now, unacceptable for a man of God such as David to say.

    Yet it’s what he was feeling and was his reality at the time. These words David uttered were eventually revealed to be prophecy: Christ himself spoke these words as he hung from a wooden crossbeam.

    So all this to say that you can still trust this site to bring you valid and deep thoughts on worship. These thoughts might span the spectrum of the body of Christ and may even offend some at times but hopefully through it all I am encouraging the body of Christ toward deeper worship. Thanks again for your thoughts.

  3. Thanks for your answer, Tim. I hope the word “trust” didn’t imply a strong criticism. I wanted to make my comment as simple and honest as possible, with no underlying passive-aggressiveness or ulterior motive.

    To be honest, I only found your site last week. And I think I understand your answer. The song “Blessed Be Your Name” comes to mind with the line “You give and take away”, which is hard for some to swallow. But it’s biblical; it’s the point of the song: blessing God in the midst of any circumstance, even that of deep loss.
    I do think even a why have you forsaken me song doesn’t end there for us, unless it’s a pre-Christmas song to resonate Christ’s loss and sacrifice. We don’t leave the human experience at that point of loss and pain in Christian worship. We are to “encourage one another and build each other up (1 Thes.5:11),” “not neglecting to meet together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another” (Heb.10:24-25).
    The point of assembly is to lift each other up, to stir each other on with the truth. Still, if we pretend life is perfect it becomes superficial and false. I agree with Kyle on that. But an overemphasis on the negativity in an attempt to valid it’s realness is something that shouldn’t be modeled to “catch” millennials (which I am only months outside of), yet we should listen to them, value it, learn from them, but also be willing to help them grow in ways they may need.

    Basically, every generation’s perspective is important, and it may reactively help the church to positively change, but only – and that is the essential – if it is guided by wisdom.

  4. To clarify, David’s lament is biblical, as well as Christ’s, of course, but it is an individual’s statement of reaching for God and questioning him in despair. A pastor who gave a sermon about how he doubts God or is angry with God, without a biblical answer to it, wouldn’t be doing anyone any favors.
    Neither would a worship set of doubt or frustration toward God. It’s a biblical, real feeling or thought. A friend sits with another in it, because they are valid to the human experience, but I don’t believe it’s one to be the goal of a service.

  5. I only found this site yesterday, and have spent several hours on it today, mostly because I’m considering stepping into the role of music director, and I want to be as well-prepared as possible.

    I read “Kyle”s Q&A w/you, and had near identical thoughts as JP. Yes, we all have emotional struggles we have to work through on a daily basis. But church is where we come together as the body of Christ and learn how to overcome those struggles through the power and saving grace of Jesus Christ. Certainly we should be allowed to ask those thought provoking questions of who are you God, where are you, why am I going through this struggle, etc. (After all, God tells us to “Come and let us reason together…” Isaiah 1:18). But at the end of those questions, we want, and need, to be comforted by God’s assurances as found in the Bible, rather than be left in the spin-cycle of turmoil and confusion.

    We should be able to look to the church for Biblical guidance and understanding. And worship (IE praise songs) has a significant role of turning our thoughts about ourselves, to Christ Jesus, who He is, and what His sacrifice accomplished for us.

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