Postmodern, Millennial Generation, Generation Y…leave it to the older generation to make a name for the next generation. For this article, let’s call them millennials, kids born between 1980 and the early 2000’s. This is the age group who are currently defining our popular culture, growing into leaders and constantly looking at their smart phones! They have never known a world without an Internet, cell phones, texting, and HD streaming video. But millennials are defined by more than just technology. Compared to the older generation X, they are generally more focused on relationships and community, and less driven by the idea of climbing the corporate ladder. They want control of their life, their time, their activities, and their future.
As a teacher and mentor of college age students, I have noticed another important, maybe the most important, uniqueness about millennials: they want authenticity. They can spot a phony from a mile away and they will dismiss them in a heartbeat. They want to “keep it real” in their personal life and they want the same from their church.
So what makes millennial generation worship different? It has to be real, and it has to be real in two ways:
At the core, millennials aren’t really different than any other generation; different things have influenced them so they have different expectations in life…and in worship. Yes, they think they are right (or even cooler) than previous generations. But we all did, didn’t we? No matter what generation you’re in, we all think our tastes are just a little better than the kids’. We’ve all heard our parents tell us to “turn the music down,” “…music isn’t good anymore,” “…they don’t make good movies these days,” etc. Our parents weren’t right and neither are we! We are all products of our culture and we all have different tastes. Musical taste is completely subjective.
But musical taste has always been a key factor that defines any generation. If our goal is to reach out to the millennials, or another other demographic, we need to speak their language. As worship leaders, that language is primarily music. What music should we play? How should worship sound? What is our goal during the worship portion of our service? Who are we trying to reach? What is our desired outcome of the church experience?
When asking questions like these, it’s easy to pull a Jesus Juke (Definition=to spiritualize an argument, often with out-of-context scripture as a rationalization), call it a day and keep doing the songs the church has always done. But the reality is that only 2 of 10 millennials consider church attendance important, and more than 1/3 of them take an anti-church stance. We have to address the questions with a sense of outreach to this generation and design worship services that are appealing to them, without compromising doctrine. This is where musical taste, genres, and style come in.
Remember, Millennials are the current generation, and they are craving authenticity. What music is the current generation listening to? And no… the answer isn’t just Christian CCM and worship music! They listen to and like what is trending in popular culture too. As I listen to the Billboard Hot 100 songs (be careful!), and then the Christian/Gospel chart, I see a big gap between what is selling in culture and what we are doing in our churches or even on the radio. Granted, we have come a long way in Christian music, but we need to keep aiming toward that moving target of cultural relevance.
I know I have over simplified this. While the Billboard Hot 100 does represent the largest portion of the millennial demographic, there are many other genres and subcultures within this generation as well as musical differences based on region, country, demographic, etc. My challenge to you is to find out what’s really on your congregation’s iPod. What radio station do they listen to when they leave church? What songs, besides worship, do they have fun singing with their friends? Then consider how you could produce your worship sound to reflect their tastes a little better.
Some great examples of bands doing this well are Hillsong Young & Free for the dance music crowd, Citizens and some of the other bands from Mars Hill Music for the indie sound, and All Sons and Daughters for the modern folk.
The other piece of the question of what makes millennial generation worship different is the heart. It is authenticity. It is being real. You have to be real. You have to be you. I’m 47 and teach and lead college students. I’m not as cool as students, but I don’t try to be “cool”. I respect them, show interest in them, listen to them, and am transparent with them. I love their culture and I am real with them. That gives me credibility and permission to speak into what they do. Millennials are open to what older generations have to say, as long as you are authentic. You can’t trick them.
I’ll go back to the example of Hillsong Young & Free. Here is a live video of them leading worship at summer camp:
Why is this “real” for a millennial?
- The lyrics are transparent and about their personal relationship with God.
- They jump around on stage. Why? Because they are excited and love God. It would be hypocritical to jump around and scream at a sporting event or dance club but then not do the same or more for God.
- It sounds like dance music. Electronic music is one of the most popular sounds in worldwide pop culture. When these guys make music, they make the sound they are passionate about. Note: It’s actually a mixture of dance music and rock/pop.
- The service is highly produced with a lot of lights, and the video shoot is fast moving. This is what this generation has grown up with. It is what is in culture all around us everyday.
Rather than conforming to tradition, Young & Free is embracing their generation’s culture and creating a worship experience that is real and relevant to their demographic. They accomplish this with no compromise in the message of the Gospel.
I love this generation. They have big hearts, love community, and are socially conscious. They demand authenticity and I think they have great taste in music. I pray as leaders, we will meet them where they are, be real and transparent with them, and inspire them to use their unique gifts and characteristics to change worship.