Millennials and Their Paradoxical Desires for Worship

Last week, the Barna Group released a free sample chapter from their report “Making Space for Millennials: A Blueprint for Your Culture, Ministry, Leadership and Facilities.” The chapter is about worship spaces, but the results have many general takeaways.

As part of the study, Millennials were presented with two words and asked to indicate which describes their “ideal” church. The results appear full of contradictions:

– 67% prefer classic over trendy, while 60% prefer modern over traditional
– 77% prefer a sanctuary to an auditorium, while 64% prefer casual to dignified
– 56% prefer performance to ritual, while 78% prefer community to privacy
–  67% prefer quiet to loud and 60% prefer relaxed to exciting, while 78% prefer upbeat to low-key

What is going on?! Are Millennials out of their minds? Is this just another example of their wanting it all? Or is it perhaps the result of the generation being mostly “unchurched” and thus only having random, unconnected church experiences from real life and pop culture?

This information can seem very paradoxical and is likely frustrating to some pastors and church leaders–especially those from older generations. Just tell me what you want!

When you dig into the meat of the sample, you find qualitative responses which add expression to the numbers. While “modern” was ideal for three out of five Millennials in the vacuum of picking between two concepts, when respondents were taken to visit both a modern space and a cathedral, some expressed that the cathedral emphasized to them how little the modern space seemed to point to God. One respondent described it as a bait-and-switch–it seemed as though the modern building was trying to hide the fact that it was a church. Not good when you remember that “authentic” is the buzzword associated with Millennials.

On the other hand, a cathedral-like space was for some intense and intimidating, especially among those who did not identify as religious. It offered no touch-points and no familiarity with the rest of their lives. They reported worrying about whether or not they would fit in. Now sure, we are supposed to be set apart and do things differently, but if someone cannot imagine fitting in, this is going to be a massive hindrance in reaching a generation that overwhelmingly reports that they desire community.

Obviously, these concepts apply beyond just the space and facilities. This same kind of tension is needed in what we do in worship. If our worship practice ignores the foundations and traditions of our faith, it is no more authentic than the worship space that could double as a corporate headquarters during the week. And if our worship experiences are time capsules (read: perhaps interesting but ultimately inanimate expressions of a time that has long passed), there is no “strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow.”

That last line is from the 1920s hymn “Great is Thy Faithfulness,” which in turn is based on Lamentations 3:22-23, written in the mid-500s BCE. In both the Scripture and the song, the foundational idea is that God has been faithful in the past, is faithful today, and will be faithful tomorrow. This message has brought hope for thousands of years, and will continue to give hope through these expressions and new ones yet to be composed.

Millennials chose classic and modern, yes, but they chose it over trendy and traditional. Classic versus trendy is about staying power versus disposable. Modern versus traditional (as conceptual definitions and not worship style) is about whether something can connect to life as we know it today. When we realize that this is what Millennials are looking for–staying power over disposability and connection to life today over “the way we have always done it”–it becomes less about style and more about depth. That’s what Rachel Held Evans was getting at in her interview with Jonathan Merritt last week when she said, “We’re not looking for a hipper Christianity. We’re looking for a truer Christianity.”

Digging deeply into reports like this show us that reaching Millennials is a challenge, but it is also not impossible. In fact, I wonder sometimes if Millennials being a largely “unchurched”* generation will ultimately create opportunities because we can be free to share both tradition and innovation side-by-side as fresh means of grace.

How do you understand these results? What patterns or underlying concepts do you see? How has your church/ministry found creative ways to hold these concepts in tension? Or where does it fall short?

*Can I just say that I hate the terms “churched” and “unchurched” almost as much as Juno hated the term “sexually active”? I don’t necessarily have a better idea–they just give me the willies…

Image by Flickr user Miguel Colmenares. Used under Creative Commons License. Cropped from Original.

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