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A group of young worshipers/DepositPhoto

Style or Simplicity: What do Millennials Want in Their Worship Experience?

Guest column by Janine Warrington

At the tiny Catholic church I attend on occasion, I am the youngest congregant who doesn’t come with a parent. I sit in a sea of people old enough to be my parents, grandparents, or great-grandparents. We use hymnals, the song numbers scrawled on a whiteboard for reference. The only musical accompaniment we have is one, maybe two, acoustic guitars. As we stand in a circle in the small space singing, there is no ignoring those in the congregation who are tone-deaf or alarmingly loud or who improvise with the melody. And there’s no ignoring the accompaniment of squealing toddlers and shushing parents. The musical performance is anything but refined.

On the Sundays that I don’t attend this tiny, wonderful, tone-deaf church, I attend a lively, charismatic congregation where I’m far from the youngest person in attendance. The style of worship is modeled after Hillsong Church, a Pentecostal megachurch founded by Brian and Bobbie Houston in Australia in the 1980s. Hillsong’s raucous worship and high energy have spread and become a global phenomenon, making its way into several Spokane churches with contemporary music played on electric guitar, complete with fancy lighting effects.

Speaking on the vision he has for his church, founder Brian Houston says he sees a “worshiping church whose songs reflect such a passion for Christ that others sense His magnificence and power,” and a “church that is constantly innovative: A church that leads the communication of a timeless message through media, film, and technology.” There seems to be an underlying assumption that this style of worship appeals to younger generations. I have heard my pastor say in a number of sermons that we worship the way we do because it makes young people more likely to accept an invitation to church and to continue coming. Modern, stylistic, rock worship is employed in many churches today as a method of outreach to millennials and members of generation Z.

The question is whether that’s really what young people want.

During the 2017 Christmas Eve service at the contemporary-style church that I go to, I enjoyed the revamped Christmas hymns with their vibrant sound, full band, video effects, and bright lights. I sang out loudly, dancing a bit in the space in front of my seat. Then, when worship time was finished and we were invited to take a seat, I realized something alarming: the whole time I’d been singing, I hadn’t thought about God. I was so caught up in the rock music and video effects that I’d forgotten the whole point of worship.

Twenty three-year-old Mackenzie Draper, who attends this same church, says she had a very different experience at that Christmas eve service. She focused on the simple and familiar lyrics of the hymns we sang and strongly experienced Jesus’ presence. While the extravagance of the worship style had distracted me, the simplicity of the lyrics kept my friend focused on Jesus – which is what worship is supposed to do.

The next evening, I attended Christmas Eve service at the small Catholic church. In that small room of imperfect voices simply belting out familiar and oft-repeated lyrics, the congregation’s intention was clear. It wasn’t about entertainment or showing off or staying modern – it was about focusing on and praising Jesus.

To be clear, I enjoy contemporary music, and I appreciate music loud enough that I can sing at the top of my lungs without inhibition. I just wonder if our notions of what millennials and gen Z’s want in their worship is skewed. If churches are trying to keep their style contemporary and cool because they think that is what will keep young people coming, those churches don’t have much faith in their God.

Jesus should be enough to keep Christians coming to church, no matter their age. If churches make worship more about Jesus than sound or style, that should be enough.

Join SpokaneFāVS for a Coffee Talk on the “Intergenerational Worship” on 10 a.m., Feb. 3 at Saranac Commons, 19 W. Main Ave. Warrington is a panelist.

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About Janine Warrington

Spokane native Janine Warrington received her Bachelor of Arts in religious studies from Gonzaga University in 2017 and their Master's in divinity from Candler School of Theology at Emory University in 2021. Areas of interest include the history of evangelical America, sexual ethics, LGBTQ+ advocacy, and Scripture studies. They now lives in Atlanta where they work in public theological education. Outside of academia, Janine enjoys cooking, yoga, Broadway musicals, and bothering their younger sister. Pronouns: She/Her/They.

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