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How Will the Millennials Worship?: A Snapshot of the Very Near Future

We asked Robert Webber, a long-time friend of Reformed Worship, to write an editorial for this issue in which we explore ways churches are dealing with the intersection of worship, culture, and evangelism. In this issue you’ll find several different approaches from a variety of denominational traditions that we hope will stimulate discussion in your worship committees, and perhaps even better, in combined meetings of worship, youth, and evangelism staff and committees in your congregations.
—ERB

I just came from a faculty meeting where we were discussing the matter of perception. One of the faculty members who heads up the youth division remarked, “Age groups see things differently. For example, I live near Willow Creek Church. They just put up a sign celebrating their twenty-fifth year of ministry. The kids I work with weren’t even born twenty-five years ago. For them Willow Creek is tradition.”

For the young, “contemporary worship” as most of us know it is old hat. They are moving on to new approaches. In order to see what kind of worship leadership we may expect from the next generation, we’ll take a look at the generational profiles of Boomers, GenXers, and Millennials.

Interpreting the Generations

When I was young, no one talked about or wrote about the vast variety of generational consciousness. Why the current interest in the generations? The answer is more than likely found in the tumultuous period of history in which we live. Sociologist Francis Fukuyama calls the period between 1960 and 1990 “the great disruption”—the shift of culture from modernity to postmodernity.

In a brief thirty-year period we have shifted into a new phase of history. The experiences of Boomers, GenXers, and Millennials all reflect the crisis of change. Each group has responded to a different phase of the crisis in ways that are consistent with the particulars of their generation. These various ways of responding to cultural change have caused the enormous diversity we now experience within evangelical Christianity.

The Boomers

In the late sixties and seventies Boomers (those born between 1945-1961) were characterized by a deep reaction against all forms of traditions—including religious traditions. Chuck Fromm, editor of Worship Leader magazine, observed that from the turmoil of Western civilization during those years “emerged a strange new figure—the counter-cultural anti-hero, enemy of authority, committed free thinker, impassioned free lover, obsessive searcher.”

Boomers became the generation of searchers. They created new, more free, less stuffy religious institutions in keeping with the cultural milieu that defined them. The Jesus People, former hippies, says Fromm, “served as a prophetic voice to lash out at materialism and the capitalist success system, advising detachment from wealth, attention to people, openness to beauty, cultivation of diversity.”

Although many of these Boomers constitute a “new establishment,” they do represent a distinct shift from the older fundamentalism. According to Wade Clark Roof, “gone are much of the narrow-minded exclusion and even some of the rigidly defined moral and symbolic boundaries.” In their place is “a greater internal pluralism across a fairly wide spectrum of issues—theological, moral, familial and political.” For this generation, the church needs to be open and inclusive.

Generation X

The cultural upheaval hit GenXers (those born between 1961-1981) the hardest. The crisis of cultural change was taking effect during the seventies as the oldest GenXers were growing into their teenage years and in the eighties as they became adults. William Mahedy and Janet Bernardi depict the dilemma of GenXers in their book A Generation Alone. They recite a depressing litany of statistics: more than half of their parents are divorced; they are the first generation of “latchkey” children; one third were physically or sexually abused; most were neglected while parents pursued their careers. Mahedy and Bernardi describe them as “spiritually starved, emotionally traumatized, educationally deprived, condemned to a bleak economic future, and robbed of a hope that should characterize youth.”

For this generation the church must be a haven. GenXers are attracted to congregations committed to being open and inclusive of others, the family most of them never had.

The Millennials

The Millennials (those born between 1981-2000) appear to be the first generation of people coming out on the other side of the crisis. Wendy Zoba captures the difference between Millennials and their predecessors in her book Generation 2K. While Generation X grew up enmeshed in their parents revolution, says Zoba, the Millennials are growing up reacting to the revolution. According to William Strauss, “The Millennial generation is coming of cognition age at a time when the adult community has determined the conditions of childhood to be unacceptable.” Strauss says Boomers have become what the New York Times has dubbed a “Do As I Say, Not As I Did” generation of parents.”

These parents agree that Millennial children are to be shielded from media, sex, violence, and profanity. In school the new three ‘R’s are rules, respect, and responsibility. These new trends reflect what is happening all over the world. The young are not attracted to a “far out” version of society, government and institutions as they once were.

What is happening in the religion of teenagers (1981-2000) is nothing short of astounding. They are not interested in the Boomer approach. Instead they want to return to a more stable time, a period of tradition. Not the tradition of the fifties, but of a much earlier time, the traditions of very old times.

A Look at the Future

Nearly every writer who has addressed the changing patterns of the Western world between 1960 and 1990 suggests that the road to the future runs through the past. In The Fourth Turning, William Strauss writes:

The recent anxiety that America is “on the wrong track” reflects unease with linear thinking—and an instinctive sense that a secular winter is nearing. That instinct is sound, but seldom reflected by the popular prescriptions or paradigms. Is new thinking required? On the contrary, to prepare for the Fourth Turning, America needs old thinking.

In similar fashion, Wade Clark Roof suggests “tradition becomes much more of a conscious undertaking and responsibility.”

The issue for Reformed and evangelical Christians will be “which tradition”? Some would lead us back into the “new” evangelicalism of the fifties or the fundamentalism of the earlier part of the twentieth century or the reformation of the sixteenth century. But the tradition emerging among the Millennials, Generation X, and some Boomers seems to be the tradition of classical Christianity filtered through the grid of a postmodern, post-Christian, neo-pagan society.

This new generation is doing a full cycle. Recently a youth director commented, “What appeals to this new generation is the cathedral and the stained-glass window. Take the pews out, let them sit on the floor, burn incense, have Scripture readings, lots of music (chant, even), and have communion, and they say ‘Wow, this is me.’”

So what can we expect from the Millennials as they lead the church and its worship into the future? Here are a few things to watch for:

  • The primary issue of the future is not the style of worship so much as its authentic character. It must be real, genuine, sincere. Millennials can smell “phony” a mile away. Therefore traditionalists must avoid “dead ritualism,” and proponents of contemporary must avoid “entertainment” and “manipulation” worship.
  • The future style of worship will draw from the catholic (early church), Reformation, evangelical, and contemporary traditions. Local churches must be eclectic.
  • Future worship will move toward these style characteristics:
  • More use of ritual and symbol
  • More spaces for quiet and contemplation
  • More frequent celebration of communion
  • High participation
  • Convergence of musical styles
  • More use of string and wind instruments
  • Recovery of the Christian year as a spiritual discipline

The future of worship can be caught in the phrase “ancient worship with a contemporary flare.” Millennials don’t want fifties worship. They want, as one said to me, “the old stuff.” They want substance, depth, challenge, and encounter.

Let’s not be afraid to listen to the Millennials and give them a chance to show us into the future.

Excerpt
For Further Reading

Fukuyama, Francis. The Great Disruption. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999.

Mahedy, William and Janet Bernardi. Generation Alone. Downer’s Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1994.

Roof, Wade Clark. Spiritual Marketplace: Baby Boomers and the Remaking of American Religion. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1999.

Strauss, William and Neil Howe. The Fourth Turning. New York: Broadway Books, 1997.

Webber, Robert. Ancient-Future Faith. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 1999.

Zoba, Wendy. Generation 2K. Downer’s Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1999.