What do the Millennials Want?

A few mornings ago, I read in my local paper how the “Millennials,” that new powerhouse generation born between the early 1980’s and early 2000’s (depending on whom you ask), is the most sought-after market. We want them to vote, to buy things, to watch media, and to revitalize our failing urban cores (Tim Swarens, “Sticking Millennials with the Bill, Indianapolis Star [October 30, 2014], A17).

But these so-called “Millennials” have been called many things; as Time Magazine journalist Joel Stein described, in a May 9, 2013 article, Millennials are “lazy, entitled, selfish, and shallow.” Whether or not this is true in any way is one point to argue, but the extent of difference across this wide swath of time also perplexes. In my perspective, as one born dangerously close to this undesirable age group, I see immense difference between the attitude and outlook of myself and the undergraduate students whom I teach (born in the mid-1990’s). They didn’t suffer through the New Kids on the Block, they didn’t watch the collapse of the Soviet Union, and many of them don’t remember the fall of the twin Towers.

But, what can we say about Millennials, new or old, and the Liturgy? First, pinpointing common denominators across these twenty years’ worth of children between 1980 and 2000 (let alone 2014) is challenging. My Millennial Roman Catholic students’ experience of memory begins after the 1990’s “Liturgy Wars,” and coincides with shifting preferences for worship practices and aesthetics. While practice at my Catholic grade school in the 1980’s suggested that felt, burlap, and pottery were normative materials for worship, my college students confidingly tell me that they are on the opposite apex of the aesthetic “pendulum swing.” While my exposure to Christian hymnody began with the paperback Glory and Praise (you know, the one with eagle flying into the sunset on the cover?), these younger Millennials can sing a full-throated Sanctus in the original language. While I have no youthful memory of prayer in front of the Blessed Sacrament outside the context of Holy Thursday, I frequently observe later Millennials routinely remaining, en masse, after Mass, to spend additional time in prayer.

Despite our differences in formation and in how we may evaluate our different contexts, I know that my Millennials and I can wholeheartedly agree that not everything that happened following the liturgical reforms which occurred after the Second Vatican Council was “wrong” or “bad.” We know that we are the beneficiaries of ready familiarity with the text of the Mass, with the lectionary, with involvement as lay ministers, and with church sanctuaries well-appointed for the appropriate liturgical season by a dedicated arts and environment committee.

But, I don’t think that I or my students have shaped our experiences of worship, either. Thus far, the experience of worship has been designed for Millennials, not by them. So, what do Millennials want when we come to worship? A lazy, self-focused, entitled and shallow experience of spirituality and prayer? Or something else?

Thom S. Rainer, Southern Baptist and co-author of the 2010 book, The Millennials, reports that Millennials “don’t think in the old worship war paradigm.” Rather, Millennials seek three main characteristics: they want music with “rich content,” seek “authenticity” in worship leaders and participants, and desire a “quality worship service.” Rainer also notes that Millennials are attracted to churches which “focus on teaching and preaching” and on outreach to the “community and the world.”

I could be wrong, but these attributes seem pretty universally attractive for worship—across generations and denominations. But, perhaps the heart of Rainer’s observation is that it is challenging and perhaps inaccurate to identify Millennials in neat black and white terms such as “traditionalist” or “progressive.” Embracing postmodernism (even if inadvertently), it seems that Millennials may want or desire to connect their faith experiences to culture and society, and are receptive to multiple strains of worship aesthetics—if these various aesthetics still yield rich content, quality, and authenticity. To that end, contemporary Christian praise music and Gregorian chant both could be good choices. Likewise, fervent full, conscious, and active participants at Mass could likewise deeply appreciate Eucharistic adoration following the celebration of the Sacrament. For those of us raised in stark “either-or” situations (where amount of appreciation of one aesthetic or another proves to be a sure litmus test for liberal or conservative identity), how could any Millennial—possibly—happily “walk the line” in this way?

In short, I don’t think we know yet what the Millennials want when we come to worship. In the meantime, though, it may be the duty, especially for teachers and practitioners of liturgy and worship, to expose Millennials to the breadth of variety of aesthetics and multiplicity of devotions inspired by Christian worship.


  1. This is exactly what I’ve been trying to say for a while now. I’ve often used a few comparisons with the classical music world.

    One is the “early music authentic performance practice” wars. My teachers told me that when they were young you were in one camp or the other. Either you played Bach romantically on modern instruments or you played it on historic instruments with a “historically informed” performance practice. Well, my colleagues and I in graduate school a few years back saw no reason for argument. Is it good for, say, the Bach Passions to be performed with a professional chamber choir and and chamber orchestra? Yes – that’s probably what the original performance were like. Would it be wrong for a large community chorus with an orchestra large enough to balance it to perform such a work? No way! There’s unique beauty (and probably more amateur’s humanity) that can be found in that kind of performance also.

    So – as much of an advocate as I am for traditional elements in liturgy – it is only to act as a balance toward the viewpoint that I received as a child and teen (in the 80s and 90s) that all traditional elements were bad. I don’t see it as an either-or, but rather both-and – and I’m often frustrated that my parents’ generation seems incapable of seeing it this way.

  2. Simplify, simplify. Start with said Mass with one plainsong setting for the ordinary (in English or Latin). Provide the organ to keep everyone relatively on pitch. Then add one or two more settings in rotation. That should be sufficient for most any Mass.

    I was born in 1980, so I do not speak from the perspective of old age. Any time I see a praise band, I turn right around and drive out of the parking lot. Austerity and simplicity is the rule. Innovations will wear thin very quickly.

    1. @Carmel Pilcher – comment #3:
      Given a variety of legitimate expressions of liturgy and music, it is worth asking what genre of music/preaching/ritual will help this particular people, in this particular time and place, to pray. Inculturation 101.

      Anytime we ask that question, I hope we consider the perspective of the lost and unchurched, the people who are not (yet) in our pews. What kinds of music/preaching/ritual will attract and retain them? Only asking those already in the club (in our pews, in theology classes, in youth group) can set up an echo chamber. Nine out of ten people who are here every week generally like our approach. Well duh!

  3. I have always been taught that everyone’s spirituality is unique. I would agree that nothing should be labeled “bad” because it does not fit our own personal spiritualities. I agree that this is a big church and that in the breadth of forms of liturgy millennials can likely find their way, but if they are force-fed only one way, no matter which end of the spectrum, they may not find it.

  4. What are some synonyms for the implied “inauthenticity” to which Millennials are averse? My reaction is that when it feels like “pandering” or “telling them what we think they want to hear” rings inauthentic. There seems to be a backlash against so-called “youth liturgies” and more of a push for simply GOOD liturgy, which is appreciated by young and old. As the article states well and succinctly, “these attributes seem pretty universally attractive.” I have always been swayed by the idea that the only “theme” a liturgy should have is the liturgical season or feast day the liturgical calendar calls for. Depending on how you count, I’m a millennial, too, though on the older end of that spectrum.

    How should we understand authenticity vs. inauthenticity? I would try to short-hand it by saying, “more poetry, less bumper-sticker.”

    1. @Jarrod Waugh, CSC – comment #7:
      Right now, our liturgy committee is debating whether to start a “stand and greet your neighbor” at the start of Mass. I feel this is inauthentic–it’s a scripted, forced, tidy way to make us seem welcoming, even when we know good and well that our parish is not welcoming. It’s cheap and shallow. What we really need is sustained preaching to get our congregation out of its me-first, consumer mentality. We need to build a gathering space and parish center where people can gather before and after Mass. We need to move people’s hearts and minds. That would be authentic. But wouldn’t it be faster and easier just to make that little announcement to stand and greet your neighbor? When that awkward 15 seconds is over, we go back to ignoring one another. It’s fake, and people see right through it.

  5. This seems to be good news for all.
    I work with seminarians, most if whom are millennials. I would say that generally, they want something solid from the church . They want the church to preach the timeless truths of the faith without gimmicks and quit messing with clown masses. This often is reflected in a love for tradition, such as chant, however they want music and liturgy that is solid and Catholic regardless of style.

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