One of my coaching clients called me the other day and asked if I’d read an article by Jonathan Aigner about the end of contemporary worship. I confessed I hadn’t. This particular coaching client is a church planter and the core congregation she’s working with are predominantly life-long mainliners who were raised in church back in the “glory days” of the 1950s and the early 60s.  She went on to tell me that the post Aigner had written was getting a lot of traction in her church because he’d pronounced the demise of contemporary worship and some of her congregation members were citing it to scuttle plans to launch a new service focused on reaching younger adults. (To be fair, Aigner’s blog was written in response to another blog by David Gordon that was even more critical of contemporary worship.)

After reading both articles, I have to say these guys make some great points. It’s true that the Baby Boomers are largely responsible for the contemporary worship movement and they’re dying out. And it’s true that those few millennials that are left in the church are largely leaving the church … and many of them are leaving behind solid contemporary worship services. And it’s also true that the novelty of contemporary worship has worn off … the formerly churched are no longer returning just because there’s a new and different “rock-n-roll” service down the street. Indeed, probably about half the churches in most towns offer some alternative worship service or another.

The problem with both articles, is that they’re based largely on personal opinion and the facts they cite tend to be about those who “left” the church. There’s no research or facts cited about those who have never been in church (a HUGE majority of the millennials) and there’s nothing about what’s actually working to reach the millennials … and there are churches that are doing a fine job of reaching, teaching, baptizing, and discipling large numbers of millennials.

So, let me begin with a couple of realities about what’s not working.

“Contemporary Music” Isn’t Packing Them In

The reality is, in most communities, good music (as defined by those who are engaging in worship, not by the theologians) isn’t what grows churches. Good music doesn’t “keep” young people (millennials), middle-aged people (gen-x’ers), seniors (boomers), or elders (older than boomers) coming back to church. And for the record, either does a great sermon. Sure, good music and a great sermon add to the experience of worship and it enhances your personal spiritual walk. But in the long run, and even for the short run, it’s relationships and life transformation that keep people in church. Pipe organs and choirs; pianos, keyboards, guitars, drums and praise bands; and smoke machines and stage lighting don’t do it. And for the record, never has.

Traditional Worship Isn’t Packing Them In Either

Let me share a fact both David and Jonathan conveniently left out. The vast majority of “traditional” worship services with “liturgy” are dying faster than the so-called contemporary services (and come on Jonathan and David – every worship service has liturgy and you know it – just because it’s not the liturgy you approve of doesn’t mean it’s not liturgy). The fact is, anyone with integrity following the Pew Reports and Gallup knows that the church is bleeding out rapidly – the boomers are dropping like flies and neither the gen xers or millennials are signing up for church attendance, let alone membership. And to be fair, few millennials (like almost none) are exiting the contemporary services and flocking to the traditional services across town.

So … What Is Working?

In my work as a consultant that works across denominational lines and outside of denominational boxes, I’ve attended quite a few churches that are packing the millennials in. Here’s what I find in most of them.

  • The music is loud, it has a beat, and it’s theologically sound.
    • Yes, Redeemer Presbyterian in New York is an exception. And there are certainly other exceptions out there. But please be aware … they’re exceptions. They’re not the rule. (Remember, most traditional worship services are in serious decline regardless of the denomination.)
    • Bear in mind, the only paradigmatic worship songs we have from the Bible are the psalms … and they were originally performed in the temple with drums, stringed instruments, and trumpets (i.e., they had a band of sorts). In other words, they were loud and had a beat too. 
  • Technology is present … and it’s seamless.
    • Screen technology is a given. Texting and Tweeting and the use of mobile phones is common … and no one’s flashing a disapproving scowl when someone’s texting (probably because they figure the text is about the sermon or the worship).
  • The liturgy is simple … or simply explained.
    • Every church has a liturgy, but liturgical practices without understanding is not only confusing, it’s gnostic. When a worshiper has to have the “special knowledge” to fully participate, then the worship shouldn’t be a “public” service (Paul’s corrective to the Corinthians in 1 Cor 14:23 seems like an appropriate cognate here). Great liturgy is either transparent or else it’s explained … that’s a hospitality issue.
  • The sermon is long, biblically based, and presumes the listener knows nothing about Christianity or our code words. 
    • The last packed out, literally turning people away because the worship center was too full, service I attended had a 45 minute sermon. And no one was sleeping, fidgeting, or walking out – which says something about both the quality of the content and the delivery.
  • The sermon expects the listeners to do something as a result of the sermon.
    • The leaders of these churches aren’t terribly interested in political correctness and don’t seem to care much if you feel “better” about your life when you leave the service. Instead, they tend to expect the listeners to do something concrete, like meet with a group this week, get involved in a project on Thursday, have a conversation about faith with a coworker this afternoon, etc. Rarely do I hear things like “Consider how Jesus is making a difference in your life” or “Be more forgiving” – neither of which is a call to action (or life transformation).
  • There’s a strong emphasis on small groups, relationship building, and mission involvement.
    • This is where discipleship and life transformation takes place.

Worship services continue to be the primary “front doors” to the church. Those churches that are reaching those outside of the faith, and in particular the millennials, are those churches that are doing what the church has been doing since its inception. They examine the culture. They learn the culture. They learn how to communicate with the culture. Then they learn how to use culture to present the gospel message in ways that make sense to the culture … even if the church has to bend to accommodate the culture.

As a final note, have you read the book of Acts and seen the ways the church bent its own rules to reach the culture? If not, start reading because that’s our paradigm. That’s our mandate. To do “whatever it takes” to reach the unreached … including the millennials. And if you think a traditional worship service is going to do that, my only question is … then why isn’t it?