Thom Rainer, the current CEO of the Southern Baptist LifeWay story chain, recently wrote about what type of worship the so-called “Millennials” like. He defines a Millennial as anyone born between 1980 and 2000, essentially those who grew up watching the rise of the internet and technology, or the pre-9/11 generation. The entire article is very much worth the read and I believe he is accurate. All of it is summarized by one statement toward the end:
And you will hear Millennials speak less and less about worship style. Their focus is on theologically rich music, authenticity, and quality that reflects adequate preparation in time and prayer.
In other words, what young people want is a real worship experience, something that really strikes at the heart. The above statement is really unpacked earlier in the article, where Rainer states,
- They desire the music to have rich content. They desire to sing those songs that reflect deep biblical and theological truths. It is no accident that the hymnody of Keith and Kristyn Getty has taken the Millennials by storm. Their music reflects those deep and rich theological truths.
- The Millennials desire authenticity in a worship service. They can sense when congregants and worship leaders are going through the motions. And they will reject such perfunctory attitudes altogether.
- This large generation does want a quality worship service. But that quality is a reflection of the authenticity noted above, and adequate preparation of the worship leaders both spiritually and in time of preparation. In that sense, quality worship services are possible for churches of all sizes.
Again, I don’t think Rainer is wrong in his assessment of what young people are looking for in worship. A lot of us Millennials were raised in very superficial environments; the message we received in music was so filtered and pacified that any deep message was quickly lost. When we first sang the stanza, “This is the air I breathe” we might have felt something, but ultimately it became another motion, a temporary fix on our search for the ultimate high. Worship in the 90s really came across as one emotional experience leading to another. Somehow that experience turned into a genre and in the 2000s we were pummeled with numerous “worship bands.”
Yet, we live in a very cynical and Nietzschean society. Everything is doubted, everything seems to have an illicit motive behind it. We view worship bands as simply trying to get one over on Christians and make a buck, or use their popularity to slingshot themselves into “secular” stardom. The preacher doesn’t really care about people coming to Christ so much as he cares about increasing revenue. Justified or not, these are stereotypes that exist among young people when viewing the church. What it means, however, is that we are perpetually suspicious of reality, always looking for the man behind the curtain; we want the authentic, but are often too cynical to appreciate authenticity when encountered. In a way, our experiences of the past shape our expectations of the present and our dismal hope for the future. Thom Rainer certainly has his finger on the pulse of the problem and I do believe he has found the proper solution…kind of.
Rainer’s observation, though correct, poses a problem for non-Orthodox evangelicals, namely, if young people are looking for “authentic worship,” does that mean everything up to this point has been counterfeit? The emphasis seems to be on finding something that is contextually deep, something that plays beyond the emotions, something that involves the entirety of the human experience; the conclusion is that such a thing is not currently occurring in churches, or at least has not occurred until recently. The implication of such thinking, however, is that the Church has failed in worship for nearly 2,000 years and we’re just now getting around to true worship. Perhaps one could argue that the worship has to change with each generation, but this would mean that worship is more about us than it is about God, which in itself is problematic (never mind the further implications involved). Was there ever a time where our worship wasn’t counterfeit? If we say no, then it means Christianity has yet to truly worship God, which is quite difficult to belief. If we say yes – that a time of authentic worship did exist – then we can look back to that time.
If we deny that everything up to now is counterfeit worship, then where do we turn? If we look to the past, how far back must we go before we find “true worship?” Is it to the hymns of the 1800s, the deep theological poetry of the 1700s, the theological teaching-as-music of the 1600s? Of course, once we get to the 1500s we reach liturgical worship, a “style” that permeated throughout the East and the West. Of course, we now have a problem: If authentic worship arose post-Reformation (or really, post-post-post Reformation in the 1700s), then does that mean for thousands of years Christians failed to worship God? Shall we rob the Apostles of their worship? Shall we say that the great martyrs never worshipped God because they lacked the hymns of 1600 and beyond? Such a stance simply doesn’t make much sense.
Rather, the three things Rainer says Millennials are looking for in worship – rich content, authentic service (that is, something that demands involvement and not the motions), and quality worship – have always existed in Christian worship via liturgy. For those in the Orthodox tradition, everything Rainer says Millennials need we point to and say, “but that’s already been around for millennia.” While it’s true that sometimes a priest, deacon, or communicants can go through the motions, this reflects more on their spiritual condition than on the actual act of worship. Look at what Rainer says Millennials want and look at what the Church provides:
- Millennials want rich content in their worship – those who partake in Divine Liturgy will learn about the Trinity, the Incarnation, the point of salvation, what occurs at death, how to face death properly, and so on. The songs sung in liturgy are meant to focus on God and therefore by default are always full of content. Likewise, many of these prayers and songs were written thousands of years ago by great theologians, which other theologians and church leaders adopted into the worship practice. The chants weren’t accepted because they had a good tune or caused some psychological reaction; they were embraced because they were truth. An Orthodox service is full of Scripture, of theology, of sound advice, all of it sung in a beautiful manner that involves the entirety of the person singing. The content of worship has existed since the foundation.
- Millennials want authenticity in their worship – ancient worship is unique in that it’s meant to bring us into the presence of God. I could say, “It gets us as close to God as we can get this side of eternity,” but in Orthodox liturgy there is no such thing as “this side of eternity;” the Divine Liturgy brings us into Eternity. We partake in eternity, via the smelling of the incense, the kissing of the icons (which are windows into Heaven), the hearing of the chanting, the tasting of the body and blood of Christ. In fact, if Millennials are looking for authenticity, if they are looking for reality, then they ought to appreciate that Divine Liturgy crescendos where we bring Reality himself into ourselves through communion. The whole point of Divine Liturgy, the whole point that has held for 2,000 years, is to point to a reality beyond our own and then bring the communicant into that reality. It is impossible to find anything more authentic than partaking in Reality.
- Millennials want a quality service – Rainer expands that Millennials want a service where the “worship leader” prepares in prayer for the liturgy. I would point to Orthos or the fact that the entire Liturgical service is one giant prayer to God. Anyone who attends Divine Liturgy, even the first time one experiences Divine Liturgy (where it can be a little weird to someone not accustomed to such a thing), realizes they’re watching a work of art that transcends art. It is artistic, but it is more than art. It is beautiful, but it is more than beauty. It is truthful, but it is more than truth. The Divine Liturgy is more than we can really describe, but it is the quality this generation seeks.
None of this is a dig at Protestants, after all I’m very happy that a major Southern Baptist recognizes problems with modern Protestant evangelical worship. It is merely to help them see that the worship they seek is already here and has been here for thousands of years. Millennials seek truth and beauty in worship, and what they seek already exists. It is my hope that they will come home.