Written by: Emily Swanson, Owner/President of Holy Cow! Consulting

As we shared in our last post, starting in early 2019, Holy Cow! Consulting asked responders to the Congregation Assessment Tool (CAT) which generation they are a part of with a given list of choices.  Responders can pick one of the following: 

  • Traditionalist/Silent Generations: Born 1928-1945
  • Baby Boom Generation: Born 1946-1964
  • Generation X: Born 1965-1980
  • Millennial Generation or Generation Y: Born 1981–1996
  • Generation Z or iGen: Born 1997–2012[1]

To read the beginning of this study and the overview please check it out here. This week we will be looking at the worship experience by generation, specifically music.  


Excellent Worship and Music are essential parts of being a healthy congregation.  This comes as no surprise. This is a large part of what church does –  we come together, giving our deepest affections and highest praise to God through our worship.  It truly matters.  In the Congregation Assessment Tool (CAT) we ask two questions around worship.   The first asks responders if the music at our church is outstanding in quality and appropriate in style to our congregation.  The second question asks responders whether the worship service at our church is exceptional in both quality and spiritual content.  

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Out of the 11,480 responses, the highest level of overall vitality is found in the two older generations, Baby Boomers and Traditionalists.  These two generations have an overall higher sense of satisfaction and energy within their congregations.[2]  Their worship  experience is much higher than the other generations as well.  Over 52% of Traditionalists strongly agree that the music at the church is outstanding in quality and appropriate in style and 59.3% clearly agree that that their worship services are exceptional in both quality and spiritual content.   Comparatively,  over 56% of Baby Boomers strongly agree that the music is outstanding with 59.4% clearly agreeing their worship services are exceptional.   To put these numbers in context, a vital congregation that scores high in their music scores has over 65% strongly agreeing that they music quality and appropriate in style for their congregation. 

Baby Boomers and Music

In contrast, while 59% of Millennials clearly agree their worship is exceptional, only 44.6% strongly agree that the music is outstanding.  This is 10% lower than the what the Baby Boomer generation is experiencing in the worship music.  Likewise, only 44.7% of Gen X responders can strongly agree that the music is outstanding with 53% clearly agreeing that worship is exceptional.  Gen Z has the lowest rating for their congregational music with just 41.2% strongly agreeing that that the music is outstanding.  Over 10% of Gen Z responders disagreed or strongly disagreed that the music is outstanding which is a much higher level than any of the other groups.  

GenZ and Music
Millennials and Music

If worship is the time a congregation comes together, either in real life space, online or both, to communally experience God,  this type of generational gap in experience at worship begs the question “who is worship for?”  The clear answer is it should be for everyone.   However, with these differing experiences in our churches, if congregations are not making necessary changes to engage the younger generations in music that is meaningful to them, they are clearly drawing a line of who worship is really for and, according to the data, it is not the younger generations.   

It is rare to find a church that doesn’t have story around trying different music and failing. Here failing is often defined as upsetting part of the congregation.  There is often a digging in of heels and clear statements around not liking certain aspects of the music.  Perhaps, most harshly, there are statements of withholding both attendance and financial giving if changes are made.  While this might sound extreme it is more common than we would like to think.   I recently worked with a congregation where the music decision was so divisive that the sanctuary itself became a battle of dismantling and then putting back together pews, risers, instruments dependent on what the leadership decided in their contentious weekly meeting.  It was painful for everyone and resulted in a consistent loss of attenders and members. 

For decades, when churches were larger, the easiest answer was to create multiple services with different types of music. This did not create a learning in collaboration or mutuality but instead a mindset of “there is something for everyone, in different places.”  This adaptation in a lot of churches did not create connection or community across the groups within the congregation. As this model for many churches has proven to be unsustainable, they find themselves back at the place where they need to find a better way to work together.  

Churches should be charged with making thoughtful and inclusive decisions around incorporating musical styles into their worship that speak to all sets of generations within their congregation. There should not be an assumption that the younger generations want more contemporary music, in fact, some of the churches in this study offer that, but instead of guessing we need to have meaningful conversations around what music would help us deepen our connection to God.  The question is not “what would make everyone happy with our worship?” that is asking the impossible.  Instead, the question is “how can we find a way to worship together that brings meaning and depth to all of our attenders?”   There needs to be accountability for those with longer tenure to be open to not just what they love but a “bless and add” approach that includes what they love and something new.   

This is no small task. Trying new things and being open to change is hard and it doesn’t always seem practical.   Even little changes can feel hard. 

On mornings when I drive my kids to school, I go the same way.  I truly think it is the best way and well planned. I have considered the traffic stops and traffic flows.   It is fast and efficient. One day my then fourth grader said “can we go by the house with the huge skeleton in the front yard?”  There is nothing fast or efficient about going half a mile out of the way to get to school because of a skeleton decoration.  It is not well planned and certainly does not take into account traffic flow.  It is just not how we have done things.  But, as we both stuck our heads out the window and laughed at the yard with the very large skeleton, I realized that maybe the way I drive to school isn’t the best way.  Yes, my way saves time and is about what works for me but if we leave five minutes earlier, we can do something different and we can do that new thing together with laughter involved. 

This might seem like a silly comparison, but the point is any change takes an adjustment and it often needs to feed our soul.   If Jesus was anything, he was a catalyst for change, but it was change that was rooted in healing those who needed healing, reaching those who were isolated and speaking the truth to power.  Comfort in routine is human but change is equally important. It allows us practice courage, become open to something new that we might enjoy, helps us to embrace failure, and forces us to grow.  

Change for change’s sake is not what we are suggesting. Be wary of change that is suggested without a clear why.    But change with the intent to build a more welcoming and meaningful worship experience is change for a very good reason. Remembering always: 

And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.

Romans 8:28

[1] A portion of the Gen Z population was and is under 16 years of age and therefore not typically eligible to take the CAT assessment.

[2] It is important to note that age is not an indicator of energy or a compelling sense of purpose within congregations.