Are Millennials Returning to Liturgy?

Over the last several years, maybe even decade, we’ve seen discussions about whether young people are turning to more liturgical or high church traditions.

One of the first to broach this conversation was Robert Webber in his important text The Younger Evangelicals. Following this the rise of “Ancient-Future Worship” seemed to expand into many churches, and especially in the emerging/emergent type churches. (I’ve talked about this in a post called “Generational Divides.”)

Also, during the early part of last decade there were a number of notable departures of evangelicals to return to Roman Catholic roots or the embrace the Catholic communion anew. Most notably here was Dr Francis Beckwith during his tenure as the the President of the Evangelical Theological Society. As a result many books have been written on the subject of evangelicals returning to liturgical and high church roots such as: Evangelicals on the Canterburry TrailBeyond Smells and Bells The Accidental Anglican, and several others.

As a result, there has been an increasing growth in discussions about high church, liturgical forms in present day church movements. These discussions seem to arise about every other year and eventually flare out with little change having taken place. In light of the increasing dramatic declines in mainline and traditionally liturigcal denominations, this conversation has been harder to advance with substantial legitimacy (specifically in North America.)

Earlier this week another post, over at The Christian Pundit by Rebecca VanDoodewaard, stirred the pot again and brought up a good conversation. The central contention of the piece might best be seen as this statement:

Young Christians are going over to Catholicism and high Anglicanism/Lutheranism in droves, despite growing up in low Protestant churches that told them about Jesus. It’s a trend that is growing, and it looks like it might go that way for a while: people who grew up in stereotypical, casual evangelicalism are running back past their parents’ church to something that looks like it was dug out of Europe a couple hundred years ago at least.

I certainly appreciate the desire to engage this topic and I do find myself fascinated with liturgical and high church models for worship and church. Perhaps it is my upbringing in the first Catholic colony, but I have enjoyed reading and hearing from friends who are part of these movements.

However, I would challenge the extent to which this movement of young Christians is being made “in droves.”

As we’ve been seeing, there is a departure of young Christians from regular and trackable church attendance in their college or post-high school period. This data is troublesome but, in my opinion, should be understood as not a lack of faith across an entire generation but simply the challenges of regular and consistent church attendance in environments where these young adults on now on their own. I do believe there is credible information that many young adults return to their faith following college, though in different ways than the generations before them. Pew Research has clearly shown that church attendance patterns in Millennials (those born between 1980 and 1996) are not comparable to previous generations.

In our own research and discussions, many of my peer group ministry leaders are seeing Millennials (including those in college or having finished college) stay connected with church, or reconnecting. What is attracting them back to church involvement is not, however, liturgical movements or high church ecclesiology.

Instead we are seeing a movement of Millennials who are involved with churches that are, primarily, large church (running over 1,000), have a progressive worship style, have a low church method, and are attractional in outreach. (Check out my post about “Reaching Twentysomethings.”)

This is a notoriously challenging topic because no reputable agency polls on these matters and when they do they rarely, if ever, ask specific questions about worship style, orientation, and tradition which Millennials (or anyone) might attend. However, when we see polling data that is done by appropriate agencies this appears to reinforce our top line conclusions.

As Ed Stetzer of Lifeway Research has noted when comparing worship trends from 1972 to 2010:

  • Mainline Protestant numbers dove from 24% to 6% and their worship attendance slid from more than 4% to less than 2%.
  • Young evangelicals rose in number, up from about 21% to 25%. But only about 9% attended church at least once a week in 2010, up from about 7.5% in 1972.

When one considers the annual list of the 100 fastest growing churches (based on percentage of growth) there are few, if any, purely liturgical communities represented as “fast growing.” If mainline liturgical churches were seeing this uptick, shouldn’t the list have grown to include them?

Still, there is an aspect of ad hoc rationalization being done. (On both sides.)

I will agree with this: that Millennials (and young Gen-Xers) are embracing a faith that is multi-faceted and they are open to worship experiences that are varied in style and the relation to liturgy.

This does not, however, translate to a massive shift of Millennials reengaging liturgical, high church traditions “in droves.” The data seems to suggest otherwise. Right now the largest movements of Millennial Christians are happening within specifically evangelical circles that embrace progressive methodology and free church ecclesiology. The Passion Movement, which we can look back into the late 1990s as the 268 Generation or One Day parts, is specifically centered around this methodology.

Where is the data backing up the point that Millennials are engaging liturgical, high church elements in such compelling numbers? Why have we not seen this movements being reported?

Perhaps it is because most liturgical, high church communities are relatively smaller (below 300…yes that is relatively smaller) and haven’t prepared adequate tracking mechanisms like the larger, big box attractional model churches. This is, perhaps, the reality.

Usually when we hear about Millennials embracing sacramental movements, such as pre-Vatican II Catholic liturgy, the stats presented are specious as they only survey committed Roman Catholics. Also, when the mainline denominations discuss these trends they do so from within their own perspectives. 

Millennials do desire to connect with God in worship, though on their own terms. They desire to connect in unique and varied ways, and are not opposed to multiple worship environments and styles to do this even in the same week. They also, desire control over their own participation and how much authority (or complete lack thereof) a spiritual leader might have over their lives.

So, what’s the bottom line:

Simply, I don’t see a massive shift in Christian Millennials turning to liturgical style worship and high church models of ecclesiology.

The Millennials that are involved with liturgical churches are a) highly engaged in spirituality but b) highly sporadic in their attendance patterns.

Finally, I still believe Millennials desire to have a meaningful spiritual journey, though it will look entirely different than other generations. This means that liturgical communities can grow, they just need to show how their teaching is relevant and meaningful to Millennials and motivate them to engage in authentic worship and community.

So, what do you think? What are you seeing? Is there better data out there? What are we missing here?