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Vail Daily column: Millennials give churches a cold shoulder

Jack Van Ens

Millennials born between 1990 and 1996 agree with Winston Churchill, who was cool toward organized Christianity. Asked why he wasn’t an Anglican Church member, Churchill responded that his relationship to the church reflected a Gothic cathedral’s flying buttresses. Support comes from outside.

A 2015 Pew Research Center report on sharp declines in religious affiliation found only 56 percent of Millennials identify with Christian organizations. That’s a mammoth loss of potential church members compared to previous generations. This trend of avoiding church-going “is big, it’s broad, and it’s everywhere,” observes Alan Cooperman, Pew’s director of religious research. In contrast, 70 percent of Generation X, 78 percent of Baby Boomers, and 85 percent of Americans born between 1928 and 1945 had positive views of organized religion.

The non-churched spanning all ages on the national religiosity scale increased in Colorado. A February 2013 Gallup poll reported Colorado ranking 37th among 50 states in terms of religious affiliation, earning distinction as one of the “least religious” states in the U.S.



Only a third of Colorado residents give thumbs up to organized religion as a major component in their lives. These citizens seldom attend worship services.

Their responses fall below the national average — 40.1 percent confessed to Gallup they were “very religious” across the U.S. Only 33.5 percent of Colorado’s residents agreed.



Millennials who have no interest in aligning with organized faith aren’t all atheists. They may believe in God, but it’s an allegiance detached from faith communities. Millennials look askance at churches, synagogues and mosques. They cut themselves off from such communal expressions of faith.

Rejection of organized religion reflects Thomas Jefferson’s chill toward it. He rejected faith institutions riddled by Christians fighting over correct doctrine. These churches acted like anaconda snakes that squeezed freedom of inquiry from victims.

Jefferson rejected traditional Christianity’s triune God. He felt handcuffed by a clunky iron triangle of corrupt bureaucracy, dogma and “priests” (Christian clergy) who committed intellectual suicide by their bondage to rigid doctrine.



Prompted by his disgust of organized Christianity, Jefferson founded America’s first secular college, the University of Virginia. Unlike Congregationalist Harvard, or Anglican College of William and Mary, Jefferson’s university lacked a campus chapel. He didn’t appoint a professor of divinity because our third president feared a teacher of the “mystical generation of Jesus” (the Virgin Birth) would delude students with fables.

Jefferson compared doctrine such as the Virgin Birth to a shaky building ready to collapse under the weight of superstition. Writing to John Adams in retirement two days prior to his 80th birthday, he assured his friend “the primitive and genuine doctrines of this most venerated reformer of human errors” (Jesus)would shed their ‘artificial scaffolding’ (that is, silly superstitions).”

Jefferson believed human reason replaces biblical revelation. Through the centuries, Christian doctrine degenerated into superstition disguised as church belief.

Such bogus faith had to collapse. Then citizens would quit organized religion, predicted Jefferson, and offer allegiance to a Creator in a religious environment without walls. Jefferson protected an unshackled mind and benevolent spirit from religious superstition.

He financially supported four Christian congregations who united in worship because their numbers were small. Like fine wine, Jefferson sipped Christianity without gulping too much of it. He didn’t want to be sucked into a stupor caused by religious fables.

“In our village of Charlottesville,” he wrote to John Adams on April 8, 1822, “there is a good degree of religion, but with a small degree of fanaticism. We have four sects, but without church or meeting-house. The court house is our common temple, one Sunday a month each. Here, Episcopalian and Presbyterian, Methodist and Baptist, meet together, join in hymning their Maker, listen with attention and devotion to each other’s preachers, and all mix in society in perfect harmony.”

Perhaps Jefferson overstated this “perfect harmony” practiced by Christian groups. Still, he showed grudging respect for organized Christianity when it espoused Jesus’ simple gospel. He liked religion that showed compassion toward others and allowed inquiring minds to challenge church dogma.

Today’s Millennials aren’t unabashed atheists. They search for a high power minus church dogma that dictates correct belief. Many Millennials respect Christ’s insights but reject judgmental congregations that aren’t in sync with their private faiths.

Millennials aren’t attracted by much that’s communal. They privately spend hours scrolling cell phone messages, but aren’t joiners of organized public causes.

Like Jefferson, their personal allegiance to God is private and pure, insofar as it’s uncontaminated by organized religion.

The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax exempt Creative Growth Ministries (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive.


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