Vail Daily column: Why millennials boycott church |

Vail Daily column: Why millennials boycott church

Jack Van Ens
My View
Jack Van Ens

What’s genuine can’t be reproduced in wax.

Wax figures and mega-churches shine with a slick veneer. But genuine empathy is lacking, claims blogger Rachel Held Evans, beneath sleek surfaces. Super churches offer riveting worship, plush theater seating, members whose excitement rivals that of Super Bowl fans, music that rocks and casually dressed preachers whose cool vibes mesmerize listeners.

But something is missing, confesses Evans, whose writing makes her one of the “most polarizing women in evangelicalism.” So she packed it in and boycotted worship arenas that attract thousands.

Evans identifies with millennials — those roughly 18-to-34 years old — who ditch church. Young adults are an extinct species in organized religion. Evans reports that in the U.S. “59 percent of people ages 18 to 29 with a Christian background have, at some point, dropped out. According to the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, among those who came of age around the year 2000, a solid quarter claims no religious affiliation at all, making my generation significantly more disconnected from faith than members of Generation X were at a comparable point in their lives and twice as detached as Baby Boomers were as young adults.”

Millennials return to churches where they hear God’s voice, not some canned version of it.

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Countering this dire trend, preachers offer Christianity Lite, an amalgam of feel-good sentiments and slick craft that make them sound like a late-night Jimmy Fallon monologue.

What’s Rachel Held Evans’ response to selling thin Christianity? “ … many churches have sought to lure millennials back by focusing on style points: Cooler bands, hipper worship, edgier programming (and) impressive technology. Yet, while these aren’t inherently bad ideas and might in some cases be effective, they are not the key to drawing millennials back to God in a lasting and meaningful way. Young people don’t simply want a better show. And trying to be cool might be making things worse” (The Washington Post, April 30).

Mega-churches have the same problem as wax look-a-likes; they lack authenticity.

Going deeper into a screen character stymied actor Ronald Reagan. He perfected staged emotion, calling up moist eyes and a hitch in the voice, as if on patriotic cue. He used that shrug with a tilt of the head to convince audiences that he was an “aw, shucks guy” from small-town Dixon, Illinois. He didn’t want to be known as Mr. Hollywood, with its glitz and tawdry values.

Historical fiction writer Gore Vidal observed how “actors are like politicians, and politicians are like actors. They both spend time each day contemplating their image. They both have a desire to be loved.” Like Reagan, they don’t get beyond wax museum reincarnations of themselves. One dynamic is often missing—authenticity.

Agreeing with Vidal, official biographer Edmund Morris writes of the 40th president, “Reagan was not an insincere man, but his nature was thespian, so he tended to reflect rather than refract the words of his speechwriters. If patriotic sentiment was called for, as at the anniversary of the D-Day invasion in 1984, or mock rage in front of the Berlin Wall in 1987, he could perform as convincingly as any veteran of the Actors Studio. But you were never sure that he felt what he was saying. What Reagan most cared about was making other people care” (The Wall Street Journal, May 2-3).

How did Jesus exude authenticity? Scripture can’t reveal the emotive quality of his voice. The Bible tells of Jesus possessing a quality, a depth, a transparency of the soul that drew people. Using a livestock analogy listeners recognized, Jesus declared, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me” (John 10:27).

I’m a thespian and a preacher. For over four decades, I’ve portrayed Thomas Jefferson and the colonial cleric Jonathan Edwards. Listeners are turned off by wax figure portrayals of these characters. They expect the real deal, the genuine stuff. They desire authenticity.

Millennials return to churches where they hear God’s voice, not some canned version of it.

People feel Jesus’ genuine spirit where:

• A preacher blends inspired feeling with reason as a guide.

• Worship is welcoming, not mean-spirited.

• Christians tolerate diversity and gather to learn something new.

• Preachers expose injustice.

• Church members love tradition that reminds them they are part of something bigger than the tiny circumference of their own lives.

• Believers seek to encounter Christian mystery and ingenuity through the sacraments and music.

• Members know truth lies in a sea of searching rather than anchored in a safe harbor.

Churches that attract millennials open doors, so people encounter God. They don’t feel like religious wax museums. And the grayest heads in these churches who never miss a Sunday thrill to being spiritually young-at-heart, like the millennials who worship alongside them.

Madame Tussauds’ wax museums display look-a-likes of movie stars, political leaders and cultural icons. These figures appear real until onlookers peer into their eyes. They are greeted by a waxy gaze. Such life-size likenesses are almost real. But their stares lack authenticity.

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

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