Christmas Vacation is undoubtedly the greatest Christmas movie of all time. (There must be research somewhere to support this.) Clark Griswold, played by Chevy Chase, is the family father in this ridiculously crazy and sometimes inappropriate film. He, his wife and the kids are hosting the family gathering. He sets his sights on the clear yet nearly impossible mission of creating “the perfect Christmas.”
Clark must navigate a host of obstacles, setbacks, and unexpected surprises along the way. Although he has to face the cynicism of in-laws, his parents, and even his own kids, Clark remains resolutely steadfast—despite one momentary lapse before the film’s climax—in his hope of providing a magical Christmas experience.
And guess what happens? Despite it all, they eventually share in a thin, “sacred” moment when everything coalesces in a totally unexpected manner. They get to share the beauty of a perfect Christmas (before the levity returns as Aunt Bethany leads the “Star Spangled Banner”). But if not for Clark’s insistence and persistence, they would have never arrived there.
So many folks have written so much about why millennials/young people/kids are leaving the church today. Actual research occasionally shows up from places like the Barna group, but most authors list their own version of “Ten Reasons” based on gut feelings and personal observations. Does all this writing really do anything? Do we learn anything meaningful from this?
Dan Kimball’s book They Like Jesus but Not the Church set the stage for much of the popular talk in this vein. I appreciate Kimball and his 2007 book, but I don’t tend to hear many new or original thoughts from bloggers and writers: “Millennials don’t like the church’s politics. Worship services aren’t geared for young adults. Christian stances on homosexuality and gender issues are roadblocks to kids. They think churches are concerned with the wrong kind of justice.” And so the list goes. The gist of such writing is to tell you that your church has “the wrong formula.” You “need a new recipe” to make church palatable to emerging generations.
While I believe that it’s good to be open to improvements and changes, I think most of the talk about keeping or reaching millennials misses the mark. So I have a novel idea. Please correct me if someone else has already said this as clearly as I’m about to say it. It comes down to one thing:
You don’t know how to obsess about God the way Clark Griswold acted about Christmas.
Simply put, you may have lost or never known the beauty, splendor, and mystery of pursuing God in a community of faith. I could make a list of twenty theories about why this is so: You complain too much. Your church truly stinks. You aren’t committed to Christian community any more. You cater too much to your kids. You’re increasingly narcissistic. You’ve domesticated God or become a closet gnostic. (Am I stepping on anyone’s toes?)
In truth, the reason your kids don’t like church is that you’ve stopped insisting and persisting your way toward the shared experience of following Jesus. Remember all those times you griped about the sermon, or rolled your eyes when discussing the song service, or said your class was taught by “an idiot”? You can thank yourself for teaching your kids an indelible lesson. They’ve taken those negative words to heart.
Can you dredge up the memory of your parents getting you up to go to church services every Sunday morning no matter what? If you’re my age or older, you probably do. This is the way many of you grew up. Your parents were so committed to church that you didn’t dream of skipping, sleeping in or playing sports instead. Did it ruin you to have parents who taught you that kind of commitment?
In the Book of Hebrews, the writer casts the vision for a people who need to keep their focus. “Let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith . . . He endured such hostility against himself so that you may not grow weary or lose heart” (Heb 12:1-3). Without dogged determination, the most vulnerable among us easily become discouraged and turn away. We live in a world that is too complex, too luxurious, too distracted, and too disconnected for us to hope that young people will find their way to the community of faith.
To put it bluntly, the reason your kids don’t like church is in fact a reflection of your own discontent. You’ve lost interest/belief/passion in and for the experience of following Jesus. If you don’t pursue God with reckless abandon the way Clark Griswold pursued Christmas, then those closest to you will find other things to do. If you don’t provide leadership, then faith in God can’t compete with things called NFL, the Premier League, PS4, travel, sports, Princess Cruises, Disneyland, Netflix, and 15-course tasting menus.
As the leaders of families, churches, and communities, you would do well to remember how Clark Griswold acted—not in all the details of his character of course, but in his single-minded, almost naïve pursuit of one thing. For Christians, that one thing isn’t the perfect Christmas. It’s the belief that a shared faith in God will produce something wonderful.
There is no silver bullet to reverse the church’s loss of a young generation. Despite your best efforts, your kids might choose to walk away. But if you can hang in there and keep moving toward the “magical moment of faith” with your eyes fixed on Jesus, then maybe, just maybe, your kids will experience the beauty of belonging to church in you, through you, and even with you. When that happens, you will have become more like Clark Griswold—in a totally good way. Rather than having to bemoan the loss of young people, you’ll have successfully passed on the baton of following God.
Jason Locke is the preaching minister for the College Church of Christ in Fresno, California. He has been in full-time ministry since 1994, serving first as a church-planter in Prague, Czech Republic, and later as a university pastor at West Virginia University. Jason has an undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering from Tennessee Technological University and has advanced degrees from Abilene Christian University, including an MDiv and DMin. Jason has been married to Julie since 1992. They have two sons, Jericho and Jacob.