Jeni Varnadeau may only be five foot tall but her music packs a lot of punch and she says others most often use the word “energetic” to describe her. Laughter punctuates her conversation at almost every turn and she is fiercely proud of her husband Rory.
The thirty-four year old Texan pop star has in recent years become at least as popular in Europe if not more so than she is in the United States. A major contributing reason for that is she and Rory have worked tirelessly at teen camps in Finland and France as well as touring other European venues. As you read this piece Varnadeau has only been back in the US for a few weeks and the couple is preparing for a two month tour of Europe during October and November.
In fact Brussels Belgium and Paris France served as the stage for her 2002 video Go Tell The World. As part of a sponsored mission initiative the singer shot another video in Egypt.
Jeni Varnadeau takes seriously her call to be a role model to teenage girls and that was fostered from the time she was seven years old. At that time she accepted Jesus Christ as her personal savior. She was led to the Lord by her older sister Lisa who was twelve years old at the time.
Her voice growing quieter she talks about her childhood transformation, “I saw that there were adults and teenagers who were Christians and I knew that this was a lifetime thing. This wasn’t just I don’t want to go to hell. My sister shared with me point blank in a loving one on one way. This was someone talking to me and only to me. She shared with me the difference between knowing about God and knowing him personally. She explained that Jesus would come and live in my heart. I remember looking down at my heart and wondering how He would fit in there.”
Varnadeau says that her sister described to her how the Holy Spirit would come and live in her life and how that seemed to make sense to her even at the age of seven. “I could see that Jesus made a difference in lives today and wasn’t just a historical figure that I heard about in Sunday school,” says Varnadeau.
Varnadeau says that even at the age she noticed a difference in her older sister’s life and that made the decision to accept Christ that much easier. “She told me that I could be clean inside. It wasn’t like at the age of seven I had done these big sins but it was like ya’ I want to be clean inside,” she says.
Lisa’s influence on Jeni didn’t stop with leading her to Christ. “Later when my sister was having a quiet time I remember her sharing the importance of spending time with God every day,” says Varnadeau.
Sadly the young life of Lisa ended in 2001 when she passed away after contracting a virus while serving with the Baptist church in North Africa. As young as Lisa Olson was she left her mark on the world in many ways including helping to shape the life of her younger sister. Jeni Varnadeau has truly become one of the most remarkable missionaries to teenage girls today on the international scene.
There is no doubt in my mind that when you listen to Jeni Varnadeau sing “Cutting Strings” and “I’m Waiting” both from her new CD Something Changed that this woman has the ability to rock general market radio. She has not like many Christian artists merely decided to mimic mainstream artists and apply Christian lyrics but instead has become a talented innovator. That innovation can be heard in songs such as “Just Like You” which bears a distinct Parisian sound.
The singer promises to take her young disciples “on a ride to somewhere else/I’m waiting/We can leave behind our trouble and be ourselves/” (“I’m Waiting”) and that somewhere else is a life completely given and centered in Jesus Christ.
“If you are not really careful you can become really complacent in your faith. I don’t want to be complacent in my faith. I want to be stretched and grow,” Varnadeau says.
“I find here in the States (and your scribe would add Canada) that we have our little Christian culture. We have Christian schools, Christian music, Christian magazines and Christian tee shirts. We have this whole little Christian culture. It is great because we have a great support system and a bunch of tools to help us grow in our faith,” she says.
Varnadeau warns however, “It’s great but if people aren’t careful they get too much into that and are no longer sharing their faith. They are secluding themselves from everybody else. If you are speaking that language to a non Christian you are probably going to exclude them, maybe turn them away or cause more confusion for them. (The result is) we are not reaching out to them, coming from where they are or speaking their language.”
In January of 2000 the desire to speak the language of teenage girls gave birth to ChikChat a power packed workshop for teenage girls that lasts up to six hours. “Instead of Jeni coming in as a singer, Jeni comes in as a speaker/teacher,” she says speaking of herself in the third person.
“I teach about skin care, makeup, dating, sexual purity, how to pray and hold a Bible study. We also talk about self esteem. We have breakout groups and different activities. It’s not necessarily me speaking the whole time. (For instance) when we talk about skin care I show a video,” she says.
If all of the above activities aren’t enough to pack into an abbreviated day the certified personal trainer and group fitness instructor also leads the girls in a kick boxing workout.
“My goal is to encourage girls with their self esteem because if they value who they are as a person they are a lot less likely (to become) pregnant at twelve years old, get into drugs, alcohol or other destructive behaviors. Usually people who don’t get into that stuff have a decent self esteem. When you feel good about yourself you are not running to those things to fill you because you are already satisfied. I think that the only way you can be satisfied with who you are is to be satisfied in Christ. I approach things from a Biblical perspective but with tangible things that girls can relate to,” says Varnadeau.
The seeds for ChikChat were in part sown when Varnadeau was in junior high school. A special speaker at the church her family was attending challenged the kids to think of their school as a mission field. “That really stuck with me. I started focusing on that and started making my school my mission field,” she says.
Varnadeau allows, “Those were the times as I look back that my faith was going the strongest. I was actively sharing my faith and I had a mission field surrounding me. I am so thankful that God had that speaker say that to me. It really sunk in. I really tried to do that in my school. I saw God at work and saw Him challenging me in really neat ways. I felt closer to Him and I saw Him working in the lives of the people around me. It was a really cool period of time.”
Junior high and high school became the period in her life that defined Varnadeau. “That period of time in junior high and high school is one of the reasons that ChikChat is important to me. It is why teenage girls are important to me. That is when God really gripped my heart,” she says.
I was somewhat surprised that the bubbly redhead underestimates the impact she has on those around her. It is a genuine modesty not merely the deflection of accolades. She does however tell me that her desire to be a role model to young women “is constantly the driving force behind everything.”
Our conversation eventually gets around to the song “Miss You” a reminder of both happy memories and also a very dark period in Varnadeau’s life. When her sister Lisa passed away, like most who have suffered through such a personal loss it shattered much of Varnadeau’s world. “When my sister passed away there was nothing that I could do. I couldn’t fix it, couldn’t change it, and I couldn’t bring her back. I asked God to but He didn’t. She was completely gone. I was helpless. There was nothing that I could do in that situation. With everything else you can fix it,” she says.
Vanadeau says, “After my sister passed away I didn’t want to write a whole lot. I didn’t really want to be one of these people who turned out bitter. I tried to write songs but they were all morbid. It really took me two years before I came to the place where I felt I could write something about it. Really you just feel eight million emotions when that happens. I think it takes that long to sort through things and finally land on something.
The passing of Lisa Olson has also found its way into her younger sister’s ministry. The experience has given the teenage role model another aspect of her life to share with her young disciples. She says, “When I share the story at ChikChat some girls are really affected because their family is their life. I really did love and appreciate my sister but would I have done more if I knew I would lose her? It is a reminder that we have to make the most of the relationships that we have in the time that we have. I think it is a good eye opener to some girls who are too caught up in, ‘Do I have a boyfriend?” she says. What seems to make Jeni Varnadeau unique is her ability to cross over from teen ministry to adult ministry. In addition to the missions film she was involved in shooting she was commissioned to write the theme song for a Baptist convention which had more than 12,000 attendees. It would be difficult to not like this vibrant young singer. She is the kind of young woman you would want to mentor your daughter. At the same time in her own words she is “goofy” which only adds to the charm.
When Varnadeau burst onto the music scene in 1996 with her debut album Colors Of Truth she rocked the Christian record charts with three singles in the top ten. Her edgy alternative approach to music was at the time fresh and new to the Christian radio format. Her music sent strong signals this was a very special singer/songwriter.
Ten years later Varnadeau has authored a book and Bible study materials for teenage girls. Something Changed is her fifth album and she has established on the international scene as role model, favored pop singer and teacher. Today she is on the eve of her tenth wedding anniversary (October) to husband Rory and she would tell you it is a team effort with Christ at the center.
“God has given me a lot of grace to have a great life,” she says.
Copyright © 2006 Joe Montague, exclusive rights reserved. This material may not be redistributed without prior written permission from Joe Montague. Joe Montague is an internationally published freelance journalist / photographer.