Some years ago a popular but chubby Christian author wrote a book on how to lose weight. The uniqueness about this situation was that the author had been on his diet only for a short time and had not reached his targeted weight. So dramatic had been his weight loss that he rushed to inform the rest of the world about his method. But, as almost anyone knows who has ever gone on a diet, it is relatively easy to lose weight, even in large amounts, at the beginning of a diet. Our author thought he had discovered the wave of the future in weight management and was eager to share his finding. Alas, he and his regimen have long since been forgotten.
All of this reminds me of George Barna’s belief that he has caught the wave of the future concerning the church. Within twenty years, he confidently predicts, the local church will lose 50 percent of its adherents to alternative forms (p. 49). This prediction is inevitable, according to Barna, because he has observed the new “spiritual diet” program of Americans and has determined they will continue on the regimen. This is the case even though Barna admits that these “mini-movements” are small, disorganized, inadequately led and lack a strategic framework. But, not to worry, these signs of weakness are actually evidence that God is behind it all (pp. 54 – 55). I am reminded of a Yogi-ism, “Prediction is very hard, especially about the future.”
Barna believes a Revolution has begun which is “an unprecedented reengineering of America’s faith dimension that is likely to be the most significant transition in the religious landscape that you will ever experience” (p. viii). He sees this Revolution as a “viable alternative” to the local church (p. ix). And he considers himself a participant in the Revolution (p. x). As a matter of fact as the book progresses, the reader begins to realize that Barna is the Revolution’s head cheerleader and chief source (he lists his organization as the only resource regarding the Revolution) (p. 141).
So what do we learn about the Revolution in Barna’s book? Not much. Barna is long on hype and hyperbole and pitifully short on details. Not a single quote from a participant in the Revolution is given. Not a footnote. Not the name of one individual or organization. Not one verifiable stance on doctrine or philosophy of ministry. Rather we are inundated with generalities from unknown sources about nebulous beliefs and practices. Still, we are to believe Barna because his “research” supposedly backs his claims. If this is any indication of the kind of research the Barna Group does it should give us real pause before we accept its reports at face value.
Therefore, based almost entirely on anecdotal accounts, Barna predicts (with complete confidence) that the local church is facing a decline of mammoth proportions. Those leaving the local church are not doing so because of spiritual lethargy, but because they recognize the impotence of the church and want something more, something better. While constantly bashing the local church in Revolution, Barna holds up the Revolutionist as a model Christian. Although at one point he seems to indicate that there are a dozen “mini-movements” each having less than three million adherents (p. 54), he is never specific enough about these “mini-movements” to even evaluate his statistics. Describing these “millions” of widely-diverse people, he writes, “It is comprised of a demographically diverse group of people who are determined to let nothing stand in the way of an authentic and genuine experience with God…They are God-lovers and joyfully obedient servants. They are willing to do whatever it takes to draw closer to God” (pp. 124-125).
To Barna, the Revolutionaries are a breed of supersaints who have rediscovered what the church lost somewhere along the way. This might be a good time to note that Barna (and his Revolutionaries) are largely reacting to the market-driven, seeker-sensitive church that he helped create. Having formed the consumer church, (largely through his surveys that revealed to church leaders what people wanted) he now recognizes that this church has lost its spirit. It has been gutted of its transforming power because for over two decades the paradigm has been to give people what they think they want rather than what God says they need. Is it any marvel then as the shine fades from this new model that people begin to realize they have bought a lemon? Of course Barna is disappointed with the consumer church; it has been constructed from the surveys, opinion polls, and felt-need blueprints drawn up in Barna’s own workshop. The local church is now flush with drama, entertainment, social events, psychology and programs galore, but gone is the power and glory of God. All of this was predictable. When we abandon God’s blueprint we are left with those concocted by men – men like Barna.
Now Barna has changed direction, recognizing the church model he helped engineer has a fatal flaw. He is declaring a recall. Bring in your old model, he is saying, and we will give you a new one – one that works. But before we exchange the keys we might want to remember what Barna delivered last time. When we are sold a lemon we are wise to tread lightly before we go back to the same salesman. Maybe we should look around first. And maybe we should consult the original Engineer as to what He had in mind in the first place. The solution to the seeker-sensitive church that Barna built is not to trash the local church but return to the biblical model.
This brings us to another vital deficiency of Revolution. The book has virtually no interaction with Scripture. It is astounding that a Christian leader wants to lead a revolution without careful analysis of the biblical text. Yes, he does make an anemic attempt to cite a few Scripture references (e.g. pp. 20 – 22), but he carefully avoids any discussion of God’s design for the local church complete with elders, deacons, church discipline, body life, instructions to teach, care for souls, etc. Where is Barna’s analysis of 1 Timothy 3, Titus 1, Acts 20, Hebrews 13, Ephesians 4:11–16, 1 Corinthians 12–14, Revelation 2-3 and numerous other passages? Rather than thoughtful discussion of Scripture, Barna reacts with scorn to anyone who dares to challenge his unbiblical position, painting him as confrontational (pp. 134–135).
Even Barna’s research has serious and obvious flaws. He sees the church as ineffective, lacking in cultural and spiritual power. His surveys indicate that there is no substantial difference in the way Christians and unbelievers live. He asks, “If the local church is God’s answer to our spiritual needs, then why are most churched Christians so spiritually immature and desperate” (p. 30)?
Good questions, but before we get too excited we should look behind the scenes at the Barna Group’s assumptions while taking these surveys. Many have long recognized that Barna is far too generous with his definition of who is a Christian or who is an evangelical. Some, including myself, believe that if you take Barna’s numbers and divide them by three you will come closer to the truth. Why? Barna’s seeker-sensitive movement (his earlier model) has flooded the local church with tares. I am convinced many “evangelical” churches today are comprised largely of unbelievers. These are individuals who would claim to be born again or even evangelical for survey purposes, but who do not know Christ. Even by Barna’s own minimalist definition of a biblical worldview, he identifies only nine percent of evangelicals having it. If 40 percent of Americans claim to be born again (according to Barna) but only nine percent of those have a biblical worldview, something is amiss in the foundational definitions. By earlier standards a true Christian would by necessity have a biblical worldview. A little calculation then would tell us that nine percent of 40 percent brings us to about 3.6 percent. In other words, the believing community in America may be closer to 3.6 percent than to 40 per cent. I suggest that if Barna would take his surveys from the 3.6 percent that truly represents biblical Christians, his findings would be radically different. Instead Barna has an incredibly wide definition base. He gives a chart on page 49 stating that 70 percent of Americans rely upon a local church for their spiritual experience and expression. That will change to 30-35 percent by the year 2025 as half the church members exit the local congregations. But in that 70 percent figure Barna has lumped together liberal, cultic, nominal attendees, Catholics, Protestants, etc. The figure has no substantial meaning, especially in light of the fact that more reliable figures tell us only about 35 percent of Americans attend church services now on any given weekend. My point is this: Barna throws all those claiming any church affiliation into one giant pot, then comes up with the conclusion that the church has failed to produce spiritually alive Christians. I say he needs to survey another pot. Examine those churches that have stayed with God’s plan, who have faithfully taught the Word, practiced church discipline, evangelized with the biblical gospel message, worshipped with God as the focus, and majored on the majors of Scripture. I think you will find those churches producing spiritual, passionate believers. And since that is true, rather than jettisoning God’s plan and replacing it with another corrupt rendition, we should recommend that the local church return to the Bible for the Divine blueprint.
This option is not a live one for Barna. Barna is convinced that the Revolution is from God (pp 19, 70, 82, 136, 139) and we “cannot fight God and win” (p. 137). We therefore are not to judge or even discern this movement; rather we need to jump on board (pp. 20, 127, 136, 139, 140). Whether the Revolution meets the test of Scripture is not important to Barna. God is doing a new thing and we better join up or be steamrolled. Resistance is futile. Fortunately Barna is not the last word on the church. God has reserved that for Himself.