Christian pollster George Barna has been kidnapped and replaced by gremlins. That is the most logical explanation for the premise, content, and reasoning of the latest book attributed to Barna’s authorship, Revolution (Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 2005).
Barna published his first book in 1990 and during the fifteen years since, after several books, articles and interviews, Barna has established a following that includes the author of this review. Those who have followed Barna’s work have valued it to the extent that changes in worship styles, church practices and methods of discipleship and evangelism can be more or less directly linked to guidance derived from Barna’s polls and trend reports.
Thus, like probably many ministers and church leaders, I greeted Barna’s newest book, Revolution, with high expectations. Unfortunately, those expectations have been thwarted.
The first problem with this book is that it is not an update of his famous polling and more famous prognostication of trends in the church and among American Christians. Indeed, Barna’s book presents nothing in the way of new data. It does contain pronouncements from Barna regarding his accumulated data and his interpretation of that data, stripped of any explanation of the methodology by which he has reached his conclusions. This book has the look and feel of one rushed to press, thoughtlessly assembled and just plain badly written.
The oddities in the book commence with the claim by Barna that rather than being merely a pollster, he is now a practitioner of the “art of estimating the future.” It reminded me of Isaac Asimov’s fictional character, Hari Seldon, the mathematician who 12,000 years in the future would explain, “What I have done…is to show that, in studying human society, it is possible to choose a starting point and to make appropriate assumptions that will suppress the chaos. That will make it possible to predict the future, not in full detail, of course, but in broad sweeps; not with certainty, but with calculable probabilities.” Barna makes roughly the same claim, though a future movie seems less likely.
Barna, it seems, has discovered by polling what the rest of us knew and took for granted. He has discovered that each church has a core of members who do most of the giving, work, leading, and spiritual living, and that such a core usually comprises 5% to 10% of the membership. As a result, churches are less influential for Christ than any of us would prefer. But Barna goes much further, concluding that the local church concept is approaching obsolescence due to its accumulated errors and that an “under the radar but seminal renaissance” is in the making among Christians who have given up on the local church.
Barna never explains how, if these Christians are “under the radar,” that he has detected them. He admits that his book is not a product of his analytical work as much as it is an encouragement to these “outsiders,” who are “struggling with their place in the Kingdom of God, to consider this spiritual awakening as a viable alternative to what they have pursued and experienced thus far.” One has to wonder how these outsiders will learn of his book and buy it in sufficient quantities to satisfy Tyndale without contact with the local church.
Barna’s “discovery” of a large “breed” of Christian “revolutionaries” who do not have the time or feel the necessity for local church involvement, or even worship service attendance, seems poorly explained or documented. Rather than concluding that these Christians are marginal or backslidden, rather even than investigating their true nature through additional polling, Barna concluded that these Christians represent a “significant recalibration of the American Church body.” To be part of Barna’s army of revolutionaries, a Christian must be “repudiating tepid systems and practices in Christian faith and introducing a wholesale shift in how faith is understood.”
Frankly, there have always been any number of Christians who for a variety of reasons have hovered about the local church like moths on a night light. To now describe them as “revolutionaries” is not only premature, but historically naïve, at least as much as can be determined from the brevity of Barna’s little book. Nevertheless, Barna predicts that the failure of the local church concept, combined with the growth of his revolutionaries, will result in a decline in local church membership from 70% of Christians to 35% by 2025. This startling claim is bereft of tables, charts, data, sample questionnaires, or anything that looks like a pollster wrote it.
Barna’s gloomy prediction for the local church is founded on his conclusion that America has a “stagnant spiritual landscape.” Barna does not, apparently, see that churches are on every corner and new construction is proliferating. The rise of the “megachurch” is swept aside by Barna without explanation as being, rather than the manifestation of the success of his revolutionaries, just another dead end created by out-of-date thinking.
Barna lists and repudiates the changes in the local church on the one hand, and then claims the local church concept will fade because of its unwillingness to change or accommodate change, leaving the disappointed reader to cry out, “Well, which is it?!” Hopefully, the search for George Barna will succeed before his next publishing deadline to prevent a further waste of reader’s time.