In his new book Revolution, George Barna makes the staggering claim that faith in America is in the midst of an "unprecedented reengineering." This revolution is so important Barna unashamedly wants to convince his readers to join in. I believe Mr. Barna's motives are good. I also believe Christians should be attentive to cultural trends. In spite of what I consider good motives, Barna's assumptions about Christianity are so problematic that it's difficult to take his argument for joining this revolution seriously.
First, Barna's argument presupposes that truth is primarily found in human experience and not in divine revelation. The core of the book has to do with the 20 million evangelicals that have left the local church and have experienced a "24/7" Christian faith. The first chapter is about two of these revolutionaries playing golf on a Sunday morning for what they call "Church on the Green." Barna claims that these men, like the other revolutionaries, are "born again" and "deeply spiritual." Despite their passion for Christ, both men found church boring and their lives too busy to be involved in a Christianity that wasn't stimulating. Therefore, they both disengaged from the local church. Through their disengagement from church, these revolutionaries, (at least one of the two in his example) have found the Christianity they wanted outside the church. On the basis of the experience of these men and the 20 million like them, Barna makes his claim that this revolution is good for evangelical Christianity. In fact, his goal is to encourage Christians to "consider this spiritual awakening as a viable alternative to what they have pursued and experienced thus far." For Barna, the experience of these revolutionaries is the starting place. Their experience is so important to his argument that he even cautions his readers that they should "be very careful how we critique another person's spiritual journey." Barna's need to protect the revolutionaries from criticism points to his hidden presupposition that truth is found in human experience not in divine revelation.
In the introduction, Barna says that his readers' response to the revolution should be based on its "consistency with biblical principles and its capacity to advance the Kingdom of God." Despite this statement, Barna never seriously evaluates the revolution's consistency with biblical principles. He uses the Bible in his argument to prop up the experience of the revolutionaries, but not to evaluate their experience. He assumes the revolution is good for the Kingdom of God solely based on the idea that their movement away from the local church has worked, so it must be true.
What is most telling of Barna's dependence on experience and not revelation is his statement in the introduction admitting that his book is not "theologically dense." How can a book that argues for the abandonment of the local church be theologically weak? The answer is that theology is not important. Barna's low view of truth and high view of experience allows him to unreservedly disregard two thousand years of Christian formulations about the church and spirituality, because 20 million evangelical Christians have left the local church and experienced "more of God."
Second, Barna's argument reveals a belief that the Church should be governed by marketplace consumerism. George Barna is a pollster. Pollsters deal with popular or consumer opinion. Popular opinion is the anthropology of the marketplace. The pollster sees the market changing and recommends changes in the product to suit these changes. In this case, the consumers are the revolutionaries and the product is a stimulating Christian life. Barna sees the market changing. The consumers needs aren't being met, therefore the church must change its product.
Barna's market driven view of the church can also be seen in his assumption that change and progress are always good. Barna is a big believer in forward thinking. He boasts that his earlier book "Frog in the Kettle" helped (obviously not enough, thus the revolution) many ministries thrive by following his cultural predictions found there. Barna argues that Christianity is a religion of forward thinkers and those that embrace change. This is why the revolutionaries are so good for the church. They are not afraid of persecution or the damage to their image that leaving the church might cause. Barna goes out of his way to show how it was forward thinking and love for change that caused the conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees. Like the revolutionaries, Jesus wanted change. Therefore, following the premise of "foward thinking," if you are against this revolution you must be a Pharisee. In fact, according to Barna, all great movements in Christianity have been hindered by those not committed to progress. Through this argument, Barna conveniently paints a picture of Christ in the image of one of the 20 million revolutionaries.
Barna's consumerism also comes out in his faith in what works. Barna wants his readers to believe Christianity is not about going to church; it's about being the Church. Why the need to change our focus from going to church to being the Church? Simply put, going to church isn't working. Barna pulls seven passions of a revolutionary from the book of Acts. He shows how these passions are evident in the lives of the revolutionaries that have left the local church and not evident in the lives of the non-revolutionaries that are still committed to the local church. Based on the comparison of the success of the revolutionaries and the failure of the local church, Barna concludes that the local church isn't working and should be redefined. He argues that since being involved in the local church doesn't cause a person to have a more "robust spiritual life than the revolutionaries" and those involved in the local church are less likely to be as spiritual as the revolutionaries, the revolution should be embraced not hindered. Barna never considers the possibility that something that causes an external spirituality may be bad. According to his way of thinking anything that looks spiritual is good. I have a friend who joined a cult. After he joined the cult the seven passions of a revolutionary were more evident in his life than before. Should I go join the cult and encourage others to do the same?
Barna never questions the use of consumer capitalistic techniques to "grow" the kingdom. Barna doesn't consider that the use of these kinds of ideas in relation to God could be damaging. He seems oblivious to the problems with the world view of capitalistic consumerism, a market place mentality which assumes all needs are valid and should always be met. For instance, Barna never questions the legitimacy of the needs of the revolutionaries. Another assumption in consumerism is that the customer is always right. This is why the revolutionaries are free from the same evaluation to which they subject the church. The most troubling assumption of the market place applied to Christianity is the assumption that the customer is sovereign and the product is his servant. This idea applied to Christianity turns the Creator/creature distinction on its head. By adopting these ideas Barna and his revolutionaries are unwittingly communicating that God and his church are useful only when they provide the experience people are looking for. Instead of calling people to bow down to God, Barna is calling them to bow down to self.
Finally, Barna argues that the universal Church is the only truly biblical expression of the "church." At the very beginning Barna attempts to define terms in a way that will help us understand his argument. He makes a distinction between what he calls little "c" church and big "C" church. Little "c" is the local church and big "C" is the universal church. Barna argues that little "c" or local church is "abiblical". He believes the local church, as we know it, is neither "described nor promoted" in the Bible. In fact, God could care less about your relationship to the local church. In his argument Barna leaves out passages in Acts, Timothy, Titus, Revelation and all of the epistles that refer to the local church. He never mentions the 4th commandment. His exegesis is so thin that the most telling result of Barna's book may be how much evangelical leaders take his exegesis seriously. If Barna's weak exegesis can convince evangelical leaders that the Bible is silent about the local church, then evangelicalism has surely reached the pinnacle of Biblical ignorance.
At the end of the day, Barna offers his readers nothing new. His message is the same as his earlier writings. Christianity must change or die. One wonders what the changing market will demand next. What will the title of his next ground breaking book 15 years from now be? Maybe "Congregation: Evangelicalism Rediscovers the Local Church".
George Barna / Wheaton: Tyndale House Publishers, 2005
Review by Chris Treat