The Third Coming of George Barna
In november of last year George Barna came home disheartened. He had been on the road for most of 2001, giving all-day seminars in 54 cities to pastors and church leaders. Barna, who is 47 and has large, soulful eyes, is to evangelicals what George Gallup is to the larger culture. Pastors frequently cite his statistical findings in sermons, and his many books about church ministry sell consistently. For the past six years he has been keeping a fierce pace, spending more than half his time away from home (he always travels with his wife and two small children). He is an intensely introverted personality who dislikes public speaking. Something apart from road weariness discouraged him, however.
"Increasingly the question was emerging: I can keep doing all this, and probably make a living for a long time, but so what? Ultimately I stand before a holy and righteous God who placed me here to serve him with the gifts and vision that he entrusted to me. He's going to ask, 'What did you do?' . …I can't imagine standing before him and saying, 'Well, I sold out. I knew that what I was doing didn't work, but it would have been too big, too hard to do something different. I didn't want to admit that what I thought might work had failed.' " An expert pollster and market researcher, Barna prides himself on realism. Sometimes he angers people with his apparent pessimism, but the truth must be faced, he believes. God had called Barna "to serve as a catalyst for moral and spiritual revolution in America." He had hoped to push church leaders to revitalize the church, to make it as beautiful and powerful as God meant it to be. His ten-year campaign had failed.
"The strategy was flawed because it had an assumption. The assumption was that the people in leadership are actually leaders. [I thought] all I need to do is give them the right information and they can draw the right conclusions . …Most people who are in positions of leadership in local churches aren't leaders. They're great people, but they're not really leaders."
With that chilling assessment Barna changed his course. He's not about to quit—he believes with all his heart in God's calling to "moral and spiritual revolution." He has concluded it won't happen in this decade, though. He's now beginning to chart a course that looks 20 to 30 years ahead for results.
More Than Selling Kleenex
Barna grew up in Princeton, New Jersey, a cradle Catholic who went to Mass daily when he started college at Washington and Lee University. After finishing at Boston College, where he majored in sociology with a minor in religion, he went to work on the campaign staff of a Boston politician. Idealism attracted him to politics but soon caused his disenchantment. His liberal Democrat boss cared about people, Barna was delighted to learn. But when his boss wanted to "solve" a messy pregnancy by arranging an abortion, Barna quit, one month before the primary election.
Shaking the dust of politics from his feet, Barna went to graduate school. Beginning at Rutgers University in urban planning, he grew interested in political polling and ended up earning a second M.A. in political science. Meanwhile, he had married his hometown girl, and together they began what they referred to as their search for God.
The way Barna describes it, neither one of them knew much about religion outside of their native Catholicism. It wasn't working for them, they concluded, but nevertheless they believed in God and talked often of their search for him. Eventually their pilgrimage led them to a small, fundamentalist Baptist church. The pastor, a Bob Jones University graduate, introduced them to Bible study and a personal relationship with God. Unfortunately, he also ushered them out of the church within a few short months, because he demanded that the newly converted Barna shave his beard and cut his hair.