No Church? No Problem
Storm the barricades! According to researcher George Barna, we're in the midst of a "spiritual revolution that is reshaping Christianity, personal faith, corporate religious experience, and the moral contours of the nation."
Who's leading the coup d'état? Some 20 million people, dubbed Revolutionaries, who live "a first-century lifestyle based on faith, goodness, love, generosity, kindness, and simplicity" and who "zealously pursue an intimate relationship with God."
If true, this is amazing news, the best for American Christians in generations.
But before we break out the party poppers, we should note that, like every revolution, this one has a loser: the local church.
Unlike the Great Awakenings, which brought people into the church, this new movement "entails drawing people away from reliance upon a local church into a deeper connection with and reliance upon God." Already "millions of believers have stopped going to church," so Barna expects that in 20 years "only about one-third of the population will rely upon a local congregation as the primary or exclusive means for experiencing and expressing their faith." Down will go the number of churches, donations to churches, and the cultural influence of churches.
Are you worried about the church where you were baptized, taught, married, and given Communion? That's only a "congregational-formatted ministry," one of many ways to "develop and live a faith-centered life. We made it up." Writes Barna, "Whether you become a Revolutionary immersed in, minimally involved in, or completely disassociated from a local church is irrelevant to me (and, within boundaries, to God)." He doesn't reveal God's expectations for church involvement, but they don't seem hard to get over.
Barna illustrates with two fictional characters who "eliminated church life from their busy schedules." Why? They did not find a ministry "that was sufficiently stimulating" and "their church, although better than average, still seems flat." Too bad for the lowly local church that people today insist on having "unique, highly personalized church experiences."
So where are the Revolutionaries going? To "mini-movements" such as home schooling, house churches, Bible studies at work, and Chris Tomlin worship concerts. What matters is a godly life, so "if a local church facilitates that kind of [godly] life, then it is good. And if a person is able to live a godly life outside of a congregation-based faith, then that, too, is good."
Those expecting impartial research will instead find Revolution a work of passion: "My goal is to help you be a Revolutionary," Barna writes. One looks in vain for the methodology, survey responses, and analysis that led Barna to his conclusions.
And that begs several questions. First, who are these 20 million people defined as Revolutionaries? We know they're fully devoted to God, but Barna gives us precious little information about them. Barna does say that only 9 percent of the nation's 77 million born-again adults have a biblical worldview, and that accounts for just under 7 million people. So the remaining 13 million Revolutionaries either don't have a biblical worldview or aren't born again? You can't tell from reading this book.
The second question: How vital can a Christian revolution be that views the local church as optional?
Revolution is passionate for the church, so long as it's the capital-C church, the universal group of believers in Jesus, the church I can't see and don't have to relate to. When the Reformers distinguished between the local and universal church, they did so to point out that not every church member had justifying faith. But they insisted that every believer be immersed in a local congregation, where the gospel is rightly proclaimed and the sacraments rightly administered. The notion of freelance Christians would have made them spit out their beer.