George Barna's New Book 2: Defining the Debate

In my earlier post, I explained the thesis of George Barna's latest book, Revolution. I think it important, however, to offer 2 corrections to my review:

The review's subtitle, "George Barna wants commitment to the local congregation to sink lower than ever," is inaccurate. It was added by an editor after my last read of the copy and does not represent the book's views or my understanding of those. It would be accurate to instead say, "George Barna predicts commitment to the local congregation will sink lower than ever." Or it might be accurate to say, "George Barna is not overly concerned about declining commitment to the traditional local congregation, given that the traditional local congregation has not effectively produced mature disciples."

A second editorial change made just before printing is likewise inaccurate. I originally wrote, "Barna's early books (he's written more than 35) promoted Marketing the Church and The Power of Vision, so many perceived him as an ally of the megachurch. But in Revolution, his support for fluid movements and his direct challenge of a statement often used by Bill Hybels (?The local church is the hope of the world') make him now seem an ally of the emergent church." But in the printed copy the final phrase changed to "?make him now seem a foe of the congregation."

That's not fair to Barna. As I read Revolution, I don't take George to be a foe of the congregation. He predicts its decline; and he welcomes "spiritual mini-movements" that may or may not involve believers in the local church; and as he says, "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)." That does not, however, make him "a foe of the local congregation," and I regret that those words were inserted.

So if you're looking for someone to dislike George, I'm not it. In fact, I should add that I'm a phone friend of Tom Black, a key leader for the Barna organization and a major influence on the book. (As you might guess, Tom doesn't agree with my take on the book. He was expecting this kind of objection but says that so far he's gotten positive feedback.)

Since the review was posted, many have sent me email, hailing me as a genius or decrying me as an idiot. Among the latter, one pastor felt I had defended the traditional, institutional, programmatic church and attacked the nontraditional, organic, house church. In subsequent emails with him, I explained that I have nothing against house churches and fully support them as a model.

January 16, 2006

Displaying 1–10 of 21 comments

Bud Brown

March 06, 2006  9:39am

Barna's most recent release on this issue casts the argument in a new light. The "revolutionaries" are not the "roll your own" types they were supposed to have been. These are people who are serious about their faith. Heck, I'm a revolutionary, I guess. I just happen to be fortunate enough to be in a church that "gets it." But after all these years I wouldn't waste my time in a Laodicean church. Neither do these people.

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Mark Galli

February 07, 2006  11:29am

This line of conversation seems to be losing interest, but just to set the record straight. Kevin Miller, a friend and colleague, is right about last-minute editorial changes. The last few days before we go to press, literally hundreds of quick decisions have to be made about a host of editorial matters, and the two changes he points to were made by yours truly. Despite the controversy surrounding the change in the subtitle, I feel the change we made was justified. Kevin quotes Barna as saying, "My goal is to help you be a revolutionary" (page 29), and according to Barna's book, a revolutionary is one who seeks to "overthrow or repudiate" and "thoroughly replace" "established systems" (page 13 and earlier). Then he has an entire chapter ("How is the local church doing?") that marshals all manner of statistics to show what a miserable failure the church has been. Barna concludes, "If the local church is the hope of the world, then the world has no hope." Yes, Barna specifically says "it is irrelevant to me" whether Revolutionaries are "immersed in, minimally involved in, or completely disassociated form a local church" (p. 29). And things like "there is nothing wrong inherently with being involved in a local church" (p. 36) So it is fair to say that he never repudiates the church in so many words. Then again, we all recognize that writers can say something strongly and powerfully while not saying it. In this case, I find it impossible to read his book and not come to the conclusion that Barna is not just indifferent to the local church, but that he wants to "thoroughly replace" and "overthrow" this "established system." He is a revolutionary after all, and he wants all his readers to become so. This is the reason I feel the subtitle of the CT article, though hyperbole to be sure, was warranted. To be fair, since Barna never specifically says that he wants the local church to decline, it could be argued that the hyperbole was pushed too far, into the realm of inaccuracy. I would acknowledge that the argument has strong points. I just happen to disagree. The same would be true regarding the other editorial change: the context of the book as a whole, and specific statements in it, make it point to the fact that Barna is antagonistic toward the local church. Again, strong counter-arguments can be made, but I just happened to disagree. Last minute editorial changes like this happen all the time, and Kevin understands the hectic process at the very end a publishing cycle, having been a magazine editor himself. These last-minute changes rarely, rarely make any difference in meaning–this being the exception that proves the rule. He never expected an apology from me (though I offered one) for changing these matters without consulting him. I stand by them as accurate representations of what Barna inadvertently teaches, but not as expressions of what Kevin specifically intended to say. All that being said, I am an equal opportunity offender. And if some Revolutionary out there has an specific article or story idea that CT ought to cover, do pitch us ( We're decidedly pro-local church, but we're interested in anything God seems to be doing on the planet. Mark Galli, managing editor, Christianity Today.

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Jim Henderson

February 05, 2006  10:02am

Kevin Thanks for the redux. Having had the privilege of working more closely with George and also having had coffee and a number of talks with you on this issue I felt that you guys are more in agreement than disagreement. You know that I am "off the map" so I won't even take up cyber space explaining my thoughts on this issue. George is prescient - The traditional church will live on - the emerging church will emerge The Converging Church is the one I think we are struggling to define and clarify

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L Jenkins

January 29, 2006  2:04am

Whether you agree or disagree with Barna is not the issue. The meditation and prayer to God should be whether Barna is right about the declining church. An if so, what can be done. As to the first question, it is easy to see that he is right when it comes to the denominational church. What is more difficult to see is whether there is a or soon will be a decline in the 'mega church' movement. Here, I see the signs of it already. The sermons are good but watered down with every cultural icon possible. The attendees seem excited within the service, but don't seem to have any emotion upon exiting. There seems to be a lot of organized groups, but no passionate self-organized like-minded groups. There are a lot of children, but the programs barely mention Jesus and instead focus on values. Alot of youth mission trips that involve socially concsious activities, like building Habitat for Humanity houses, but no actual preaching the gospel. My point is that these new churches seem so intent on getting people in the doors, and invloved, but not as much in developing passionate disciples. They seem to be sowing the seeds in the shallow soil or even sowing seeds amongst the weeds. The answer to this problem is already prescribed for us in the Bible. Either the pastors in these churches begin to lead their congregation and bring in deeper soil, even at the expense of killing the weeds, or indeed the seeds will sprout but the weeds will surely choke them out, and in the end, the 'church' will be left with weeds. The seeds that sprouted will either die or God will lead them to a spot with good soil. And it may be just a small group of like-minded seeds gathering together. That, I believe is simply what Barna is observing, the beginning of God leading the sprouted seeds to deeper soil.

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Glenn F

January 24, 2006  3:52am

I think the most interesting thing to note in Barna's book is that he points out... all the things that most people think of as "church" in our generation are not prescribed in the Bible. I don't think Jesus set out to build an orgnization, and I don't think we need to read the NT with glasses that put a 20th - 21st century spin on the "organizational religion" of the Apostles. There are a lot of people out there seeking more than the meeting-based church organizations can do. Option C - (as the author puts it) might be closer to what God is asking of us than A or B. John 3:8... Jesus told Nicodemus that those who are led by the Spirit are like the wind... Be free...

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Dave Terpstra

January 23, 2006  4:38pm

In Willow Creeks magazine, "Willow," Barna describes how churches today can best support revolutionaries. He states: "Consider that the role of the local church is to help people honor and get close to Jesus. It is meant to support each person's efforts to be Christ-like." I disagree that is THE point of the church. Perhaps it is just me, but this feels like America's 230 year experiment in independence applied to the church. It's not about "us," it's about "me" and "you." I scratch your back, and you scratch mine. But only when I ask for it; I want my independence. The local church in America has failed at helping people see the corporate nature of the Christianity. The local church should help me to realize that "us" is more important than "me." Barna claims it's only about the "us" of the Church, not the "us" of the local church. But how can I see myself as part of the Church, when I can't even commit myself to a local church? That sounds like an excuse to not have to sign on and be held accountable. I will not disagree with Barna that the local church has problems. But when the local church is broken, let's fix it, not celebrate people leaving it!

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Dan McGowan

January 21, 2006  12:45pm

Yeah, comfy - the key to everything, I imagine... he said, sitting on his padded desk chair, at his pc computer, a glass of fresh OJ by his side, nice photos on 4 walls, carpet under his feet... dang, now I feel guilty!

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January 21, 2006  7:57am

...effectiveness-challenged? ...grace-challenged? ...too comfy to give a rip?

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Dan McGowan

January 20, 2006  2:04pm

I'm not an alcoholic, I'm just sober-challenged... I'm not fat, I'm just think-challenged... I'm not arrogant, I'm just humility-challenged... I'm not a racist, I'm just humanity-challenged... I'm not a pervert, I'm just purity-challenged... There's nothing wrong with MY church, we're just...........................

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bob Smietana

January 19, 2006  5:20pm

Kevin: Barna's report on top 10 religious trends for 2005 begins with this statement: "Ignoring reporters' questions about church growth figures by stating, "church attendance is grossly overrated as a measure of anything that is spiritually significant," the researcher instead offered four factors that he described as "indicative of the reshaping of the church in the U.S." Barna seems to dismiss the local congregation as having any significance–which seems close to the "foe" line that the editor inserted.

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