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.
Barna anticipates this criticism and replies: "The Bible does not tell us that worship must happen in a church sanctuary and therefore we must be actively associated with a local church." But to say the New Testament does not prescribe a form for worship (though its assemblies somehow all gather on the Lord's Day to read Scripture, pray, prophesy, and share the Lord's Supper) is not to say the New Testament allows us to disregard the church.
Not that I'm blaming Barna. His book merely reveals every thin spot in evangelical ecclesiology. We flamingly disregard 2,000 years of guidance under the Holy Spirit. We elevate private judgment above the collective wisdom of apostles, martyrs, reformers, and saints.
Granted, Christianity has always accepted non-congregational forms. Consider the fourth-century hermits who fled to the Egyptian desert. But precisely because those loose gatherings of ascetics fostered so many problemsincluding pride and dissensionJohn Cassian and others formed them into communities that were committed to the sacraments and under spiritual authority. In other words, Christianity has welcomed non-congregational forms, and it will welcome many created by today's Revolutionaries, but Christianity has wisely reserved the central and essential place for the local congregation.
The third question: Is this Revolution motivated primarily by the Spirit of God, advancing the kingdom beyond the walls of the stiff and often ineffective local congregation, or by the anti-institutional and individualistic drives of our time? Barna argues the former, and in the book's strongest chapter, he provides a relentless statistical indictment of the local church's failure to develop mature disciples. Barna is rightly incensed at the low level of spiritual maturity in the American church: "As the research data clearly show, churches are not doing the job."
Still, Revolution's emphasis on personal choice would make a marketer rejoice and an apostle weep. Barna expects to see believers "choosing from a proliferation of options, weaving together a set of favored alternatives into a unique tapestry that constitutes the personal 'church' of the individual." The phrase "personal 'church' of the individual" must be the most mind-spinning phrase ever written about the church of Jesus Christ. Could it be that we evangelical Protestants, who have done more to fragment Christendom than any other group, are now taking that to the logical extreme: a church at the individual level, each person creating a personal "church" experience? At any other point in church history, "personal church" would be nonsensical. In today's America, it's the Next Big Thing.
Harvard professor Robert D. Putnam argued compellingly in Bowling Alone (Simon & Schuster, 2001) that since 1960, Americans' involvement in social groups and churches has dropped 25 to 50 percent. So we can't help but wonder if this same societal withdrawal from institutions is now bringing us a do-it-yourself church. As Roger E. Olson writes in The Mosaic of Christian Belief (InterVarsity, 2002): "Nowhere in the Great Tradition of Christianity before the twentieth century can one find the uniquely modern phenomenon of 'churchless Christians.'"
Few people have made as many dramatic shifts in life as George Barna. He's moved from Boston to southern California, from a daily-Mass Catholic to a spokesman for evangelicals, from political pollster to leader of a media empire. Revolution signals another shift. 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 a foe of the congregation.
George Barna and I want the same things: devoted followers of Jesus Christ and an advancing kingdom of God. But we differ on how to get there. Barna feels excited about the Revolution and predicts the decline of the local church. I feel neutral about the Revolution, until we begin to see its fruit, and I don't worry about the local church.
In the 1960s and 1970s, when radical movements attracted young people, many predicted the local church was a goner. But today, long after people's hearts have stopped beating fast for the Moonies and Guru Maharishi, down on the corner, Old First Church is still running a soup kitchen. Out by the freeway, New Community Church is still saving a few souls. And over by the university, Journey Emerging Church is lighting a few candles and giving money to alleviate the suffering of aids.
Do you want to become a Revolutionary? First, trade your copy of Revolution for Life Together, the manifesto written by Dietrich Bonhoeffer during the dark days of Nazi Germany. Then, if you want to do heroic and revolutionary exploits, go back to your local church. That's something so spiritually challenging that several million people no longer want to do it.
Kevin Miller, a deacon at Church of the Resurrection in Wheaton, Illinois, is editor-at-large of Leadership.
Copyright © 2006 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
George Barna's book Revolution: Finding Vibrant Faith Beyond the Walls of the Sanctuary is available from Christianbook.com and other book retailers.
Christianity Today's 2002 cover package on Barna includes:
The Third Coming of George Barna | He believes his ten-year campaign to reform the church has failed. What is evangelicals' most-quoted statistician going to do next? (July 26, 2002)
Barna's Beefs | His nine challenges for American Christianityprophetic words, or sweeping generalizations? (July 26, 2002)
More about Barna is available from The Barna Group.
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