(Wheaton: Tyndale House Publishers, 2005), 144pp.
Most Christians are familiar with George Barna and his relentless efforts to discern trends within the body of Christ and society at large. According to the dust jacket of this volume he has written more than 35 books and “has been hailed as ‘the most quoted person in the Christian Church today.’” I suspect that he will continue to be quoted extensively, but it grieves me to think that the source of those citations will be this small volume.
Barna tells us up front that “this is not a book about a myriad of trends. It is a book about a single trend that is already redefining faith and the Church in our country. It is about an explosion of spiritual energy and activity we are calling the Revolution – an unprecedented reengineering of America’s faith dimension that is likely to be the most significant transition in the religious landscape that you will ever experience” (viii). As will become evident, Barna believes this “significant transition” to be a positive one. I, on the other hand, regard it as a disaster of immense proportions.
One thing that pleases me concerning this book (and there aren’t many that do) is Barna’s repeated call for a biblical evaluation of the Revolution. Our response to it, he says, “ought not be based on whether you are comfortable with it, but rather on its consistency with biblical principles and its capacity to advance the Kingdom of God” (ix). Of course, I hope he would also acknowledge that where the former is lacking the latter is largely irrelevant. I personally will remain suspicious of any purported “advance” in the Kingdom of God that is contrary to biblical principles. Only the thoroughly pragmatic person would argue otherwise.
What is the Revolution? To answer that question we must note a distinction Barna makes from the outset and how he employs it throughout the book. I actually agree with the distinction. Barna is careful to differentiate between the words “church” (small ‘c’) and “Church” (capital ‘C’). The former refers to the “congregation-based faith experience, which involves a formal structure, a hierarchy of leadership, and a specific group of believers” (x), or what you and I might simply call the “local church”. The latter, or capital ‘C’ Church “refers to all believers in Jesus Christ, comprising the population of heaven-bound individuals who are connected by their faith in Christ, regardless of their local church connections or involvement” (x).
Barna’s thesis is that one can be a Christ-loving, Bible-believing, soul-winning, God-exalting Christian without any formal involvement in or connection with the “church”. The absence of the latter, be it noted, is not because of circumstances beyond your control. It’s not that some people, because of geographic isolation or persecution or other factors, cannot find or plant or become involved in a local church. The Revolution is a movement of people who easily could but refuse to do so, believing that for them, at any rate, true spirituality and authentic obedience to God and a genuine, thriving relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ is possible only by forsaking membership in, support of, and allegiance to a local congregation of believers.
In his first chapter, Barna starts with two examples of Revolutionaries. David and Michael play golf every Sunday morning (their “Church on the Green”, as they jokingly refer to their athletic venture). Barna describes them as “born-again Christians who had eliminated church life from their busy schedules” (2) due to its boredom or failure to make room for their “considerable skills and knowledge” (2). Both men thought of themselves as “deeply spiritual” people who believed that “the Bible is God’s true and reliable Word for life” (3).
David, it turns out, has retained his commitment to reading the Bible, reflecting on God’s handiwork in nature, and doing what he can to foster a healthy and vibrant spirituality, while Michael has simply coasted. David, says Barna, “is a Revolutionary Christian [not a disobedient one, a Revolutionary one]. His life reflects the very ideals and principles that characterized the life and purpose of Jesus Christ and that advance the Kingdom of God – despite the fact that David rarely attends church services. He is typical of a new breed of disciples of Jesus Christ [a “discipleship,” evidently, that entails playing golf rather than involvement with a local body of believers]. They are not willing to play religious games [so they play physical ones with clubs and a little white ball] and aren’t interested in being part of a religious community that is not intentionally and aggressively advancing God’s Kingdom [OK. So be a part of a religious community that IS intentionally and aggressively advancing God’s Kingdom!]. They are people who want more of God – much more – in their lives. And they are doing whatever it takes to get it” [which would include abandoning the local church] (7). I hope you realize that the comments in brackets are mine, not Barna’s!
But Barna wants to be sure that we understand the nature of the true Revolutionary. They long for authenticity in their religious faith, genuineness in their relationship with God, and vibrancy in their worship. Whether or not they are in a local church is irrelevant. Some will be. Many won’t. What’s most important is “their complete dedication to being thoroughly Christian” (8), and the local church need not play any role at all.
These Revolutionaries are everywhere and in ever-increasing numbers. They are returning to “a first-century lifestyle” (12) that entails true Christ-like qualities such as love, faith, goodness, kindness, and simplicity. These are Christian “zealots” who are “radically reshaping both American society and the Christian Church” (12). By the way, this last assessment may well be correct. They are indeed having a profound impact on the Church/church and society as a whole. The question is whether or not it is a beneficial one that God himself would approve.
Barna is keenly aware that critics (such as myself) will dismiss these Revolutionaries “because such individuals and their faith practices are allegedly not in full compliance with Scripture” (19). Barna, however, believes they are perfectly within their biblical rights to pursue this “revolutionary” spirituality sans the local church. One of his sub-titles in chapter three reads, “What the Bible says.” So what does Barna say that the Bible says? He quotes from the book of Acts, 2:42-47; 4:24, 31-35; and 5:17-18, 27-29, 40-42 (these are virtually the only passages from the entire NT that he quotes as giving us guidelines for local church life!). From these texts he identifies “the seven passions of revolutionaries” or “the attributes that made the first Church so attractive and effective” (22). They are: intimate worship, faith-based conversations, intentional spiritual growth, servanthood, resource investment, spiritual friendships, and family faith. Barna would have us believe that these passions are what constitute true, genuine spirituality and that they can (and in some cases should) be attained irrespective of one’s involvement in a local church. Of course, he never pauses to consider that each of these seven “passions” were experienced and expressed by people who were all involved, evidently on a daily basis, in a local church!
In Chapter Four Barna comes clean: “Let me be completely up front about this: My goal is to help you be a Revolutionary” (29). He is moved by the “spiritual authenticity” of these people and wants “to understand and be part of this groundbreaking development” (29). Needless to say, don’t we all long for love, faith, goodness, generosity, kindness, authenticity, etc.' But here’s the rub. For Barna, “whether you become a Revolutionary immersed in, minimally involved in, or completely disassociated [sic] from a local church is irrelevant to me (and, within boundaries, to God)” (29). That last statement within parentheses was Barna, not me! He is saying, in no uncertain terms, that in most instances God himself couldn’t care less whether you are involved in a local church, so long as you are like Jesus.
What follows in Chapter Four is what we’ve come to expect from Barna: a statistical analysis of how well (or poorly) “Churched Christians” are doing in their pursuit of such passions. He simply assumes that the 77 million American adults who are churched are “born-again Christians” (31)! But I’ll leave that alone (well, not entirely alone; it is stunningly nave and misguided to think for a moment that the 77 million Americans who attend church [any and all churches, mind you] are all born again). Barna proceeds to describe the lamentable state of affairs in the many local churches in our land. And, to a large extent, he’s right. His conclusion is that the slogan, “The local church is the hope of the world,” is mistaken: “Jesus, and Jesus alone, is the hope of the world” (36), as if any thinking Christian would affirm the former and deny the latter?! But such false and manipulative dichotomies litter this book.
“There is nothing inherently wrong with being involved in a local church,” says Barna. Well, what an incredibly gracious concession. But don’t expect to hear him say, “There is something inherently wrong with not being involved in a local church.” The reason Barna asserts the former is that, in his opinion, “the Bible neither describes nor promotes the local church as we know it today” (37). Of course, if by “as we know it today” he means massive physical structures, multi-media productions, stained-glass windows, hymn books and other religious paraphernalia, he’s right. But he contends that “the services, offices, programs, buildings, [and] ceremonies” in churches today are “neither biblical nor unbiblical” (37). By “services” I can only assume he means corporate gatherings to preach and teach and hear the Word of God. By “offices” I can only assume he means pastors and elders (or bishops) and deacons. By “programs” I can only assume he means evangelistic outreach, ministry to the poor and needy, the pursuit of social justice, etc. I’ve already conceded the absence of church “buildings” in the New Testament. So lastly, I can only assume that by “ceremonies” he means, at least, regular celebration of the Lord’s Supper (the Eucharist), baptism, marriages, etc. To say, or even to suggest, that such activities are “neither biblical nor unbiblical” is a striking example of the incredible biblical ignorance that permeates this book. Yes, I know that’s harsh language, but what else would you call it?
As far as Barna is concerned, “it’s not about church. It’s about the Church” (38), as if God designed for the latter to exist and express its life in a multitude of ways independently of and without regard for the former. In all humility, I beg to differ.
To be continued . . .