(Wheaton: Tyndale House Publishers, 2005), 144pp.
We’ve come to Chapter Five in Barna’s account of the Revolution he so loudly applauds. Here he identifies seven trends “that will facilitate the moral and spiritual revolution that millions of us have been praying for over the past several decades” (42). Let me be clear about one thing. If by “moral and spiritual revolution” Barna means a transformation of the way true Christians live as disciples of Jesus, then Yes, by all means, let us pray and labor for it. If he has in mind a return to biblical principles and simplicity of life and authenticity in worship and passion in our love one for another, then Yes, by all means, let’s become Revolutionaries. But I suggest that’s only part of what Barna has in mind.
The seven trends are as follows: The Changing of the Guard (he means an increasing ascent to power of younger adults), The Rise of a New View of Life (i.e., postmodernism), Dismissing the Irrelevant (the younger generation “quickly abandon anything that is not wholly germane to their personal passions”  and demand that things “be ‘real,’ adventuresome, and memorable. They have little patience for anything based on tradition, customs, ease, or social acceptability” ), The Impact of Technology, Genuine Relationships, Participation in Reality, Finding True Meaning.
I won’t dwell on these trends, aside from one comment. Concerning “Genuine Relationships”, Barna contends that the younger generations “place a much higher premium on genuine personal relationships than do their predecessors . . . [and] pursue meaningful relationships rather than passing acquaintances, and they are more likely to invest themselves in the messiness of other people’s issues than to pass along superficial advice” (45). I don’t know what “church” world Barna is thinking of, but this is colossally wrong, in my opinion. I have been a keen observer of the lives of my parents and their contemporaries and I must say that they have a deeper and more authentic and more committed grasp of what constitutes “meaningful relationships” than virtually anyone I see in either my generation or that of even younger folk. These are people who have forged and fought for relationships that lasted forty, fifty, sixty years or more. These are people who covenanted one with another in the local church, grew up in Christ together, raised their families together, and would quite literally die for one another without a moment’s thought. But on to other matters.
Barna’s research and conversations with believers everywhere have led him to conclude that the primary source of genuine transformation in church and society will come from “ministries operating outside of the local church” (53), what he calls “spiritual mini-movements” (54). The so-called “congregational model” of the church is giving way to a wide variety of “boutique churches” (63) that reflect the customized experiences and personal preferences of Revolutionaries. “Ultimately,” notes Barna, “we expect 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” (66).
Several chapters (eight through eleven) are devoted to describing the model of life that Jesus displayed, the characteristic ethical values, relational styles, and spiritual practices, as well as some core beliefs that are to be expected in Revolutionaries. I’ll forego explaining all this in detail and come to the core of Barna’s vision for “church” life in the days ahead.
Existing churches, says Barna, have a historic decision to make: “to ignore the Revolution and continue business as usual, to invest energy in fighting the Revolution as an unbiblical advance, or to look for ways of retaining their identity while cooperating with the Revolution as a mark of unity and genuine ministry” (106-07). The consequences for those who choose either of the first two options are dire: reduction in the number of churches, decline in attendance, decline in financial support, virtual disappearance of what little political and cultural influence they exert, cutbacks in clergy salaries, etc. “To some,” notes Barna, “this will sound like the Great Fall of the Church. To Revolutionaries, it will be the Great Reawakening of the Church” (108).
In Chapter Thirteen Barna turns to his critics. “If you mention that millions of deeply devout Christians whose lives are centered on knowing, loving, and serving God live independently of a local church, you can count on criticism from the church establishment” (112). And why might that be? May I suggest it is less because established churches fear loss of numbers and money and more that they see in this movement a profoundly unbiblical and ultimately disastrous trend.
But let’s be sure we understand what Barna is saying. Perhaps the best way would be to cite several of his statements and then comment on them as is fitting.
(1) He contends that Revolutionaries’ “distancing themselves from formal congregations does not reflect a willingness to ignore God as much as a passion to deepen their connection to Him” (112-13). In other words, if you really have a passion for God and a desire to know and enjoy him you will distance yourself from local church life. “Theirs [the Revolutionaries’] is a personal choice based on a genuine desire to be holy and obedient” (113). But how can there be holiness or obedience when the biblical mandate concerning the centrality and necessity of local church life is so casually and callously ignored?
(2) No, no, shouts Barna. Our mistake, he contends, is that we simply don’t understand the Bible. We “counter-Revolutionaries” have failed to study the Word and what it says about the nature of the local church. “Neglecting to meet together” (Heb. 10:25) is a serious sin, he contends. But “such interaction could be in a worship service or at Starbucks; it might be satisfied through a Sunday school class or a dinner in a fellow believer’s home” (114). Of course, Barna fails to mention that later in the book of Hebrews those very people who are “to meet together” are also commanded to “obey” their “leaders and submit to them,” for they are keeping watch over their souls (Hebrews 13:17). Perhaps I’m missing something, but that sounds an awfully lot like established and official leaders that elsewhere in the NT are identified as Elders and Pastors. I’m not sure how one “obeys” and “submits” to leaders if one is unrelated to and uninvolved in the local church where such biblically constituted leadership exists.
Perhaps I’m just an old stuck-in-the-mud traditionalist, but in my mind it strains the limits of credulity to argue that sharing a mocha at Starbucks is a valid and sufficient fulfillment of the biblical mandate that we not forsake “the assembling” of ourselves together!
(3) Barna believes that “the same God who is more concerned about what’s in our hearts than about mindless observance of meaningless routines refuses to impose specific regulations about our religious practices” (114). Well of course God is more concerned about what’s in our hearts, but why must our worship and service be “meaningless” and “routine”? Why not vibrant, meaningful expressions of what’s in our hearts? Why not unleash the spiritual energy of his so-called “Revolutionaries” into the fabric of local assemblies to infuse them with the vibrancy and authenticity whose absence he so loudly decries?
By the way, are we really to believe that God doesn’t “impose specific regulations about our religious practices”? I must be reading a different Bible than Barna. Or perhaps my understanding of how the Bible functions authoritatively and prescriptively in the life of the church is of a different order. When I read 1 Corinthians 5, 6, 7, 11, and especially chapters 12-14 (above all, chapter 14), I sense that God has profound interest in how our worship and conduct and exercise of ecclesiastical authority, etc. are to be regulated. And 1 Cor. 16:1-4 certainly indicates apostolic expectations concerning our monetary giving and the frequency with which it should occur (see also 2 Cor. 8-9).
When I read the NT I come across numerous “regulations” concerning church discipline, a practice that is moot in the absence of covenant and commitment between believers in a local assembly (see, for example, Matthew 18:15-20; Acts 5:1-11; Romans 16:17-19; 1 Cor. 5:1-13; 2 Cor. 2:5-11; 1 Timothy 5:17-20; etc.).
(4) One example of Barna’s tortured logic is the following: “In fact, there is no verse in Scripture that links the concepts of worshipping God and a ‘church meeting.’ 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” (114). In the first place, no one is suggesting that the only place to worship is in a “church meeting.” But surely there is something significant in the fact that virtually all NT epistles are addressed to Christians in local churches. As far as I can tell, no Christian in the NT existed outside the local church. In fact, as I read the NT it would seem that no one, certainly not the apostles, would qualify as one of Barna’s Revolutionaries, at least those among the latter who have chosen to pursue God independently of local church life. And it doesn’t help for Barna to impose on the first century an anachronistic reference to a “church sanctuary” and from its absence in the NT draw the conclusion that we need not be “associated with a local church.”
(5) Barna repeatedly concludes that since there is little information in the NT as to what actually occurred in corporate worship meetings that such meetings themselves are dispensable. What he fails to recognize, yet again, is that no one in the NT ever questioned either the legitimacy or necessity of such covenant gatherings. The simple and inescapable fact is that one looks in vain in the pages of the NT for a Christian “Revolutionary” who followed Jesus independently of the life and accountability and nurture of a local church.
(6) I wish I could portray Barna’s portrait of contemporary local church life in a more positive vein, but alas. On several occasions his comments clearly suggest that being in a local church is detrimental to one’s spiritual health. For example: “No informed Christian leader could make a straight-faced argument that involvement in a local church necessarily produces a more robust spiritual life than that seen among Revolutionaries. . . .Christians who are involved in local churches are actually less likely than Revolutionaries to lead a biblical lifestyle” (115). Again: “Compared to the ‘average’ Christian I [Barna] encounter in our national surveys, I estimate that the ‘average’ Revolutionary is substantially more Spirit-led, faith-focused, scripturally literate, and biblically obedient than their more traditional counterparts who are embedded within a congregation” (116).
Still again, he argues that there is “a measurably greater degree of lukewarm faith among the believers in the pews. Revolutionaries, almost by definition, are zealous and passionate about obeying God’s Word and honoring Him. More often than not, they resort to departing from a local church in order to foster that focus” (117).
I’ve been a pastor for twenty-five years, a professor in a Christian liberal arts college for four, and an itinerant preacher for nearly two. I’ve been in virtually every denomination and variety of local church in America and around the globe. Yes, the church has serious flaws and countless failures. But I find not the slightest hint in the Bible (to which Barna and his Revolutionaries pledge allegiance) of any other means that God has ordained by which his redemptive purposes in the earth and the advance of the Kingdom are to proceed. By all means, let the lifestyle of Jesus and the ethical and spiritual qualities that Barna celebrates be embraced and encouraged. But do so within and on behalf of and for the renewal and revitalization of the local community of faith, not independently of it.
Barna concludes the fourteenth of his fifteen chapters by outlining the array of reactions he anticipates this book will provoke. Some are entirely ignorant of “the Revolution’s emergence” (119). The second group is antagonistic toward the Revolution. Such folk believe “that the Bible disallows a believer to intentionally live at arm’s length from the local church” (119). Well, yes. Until Barna can provide so much as a syllable of Scripture to the contrary, I suppose I’ll have to align myself with this second reaction. Then there are those who advocate peaceful co-existence, a let-them-be attitude. Fourth are the “late adopters” (120) who “will cast their lot with the Revolution once it seems socially acceptable and culturally unremarkable to do so” (120). The fifth and final category is, of course, the Revolutionaries themselves. They simply need to resign themselves “to the fact that perpetual criticism from Christians [like me] is simply an unfortunate and unjust price they will pay for loving and serving God with all their hearts, mind, strength, and soul” (121). We who are persuaded that this “Revolution” is in fact a “Rebellion” against the clear biblical mandate concerning local church life are portrayed as the perpetrators of an unfortunate and unjust opposition.
Barna sums up the Revolution in glowing and altogether uncritical terms. It is a movement in “response to the undeniable and insatiable human longing for a genuine relationship with God our Father” (124), is comprised of people “who are determined to let nothing stand in the way of an authentic and genuine experience with God” (124), and “entails drawing people away from reliance upon a local church into a deeper connection with and reliance upon God” (127), as if reliance upon God through the resources and life of the local church were an impossibility (or extreme unlikelihood).
By way of conclusion, let me say a few things I believe are relevant concerning the role of the local church in the life of the believer.
First, as noted before, every word of exhortation in the NT epistles, every ethical principle, every theological truth, every fruit of the Holy Spirit, is addressed to people who were active participants and living members of a local church. There is not the slightest hint that any NT author, writing under the inspiration of God the Holy Spirit, envisioned living out one’s life as a disciple of Jesus Christ independently of or unrelated to the local expression of the body of Christ.
Second, if Barna actually believes that the NT says little concerning the nature, structure, function, and necessity of local church life, I can only wonder if he has read with any degree of attentiveness the pastoral epistles of Paul (1 and 2 Timothy, and Titus). The things Paul wrote therein provide God-given instruction on how we “may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of truth” (1 Timothy 3:15).
Third, all Christians are responsible “to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you” (1 Thess. 5:12). Again, there is no evidence to suggest that a Christian can exempt himself/herself from the responsibility of accountability and submission to the authority of the Elders or duly appointed leaders (whatever title may be given them) of a local assembly.
Fourth, I am the last person to endorse or support the lukewarm and ineffective “programs” of local churches that exist for their own sake alone. Nothing that I have said in this review should be taken as encouragement for the perpetuation of business-as-usual, save-the-status-quo-at-all-costs “Churchianity”. I, no less than Barna, long for a vibrant, authentic, genuine, sincere, passionate, sacrificial expression of the life of Christ among his people. But God did not give us the option of pursuing this “at arm’s length” (to use Barna’s phrase) from the local church.
Fifth, many will no doubt wonder if Barna’s “Revolutionaries” is just another name for the “Emergent” church. Nowhere in this book did he attempt to make that equation. From what I’ve seen among those involved in the emerging church movement, most would insist, no less than I, that devotion to Jesus must remain tethered to and flow out of the life of the local church. The emerging church movement undoubtedly recommends and is experimenting with different expressions of spiritual life, but not, so far as I can see, in abandonment of the local assembly.
Sixth, my sense is that Barna has little regard for the sacramental life of the local assembly. If my reading of the Bible is correct on this point, the promise of the abiding spiritual presence of the risen Christ and the power of the Spirit is, to a considerable extent, tethered to the sacramental experience (Lord’s Supper and Baptism) of God’s people, the faithful proclamation of God’s Word, and the joyful submission of God’s people to those whom he has raised up as under-shepherds to pastor the flock that he redeemed with the blood of his dear Son. To abandon the traditional “means of grace”, either out of disdain for “tradition” itself or because of frustration with what appears as “routine” and “boring”, is a prescription for spiritual disaster.
Seventh, and finally, the bottom line is this: whereas I appreciate Barna’s zeal for zeal, his deep longing to see the people of God live powerfully persuasive and culture-shaping lives, and his yearning for authenticity in one’s relationship with God, “Rebellion” against the biblical mandate for local church life (and no, there’s no way to tone down my terms) is not the way to attain it.
I hope and pray that people who read this book (if they must) will have the discernment to recognize its flaws and resist its gut-level appeal. With all due respect to George Barna and his many accomplishments for the sake of the Kingdom, this is a bad book that encourages a bad agenda for the people of God.