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Tracking trends: An interview with George Barna

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–Church leaders are quick to take note when George Barna conducts a survey.

And they tap into what he has written in 30-plus books and what he says in his research-based seminars held across the country.

Since its founding in 1984, Barna has led the Barna Research Group as a full-service marketing research company in Ventura, Calif., specializing in primary research for Christian ministries, churches and nonprofit organizations.

His best-sellers include “The Frog in the Kettle,” “The Second Coming of the Church,” “The Power of Vision,” “User Friendly Churches” and “Marketing the Church.” His most recent books are “Think Like Jesus” (2003), “Transforming Children Into Spiritual Champions” (2003), “A Fish Out of Water” (2002) and “State of the Church” (2002).

A graduate of Boston College, Barna later earned two master’s degrees from Rutgers University, and he has been awarded a doctorate from Dallas Baptist University. He and his wife, Nancy, have two daughters, Samantha and Corban.

SBC LIFE, journal of the Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee, published an interviewed with Barna in its January edition. The text of the interview follows.

SBC LIFE: The Barna Research Group has been providing information and analysis regarding cultural trends and churches for almost 20 years. Over that period of time, what would you say are the five most significant changes, trends or shifts you have observed?

Barna: Certainly, one of them would be the decline in biblical literacy. Fewer and fewer people have any clue what Scripture really teaches, as opposed to what they feel it should teach.

Secondly would be an increased emphasis on mega-churches and the corresponding stress on the importance of numbers rather than upon the transformation of lives.

The third change would be the rise and importance of the para-church ministry and how much of what churches traditionally used to do now has been taken over by para-church ministries.

The fourth would probably be increased negativity of the mass media toward Christianity — that’s a huge one.

Finally is church members’ increased reliance upon clergy, rather than laity, to get ministry done.

SBC LIFE: If trends continue on their current course, what do you see as the state of evangelical churches in the next 20 years?

Barna: There’s always a great danger in trying to say what God’s going to do. I have no clue, but if things were to continue unchanged, I think one thing we’re likely to see is decreased involvement in church-based ministry as measured by factors such as how many people attend and how frequently they attend. We’re already seeing some declines in areas such as volunteerism.

I think a second thing that we’re likely to see is a significant increase in the diversity of forms of the church. For instance, I suspect there will be a growing house church movement in this country. I also expect to see the growth of marketplace ministry. I expect to see growth of independent worship events that have no connection with a specific church.

I think probably a third thing we will see is that there will be more denominations in existence because of forthcoming splits. Southern Baptists have already gone through some of that. The Episcopal church is going to, the Presbyterian church is going to, the Methodist church may, and it goes on and on down the line. In addition, you have different kinds of associations forming, such as the Willow Creek Association. These are becoming a new version of denominations.

SBC LIFE: Some have forecasted the end of denominations — what do you see happening with denominations in general?

Barna: I think denominations will remain and they will continue to play a significant role, but I think it’s going to be a very different role because of the changing landscape. You have a whole new generation of people stepping into leadership in our churches. When the group known as “baby busters” (people ages 20 to 38) starts assuming more pastoral roles, they are going to have very different expectations of denominations because of their very different orientation to relationships and institutions. If denominations don’t meet their expectations, they’ll go somewhere else.

SBC LIFE: From your findings, what gives you the most hope about our current conditions?

Barna: Well, one thing is certainly a continued interest in spirituality and in morality. Even though people don’t really know what that means and the interest may not be very deep, at least it’s still on the radar screen to some extent. So there is the possibility of connecting with people in those arenas.

The second thing is that the generations of “busters” and “mosaics” (those born between 1984 and 2002) are intent upon developing new models of the church, and I think that’s going to be really healthy for us. I think we’ve gotten into a pretty dangerous routine where there are too many assumptions and unmerited expectations. These two new generations will be saying “You know what? That doesn’t work. Let’s do something that really connects us with God.” I’m all for that, as long as we’re not compromising Scripture, of course.

Thirdly, what we’ve seen in terms of the abstinence movement is very positive. I’m excited about that. It’s not as widespread as it could be, or should be, but at least it exists! There are millions of kids who are committed to this, and that’s wonderful!

Another point is that we’ve got a greater commitment to prayer on the part of many people across the country than we’ve had in a number of decades. That’s huge! Again, not to the level where it needs to be — it needs some shaping and guidance and direction — but we’ve got a foundation to work with.

I also think the renewed interest in worship is a real positive element.

Also, I think that in spite of everything the church and the Christian faith have been up against in the last quarter century, the fact that we’ve at least maintained a stable percentage of born-again Christians is good. Some would say it should have declined. The fact that it didn’t decline is a positive. The fact that there is such broad support for para-church ministries is good, and the fact that there is a devoted remnant of genuinely sold out followers of Christ that still exists in this culture. When you’ve got that, you’ve got reason for hope.

SBC LIFE: Mr. Barna, from your findings what are you most concerned about regarding the state of evangelical churches?

Barna: I’m really concerned about the levels of spiritual complacency among our churches. We are the church of Laodecia. We think we’re hot stuff. We think the world takes its cues from us. We think that we are “tight” with God. But really, we don’t have a clue. We don’t really care! I think that that’s the biggest deception we fall for and one of the greatest areas that needs to be changed.

Another concern is the dissipation of the family as a spiritual unit. If we don’t have strong spiritual families, there’s no other place where children are going to get the proper depth, training, reinforcement and encouragement. Our failure to focus on kids is a major disaster within the church. The biblical ignorance of Americans is astounding — even if Christians wanted to do something about all this, they don’t have the biblical grounding that would facilitate that kind of development.

One example of this failure is the fact that most Americans, including a majority of born-again Christians, don’t believe that Satan is real.

In writing my book on cultivating a biblical worldview, one of the most significant points that I make is you’re supposed to recognize that life is not about you. You’re here because God put you here for His purpose not for your personal agenda. Part of His purpose is to be engaged in spiritual warfare. Now, how are you going to fight a war when you don’t even believe there’s an enemy? That tells you something about where the church is.

SBC LIFE: What do you see as some of the most urgent external issues the churches must face and address?

Barna: One is the issue of addressing the existence of absolute moral truth. It all comes down to that. I’ve done seminars in a couple dozen markets talking about biblical worldview development, and I’m shocked at how many pastors come up to me and say “what truth, which biblical world truth?” It’s like, “Guys, get a clue!”

The second one is persecution. We tend to give in, we compromise way too easily because we don’t want to suffer, we don’t want to experience hardship, we don’t want to sacrifice, we’re not willing to stand up to the culture and say, “This is where I draw the line!” As long as we just keep rolling over, we’ll keep getting pushed farther and farther back.

SBC LIFE: What do you see as the greatest internal weaknesses among evangelical churches?

Barna: Number one is probably the lack of called, visionary leadership. We’ve got a lot of people who love to teach and preach, and that’s nice, but there is a huge difference between being a teacher and preacher, and being a leader. You can be a great teacher or preacher, and be a leader, but you know, those are not necessarily synonymous.

But it’s more than that. Many of our leaders don’t have a sense of God’s vision. They are bringing their own vision, but frankly, I don’t care what any person’s vision is — I want to commit my life to God’s vision.

Also, we have very little evaluation criteria that gets us beyond numbers — how many people come, how many buildings we have, how many programs we have, how many staff. None of that necessarily has anything to do with life transformation. Consequently, we find ourselves using the world’s criteria to define success.

Another great internal weakness is the limited personal commitment people make to their faith in terms of time, especially what they devote to reading Scripture and knowing it.

A fourth issue is the lack of accountability within the church. I wrote a book 15 years ago called “Marketing the Church,” and people used to joke about it. I used the “M” word. What was I thinking, “marketing”? Well, if I were to write the equivalent book today, I’d write it based on the “A” word — “accountability.” Nobody wants to talk about holding each other accountable for sinful behavior. “You mean I might have to confront somebody about sin?” “You mean there might have to be church discipline?” “Oh my, no, no, no! We couldn’t do that!” But, we must.

SBC LIFE: What common trends do you see among the churches that are effectively making disciples and engaging the culture?

Barna: One is that they have very effective leadership in place.

Second is that they are very intentional about disciple-making and engagement. They’re intentional in terms of the relationships that they go out and build. They’re aggressive about that. And they’re very intentional about the outcomes.

A third thing is that they help people to know what their gifts are and to help them major in their areas of giftedness.

A fourth key element is that these churches are very balanced in their approach to ministry. They are not one-dimensional. They understand evangelism without discipleship is just spiritual abuse. They make sure that if they dare to share the Gospel they also dare to nurture the person in those truths.

SBC LIFE: What about the churches that are not effectively making disciples — what are some of the common elements?

Barna: One is that they are overly concerned about keeping people happy. Who gives a rip if the people are happy!? If you understand that you’re a sinner, are you going to come away happy? No! Instead, you will feel embarrassed and guilty. Of course, there’s got to be a balance — we should have joy in knowing the Lord and recognizing what He’s done for us. But we also must recognize why He did that for us.

Those churches also are too focused on comfort. In most of the churches where you don’t find a very effective discipling process or engagement with the culture, you find that the laity is comfortable not to grow. But we were never promised comfort; we were promised just the opposite. When we become internally comfortable, we create a system that facilitates or fosters the absence of commitment to those important things.

Just to sum it up, I think it all has to do with selfishness. We want to take and take and feel good, but we don’t think about our responsibility to give back, to serve and to be God’s hands and feet in the world.
SBC LIFE is on the Web at www.sbc.net. For more information on the Barna Research Group, go to www.barna.org. Used by permission of SBC LIFE, published by the Southern Baptist Convention’s Executive Committee. Copyright (c) 2004 Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee. (BP) photo posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo title: GEORGE BARNA.

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