Sep 17, 2002

From the Archives

Barna Responds to Christianity Today Article

Response to the August cover story in Christianity Today concerning George Barna flooded the California-based researcher’s digital and physical mailboxes. Public reaction to the article and its representation of Barna ran both hot and cold – as did Barna’s reaction to the article that described his two-decade odyssey in conducting research for ministries and his change of plans for the future.

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In a recent conversation regarding the content and impact of the article, Barna stated that he was “grateful to hundreds of people who wrote to express encouragement, or to describe how our work has helped them, or to resonate with my frustrations.” The most gratifying response, he said, was the scores of people who volunteered to partner in the pursuit of the moral and spiritual revolution that Barna longs to foster. “Honestly, some of the letters from people brought tears to my eyes. It was so energizing to hear from other servants who are similarly passionate about restoring the Church and renewing America.”

Sources of Significant Influence

A brief section of the article alluded to Barna’s future thrust: understanding and impacting the “sources of significant influence,” which Barna consistently refers to as SSI. While he is still conducting research regarding the identity and impact of those sources, he revealed that the early returns from a year of research show the leading influencers in American society to be movies, television, the Internet, books, music, public policy and law, and family. The Christian church, his research shows, is not among the top dozen influences these days – a far cry from the way things used to be. He hopes to provide information to be used for developing a strategy that will enable Christians to have greater effect on society through those sources of influence.

“I’d love to correct the mistaken impression some people got from the article that my interest in SSI means I am turning my back on the local church,” the New York-born father of two explained. “At the moment, for instance, we’re conducting more than a quarter-million dollars-worth of research in preparation for next year’s seminar tour that is geared to help churches in four specific areas of felt need. We will continue conducting our tracking studies among pastors, adults and teenagers. And I’d love to add more research about pre-teens to the slate, if we can afford it. The local church may not be terribly influential today but it has tremendous potential and I certainly have no intention of abandoning it.”

Barna said that he knows of several pastors who have recently preached that, “Barna has given up on the church.” “That hurts,” he says with a rueful smile. “I haven’t given up on the church, I’ve just given up on some of the things that some churches commonly do and I have abandoned some ways of trying to bring needed reform to churches. The article talked about some ’10-year campaign’ I had launched as if I thought I could single-handedly change Christendom in America. How arrogant and absurd a thought! I know it’s not up to me alone to change the church but I also don’t want to be guilty of flaking out because it’s hard work or there is criticism for our efforts. Theologically, we are called to do everything with excellence because we are ultimately serving God. But our bottom line is not to produce specific results, but to be faithful and obedient in following and honoring God.”

This past year has been a time of transition for Barna Research as it has juggled the continuation of its long-standing research efforts while adding the concentration on cultural influence to its mix of activities. In-between serving clients, writing books, speaking at conferences and spending time with his family, Barna has been steadily chipping away at a plan for implementing the new thrust. After several disclaimers, he offered a brief glimpse of what that effort might look like.

“Imagine what could happen if we had a chance to identify the thousands of Christian teenagers and college students whom God has called into those industries of influence.

“What would happen if we provided each one with a mentor – a person of mature faith and who understands the sector that young person will be entering – as well as a team of prayer partners to support them, from age 13 on?

“What would happen if we pulled every string we could to ensure that they get into the best schools and training programs so that they are highly-skilled professionals, with great experience and extensive contacts, ready to hit the ground running by the time they’re in their early or mid-twenties?

“What would happen if those emerging players were intimately connected, through their mutual faith in Jesus and a series of annual training events, to all of the other rising stars in those fields who are their age, and thus could work together rather than constantly compete?

“Think about the impact of having a mass of intelligent, Christ-committed people whose moral code precludes them from creating garbage for the masses.

The Californian paused and exhaled, clearly excited about the possibilities. “It’s not a panacea, of course, but the more we can strategically raise up the decision-makers and creative talent within these sectors of influence, the better the chances that Americans will have greater access to morally and spiritually appropriate messages and live in a nation whose laws and policies honor rather than offend God.”

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Leadership For the Long-Term

For the short-term Barna believes it is important to continue to educate and train individuals who are already in positions of leadership in ministries. His latest book, A Fish Out of Water (Integrity Publishing), is focused on helping leaders identify common pitfalls and knowing how to overcome such obstacles. “There are literally millions of believers whom God has strategically placed in our churches to lead us forward. Some are professional clergy, but most of them are not. That’s partly because it takes so many leaders to get the job done, we can’t afford to put all of them on the payroll. Whatever we can do to help His leaders pursue His vision for the future, the better off everyone will be – within the church and outside of it, too.” Toward that end he is continuing to develop his training seminars, additional books, satellite broadcasts and educational partnerships with other ministries.
Asked about the comment in the article that said, “his definition of a church leader seems very demanding,” he replied, “Sure, it is demanding, but only because the act of leading people towards God’s vision is demanding. Being a leader depends on God’s calling, not personal choice, but even though you’re called to the task it’s still an incredibly pressure-packed, difficult job. Moses, David, Joshua, Paul, and all of the other great leaders described in the Bible found that the expectations of God and His people were very demanding. Frankly, I’d be suspicious of any definition that wasn’t demanding or of an alleged leader who complained about the rigorous commitment expected of a leader. Leadership is no walk in the park. You will be misunderstood, disliked, criticized, and opposed by people with competing viewpoints. Kinda like Jesus was,” he explains with a laugh.

Hope for the Future

The cover story and recent interviews in other national media have played up the supposed hopelessness of Barna’s message. “That characterization is really unfortunate,” he noted with a sigh. “I think there’s a real distinction between being realistic and pessimistic. You cannot enjoy things unless you have a benchmark that shows how you’ve succeeded, and you cannot improve things unless you know how far and in what direction you need to go. I try to give people an accurate understanding of where things are and what the opportunities for growth are. I’m not asking people to like what the research shows, only to understand it and deal with it intelligently. Denial is a strategy for failure. Frankly, there’s no need for denial if we have the Holy Spirit living within us and guiding us as we serve God.” Is there hope for the church? “You know what,” he says with a smile, “we already know we win in the end, so why waste time fighting unnecessary battles over methodology?”

Often at the center of controversy, Barna continued with yet another view that is sure to rankle some. “There are a number of high profile pastors who have been saying that the local church is the only hope for the future. As emotionally comforting as that may feel, it’s just wrong. Jesus Christ is the only hope for the future; the local church is a human institution that God may or may not work through. In the near future we will inevitably see new models of the local church that don’t look or behave at all like the congregational church we have historically fostered. Those new models, as far as they enable us to love God with all our heart, mind, strength and soul, are just as valid and viable as existing models. The more we can place our faith in Jesus Christ and follow the teachings of the Bible, rather than devote energy and resources to saving institutions and structures we created, the better off we’ll be.”

One of the editorial comments in the article that irritated him the most was the “he has restricted vision.” “All vision, by definition, is restricted, but the article made that sound like a failing,” he explained while shaking his head in disbelief. “Vision has to be clear and must operate within parameters or else it becomes some wild, unrealistic notion with little chance of fulfillment or significance. And if the reflection of the vision God has shown me, which is best seen in the church described in Acts 2, is considered restrictive, I can live with that.”

About Barna

Since 1984, Barna Group has conducted more than two million interviews over the course of thousands of studies and has become a go-to source for insights about faith, culture, leadership, vocation and generations. Barna is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization.

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