Author: George Barna
Wheaton, Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, 2005, pp. 144.
This book points out many insights about the traditional local church in North America, but Barna’s major thesis about the place of the New Testament local church must be challenged.
In this book Barna primarily refers to the sad state of the 21st century North American local church. Is Barna’s research valid? Yes. In this area, I’m a fan of Barna. I’ve read 95% of Barna’s research posted on his web site for the last five years and used much of it. Thus, the research in this book about the state of the North American church has already been posted on Barna’s web site. It’s great, valid, research, and we need to take heed to it, but it’s not new.
Barna goes beyond the research by talking about the “new local church” of the revolutionaries, which might be in cyberspace, meeting with one’s own family, or going to Chris Tomlin concerts.
It’s my understanding from Scripture that the local church is a biblical idea and thus, to truly be revolutionary, believers should congregate in New Testament local churches.
The fact is, however, that Barna says that the New Testament local church was simply believers getting together anywhere and at any time. By defining the New Testament local church this way, he justifies the “churchless” experience of these new revolutionaries.
My major critique of Barna–and the one covered in this review–is how Barna passes over the NT local church concept.
I’ll start by laying out Barna’s insight into the North American church, and then I’ll focus on Barna’s view of the church by quoting what Barna says about the local church.
Barna’s general comments about North American culture and church
As always, Barna does an excellent job of pointing out current trends in the North American culture:
- The rise of a new way of life–people more and more concerned about relationships.
- The dismissal of the irrelevant–people are only concerned about what they are passionate about.
- The Impact of technology .
- The desire to participate in reality. People in NA culture want to exert greater control over their lives; it’s not enough anymore to simply attend“church.” Barna says, “The popularity of small groups has grown consistently as people experience the benefits of a shared experience” (47).
Barna’s prediction is that by 2025 only 1/3 of the current population will relate to a local church; 1/3 through alternate forms; 1/3 through media (49).
How Barna pictures these revolutionaries
- People are leaving the church to find God. Barna says, “they have no use for churches that play religious games” (p. 13) .
- Many revolutionaries even go to great churches but “. . . the experience provided through their church still seems flat” (14) .
- They practice intimate worship, faith-based conversations, intentional spiritual growth, servanthood, resource investment, spiritual friendships, and family faith (chapter 3) .
How is the local church doing?
Those attending church:
- Only worship God on Sunday (31) .
- Don’t lead anyone to Christ in an entire year (32) .
- Only 9% have a Biblical worldview (32) .
- Give only 3% of income in a year (33) .
- Only 1 out of 10 donate 10% of income (33).
- Don’t serve others (34) .
- No spiritual accountability between members—only 1 out of 6 .
- Are more influenced through secular sources than the local church (35).
- 1 out of 10 families worship together outside of church (35) .
- Divorce is just as high in the church as outside the church (35).
Barna concludes by saying, “our research shows that local churches have virtually no influence in our culture” (118).
Where transformation will take place in the future: mini-movements
Barna’s point here is that true spirituality will take place outside the local church as we know it. Such spirituality will happen at:
- Ministries operating outside the local church (53) .
- Homeschooling, simple church, biblical worldview groups, marketplace ministries, spiritual discipline networks, creative art guilds (54).
- “Church service attendance will decline as Christians devote their time to a wide array of spiritual events” (107).
- Barna predicts that churches will react with indifference and cold shoulders (58) .
- Barna says that people are putting together for themselves “personalized church models” (p. 64) .
- He says, “to some, this will sound like the Great Fall of the Church. To Revolutionaries, it will be the Great Reawakening of the Church” (108) .
Barna’s view of the local church
Barna’s view of the local church needs to be seriously critiqued. The following are quotes of what Barna actually says about the local church.
- “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). What matters is not who you associate with (i.e., a local church) but who you are” (29). Barna is saying here that a revolutionary might be totally independent of the local church.
- ” . . If the local church is comprised of people who have been transformed by the grace of God . . . , then their lives should be different” (31). Barna’s question is pragmatic—how could the church have messed up so much in discipleship? (30) Barna places his faith in the local church on pragmatic concerns rather than what the Bible says about the local church. His argument is that becuase the church is not doing a better job of transforming people, it must not be of God. Barna believes we have placed too much hope in the church, rather than Christ (36) .
- “We should keep in mind that we call ‘church’ is just one interpretation of how to develop and live a faith-centered life. We made it up. It may be healthy or helpful, but it is not sacrosanct” (38) .
- “Revolutionaries realize. . . that the core issue isn’t whether or not one is involved in a local church, but whether or not one is connected to the body of believers” (38) .
- “It is not about church. It’s about the Church—that is, the people who actively participate in the intentional advancement of God’s kingdom in partnership with the Holy Spirit and other believers” (38) .
- Some revolutionaries do what they do apart from the local church (pp. 38-39). Barna talks a lot about “revolutionaries” working outside the local church.
- He then says that those who reject this view are concerned about “institutional survival” (39).
- “the Revolution is about recognizing we are not called to go to church. We are called to be the church” (39).
- He clearly implies that the reason mini-movements have not taken off is because people think God’s activity must happen through the church (55) .
- For many revolutionaries, “the local church plays a minor role in their journey. For millions of others, the local church is nowhere to be found on their agenda” (61).
- Barna says that the congregational model is fading away (62) .
- A large part of Barna’s error is that he defines the church according to what he sees in North America. He says, “The congregational model of the church—a definable group of people who regularly meet at the same place to engage in religious routines and programs under the guidance of a paid pastor who provides doctrinal teaching and organizational direction—has been the dominant force in people’s spiritual lives for hundreds of years” (62) .
- Internet, TV, etc. “is ensuring that future models of “church” will be almost impossible to categorize or market” (64). Barna is saying that culture will make any clear definition of the local church impossible.
- Barna defines one macro church model as having cell groups. Another one is the house church model. “the family faith experience is a third holistic model, in which the family becomes the primary spiritual unit and pursues faith matters together” (65). Barna says, “. . . the fourth holistic model is the cyberchurch. This refers to the range of spiritual experiences delivered through the internet” (65). So here Barna has placed the internet and home schooling on the same level as the local church. According to Barna they are just different ways of doing church.
- For Barna a replacement “micro-model” might be: a worship conference, coaching communities, internet groups, parachurch ministries, . .” (66). He says, “ultimately, 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). And this is probably Barna’s crown jewel statement: “personalized church.” Barna promotes this concept as something that revolutionaries will choose more and more.
- Local churches should simply let revolutionaries do whatever they need to do (67) .
- Barna thinks it might be a good idea for Revolutionaries to participate in the local church: “integrating into a pool of compatible change agents has tangible benefits” (90). Basically he’s saying that it might be beneficial to “share the journey.”
- Barna believes that the church simply means “the called out ones” and this is what revolutionaries do (113) .
- Gathering together could be any where with any Christians—not the local church. “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).
- “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. It simply tells us that we must worship God regularly and purely, in spirit and truth” (114).
- Barna talks about Jesus who dismissed the organized religious group of His day (114).
- God just wants us to get together with other believers but He’s not concerned about the specifics (115).
- Then he falls back on the pragmatic argument that people are not getting transformed, so the local church must not be of God (115). You might go to the local church, but you might not (116) .
- Barna then says that we should be connected to the capital C church, even through a person isn’t involved with a formal local church (116) . Revolutionaries connect with believers “in their own way” (116)
Response to Barna
I don’t believe Barna has correctly represented what the New Testament says about the local church. He’s based his arguments on North American pragmatism, rather than looking at what the Bible tells us about the church. He’s made the local church seem like a man-made structure that is not Biblical. Barna’s conclusions demand an answer. What is the role of the local church?
“Ekklesia” in the New Testament
Jesus was the first to use the word ekklesia; and when he used it, he applied it to the company that gathered around him. The first and most frequent usage of ekklesia designates a circle of believers in some definite locality, a local church, irrespective of the question of whether these believers are or are not assembled for worship. The second usage describes the church in the house of an individual ( Romans 16:23, 1 Corinthians 16:19, Colossians 4:15, and Philemon 2). The third usage portrays the church in terms of a group of churches (Acts 9:31). The fourth usage denotes the whole body, throughout the world, of those who outwardly profess Christ and organize for the purposes of worship, under the guidance of appointed officers.
It’s a local church!
The bottom line is that when the New Testament refers to “called out ones” in places such as Acts 13: 1-3, we read about a particular, physical group of believers and leaders gathering together: “In the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen (who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch) and Saul. While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off.”
It’s a visible church
Reference after reference refer to a specific group of believers meeting in a particular, visible place. This is totally in contrast to Barna’s argument that the “local church” could refer to any believers meeting anywhere at anytime. Here are a few examples:
- Acts 12:12: 12 When this had dawned on him, he went to the house of Mary the mother of John, also called Mark, where many people had gathered and were praying.
- Romans 16: 3-5: Greet Priscilla and Aquila, my fellow workers in Christ Jesus. 4 They risked their lives for me. Not only I but all the churches of the Gentiles are grateful to them. 5 Greet also the church that meets at their house.
- 1 Corinthians 16:19: 19 The churches in the province of Asia send you greetings. Aquila and Priscilla greet you warmly in the Lord, and so does the church that meets at their house.
- Colossians 4:15: 15 Give my greetings to the brothers at Laodicea, and to Nympha and the church in her house.
- Philemon 2: Apphia our sister, to Archippus our fellow soldier and to the church that meets in your home
Barna quickly dismisses the local church by saying that the Bible simply referred to believers meeting anywhere at anytime. But what about all those passages that refer to God-ordaind leadership in the local church. Shenk, for example, in Creating Communities of the Kingdom says, “The apostolic leaders of the church helped to form the doctrine and lifestyle of those congregations quickly. It may well be that each apostle took responsibility for a cluster of these cell groups—ten or twenty for each apostle. We read that they went from house to house ministering to these congregations that were being formed. . The various cell groups partook of the same experience in community and commitment. They also seem to have united occasionally all together in joyous celebration assemblies” (p. 93).
Appointed elders in these local churches
Reference after reference point to how Paul and others would appoint elders to shepherd the local groups of believers. This is totally in contrast to Barna’s encouragement for revolutionaries to serve apart from local church leadership.
- Acts 14:21-25: “They preached the good news in that city and won a large number of disciples. Then they returned to Lystra, Iconium and Antioch, strengthening the disciples and encouraging them to remain true to the faith. “We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God,” they said. Paul and Barnabas appointed elders for them in each church and, with prayer and fasting, committed them to the Lord, in whom they had put their trust. After going through Pisidia, they came into Pamphylia, and when they had preached the word in Perga, they went down to Attalia.”
Clear leadership in local church (1 Tim. 3, Titus, etc.)
- Here is a trustworthy saying: If anyone sets his heart on being an overseer, he desires a noble task. . . . He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him with proper respect. (If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God’s church?)
Members were supposed to submit to the leadership
- Hebrews 13:17, “Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you. “
- How does Barna deal with this? He doesn’t. He passes over this fact. Barna would have “revolutionaries” serve under the universal church. Yet, it’s nonsensical to talk about sheep submitting to universal church leadership. The writers of Scripture are talking about local church leadership.
What was Paul trying to do as a missionary?
Roland Allen has studied Paul’s missionary life more than anyone I know. In his book Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Our’s? Allen examines Paul’s vision.
- Paul wasn’t just interested in salvation but local churches . Allen says, “From what has already been said it is manifest that St Paul did not go about as a missionary preacher merely to convert individuals: he went to establish churches from which the light might radiate throughout the whole country round” (p. 81)
- Paul trained candidates for baptism and ordination in the context of the local church. Paul baptized people immediately. The teaching followed baptism—it didn’t precede it. He didn’t just baptize multitudes of heathens for the sake of baptism, nor did he wait years and years for baptism to take place. The true requirement was repentance and faith.
- Paul ordained elders in these local churches. Paul ordained elders within the church which they belonged.
- The congregation had some say but it wasn’t through an official election period. The election of elders were primarily moral. “Paul was not content with ordaining one elder for each church. In every place he ordained several. This ensured that all authority should not be concentrated in the hands of one man. “
- Paul maintained contact with these “local churches.” Allen writes, “With the ordaining of elders, they no longer depended necessarily upon st. Paul . . . but they were not independent of him either.
The local churches that Paul established
- 1 Cor. 12:28: And in the church God has appointed first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then workers of miracles, also those having gifts of healing, those able to help others, those with gifts of administration, and those speaking in different kinds of tongues.
- Acts 16:5: So the churches were strengthened in the faith and grew daily in numbers.
- 1 Thess. 1:8: The Lord’s message rang out from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia—your faith in God has become known everywhere. Therefore we do not need to say anything about it
- Rom. 15:23: But now that there is no more place for me to work in these regions, and since I have been longing for many years to see you,
- 2 Cor. 10:8: For even if I boast somewhat freely about the authority the Lord gave us for building you up rather than pulling you down, I will not be ashamed of it.
- 1 Cor 11:16: If anyone wants to be contentious about this, we have no other practice—nor do the churches of God.
- 1 Cor 7:17: Nevertheless, each one should retain the place in life that the Lord assigned to him and to which God has called him. This is the rule I lay down in all the churches.
I responded to someone on an online chat group about Barna’s book saying,
“Tom, I’m all for the universal church or church in the city. But as the Christianity Today article points out, “the church of the city” is the one I don’t have to relate to, bear my soul to, live in community with. I say, “Amen: to the universal church, the church in the city, etc. In fact, I minister to that church all the time—and it’s much easier for me to show up in Slovakia (where I’ll be this week) and proclaim all the answers! That church doesn’t know me intimately. But Wellspring, my local church, does know all about me!! I’m afraid that Barna’s “Revolution” is a revolution of individualism that we are trying to stand against. . . .”