George Barna surveys the church

ET staff writer
ET staff writer
01 April, 2004 5 min read

He has written a number of best-sellers including The frog in the kettle, The second coming of the church, and more recently, The state of the church (2002).

SBC LIFE, the journal of the Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee, published an interview with Barna in its January edition. What follows is a shortened version of that interview, reproduced by kind permission of SBC LIFE. The interview relates specifically to the USA but has applications to the UK and other lands.

Evangelical Times does not subscribe to all that George Barna says, but we feel this interview provides valuable lessons and insights.

Biblical literacy

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

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

The third change would be the rise and importance of the para-church ministry – much of what churches traditionally used to do 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.

Marketplace ministry

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

A: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, secondly, we are likely to see a significant increase in the diversity 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.
Probably a third thing we will see is more denominations because of forthcoming splits. Southern Baptists have already gone through some of that.

The Episcopal Church is going to split, the Presbyterian Church is going to, the Methodist Church may, and it goes on. In addition, you have different kinds of associations such as the Willow Creek Association. These are becoming a new version of denominations.


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

A: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 areas.

The second thing is that the generations of ‘busters’ and ‘mosaics’ (those born between 1984 and 2002) are intent on 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 am all for that, as long as we are not compromising Scripture, of course.

Another point is a greater commitment to prayer on the part of many people across the country than we’ve had in a number of decades. Again, not to the level where it needs to be, but we’ve got a foundation to work with.


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

A:I’m really concerned about the levels of spiritual complacency. We are the church of Laodicea. We think we are 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 is 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.

Part of God’s purpose is that we should 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.

External issues

Q: What do you see as some of the most urgent external issues the churches must address?

A: One is the existence of absolute moral truth. It all comes down to that. I’ve done seminars in a couple of dozen markets talking about biblical world-view development, and I am shocked at how many pastors come up to me and say, ‘What truth, which biblical worldview?’ It’s like, ‘Guys, get a clue!’ The second issue is persecution. We tend to give in, we compromise too easily because we don’t want to suffer or sacrifice. We are 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.


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

A:Number one is probably the lack of called, visionary leadership. We have a lot of people who love to teach and preach, but there is a huge difference between being a teacher and preacher, and being a leader.

But it’s more than that. Many of our leaders do not have a sense of God’s vision. They are bringing their own vision but, frankly, I want to commit my life to God’s vision.

Also, we have very few evaluation criteria that get us beyond numbers – how many people come, how many buildings we have, how many programs, and so on. None of that 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. Nobody wants to talk about holding people accountable for sinful behaviour. ‘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.

Making disciples

Q: What about churches that are not making disciples – what are common elements?

A: One is that they are overly concerned about keeping people happy. If you understand that you are a sinner, are you going to come away happy? No! Instead, you will feel embarrassed and guilty. Of course, we should have joy in knowing the Lord and recognising what he has done for us. But we also must recognise why he did it.

Those churches also are too focused on comfort. In most of the churches where you don’t find effective discipling or engagement with the culture, the laity are comfortable not to grow.

But we were never promised comfort – just the opposite. When we become too comfortable, we foster the absence of commitment.

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 be God’s hands and feet in the world.

© 2004 Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee.

SBC LIFE is on the Web at For more information on the Barna Research Group go to

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