George Barna is the head of a social research unit, which has specialized recently in the study of American evangelicals. In his book, Revolution (Tyndale House, 2005), Barna is no longer the social scientist describing what careful research has shown about the changing ideals and pursuits of evangelicals, but he has become the advocate for a particular movement in the USA that he obviously believes is important, very important. In fact he appears to have joined it and wants to do all he can to help this movement, especially the “revolutionaries” on their journey. So at time it is not clear where his social science research is speaking and where as the preacher of “revolution” is speaking.
To understand what he has found and what he supports, it is important that we recognize what he means by “church/Church.” He states: “I use the words church (small c) and Church (capital C) in very different ways. The distinction is critical. The small c church refers to the congregation-based faith experience, which involves a formal structure, a hierarchy of leadership, and a specific group of believers. The term Church, on the other hand, refers to all believers in Jesus Christ, comprising the population of heaven-bound individuals who are connected by their faith in Christ, regardless of their local church connections or involvement. Some hail this as the Church universal, as opposed to the church local. As you will see, the Revolution is designed to advance the Church and to redefine the church” (page x).
The revolutionaries are usually people who are dissatisfied with the local church or with local churches because they cannot find in them, however hard they try, an authentic pursuit of and commitment to a genuine Christianity, wherein there is a vital relationship with God through Jesus, and a consecrated life of obedience and holiness. They find in Scripture descriptions of the Church and of Christian living that cause them to look for and desire much more than the restrictions of the local church allow. And they are obsessed with the idea of being much better and more useful to God than they are now.
So mini-movements have been generated of people seeking to find alternative ways of serving God then in the local church with its limited and restricting agenda and activity. Thus there are cells, home fellowships, cyberspace meetings and the like, as well as “groups” within the local church, wherein serious people seek to become better Christian disciples of Jesus the really true “Revolutionary.”
So the Revolution has begun and, Barna predicts, will intensify, affecting America from the bottom up, as it were, as local groups function as “the salt of the earth” and “the light of the world” in their own communities. The number of committed Christians will grow but the number and size of local churches (of the old kind) will diminish, for the vital Christians will be in all kinds of loose organizations and groupings. Yet the moral and spiritual health of the nation will improve through their presence. Further, this Revolution will qualify as one of the great spiritual “awakenings” within the USA.
I do not know how seriously to take the contents of this book. This is because so much of it is Barna the preacher and advocate commending his view of “church/Church”, and, in proportion, so little is actually basic research material/facts that the reader can consider in their own right.
His use of the New Testament to describe the Church seems to be limited virtually to the early chapters of the Acts of the Apostles. But are not the teachings of Paul, James and John in their epistles also important for understanding what is the local church and what is the universal Church?
His confidence in human nature within the revolutionaries seems to be much higher than history and experience would recommend. Even the committed revolutionaries suffer from original sin, from the temptations to individualism and idiosyncrasies, from the possibility of many sins of omission and commission, and so on. How can Barna be sure that they will not simple add to the vastness of competitive Christian groups within the present supermarket of religions in the USA? How does he know their energy will go into the pursuit of holiness and the service of man in the name of Jesus?
And what about the connection or relation of these emerging mini-movements of revolutionaries to the variety of groups, house-churches, cells and the like which already exist and are associated with, for example, the “generous orthodoxy” movement (which seeks a kind of non-denominational form of Christianity that is missional locally, seeking to show practical love, especially to the poor).
Overall, my judgment tends to be that Dr Barna has gone much too far in his claim that there really is a Revolution, and in his predictions of what this Revolution will soon become and achieve. Let us remember that there have always been those, whom we may call the remnant, within the existing churches or synagogues who have longed for a deeper, richer and more substantial expression of Christian faith within themselves as persons and within the larger structure of the churches. He has discerned such within the American evangelical churches and appears to have made too much of his discovery because of what is his own personal desire for Christian growth in the USA.
The Rev'd Dr. Peter Toon MA., D.Phil (Oxford)