Barna's Revolution

Justin Bertram
last edited in January of 2006

I won't fully address this subject until the end of the article, but it is necessary to mention it now. Because of the ambiguous nature of "church" language, I have taken pains to clarify what I think each speaker is saying. Many times the speaker will say "church," "local church," "church as we typically think of it," etc. when they actually mean what I define as "institutional church" in my article. For clarity, I simply define "institutional church" as the established, public organization around the people. For a much fuller development of this idea, please see the article. I will use this term frequently.


In November of 2005 the Church Communication Network (CCN - aired a broadcast based on George Barna's book Revolution. The broadcast featured Barna himself as well as Dwight Gunter (a pastor in Nashville, Tennessee) and Robert Lewis (a pastor in Little Rock, Arkansas). During the broadcast Barna explained the premises of his book and had Dwight and Robert share their personal experiences and opinions of this alleged "revolution."

In order to stimulate discussion, I have broken the audio of the broadcast down into its component parts and made it available. Pardon the small bit of static, the VHS tape wasn't the best.

  1. George Barna (37:43)
  2. Dwight Gunter (26:36)
  3. Robert Lewis (18:29)
  4. Q & A (24:43)

A week before the broadcast aired a friend of my wife, I'll call her Eve, emailed us and asked if we wanted to watch it with her and her husband. We share a special bond with this other couple not just because they performed our pre-marital counseling but also because we have both become convinced that being the church is more important than being a part of an organization that calls itself "church" or even being a part of a "community" that is institutionally organized. Ironically, Eve works for an institutional church and was going to get a tape of the broadcast after some of the elders and ministry leaders watched it. Even more ironically, this was the same institution whose services we had all previously attended.

The email included a short description of the show. Part of it said, "...we must understand the vital difference between being the Church and going to church..." Among other statements, that one piqued my interest. Yet even though it seemed right up the alley of my Discipleship and the Institution article, I was a bit skeptical. My wife and I eventually agreed that even if the broadcast's content was poor, it would still be fun to spend time with our friends.

Although a lot of what was said during the show was mere opinion, much of it was based on The Barna Group's (including Barna himself) systematic research as well as conversations Barna's had with thousands of "revolutionary" believers around the country. As Dwight pointed out, that made much of his content descriptive, rather than prescriptive, in nature. In other words, he simply described what his research said had already happened rather than what should or might happen in the future.

George Barna

The show began with Barna's segment. Since the intended audience was "ministry leaders" he began by asking, "What is your ministry really about?...What is success?" He answered the second question (and thus the first question indirectly) by using his company's research which has found that there are five dominant factors that determine success in American, institutional churches:

In response to these metrics Barna somewhat scolds the American institutional church. He says, "Jesus didn't die for any of those things," which while somewhat simplistic, is true, and helps the listener start to get a feel for the kinds of things the "revolution" is seeking to impact. In fairness, I imagine the people in his surveys don't think that Jesus died for buildings, programs, money, etc. However his comment hits home nonetheless, because while such beliefs might not be explicitly verbalized, they are implicitly affirmed by certain behavior (such as making them criteria for success). He quickly points out that while those criteria are objective, easy to measure, and therefore comfortable, the real measure for success is more likely life transformation or what Jesus defined as fruit (i.e. the evidence of life transformation).

As Barna explained, part of his job is to aid church leadership with conferences, seminars, etc. about what is happening in both secular and church culture nationwide. Several years ago he became frustrated, apparently because the aforementioned fruit was increasingly difficult not only to find but to help institutional church leadership facilitate. He therefore began researching where or if such fruit was being produced.

He discovered tremendous fruit but "not in the places where we typically look." His research showed that this fruit was being born in disconnected pockets of believers which he called "affinity groups" or "spiritual mini-movements." These groups were, "doing ministry and interacting with one another largely outside the boundaries of a local church as we know it" (emphasis mine). He described them, "these were people who were whole-heartedly devoted to God and they were in the presence of other people who were doing things that enabled them to be whole-heartedly devoted to God as well. And so it was in the midst of those particular relationships that God seemed to be facilitating tremendous things in the lives of people."

As he studied those people and their fruit he discovered a "revolution of faith that is taking place in America today." He explained this revolution wasn't readily visible because these groups tend to be small and disconnected and we don't notice them because, "in America what sells is whatever is big." Even still, he contends, the "accumulation of the impact" of all the groups is "huge."

Barna then outlined the characteristics of this revolution, providing definitions and descriptions of key terms.

Notable quotations:
  1. ...if you are the leader of a traditional or conventional church - a local church as we know it - you've got to make the choice, you've got to figure out, are you going to cooperate or to compete with the revolution? That raises some interesting questions about if you have too much of an ego to learn from revolutionaries. Ideally these are the people you want in your [institutional] church. These are the people you want as the foundation, the bedrock, of what it is that you're doing in ministry.
  2. What is your definition of what it means to lead God's people? Is it to bless people and to facilitate transformation or is it to protect your turf and "defend" God's Kingdom? The trap there is that you've got to realize God doesn't need you defending His Kingdom. What he's asked you to do is to bless people.
  3. The revolution does raise that question of "what is success?" in ministry. Is it fruit or is it institutional health?
  4. We've also got to rethink "what does it mean to be unchurched?" because typically we think of somebody as being unchurched if they don't show up in the big show on Sunday morning, but we are finding that for more and more people that's not where they are winding up and they are not unchurched.
  5. We've got to rethink the whole idea of how we see believers. Do we see them - hear this - do you see your people as members or do you see them as missionaries because to a large extent that is what revolutionaries have become, missionaries who are out in the world doing the things of God. Their loyalty is not to an institution, it's to the Kingdom of God.
  6. ...those who have left the local [institutional] church did so because they felt that they could not reach their fullest potential in Christ in that environment, and as they went back and studied Scripture they felt that it gave them the leeway to explore other options for being the ultimate follower of Christ that they were made to be.
  7. ...most of them had already tasted Christ in their life. They had already been there. They had experienced some of this transformation that were talking about. They could no longer settle for something that just didn't meet up to the standards of what it would mean to be a sold out follower of Christ. They weren't willing to just turn back and go along to get along. Their life was devoted to being all they could be.

Quite frankly, I was shocked by what Barna said. We paused the video more than once to express our collective incredulity. It wasn't so much that Barna appeared to have a decent understanding of (and apparently some sympathy for) the movement, it was that we knew some of the elders and ministry leaders of the institution we all left had heard his statements as well.

Dwight Gunter

After Barna finished he introduced Dwight Gunter who has been the senior pastor of Trevecca Community Church of the Nazarene in Nashville, Tennessee since April 2002. After hearing Barna and discussing what he said with my wife and friends I was anticipating another good presentation.

His self-declared purpose is to answer the question, "What now?" as it relates to the institutional church. In other words, "What should the institutional church's response be?" He aims to answer the question(s), "by looking at it from a Biblical perspective."

He begins by examining Barna's definition of a revolutionary (which I quoted above as well).

These people are devout followers of Jesus Christ who are serious about their faith, who are constantly worshipping and interacting with God, whose lives are centered on their belief in Christ. Some of them are aligned with a congregational church, but many of them are not. They key to understanding Revolutionaries is not what church they attend, or even if they attend. Instead, its their complete dedication to being thoroughly Christian, by viewing every moment of life through a spiritual lens and making every decision in light of biblical principles. These are individuals who are determined to glorify God every day through every thought, word, and deed in their life.

He takes the definition apart phrase by phrase and finds no Biblical fault, as one would imagine.

Next, he examines the seven passions of a revolutionary (also quoted above) and again finds no Biblical fault. Rather, he expresses a desire to have an institutional church filled with such passionate people.

However, he quickly turns to what he perceives as the Revolution's first problem, namely that revolutionaries don't usually attend a "local [institutional] church." He says that he, as a pastor, would struggle with the question, "how can you be truly Christian and not attend a local [institutional] congregation?" He places a lot of the responsibility of this revolutionary exodus on the shoulders of the institutional church. His solution to this problem is to draw the revolutionaries back into the institutional church by seeking to, "energize our [institutional] churches, getting our [institutional] churches to be revolutionary [institutional] churches in which revolutionary Christians find places of fulfillment in revolutionary ministries."

At this point I began to scratch my head. "Didn't Barna already address this?" I thought. In my mind, Barna's statement (quoted above as well),

We've also got to rethink "what does it mean to be unchurched?" because typically we think of somebody as being unchurched if they don't show up in the big show on Sunday morning, but we are finding that for more and more people that's not where they are winding up and they are not unchurched.
hit Gunter's issue right on the head. It is highly likely that one wouldn't need to draw revolutionaries back into institutional churches because they are already a part of a family of faith, that is a church. Such is my personal situation.

He aims to "energize" institutional churches, his not least, by focusing on Scriptural principles - rediscovering God's purpose for His church. He continues, "For the [institutional] church I pastor we chose a few years ago to be a community of faith that is consistent with Scripture and we intentionally made it our goal to be a gathering of dynamic, divine activity, believing in 24/7 Christianity, empowering people to live their faith at home and at work and in the community at large. So I think part of the answer to this question and this issue is that we need to rediscover God's intentions and purposes for the local church." Somewhat surprisingly he says that the seven revolutionary passions are exactly the Scriptural principles that the institutional church needs to embrace. He says, "So it would seem to me that if the local [institutional] church really understood God's mission in our world and organized itself to fulfill the mission and held itself accountable to that fulfillment of the mission and empowered people to live the revolutionary, radical, Christ-centered life then we would have communities of faith full of revolutionaries. Revolutionary Christians would then find a place of fulfillment and belonging." Yet, according to Barna, there are already communities of faith filled with revolutionaries. Many revolutionaries already have fulfillment and belonging, specifically in community with other revolutionaries. That is, in fact, one of the things the revolution is about. It seems that the bottom line of Gunter's advice for how institutional churches should respond to this issue is basically to seek to integrate revolutionaries back into the institutional church.

The second problem he perceives in the revolution is, "a sense of community or lack thereof." He rightly states that, "Christianity was never intended to be lived in isolation...there is an absolute necessity for a community of faith." His main thrust is that community (i.e. church) exists wherever people are gathered to fulfill the purposes of God, regardless of the practical organization. He summarizes this point by saying, "Simply because a revolutionary believer may not view the local [institutional] congregation as the sum of or even the focal point of their sense of community does not mean that they do not have a sense of community or true Christian community." Yet in his next statement he seems to shift gears. He says, "And so the question for us is can the local [institutional] church change its perspective from seeing itself as the sum of a Christian's connection with God to a component of a Christian's connection with God." It would seem, despite his claim that community can happen anywhere people are jointly fulfilling the purposes of God, that he still wants to integrate revolutionaries, at least in some "component" sense, back into the institutional church.

What was somewhat strange to me is that this second "problem" doesn't really seem to be a problem. Based on Barna's description, I don't think many revolutionaries would disagree with the necessity of community. In fact, I think Barna would say that many have left institutional churches precisely to gain deeper fellowship with other disciples. That is, in part, why I personally left.

What was also strange is that what he said in addressing his second "problem" seemed like it would have addressed his first problem as well. His first problem was that revolutionaries weren't attending institutional churches, yet when discussing his second problem he says that what really matters in regards to church is fulfilling the purposes of God in community. If the latter is the case, does the former really matter?

He concludes by suggesting some next steps for institutional churches:

After he finished we all just kind of gave each other puzzled looks. I basically felt the issues he discussed weren't particularly relevant. He changed the main focus of his discussion more than once and seemed to ignore Barna and contradict himself. His overall message just didn't make sense to me.

As I have listened to his segment again and again something ironic occurred to me. Gunter aims to stymie the revolutionary exodus out of the institutional church by leading the institutional church to adopt the same Biblical perspective ("the seven revolutionary passions" in short) that the revolutionaries have. It seems to me that Gunter has failed to consider a very important and ironic point. Revolutionaries might be exiting the institutional church exactly because of this Biblical perspective, and getting more institutional church members to adopt this same perspective might accelerate the exodus rather than slow it down.

As my article recounts, my perspective of Scripture had a profound influence on my decision to leave the institutional church.

Robert Lewis

Next up was Robert Lewis, a pastor from Little Rock, Arkansas (where I currently live). Despite my disappointment with Gunter's presentation I was still looking forward to hearing Robert because I know he is a good communicator, having heard him before at his "Men's Fraternity," and because I know many folks who attend the services of the institutional church he pastors.

Robert wastes no time in making his first observation, namely that, "many Christians desperately desire to have more spiritual influence for themselves...and they want their [institutional] churches to allow them to have that." Unfortunately, he continues, most institutional churches are either unable or unwilling to let that happen. Rather, they are focused on becoming, "bigger or better or both," which leaves many "high capacity Christian leaders" frustrated. His solution, though, is not far behind, "today's [institutional] church, which has more and more become a centralized organization of a few, now needs to be radically decentralized around the many to offer those people new opportunities for spiritual adventure so they can fulfill their own dreams - Christians just meeting together, gathering and listening. No matter how good the performance is or how good the information, after awhile they become - well they become stagnant - and many become bored and they begin to ask the question 'what else?'" He believes the revolution's main question is related to how the institutional church can let people go in order to fulfill their own destinies in Christ. "The problem is, is that today's [institutional] churches, as presently configured, just aren't providing that release mechanism."

It is important to note that right off the bat Robert includes the preservation of the institutional church into the picture. His opening statement, "...they want their [institutional] churches to allow them to have that..." changes the revolution from a "thorough replacement of an established system" to a preservation of the established system, that is the institutional church. However, since he says the problem is the way the institutional church is "presently configured," one might guess his solution would be to reconfigure the institution and not replace it. He develops this thought more later.

Robert says he sees five things that revolutionaries want that the institutional church isn't providing:

  1. "They want their own focused cause"
  2. "They want to own it for themselves"
  3. "They want hands on participation"
  4. "They want spiritual adventure that requires real faith exercises"
  5. "They want to see real spiritual results"

For the most part, I agree with this assessment, but I find the first point a bit ambiguous. According to Barna, revolutionaries have seven prominent passions. These passions are fairly general rather than specific. One might say since they are general because they are "focused" on being everything God created them to be in Christ, to bringing God's Kingdom on earth in whatever way He would have. Yet, Robert's first point gives me the impression that revolutionaries simply want to fill some kind of niche. Of course, He might not be saying that, and that's the root of the ambiguity.

He follows this list with a story of five young businessmen. These men took the initiative to start ministering to men in a local prison. Of their experience Robert says, "Nothing, nothing that our [institutional] church has ever done for them can match the spiritual excitement, growth, and results these guys were getting for themselves...that is at the heart of the revolution."

Robert makes a very bold statement here that seems to be right in line with what Barna was previously describing. It seems that many revolutionaries have had the same realization and their conclusion was that the institutional church was irrelevant to them, hence the widespread exodus.

He continues, "Today's [institutional] church must learn from these revolutionaries, must adjust to these revolutionaries, and I would want to make an appeal, even despite George's statistics, that today's [institutional] church not lose these revolutionaries because of the power and passion that they bring back into the [institutional] church..."

Again, the institutional response to the revolution is not to replace the institution as the revolution would tend to suggest, but to "adjust" it in order to not "lose" the revolutionaries. This "losing" that Robert mentions here, and talks more about later, is interesting. In my opinion, there is really only one type of relational loss that can occur in this situation. When someone leaves an institution, their institutional relationships are severed. Such relationships, while nice, are not usually the relationships that drive a person toward deep Christ-likeness. However, even when one leaves an institution their interpersonal relationships remain intact. Those relationships are usually the deep friendships that really encourage a person and push them to be more like Jesus (I discuss these concepts more in my article). Because of this I can only conclude that what Robert is talking about here is institutional relationships or institutional membership. It would also seem that he thinks institutional membership is required to transfer "power and passion." However, in my experience, power and passion are transferred through interpersonal relationships, and those need not be lost where institutional membership is lost.

What he says next, I think, is a significant indicator of how he thinks about church. He asks, "what about going to church?" and answers, " a pastor, I'm all for going to church because when the Christians gather together to worship, to pray, to hear the instruction of God's word - that's going to church, but what I've learned in the New Testament is that can take place anywhere...regardless of size, place, or the day of the week. And for today's [institutional] church, we need to adopt revolutionaries and then let them go and take the church to all kinds of places that the [institutional] church would not go necessarily - to an apartment, to an office complex...and do church there without having to come to our church to do it...the [institutional] church doesn't need to be witheld on one campus, it needs to be extended, and the revolutionaries are begging for the opportunity to do this and they want today's [institutional] church to help...they want us to join them in allowing them to be launched and today's [institutional] church needs to help them be launched."

As before, he is making a case for the preservation of the institution rather than the revolutionary tendency to replace it. However, it would seem that his concept of church is still basically incompatible with the philosophy of many revolutionaries. Despite his statement emphasizing the concept of church in the New Testament, namely that the church can be any size anywhere at any time, he still holds to the manifestly non-Biblical language of going to church. As Barna stated earlier, one of the main forces driving the revolution is a desire to be the church, not go to church or be a part of some organization/institution. Also, rather than speak in terms of church as an identity (i.e. something one is), he speaks in terms of activity ("do church"), which is not espoused in the New Testament.

He then outlines what the institutional church's response should be.

  1. Don't ignore it. "The revolution is on and it's going to happen whether the church, today's [institutional] church, joins it or not."
  2. Don't criticize or block it because, "we will lose them...if we lose the revolutionaries that's going to be tragic for us when we could so benefit by them...revolutionaries are not rebels...revolutionaries don't want to disrupt the church. What revolutionaries want to do is they want to extend the church to places that today's [institutional] church with all its organization and wonderful campuses and great programs and activities just for one reason or another doesn't have time to go and do. We are locked in oftentimes, and the revolutionaries are the key to unlocking the [institutional] church and extending it into broader communities where the church needs to go."
  3. Partner with them. He defines what he means saying, "...let revolutionaries go, and yet stay connected to the [institutional] church. I think of them as tethered like an astronaut would be to the space shuttle...I would love to see today's [institutional] church understand how to both let revolutionaries go and yet stay tethered in a way that they feed energy back to the [institutional] church rather than the [institutional] church losing that energy altogether."

The last two points here go hand in hand and fall exactly in line with what he has previously said. Most of the same basic points made above could be made here as well. However, I would like to make one fresh point. I give Robert the benefit of the doubt here, but his statements give me the impression that despite his claims of partnering with revolutionaries and helping them launch out, his intention seems to be more about getting "energy," "passion and power" from the revolutionaries for the institution. Also, the tethering that he discusses would be very easy to accomplish on an interpersonal level (see Discipleship and the Institution), but in my estimation most institutional church goers don't think in those terms - as I think is exemplified by Robert' statements here.

He begins to wind down by posing the question, "How can [institutional] church leaders participate?" He responds by saying, "We're going to have to rethink our concept of church...on a much broader...and more decentralized level. We have to think of church in a much different fashion, not doing away with what is, but adding and expanding to what is. And we need to re-engineer some of our organization as a [institutional] church to help launch people out...we need to be a catch and release organization as the [institutional] church today. We must go from keeping our people safe to releasing our people and letting them find their own daring adventure. That's what the catch and release organization of the [institutional] church should be. And that's what revolutionaries desperately want in our midst, they long for this, and they long for the [institutional] church to connect with them in that kind of adventuresome way."

Robert's statements here confused me. Basically all at once he says things must radically change but stay the same. With one hand he seems to be waving the revolutionaries on, but with the other he is telling them to stop. The key statement is, "We have to think of church in a much different fashion, not doing away with what is, but adding and expanding to what is." Here again he is accepting the revolution's critique halfway, acknowledging the need for change, but denying the general desire to replace the institution. Unfortunately, I think it is exactly because he goes half-way that many (though definitely not all) revolutionaries will continue their exodus out of institutional churches.

He also continues his description of church as an organization, specifically saying, "we need to be a catch and release organization." He continues by saying they must help revolutionaries basically be revolutionaries. However, I am under the strong conviction that to teach someone to be revolutionary one must be a revolutionary. It is not enough simply to "cast a revolutionary vision" and wait for the revolutionaries to rise up as he later suggests during the Q & A session.

questions & answers

Questions were taken behind the scenes throughout the presentation. At the end they answered many of them.

The first question was, "People who leave congregations often say 'I'm not being fed.' Some say that's just an excuse. What you're saying makes me question if we might not be misdiagnosing this comment. Maybe they're not being fed. Would you comment?"

George said many things in his answer:

Robert contributed at the end, adding that such a statement (i.e. "I'm not being fed") to leadership would be an "opportunity to dialog" rather than take offense. He encouraged the viewers, "...understand what they are really saying, and then feel free to network them to like minded believers...or even dream with them about how they can initiate a cause and then they move from being somebody who is creating pain for you to somebody who is inviting you help them become an asset for your particular local [institutional] body."

The next question was from an institutional church staff member who considered himself a revolutionary, but didn't feel the rest of his institutional church was and didn't know how to handle the discrepancy. The basic recommendation was to be careful and humble, realizing that nothing happens overnight. Realistic advice, I thought.

The third question was about the complexity of the revolution and if "all parts if it are going to take the church where it needs to go." George basically said that revolutions are "messy" in general, and despite the perceived threat that the revolution poses to the institutional church, questions on both sides must be asked. Barna specifically noted that based on his research, "...the most effective approach to people's spiritual growth is not where we dump more information in their minds, but where we ask them questions and encourage them to go and figure out the answers. It's a much more Socratic approach, if you will...take that mind-set. It's good to ask questions."

The next question was about how to build passion and unity among diverse and scattered people. George emphasized stimulating passion by entrusting people with responsibility according to their gifts and being committed to who they are, knowing that God is at work in them just as he is in you. Dwight emphasized the Holy Spirit's role, and the potential benefits of decentralization. Robert's answer was phenomenal and went a long way to redeeming his perspective in my mind. It is worth quoting:

...when I hear a question like that I hear, in some ways, the traditional thinking that unity is preserved by organization, and that the church as an organization is what creates the unity, and the truth of the matter is...that unity is relational, it's organic. And so to have a revolutionary out there who has the integrity that you're talking about connected with a local church relationally, that's where the unity is going to be...on the other hand, if the church makes the break with that person relationally he's going to go find other like-minded believers to unify around. And so the whole network of the church in its integrity side, its unity side, its doctrinal purity side is going to be maintained primarily through an organic, kind of relational, base of believers who are sold out to Jesus Christ rather than us thinking that somehow them coming to [institutional] church or staying on top of them or them reporting and turning in some kind of report slip every week that somehow that's going to provide either unity or integrity. It's not, and we just need to realize that God has a way of knitting people together in a way to foster the kind of unity that He desires to advance his Kingdom, and we just need to be comfortable with that.

I was really glad to hear this from Robert. Despite his earlier emphasis on church as an organization, etc., I think he hits the nail right on the head here. His statement actually echoes points I tried to make in my article. Yet, because of the inconsistency with what he said previously, his statement here confuses me. I will talk more about this in the next section.

The next question was, "Would you say that the phrase, 'a Christian without a [institutional] church home or attending a local [institutional] church is an oxymoron,' is wrong?" Barna hit this one hard,

...the local [institutional] church as it's configured in this country today, we made up! It's not in the Bible. It's a good thing, I don't have any problems with it, but you've got to realize it - structurally, organizationally - is not sacred. We put that together to facilitate people's spiritual development. That suggests that there may well be other approaches that people could take to growing spiritually which we could also embrace. When you read Scripture what you find is that we are given a tremendous amount of detail in terms of the message that God has for us, but very little detail, very few parameters related to the methods by which we need to get that message into people's minds and hearts. I think it's helpful to consider that what God is asking us to do is to be part of a community, the body of Christ, that's the key thing. It's not whether you are a member of an institution or organization that we created. Are you in fact immersed in the lives of other believers so that you're blessing them and you're encouraging them and you're holding them accountable, and they're doing those very same things for you? That's what the church was meant to be, that's when the church is at its strongest. When you look at the church around the world and understand how it functions best, it's when we're not worried about all of these kinds of traditions and structures and routines that we've created, but we're worried about [the questions], "How do I honor God? How do I partner with other people to be similar to the rag-tag bunch that hung around with Jesus?"...with all due respect to a couple of the big names in the Christian community who have put those quotes in very popular books, I would say that is not really accurate. I think that's a cultural understanding of what the church is, as opposed to a Biblical understanding of the church.
Robert explicitly added leadership to Barna's definition of church, while lauding the initiative manifested by many revolutionaries. He further remarked, "I would love to see church like Dwight and I have have that tether I talked about to those groups of people where there's a leader out there and we as leaders can dialog..."

The next question was about how to make the transition from institutional church to Biblical church. Barna harped on recognizing and raising up revolutionary leadership and removing stagnant leadership. Neither Dwight nor Robert commented.

The last question was about how to find the revolutionaries in one's community. Barna recommended simple networking - having conversations, building relationships, etc. Good advice, in my opinion. Robert recommended, "casting that vision that we [as the institutional church] want revolutionaries." When the vision is cast, he says, the revolutionaries will rise up, relationships can form, and dreams will emerge. Unfortunately, Robert doesn't elaborate on how to cast a revolutionary vision, and as I said before, I am under the strong conviction that to teach someone to be revolutionary one must be a revolutionary.


It was late when the video ended and we were all tired, but we sat and talked for a bit before packing up our son and heading home. The general consensus was that Barna "got it." We all enjoyed what he said. We appreciated Dwight and Robert, but felt they were on a different page than George for whatever reason. I was somewhat puzzled that he asked them to join him.

I marveled at some of the strong words Barna had for institutional leadership. We all tried to imagine what the elders and ministry leaders who saw the broadcast thought. I hoped that it would lead to profitable dialog.

My brain began churning about the arguments each speaker made, but I knew I would need to listen several more times and write an article to finally make sense of it. However, the language that the speakers used in regards to church immediately stuck out in my mind as something that needed deeper analysis.

language redux

As at the beginning, language is now the issue at hand. In my mind, this is one of the biggest issues in the whole "church" discussion, and, quite frankly, I am shocked that I haven't read and talked more about it. Perhaps it is only a big deal to semantic sticklers like myself.

One need not be familiar with linguistic determinism or the Saphir Whorf hypothesis to have an inkling that language defines categories of thought and those categories shape behavior.

Further, people rarely define their words because they assume that when they speak a given word the concept they have in their own mind is roughly the same concept their listener has. Oftentimes, however, these assumptions are inaccurate. Throughout time these assumptions build up false ideas that take root in our subconscious, affecting our understanding of all sorts of things. Eventually we come to hold views that barely resemble the original meaning. It's like a highly complex version of the telephone game.

So I believe is the case with "church." It seems the problem is particularly acute in America, where hundreds of years of Western-Enlightenment, secular thought have combined to give most, including Christians, an institutional understanding of church. When someone says "church" in America I think the vast majority of people, again including Christians, think of a building, perhaps with a steeple, perhaps adorned with a cross. Further, when the phrase "go to church" is uttered I believe most people think of attending a "service." Since these are the concepts that come to mind, this is how people act in relation to church. It is a place to go, an activity to do, and ultimately an institution to organize. This is, of course, a huge problem because none of those things reflect Biblical reality, and it has come to the sad point where people who seemingly aim to uphold the Biblical meaning of "church" are deemed revolutionaries (to be clear, I don't have any particular issue with the term "revolutionary", I just think it exemplifies how far our Biblical understanding of church has gone astray).

Of course, there are many thoughtful believers who know that church is not a place, activity, or institution. Yet, in many of those cases I have found the aforementioned language issues as well as behavioral inconsistency. In other words, how many believers speak and act in regards to church oftentimes doesn't match up to what they "believe" about church. No pastor with solid theology would say that church is a place, but in my experience most professional pastors work for institutional churches that have a sign next to the street identifying the building or campus as a church. That isn't a huge deal in itself, but when one considers that those facilities constitute the largest part of many institutional church budgets and that many institutional church budgets, especially for mega-institutional churches, are millions of dollars then the sign next to the street, or at least what it represents, becomes a bit more significant. Further, people often consider attending services more important than simple hospitality. Love for Jesus and others, the main marker of the church, is more often taught about than actually demonstrated. People are usually discouraged, sometimes strongly, from observing the Lord's Supper in their homes with fellow believers. "Small groups," even when they are heavily emphasized and even when they are meant to facilitate meaningful relationships, are usually built around a curriculum rather than around people really pursuing others in the name of Jesus. Those same groups are often broken up into semesters or the like, unnaturally disrupting church (i.e. community) development by undermining the very relationships they aim to facilitate. I could go on.

As an aside, the language that is sometimes found on the aforementioned signs is worthy of note. Particularly things like "Community Church." The Greek word ekklesia is generally translated church, but it could just as easily (and probably more accurately) be translated as community or maybe even fellowship. Doing that, though, would turn "Community Church" into something like "Church Church" or "Community Community." My point is simply that our language demonstrates that, not in all but in many ways, we have lost the original meaning of "church," but I digress.

It is interesting to note that church language has been ambiguous for some time beginning at least from when the same Greek word (ekklesia) was used for both "the universal church" (all Christ-followers throughout time) and what is often called "a local church" (a specific group of Christ-followers). More than once during the presentation the speaker actually had to say "church big 'C'" or "church little 'c'" when referring to these concepts. As someone committed to clear communication of important topics, the Gospel not least, I find this type of verbal mess very unfortunate and worth resolving.

Although there was still a fair bit of ambiguity at times, Barna, much more than Dwight or Robert, makes clear that at least two types of "church" are being discussed - the Biblical understanding of church and an institutional, organizational, or cultural one. During his opening session he said, "...[revolutionaries] are wanting to be the church rather than be part of some kind organization or institution" and "...we think of somebody as being unchurched if they don't show up in the big show on Sunday morning, but we are finding that for more and more people that's not where they are winding up and they are not unchurched." During the Q & A session he was very explicit, at one point saying,

...the local [institutional] church as it's configured in this country today, we made up! It's not in the Bible...It's not whether you are a member of an institution or organization that we created. Are you in fact immersed in the lives of other believers so that you're blessing them and you're encouraging them and you're holding them accountable, and they're doing those very same things for you? That's what the church was meant to be...[the institutional church is] a cultural understanding of what the church is, as opposed to a Biblical understanding of the church.

Dwight vaguely describes the two concepts of "church," but never makes the distinction explicit. He appears to play both sides, maintaining that one can have church without the institution, but because he wants the revolutionaries to be part of institutional churches I feel he strongly implies that one shouldn't.

Robert also talks about the two types, but likewise doesn't make a definite distinction. He seems to be on both sides of the fence as well. During his presentation he talks about the church like it is a kind of machine that needs to be "configured," "adjusted," and "re-engineered," he explicitly embraces the "go to church" and "do church" language, and he specifically refers to church as an organization. However, he also says, "Nothing, nothing that our [institutional] church has ever done for them can match the spiritual excitement, growth, and results" that revolutionaries can get for themselves, and during the Q & A session he speaks eloquently about the relational nature of church unity and passion, giving the impression to me that his concept of church might be closer to what I outlined in my article.

In the end, though, his language is too divergent to reach any reliable conclusions.


I have thoroughly enjoyed listening to and writing about the thoughts of each speaker on this broadcast. I have often tried to stimulate meaningful dialog on this subject, but it seems that few wish to discuss it on a deep level - for whatever reason. It's good to hear the thoughts of others who recognize and appreciate this issue.

During this evaluation I hope I haven't pretended to know all the answers. I hope I did not come off as picky or needlessly argumentative. These are simply my opinions, and I have taken pains to use language that makes that clear (using words like seems, appears, etc.). I realize that there are probably errors in my interpretation of the speakers, and I apologize in advance. I have tried to be fair and objective as possible. While I do think Discipleship and the Institution is key to understanding my thoughts on these issues, I hope I have not appeared to be shamelessly plugging it.

I do not feel I can conclude this article any better than that one:

I feel the need to make clear that the book on this discussion is not closed. In fact, the book is probably just opening. This paper was designed, in part, to stimulate discussions and promote a fresh examination of the New Testament. In my community there is still a great amount of discussion taking place about the nature of the body of Christ (i.e. the church), the role of institutions in our lives, the importance of relationships, etc. There are many unsettled issues, and I imagine there always will be. However, despite our imperfections and misunderstandings we have a great hope and confidence that Jesus will perfect his work in us (Philippians 1:6), in the context of an institution or not, with brothers and sisters who completely agree or not. We are also confident that in spite of these questions we, as the "household of faith" (Galatians 6:10), can "put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity" (Colossians 3:14) so that the glory of God in Christ may shine forth from our lives. I pray that as we follow Jesus together "outside the camp" we may "continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God" that He may be pleased (Hebrews 13:13-16).

appendix a - more audio

Here is a pretty good interview with Barna from the Trinity Broadcasting Network aired on November 17 (pardon some of the background noise, they must have had some bleed-in from another studio nearby).

appendix b - "the God Journey"

A few weeks before I began writing this article a friend of mine emailed me a link to an Internet broadcast about raising children outside of the institutional church. I didn't go to the website until yesterday (11-30-05) and I was surprised to find a few shows on Barna's Revolution. I thoroughly enjoyed what the hosts had to say and want to share it along with a few comments.

The first show aired on November 11. Wayne and Brad, the hosts, discussed Revolution's content. I thought the show was great for the most part, but here are a few statements that really stuck out (in chronological order):

  1. ...I did bump into [George Barna] four years ago...we had a really neat conversation...I had been noticing that the thickness of his books was getting thinner and thinner...I said, "your books are getting thinner and thinner, why is that?"...and he said, "Honest reality is I'm not so sure what to think anymore. The last book that I wrote was The Second Coming of the [Institutional] Church and if you ask me today where my thoughts are, I don't think we're going to see the second coming of the [institutional] church. I think the [institutional] church is dead, and I'm struggling to figure out what to do..."...that was four years ago...[since then] he took his organization from like 180-some employees and stripped it down just like 9 and he's dismantled a lot of his "machine," and he has gone off the radar. He wasn't, in the last four years, as public a figure as he was before...
  2. ...the predominant finding is that [the Barna Group] had noticed statistically, research-wise that there was a complete decline in the attendance of the [institutional] church and the fastest growing segment of "the body of Christ" today were people who were no longer attached to a regular Sunday fellowship or identified that as "their home," but they were outside of the organized institutional church and I think the basic premise is they were first looking at that with a sense of alarm but they've come back, having interviewed and taken a real look, and the real reason for that is people's hunger for God, their genuine passion for God has exceeded what they've found being offered within the confines of the institutional church...they are growing, they are excited about God and they are finding that the local [institutional] church, in many respects, is irrelevant to what's going on in the culture.
  3. ...when anything becomes the substitute for our naked surrender and obedience to Christ and desire to know Him and live in Him and follow Him - if it's to do a revolution, if it's the seven passions of this, if our focus is anywhere but, "Jesus who are you in my life today and how do you want me to follow you?" we're going to miss it!"
  4. ...[Barna] says, "Existing [institutional] churches will have a historic decision to make - to ignore the revolution and continue business as usual or to invest energy in fighting the revolution as an un-Biblical advance or to look for ways of retaining their identity while cooperating with the revolution as a mark of unity and genuine ministry. My current research suggest the latter approach will be the least common." I didn't even like his latter approach! "We're going to retain our identity, and we're going to cooperate with the revolution," still is a big part of the problem!
  5. ...even the idea of, "I'm going to be a revolutionary!" - that's not my identity. What fans my fire is that I'm profoundly loved, and that gets me up in the morning and I go like, "Wow," that makes me feel like, "Yeah, there's a revolution going on, no doubt," and I've experienced Him. Not an it...whenever we make this an it, if your church is an it, then it's not Him...

I included the third and fifth quotation to emphasize the necessary preeminence of Jesus in everything, especially a "revolution." It is easy to focus on the it rather than the Man.

I included the fourth quotation to highlight the similar reactions the three of us had against the type of institution-preserving thinking that Barna mentions in his book and that both Dwight and Robert advocate in the CCN broadcast.

The next show (loosely) dealing with Revolution aired on November 25. The show was titled "Systems and Structures." During the 45 minutes, Wayne and Brad responded to listener feedback and talked about our tendencies to systematize and "structurize" even something as wild as a revolution. Here are some choice excerpts:

  1. ...we talk about people getting out of the religious systems of the day and yet the backside of that is we've got to get the system out of us. If not, we're going to turn right around and yeah it won't be in a building and it won't be this, but it will be the same dynamics - we've got a leader and a terminology and a book we're all reading and a banner we're all waving and terms we use...
  2. long as we think we're bright enough to contain this Kingdom, build this Kingdom, build the church, as long as we think we can do it - well reasoned and well intentioned men and women can do great things for God - we're going to continue to have these stupid, debilitating structures - they always start out pretty healthy, just people loving God, wanting to help other people love God and then somewhere in the development of those things we give over to that need to conform people's behavior and basically control the way they think or act and that's where we then have a system...
  3. ...let's not organize it, let's not put it in a box, let's not give it a name, let's not make a movement. Let's just recognize what God's doing to invite people to Himself and join Him...
  4. oftentimes the reason there comes the need to define it is because there is in somebody somewhere a need to find their significance, their sense of value and worth, as being attached to it, and I think that's really where it goes wrong. Whenever I am looking to an it, to a something, that's other than Him - pure, raw Jesus - I think you take a step down from the moving what God is doing...God's love for you makes you special enough. It's not about being part of this movement or that movement or leaving this structure or that structure, it's simply being His, and that's enough.
  5. ...if you remain in an ongoing conversation with the Lord, if you remain in that posture that Jesus is a moving target, and to follow Him I must keep my eyes on Him and I must continue to go with Him and be in dialog - it's whenever you take your eyes off that...that, frankly, I think you get lost...if we're taking our eyes off Him to get them on something else then this thing has become the substitute for following Him...

I thought a lot of what Wayne and Brad said was fantastic and served as a good reminder to me what it is all about - Jesus.

appendix c - criticism

There has been much criticism of Barna and Revolution. Reviewers include Sam Storms (parts 1 and 2), Kevin Miller, Michael Haykin, and Chris Treat. Their reviews deal directly with the book rather than the CCN broadcast that garnered my attention.

The reviewers are unanimous in their declaration that the local church is relevant, a point they feel Barna is against. Unfortunately, it appears the aforementioned language issues persist more heavily in his book than in his presentation. It does appear that Barna is speaking out of both sides of his mouth, advocating both the abondonment of the "local church" and not forsaking the gathering together of believers. I want to give Barna the benefit of the doubt and understand his admonition as the abandonment of the unnecessary institution that is referred to as church and not local assemblies of the body of Christ, families of faith. However, the reviewers make a fairly compelling case that Barna should not receive such a benefit. In any case, I wish to affirm the necessity of the local family of faith, of elders, of accountability, of the sacraments, of brotherly submission, the study of the Scriptures, etc. However, none of those things necessarily need to be institutionalized.

I have read other critical comments across the Internet. Some suggest that Barna has become frustrated and disillusioned after years of ineffective work and that he has allowed his emotions to illegitimately influence his conclusions. Some suggest that he has abused his statistics, making broad generalizations where only narrow evaluations make sense. Some say his exegesis is weak - that he simply ignores Scripture. Some say he has overstepped his professional bounds and become an advocate or preacher rather than just a statistician or reporter. Unsurprisingly, many get caught in the semantic confusion surrounding "church" and "institution."

Despite some valid criticism, most negative reviewers give no hint that Barna makes any valid points at all. It appears to me that this is because they do not to separate the institution from the people of God at the local level. It seems that many won't even entertain the idea (nevermind the consequences of such an idea) that Barna's research indicates a genuine move of God to advance His Kingdom however right or wrong Barna's personal convictions and bias might be. I would warmly welcome critical discussion of institutionalism without the fear of throwing the baby out with the bathwater that so often accompanies such discourse.

appendix d - clarification from Barna

According to the Jolly Blogger (whom I read often and trust) Barna is not advocating an abolishment of the church. Barna himself clarifies:

Am I defining mere relationships as "church"? No, as you know, the Greek word ekklesia, from which we derive the English term church is not clear to most scholars but most of them agree that it generally has to do with the gathering of called-out people. So my notion of "being the church" requires that you be not only engaged in such passionate endeavors but that you also be connected to other believers in some type of faith-oriented, regular meeting for the purposes of emulating and honoring Christ. Christianity is not an isolationist experience; it is covenantal and communal.

To a certain degree this validates most of my interpretations of his statements and my tendency to give him the benefit of the doubt. I hope this will silence some of the criticism and help hone the discussion down to more fruitful areas.