First, let me get my book-review criticism out of the way so I can get to the real substance of what Barna is saying. In my view the book has two major flaws. First, it reads like a 6-page research report that was padded into a short book. There’s a lot of repetition and fluff and almost no hard data. Second, it presents Barna’s conclusions, but it doesn’t give us the demographic and polling data upon which those conclusions are based. Barna seems to be saying, “I’m the most respected sociologist of American Protestantism. I know what I’m talking about, so you should simply trust my conclusions.” It would be a lot easier for me to persuade others to Barna’s point of view if I could cite some solid, credible research to back it up.
Now on to the substance … My dad was a pastor for over 40 years until his death in 2001. During those long years of ministry my mom was a very supportive pastor’s spouse. Now she is my wife’s right-hand woman at Living Water Christian Church. (Her picture is at the bottom of this page.) She is a woman of deep Christian faith, having spent much of her adult life in ministry, scripture study, teaching, and prayer.
As we discussed Revolution, Mom repeated part of her own story about how in the early 1970s, when my dad had been a pastor for around 15 years, she became very disillusioned with my dad’s congregation as well as the whole structure of traditional church. Although she always supported Dad and was deeply involved in the life of our congregation, she felt alienated from it.
At that time she got involved in two prayer groups made up of women from a number of different congregations in the community. These groups weren’t in any way associated with or related to our family’s congregation. They were completely separate. These groups became “church” for Mom in a way that our congregation couldn’t be. In fact, if she didn’t have those groups, she wonders if she would have been able to tolerate the dysfunction of our congregation. The spiritual nourishment she received from those groups sustained her and made it possible for her to support Dad in our congregation without going insane.
While Dad supported Mom’s involvement in those groups, he continued to encourage her to see the value in a traditional congregation. He told her, “In ten years those prayer groups will be gone, but our congregation will still be here doing ministry, nurturing people in the faith, and making a difference in the community.” And in fact Dad was right. Those prayer groups are long gone but that congregation is still alive today.
However, I wish Dad were here so I could ask him, “Does the longevity or future prospects of a community of faith have anything to do with whether or not that community could rightly be called a ‘church’?” Somehow I doubt that it does. Living Water is a tender new church plant, whose future is still in doubt. Does that mean it isn’t a church? Of course not.
So that brings us back to Revolution and Brian’s concerns that the church is failing (as posted here, here, and here). The key to understanding Barna’s point is in the definition of “church.” The Bible is very clear that we aren’t meant to follow Christ on our own. Everyone needs a community of faith to encourage them, rekindle the flame, and bring them into a fuller, deeper relationship with Jesus.
But what kind of community of faith qualifies as a “church?” Does it need a building, a pastor, staff, and weekly gatherings to be a church? Or is any community of faith a church, at least for the moment that community exists? Does a once-a-year Promise Keeper’s event qualify as “church?” If not, why not? Barna’s ideas are intriguing if for no other reason than that they get us thinking about this fundamental question. In my view, it’s not whether Christians will be part of a church twenty years from now, it’s what kind of church will they choose. And I’m at least open to the possibility that Barna’s view on that will turn out to be correct. If so, it has huge strategic implications, which are outside the scope of this post.
And by the way, Brian, you’re in good company when you’re feeling that the church is failing. My mom felt the same way more than 20 years ago. Can you imagine being the pastor’s spouse and feeling what you’re feeling? That would be tough.