Praise God for the revolutionaries George Barna writes about in his recent book Revolution. Barna anticipates the rejection of his insights as he writes almost apologetically about what he sees “out there.” While there are, I think, some legitimate concerns, perhaps reactions should be more positive. This blog is a reaction to Barna’s little Tyndale book.
Barna’s research discovered that millions are developing dynamic spiritual lives without dependence on a local church. Holding a firm conviction that the Bible is the authoritative Word of God, these highly literate individuals seek to discover and apply the living Word to their lives every day. According to Barna, their experiences in local churches sometimes enhanced that effort but more often than not they felt frustrated by the their churches’ inability to match practice with profession. As a result, Barna says many of these frustrated Christians are turning to other types of relationships and activities that better express Christ’s call to action. This is especially true among those Barna labels Mosaics (those born between 1984 and 2002). While I don’t have the statistical data Barna does, my own observations and experiences tell me why this is happening.
1. Church is ill-defined and understood by most religious leaders and church members alike. While it is true that Christ’s body reveals itself in local assemblies, the typical local church may or may not be a valid expression. Thomas Campbell said the “church of Christ on earth is essentially, intentionally, and constitutionally one; consisting of all those in every place that profess their faith in Christ and obedience to him in all things according to the scriptures.” Campbell follows this quote from the “Declaration and Address” with the recognition that the church exists in distinct and separate societies – local congregations or gatherings. Barna is right, however, in that there is no specific description given to local congregations in the New Testament. It assumes such assemblies or communities exist in areas described – Rome, Galatia, Corinth, and so on. The only organizational structure discussed is elder oversight and deacon service. New Testament churches met in homes, in the temple court in Jerusalem, or in catacombs; anywhere two or three were together there was the church. It is time for us to take the blinders off and see that Christ’s church is far larger than most of us want to admit. Perhaps in the 21st Century it would be better to think in Kingdom terms rather than church.
2. We’ve encouraged a false idea of worship. For well over a thousand years, the church has focused on specified time segments set apart for coming together for worship. We have “worship services.” Worship isn’t a ritual to be performed; it is a condition of the heart! One of the reasons we’ve had the “music wars” is the fact we tend to identify music with worship. We think worship occurs when we are “singing and making melody in our hearts to the Lord.”
The fact is, there is nothing in the New Testament about a “worship service.” Some take Acts 2:42 as an outline for worship, but it tells us what those early converts in Jerusalem did when they came together. Singing is notably absent!
In another article on this site, I made a case for seeing worship as sacrifice. It is a heart response that presents self to God as a “living sacrifice” and sees all of life as the altar where it is accomplished. You can worship at 10:00 am Sunday morning if your heart is right, but you can also worship at 10:00 am Thursday morning in your work place as you work hard to please the living Christ.
Barna’s revolutionaries apparently understand this compartmentalizing of life into spheres of worship and everyday life is false.
3. We’ve misunderstood the role of professional ministry. In fact, we might have more of a medieval concept than we want to admit. Many of us are certainly afraid that if Barna’s vision is true, we’ll “lose our jobs.” You know what? As a young minister, I thought my responsibility was to “preach myself out of a job.” In fact, I did just that in Anita, Iowa, when I got fired from my first full time ministry. That’s not what I mean by “preaching myself out of a job.” I saw my task as God’s servant to prepare the saints for works of service. I believed that ideally individual believers – the priesthood of all believers – should step up and “be the church.”
Back in those days – the 1960s – we lived in perilous times. The Russian Bear still stalked the earth and the communist threat felt all too real. I believed part of my responsibility was to prepare the church to exist without titled ministers. We thought that if the communists ever took over, biblical preachers would be executed.
Those fears never realized, of course, and the Iron Curtain rusted apart. Let’s face it, though. We are still living in perilous times! It is becoming increasingly fashionable to bash Christians. Barna points out that his research shows that the church hardly impacts our culture. All too many Americans see biblical Christianity as a threat. In addition to the internal stress, there are increasing pressures from those who wield the scimitar (spiritually speaking). Haven’t you noticed the increasing messages from the Muslim world boldly stating the way to end terrorism is for all of us to convert to Islam? A day may come when Christians will go underground. Shouldn’t we be preparing believers to follow Christ without our (the professional ministry) prodding?
I could say much more, but I also want to mention a couple of areas of concern in what Barna outlines in his book.
1. Barna is not consistent in his descriptions. Early in the book, he states that most revolutionaries come out of the Mosaic generation although he would include some Boomers as well. One of the descriptors of the Mosaics is their tendency to reject the idea of absolute truth and elevate tolerance. Later in the book, he describes revolutionaries as those who accept the Bible as absolute authority. I don’t think he can have it both ways. The postmodern stereotype is that all faith systems are seen as viable for the individual. Now I suppose that the revolutionaries could see the Bible as absolute for themselves, but they could hardly live that out consistently if they accepted all other faith systems on equal footing.
2. Barna is very general in his understanding of the revolutionaries’ core beliefs. He says “revolutionaries have a wholly biblical outlook on life, based on the belief that the Bible is God’s perfect and reliable revelation designed to instruct and guide all people. The core beliefs of these Christ-followers relate to the existence, origins, character, and purpose of God; the origins and purpose of people; the need for and means to eternal salvation; the expository and content of moral and spiritual truth; and the existence, powers and role of various spiritual beings …” (p. 88).
All of that is well and good, but most of these revolutionaries will not read the Bible itself to determine their beliefs. They will rely on a lot of printed material available in the popular Christian press. If they would just study God’s Word, and only God’s Word, I would be less concerned. I still think they would need some assistance in understanding the context and backgrounds of each book and author found in the Bible. With the plethora of study Bibles and commentaries “out there,” there is a hodge-podge of theological and heretical material as well. I still believe “the Bible only makes Christians only,” but I’m not so confident of all the other stuff.
So what can we do in the long haul if Barna is right?
1. We must begin to see the place where the assembly meets as a resource center. It is time we returned to a biblical perspective of seeing the gathering of Christians as a time for encouragement and instruction. The elements we generally link to “worship” can be part of that, but those things – the Lord’s Supper, for example – can be done any time any where.
2. We must faithfully fulfill 2 Timothy 2:2. American Christians, those who take so much for granted, need to get a grip not only on the pragmatics but the foundational. Scripture considers a balance of content and application. We must consistently seek new methods and new structures to communicate the meaning and purpose of God’s Word to a new generation. The old message must remain at the center and we must never confuse method with message.
Well, there you have it. Another tome!