If you’re looking for something to treat the agita of lack of vitality or even malaise in your congregation, George Barna has a word for you. But be warned, if your looking for insight into how to maintain the institution of your congregation or denomination, “Revolution” is going to go down more like syrup of ipecac than Pepto Bismol.
Based on his latest research, Barna has good news for the Church. He finds a small but growing cohort of passionate Christ-followers whose goal is to live in the way of Jesus. Driven by a transformational encounter with Christ, these “Revolutionaries” focus on the imitation of Jesus. But there’s bad news for congregations. Thanks to the relational focus of postmodernity, technology that links people across the globe and puts a stunning of resources at their fingertips, impatience with irrelevance and bricks and mortar, many of these Revolutionaries are following their quest outside the bounds of the traditional church.
Barna’s Revolutionaries would include many emerging types, but the phenomenon he observes is broader, including people in and dropping out of mainline and evangelical churches. He seems pretty skeptical of “postmodernism” in general, and lines up more with the segments of the church that are against culture or want to conform it to Christianity than with the sense of embedding within culture that is common to the church that is emerging. But his sense of the revolution as a reaction to civil religion and tepid Christianity, will resonate with many.
“Millions of devout followers of Jesus Christ are repudiating tepid systems and practices of the Christian faith and introducing a wholesale shift in how faith is understood, integrated, and influencing the world. …this revolution of faith is the most significant transition you or I will experience in our lifetime.” (11)Barna’s demographic analysis sounds an alarm for the Church-as-we-know-it. In 2001, his research showed that 70% of adult Christians considered the local congregation their only or primary faith community. A tiny percentage had primary attachment to some other kind of community. But by 2025, Barna writes, just one third will have their primary attachment in a traditional congregation, and a like number will be connected with alternative forms of church. He notes that these forms are still emerging, but already include house churches, informal worship gatherings, small/accountability groups, and service ministries and parachurch organizations.
This shift has been bubbling under the surface for a while. A few years ago I saw this play out in a congregation I was working with. A younger couple, veterans of the corporate transfer life, arrived and began working hard to expand and enhance a budding contemporary worship service. But despite their work the congregation couldn’t move as fast as they were used to, and they faded away. Their zeal to worship and learn more fully couldn’t take a back seat to “the way we do things here.” And in moving away from congregations focused on caring just for themselves, I’ve been part of the shift myself, although I wouldn’t personally identify will all of Barna’s characterizations.
If reality approaches Barna’s numbers, the implications for congregations are staggering. The wholesale rejection of faith as product, perfected by the church-growth megachurches, means their influence will wane. And in the mainline, where many congregations are small and near the brink, the sheer decline in numbers means that many will succumb when a few key families make the break for the Revolution. The majority of ELCA members are lifelong Lutherans, and locally 20% of congregations are growing and 1/3 of congregations are considered “at-risk,” so a shift away from congregations could be devastating – if your goal is survival of the institution as we know it.
From the Revolutionary point of view there is opportunity here for the Church, as a growing number of people who identify with this revolution decide to live and work for the Kingdom of God rather than Sunday morning activities.
“…If we place all our hope in the local church, it is a misplaced hope. … The local church is one mechanism that can be instrumental in bringing us closer to Him and helping us to be more like Him. But, as the research data clearly show, churches are not doing the job. If the local church is the hope of the world, then the world has no hope.” (36)Because the dominant, familiar forms of church today are products of history, not mandated by Scripture, Revolutionaries will feel free to change or dismantle them if they are not helping them pursue a serious, personal relationship with God. “They have no use for churches that play religious games, whether those games are worship services that drone on without the presence of God or ministry programs that bear no spiritual fruit.” (13)
Revolutionaries experience this fruitlessness all around them. In Barna’s research, 8 in 10 Christians say they don’t experience God’s presence in worship, and half say they have not entered into God’s presence in the last year. On average Christians give 3 percent of their income away (and think that’s generous) and just one in four serve others in a given week – usually in church, not out in the community.
In contrast, “The Revolutionary mind-set is simple: Do whatever it takes to get closer to God and to help others do the same. … (T)he Revolution is about recognizing that we are not called to go to church. We are called to be the Church.” (39)
Barna paints a picture of Revolutionaries who are, in emergent-speak, more interested in living into the Kingdom than sin-management. “What makes Revolutionaries so startling is that they are confidently returning to a first-century lifestyle based on faith, goodness, love, generosity, kindness, simplicity, and other values deemed ‘quaint’ by today’s frenetic and morally untethered standards.” (12)
Revolutionaries may be in a church or may not: “What matters is not whom you associate with (i.e., a local church), but who you are.” (29). Formed by the baby boomer’s famous impatience with irrelevance, questing for meaning, and desire for hands-on participation and making a difference, Revolutionaries will be part of a church if it’s producing fruit, and will leave if it’s not. Note that this is not typical consumerism; the focus, Barna says, is not on meeting needs but on zeal for a transforming relationship with God.
Technology allows them unprecedented access to resources for that relationship – sermons, curricula, theology, etc. – so they are not dependent on congregations and pastors to provide them. Individuals will take ownership of their journey from the church, and select resources from a wide base, not just that offered by a congregation or denomination. New leaders and structures will grow up, not to replace institutions but in “providing guidance in the construction of new hearts and minds that produce a thriving Church community.” (106)
“The Revolution of faith that is swelling within the soul of America…will affect you and everyone you know. Every social institution will be affected. This is not simply a movement; it is a full-scale reengineering of the role of faith in personal lives, the religious community, and society at large.” (102) As a result, while some congregations will fight the Revolution, and others will switch to follow its lead, all congregations will feel (are feeling?) pressure to react to this large-scale shift.
So what’s a church to do? Learn from the revolutionaries … and don’t be threatened. Seek ways to add value to the Revolution… bless revolutionaries, don’t judge them. Open your doors, accept what they offer as well as what they take. “Figure out how to create more Revolutionaries among those who are not aligned with the Christian faith community.” (139)
If history is instructive, as in some of the reaction to the emerging church, many church leaders will decide that they have to defeat the Revolution in order to protect the territory they’ve been given. Barna says God wants investment in expanding the Kingdom, not protection.
“The Revolution is not your enemy. Your enemies are spiritual complacency that renders people vulnerable to negative influences and the brittle wineskins that can no longer contain this extraordinary move of God in the hearts of His people.” (139-40)Barna issues a call for congregations and leaders to examine both the torpor in the Church and the values of this Revolution and, like Martin Luther, declare where they stand. It’s certainly not required that all congregations join the Revolution; there will continue to be people for whom this passionate, intense approach is not their chalice of communion wine. However, its clear that some congregations must adapt or die. And if systems of congregations, such as the ELCA, are going to survive, new congregations – or house churches, informal communities, and servant groups – must be born to engage the passions of this fast-growing cohort of Revolutionaries.
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