Students and friends,
Often in our classrooms we recommend book-lists which will enable you to grow on your own, apart from us as professors. This time we would like to take a moment and recommend a “NOT-list.” The first book we will bring to you is the newly released, Revolution, by the skilled-pollster (and amateur theologian) George Barna. Overall, this book is a critique (make that a full-body slam) of the church’s inability to impact the American culture in a positive (i.e., redemptive) manner. Thus, in this book he notes that due to the church’s lack of being an impact player, God must be calling His people outside of the church to utilize their gifts and serve the Lord. Barna now calls these Christians who no longer center their lives around Church “Revolutionaries” and believes they (his count of 20 million of them and growing) are the real future of the manifested body of Christ on earth. Barna also joyously admits that he is now one of them as well.
First, from a biblical standpoint, this text would fail any and all of our exegesis classes. He claims to have studied the scriptures on the subject but there is a glaring lack of any serious reference to what the biblical pattern for the church really involves. It is a wholly invalid process to critique what the church is NOT until he establishes a biblical baseline for what the church IS! This effort, to be of value, must begin with a clear and precise ecclesiology; stating what the Church is, not what Mr. Barna wants it to accomplish.
His practice is to silence the opinions of others with out-of-context proof-texts. Barna (mis)uses God’s Words to Peter, “Do not call something unclean if God has made it clean.” This reference specifically calls Peter to welcome Gentiles into the Church. In no way does it justify one to jettison the church in a wholesale manner or even to re-invent “Church” according to a new paradigm. Moreover, Barna simplifies (trivializes?) the church to be a series of quotes from the Book of Acts. Interestingly, Barna describes his understanding of the church from passages in Acts 2, 4, and 5. But it is worth noting that at that point the Gospel has not even been proclaimed to the Samaritans, God-fearers, or the gentiles. The true nature of servant-hood, forgiveness, and grace has yet to be encountered. Finally, loosely based upon these scriptures, Barna describes the attributes he finds in the early church (what he calls “seven core passions”, pp. 22-25). These are so resoundingly modern in their orientation that they would be unrecognizable to the apostles. Further, Barna writes, “This mission demands single-minded commitment and a disregard for the criticisms of those who lack the same dedication to the cause of Christ. [Can you hear the spiritual arrogance?] You answer to only one Commander-in-Chief, and only you will give an explanation for your choices.” (p. 27). Friends, there is no place in scripture which permits a Christian to function as a lone-ranger apart from the Body. We are called into fellowship not out of it. As I see it, Revolution is essentially autobiographical, not biblical. Barna’s approach is purely phenomenological; the fact that something is happening becomes its own validation. My suggestion to Mr. Barna; this book should have been co-written with a team of scholars who would join together with to utilize Barna’s sociological strength of reporting trends of culture and opinions of society; not interpreting scriptures and evaluating the church’s ability to meet his self-selected criterion for success. But that is the nature of what Barna is calling the future church to look like, not a unified Body but individuals working disconnected from one another and from the “head.”
Second, from a theological perspective, the ecclesiology espoused by Barna is plagued with problems. While Barna declares himself a “revolutionary,” espousing an innovative way of discipleship beyond the local church, he deludes himself. His ecclesiology, with a myopic preoccupation upon individual discipleship and a personal relationship with Christ, simply follows to its logical conclusion a shallow Americanized model of the Church, dominant in contemporary evangelicalism. Ironically, Barna’s stated doctrine of the Church is a product of the evangelical churches he critiques, both of which misunderstand the fundamental nature of the Church, distort the doctrine of grace and the means of grace, and ultimately succumb to Pelegian pragmaticism. As such, his book not only exposes his own inadequate ecclesiology, but highlights the deficiencies of many contemporary evangelical models of the Church.
Fundamentally, Barna sees the Church, the Body of Christ, exclusively as a mystical, spiritual community of “revolutionaries” without any direct relationship to the local church. The Church is a community that Christians spiritually join when they decide to follow Jesus, rather than one into which they are incorporated concretely through baptism and local church discipline. However, membership in the Church, the Body of Christ, is problematic without relationship to the local church. Why? Because as the Reformed, Lutheran, and Wesleyan forms of Protestantism have consistently recognized, along with the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions, the Church is the primary means of God’s saving grace and the Church is expressed concretely in local churches. Local churches are the means by which God’s saving grace in Christ Jesus given to the Church is made available to humanity. Through the preaching of the Word, the due administration of the sacraments, and the community rightly ordered (the marks of the Church), saving, confirming and sanctifying grace is communicated to people. For people to isolate themselves from hearing the scriptures read and the Word of God proclaimed in community, from participation in the sacraments of the Church, and from submitting themselves to the discipline, order and life of the local church is to cut themselves off from the primary means of God’s grace. As such, while a generation of “revolutionaries” may be able to sustain themselves for a period of time, grace capable of sustaining and nourishing Barna’s “revolutionaries” for the long haul, much less succeeding generations, will prove difficult, if not impossible.
In the end, Barna surrenders the biblically and theologically prudent understanding of the Church for an expedient model that ultimately cannot birth, nourish and sustain believers. Dangerously, Barna’s ecclesiology has more in common with the Donatist movement in the third century and Pelegianism in the fifth century than it does in orthodox Christian theology. While these movements flourished in the moment, having great spiritual zeal and fervor, they could not be sustained, and their followers in subsequent generations were left without access to the means of God’s saving and sustaining grace found in the Church.
Finally, from a practical effect (especially among younger people) is to encourage them to drop out of church attendance and practice a do-it-yourself religion. Among ministerial students it encourages them to seek other more exciting venues for their ministry instead of the old fashioned local church. To the laity it legitimizes dropping out of church and going golfing—just so long as they go on a mission’s trip with a Para church organization occasionally and have a neighbor Bible study with a few friends on Tuesday evenings so they can skip church and go golfing on Sunday mornings. The practical effect of the book is to elevate lone ranger religion to which the local church (and obviously districts and denominations) are totally irrelevant.
In pondering this book, it seems to only have come from the pen (laptop?) of a frustrated “boomer.” Moreover, his focus is so modern, western, and individualistic in orientation that it has lost all connections with the biblical times or text. Moreover, it s not global in focus, making it an American Christianity issue, not Kingdom. This is a call to selfish, self-centered Christians who want what they want, want it now, and are not willing to submit to one another. It’s a call to men (predominantly, Eldredge “Wild at Heart” types) who need adventure and an instant-spiritual-gratification spirituality. Faith, forgiveness, perseverance, and body-submission are no where to be seen. Life is measured by pure performance rather than biblical faithfulness.
This is a dangerous book scripturally, theologically and practically—which is why it may be a popular book. Encouraging our people to buy it would be like promoting a book that celebrated pre-marital sex and extra-marital affairs as the wave of the future. People do not need encouragement toward such behaviors. What this book promotes if far more serious than pre-marital or extra-marital sex: it is a dangerous book.
Jointly composed and sincerely Church-men,
Indiana Wesleyan University