Is the Next 'Revolution' the Demise of the Local Church?
- Tuesday, February 14, 2006
Barna wants to identify the Church at the "macro" level as the universal fellowship of all believers. But the local church--representing the "micro" dimension of institutional church life, is more often an impediment to spiritual growth, in his view, than a means of shaping Christians into authentic discipleship.
We must remember that Barna is a market researcher and not a theologian. Still, he has ventured into this territory and risks making sweeping theological statements that simply will not bear closer scrutiny. He implies that the Bible reveals no normative ecclesiology and that local churches, as known today, are simply "abiblical"--not addressed in the Bible at all.
He argues: "The Bible does not rigidly define the corporate practices, rituals, or structures that must be embraced in order to have a proper church. It does, however, offer direction regarding the importance and integration of fundamental spiritual disciplines into one's life."
That is true up to a point, of course. It is true that today's pattern of church organization with publications, youth ministries, gymnasiums, and church buildings is not drawn directly from the New Testament. Of all persons, a marketer should understand this reality very well, since he is best positioned to understand how the challenges of the modern world have been met with organizational responses at the local church level.
What George Barna misses is the big picture of New Testament ecclesiology--a picture that identifies congregational life as the very means whereby believers are shaped into Christlikeness and Christian maturity through the ministry of the Word, the fellowship of the saints, and the normative patterns of church life. Barna's Revolutionaries may be involved on spiritual quests that have added dimensions of meaning to their lives, but what they lack is the accountability, deployment, mutuality, and koinonia of the local church as envisioned in the New Testament.
Only the briefest of glances at the New Testament, looking particularly at the book of Acts and at the various letters to the churches, would reveal the centrality of preaching, discipline, congregational fellowship, and the central practices of baptism and the Lord's Supper. Barna offers genuine insight when he points to the larger cultural trends of generational transition, the rise of a new view of life, dissatisfaction with irrelevant structures, the impact of technology, the importance of genuine personal relationships, direct participation in reality, and the quest for deeper meaning. Still, one must wonder about Barna's nearly complete lack of nuance. What are we to make of Barna's claim that "Jesus Christ is the focal point of the life of every Christian Revolutionary today. It is His call to revolutionary living that beckons us and guides us on this path?" Are the Revolutionaries never wrong? Beyond this, Barna's definition of spiritual transformation seems amazingly superficial. "Spiritual transformation is any significant and lasting transition in your life wherein you switch from one substantial perspective or practice to something wholly different that genuinely alters you at a very basic level," he writes. That's all?
He points to a cluster of what he calls "spiritual mini-movements" as indicative of where the Revolutionaries are at work. These mini-movements are, he argues, reshaping the shape of Christianity in America, from the emergence of cyber-churches and house churches to a new emphasis upon family and home-schooling.
Part of the problem undoubtedly lies in Barna's marketing approach to the church. A look through Barna's many books--all widely read and helpful in understanding larger cultural trends--reveals that he has never articulated anything close to a New Testament vision of the local church.
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