Editor's Note: AgapePress writer Randall Murphree recently interviewed pollster/researcher George Barna on his ministry, the state of the church in America today, and Barna's latest books. Barna, whose keen eye has been following and reporting on trends in Christianity and culture for years, says the postmodern Church has some frustrating issues to deal with, but Christians must never forget that they serve the God of the impossible.
AgapePress: How did you get into polling and research?
George Barna: I originally got involved in doing research by managing political campaigns. I enjoyed doing that, but it's kind of a burnout profession.
After a few years of that, I decided I needed to specialize in something, and I realized that the two areas I really enjoyed were speech writing and polling. I went back to graduate school and while there, I became a Christian. I came out and started working with a market research firm that was primarily doing media-related research in Los Angeles.
So, I was a new Christian working at one of the ten largest market research firms in the country. One day a Christian media development company came in. They were producing programs and doing the marketing for a whole group of televangelists.
They had meetings with our executives, but they were all Jewish and had no idea what these Christian guys were talking about. Finally, my boss said, "Hey, wait a minute, that new kid, that Barna guy – he said he's a Christian. Bring him in here, maybe he can translate."
That client, because they saw a Christian, said, "Oh, good. You guys take this work. We want this Barna guy working on it." That was my first foray into religious-oriented research.
AP: How was the Barna Group born? Was it a "calling?"
GB: Well, you know, a lot of times, you have a calling and you don't know it. That was my situation. Eventually, that [televangelists'] media management company, which was based back in Wheaton, Illinois, hired me. I moved out to Wheaton and worked there for a few years. I had been a Christian for five or six years, working with ministries like Billy Graham, Navigators, Youth for Christ, and World Relief. This was really expanding my horizons and opening my eyes quickly.
While I was doing this work for the Christian ministries, I was thinking, "Man, this is what it's about. This is having an impact on people for eternity."
My wife and I spent time praying about our future, and we felt like the Lord was saying to us, "Even if you leave this place, My people are still going to need an organization to provide them with data, information about what's going on in the world and how they can be more effective."
So we came back to California and started Barna Research in 1984. The Lord has been incredibly gracious to us. In retrospect, just from a business perspective, it was really kind of dumb because we had no money, no clients, no reputation, nothing.
AP: How hard was it to be a start-up company in that field?
GB: There we were, living in LA. My wife was working two jobs to pay the bills. I was trying to start this company not really knowing what I was doing. Then, within our first month of business, the vice president of marketing research at the Disney channel called.
It was a woman I had worked with at the big firm where I started out. She said, "Hey, I'm the new VP of research, and I just finished interviewing all the different research companies that we work with, and I learned one thing about all of them – I can't trust any of them. The one thing I know about you is you've got integrity. I can trust you. Would you like to do some work for the Disney channel?"
Wow! When God answers prayer, He answers in a big way. The irony is, you look at Disney today, and they're on the "other side" of the battle lines from us in most cases. That's kind of how we started – made money off Disney. That allowed us to build up the company. Eventually, we left Disney just to focus on the ministry aspects [of research].
AP: How do you hope the church will use your information?
GB: We understand God's vision for our company to be that we're to provide strategic intelligence so that churches can make better ministry decisions.
What is the church supposed to be about? Transformation. What we want to see is our information coming out in bite-sized, affordable pieces on focused aspects of ministry that churches, parachurch ministries and Christian individuals can take and immediately convert into practical, strategic action that results in lives being transformed for Christ.
AP: What is your greatest frustration with the Body of Christ in America today?
GB: I think it's that we are so distracted from our faith that, when people make decisions, the faith aspect of their life generally doesn't even influence the decisions that are being made. That's the frustration with individuals. We have become so acculturated that we lose sight of the fact that we are to be spiritual people first.
This whole thing on worldview [highlighted in Think Like Jesus] is partly a reaction to that, the fact that when people are making decisions they don't go back and try to figure out, "How would Jesus think about this situation? What kinds of alternatives would He consider? What are the choices He might make?" That's our best clue of how to make a good choice.
When we talk about churches, the institutional church, organized religion – the frustration for me is that, for the most part we have well-intentioned, highly educated individuals who are committed to ministry, but are not leaders who are trying to lead the church. So, again, we've got bad decisions being made with the best of intentions. But they result in ineffective outcomes because, for the most part, we've got people [trying to lead] whom God has called to teach, or preach or counsel or do other good, godly important ministry tasks.
But there's a very big difference between being a leader and a teacher. There's a huge difference between being a leader and an administrator, a leader and a counselor, a leader and a shepherd. These are different kinds of gifts. So the frustration for me is that a lot of what we provide to try to help leaders think more strategically doesn't really hit home. It doesn't make sense to a lot of pastors because that's not who God made them to be, so they're trying to do something God hasn't called them to do. And we all suffer as a result.
AP: What are the best products you've put out? The best books?
GB: "The Power of Vision" I think is an important book. "Think Like Jesus" is a very important book. Actually the most recent one I've written is starting wildfires all over the place. I'm really excited about what the Lord is doing with it. It's called "Transforming Children into Spiritual Champions." Everybody was shocked that it's selling so well. We've got churches ordering case after case.
The whole thesis of the book is – let me just give you three quick points on that, based on our research. Number one, a person's moral development in America these days is pretty much completed by the age of nine. Number two, the major spiritual decisions that Americans make are generally made by the age of 13. And number three, when you look at what people believe, we found out that pretty much what you believe by the age of 13 is what you will die believing.
If you don't get to kids before they reach their teenage years, the world owns them. Just looking at the statistical averages, the chances of winning them to the Lord and having them become devoted disciples of Christ are really slim. It's not impossible, of course, because we still serve the God of the impossible.
George Barna is founder of the Barna Research Group (www.barna.org) in Ventura, California. The marketing research firm specializes in primary research for Christian ministries and non-profit organizations.
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Click here to read an excerpt from "Think Like Jesus."