Writer Randall Murphree conducted the following interview with George Barna in the context of his current book "Transforming Children Into Spiritual Champions" (Regal Books, 2003). Barna is head of the Barna Research Group which he founded in 1984 to provide data that will help Christian churches be more effective.
Q: You said you're as surprised as anyone else that you have become an advocate for children. Why is that a surprise?
A: Well, you know, I came to faith in Christ when I was in graduate school. I came into the church without understanding a lot of how ministry works. So right from the first day, I pretty much bought into the prevailing notion that the real ministry that takes place in churches is what we do with adults.
Of course, that's verified when you look at church budgets. Where does all the money go? To adults. Who do we hire staff to deal with? Adults. What's the big event of the week? Adult worship. I mean, everything all down the line is all about adults.
Q: What led you to address this problem in "Transforming Children into Spiritual Champions"?
A: For 23 years, I just bought into the assumption without ever challenging it, and I always try to challenge assumptions to see what's right and what's not right. In research, so often one of the keys to unlocking truth is to challenge current assumptions.
And the other reason I feel so bad about it is I like to try to think strategically. One of the things that all this research on children helped me to go back and rethink is, if I were the enemy ... where would I put my energy? Of course it would be with kids.
If you win over a child, you've got him for life. We look at our lives as an act of spiritual warfare, and we serve on one side or the other. I think Satan has been brilliant in terms of [his strategy] in our culture and in our families – and even in our churches, I'm sad to say – so that we minimize the significance of really impacting the lives of young people. We focus instead on people's lives when, for the most part, all their [moral and spiritual] foundations are in place.
Q: If you had 60 seconds to talk to decision makers in the church, what would you say?
A: You've got to be objective in looking at information. There are several things that the information very clearly shows. Number one, the moral foundations of the average American are pretty much put in place (and will not change) by the age of nine.
Secondly, when you look at the spiritual foundations of the typical American, they are pretty much in place before they reach the age of 13. By that I mean, whether they are going to accept Christ as their Lord and Savior, what they believe about the church, whether or not they're going to participate in the church, their perceptions of Scripture.
Thirdly, their theological foundations are in place by age 13. We did a study [with] a big national sample of what 13-year-olds believe and compared it to a sample of teenagers, college students, and adults of all ages. Across the board, what the research very clearly, unequivocally shows is that what you believe by age 13 is, for the most part, what you're going to die believing. That says to me, if you're not going to get them when they're young, you're probably not going to get them.
That is not to discount the capacity of the Holy Spirit. God can do whatever He wants, whenever He wants, with whomever He wants. But if we just look at the evidence, what we find is what we do with adults is for the most part a maintenance ministry. Adults do not change much at all – if at all.
So if you want to have influence, if you want to make a difference in someone's life, it's got to be when they're young.
Q: You contend that every decision is a spiritual decision. Expand on that idea.
A: Every decision that we make, no matter how seemingly small it is, comes back to our perception of truth. Because ultimately it comes back to your worldview, which is based on your perception of what is true what is not true.
So the way that you treat people, the way that you use your resources, the way you perceive any given opportunity in life – every choice you make comes back to what you think life is really about, how truth enters into that, and what the role of God is in all of creation, including that little decision that you're making at the moment.
Everything needs to be consistent with your view of truth, morality, and righteousness. A lot of times we make decisions we think by default. But even our default decisions are based on a tacit perception of what is true or significant or right or meaningful.
Q: What goals do you propose for parents and the church?
A: What I'd love for us to be able to do is to help people, particularly young people – the younger the better – to start seeing that every decision has consequences, every decision matters, every decision comes back to that perception of truth. There are no throw-away decisions, there are no words that you can take back. There are no situations that are insignificant. Every decision matters. There's nothing that takes place without some kind of a larger purpose or connection to something that's incredibly significant.
If we could get people to understand life that way, maybe we wouldn't be so careless in thinking, "Well, this doesn't really matter; this isn't something that's going to have consequences." Everything has consequences at two levels.
One consequence is what happens with us here on earth, but the other consequence is that every choice we make is another stone in the wall in terms of our relationship with God. It's very important that we not take these things for granted, or that we not just close our eyes and say, "That's irrelevant. I'll just do what comes naturally or what feels comfortable."
Q: What is the most important principle you wanted to convey in "Transforming Children"?
A: There's one thing that is so important that came out of the research. I tried to get it across in the book, but I don't know if it worked. That's the importance of families realizing that they are called to be the primary spiritual developers of their children.
It is not a church's job to develop a family's children spiritually. The church is there to support the family, not to replace the family. Yet we've gotten this mind-set in our culture that when it's time to have the children grow spiritually, we'll bring them to the church and let the church do its magic.
This is the fastest selling book I've ever had, which is very encouraging. It means somebody is getting it out there. Now whether or not people deal with it or not, that's a different issue. We're trying [at Barna Research] to do some things related to that.
It is so critical that we not just keep pushing the responsibility off to somebody else and saying, "I don't know what to do about it. I'm not really spiritually together as a parent, so 'Here, you take it. You take the ball and run with it.'" That won't work.
Randall Murphree, a regular contributor to AgapePress, is editor of AFA Journal, a monthly publication of the American Family Association. The Barna Group, Ltd. is a full-service marketing research company located in Ventura, California. TBG has been providing information and analysis regarding cultural trends and the Christian Church since 1984.
© 2004 AgapePress. All rights reserved. Used with permission.