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George Barna's Revolution: A Review

Right - George Barna's book “Revolution” arrived a few days ago - advance copy - thanks David Robinson - and I have read it a few times. Its not a large book at all - light, short, to the point, and unfortunately lacking in references to other books or researchers. More cul-de-sac than connection-hub. But what he says could indeed be considered revolutionary, it certainly is a change of strategy for him, and it will be for many ministers and leaders who read the book. Especially the part about followers of Jesus who progress spiritually WITHOUT going to a local congregation - a group of people that will grow from 30% to around 70% in the next 20 years, making the FRINGE Christians the MAJORITY, and giving churches a good reason to rethink the next building program, and Seminaries to rethink their aggressive recruiting strategies.
Well, actually, those repercussions are mine, not Barna's. But his book informed them. And Barna does a good job in softening the blow to the traditional church with gentleness and honor, while at the same time giving a case for the necessity of other forms (housechurch/simplechurch, cyberchurch, family-faith, emergent, postmodern, mini-movements, etc).

I met George Barna only once. He spoke at a Seminary I was studying at in 1988 and I helped him get back to the airport. I was a huge fan of his books (User Friendly Churches, The Frog in the Kettle) and of the man. I even considered going into research at the time, but decided to be a practitioner instead. Anyway - I have always liked and respected the man. And now that he has confessed the lack of progress in the last 20 years and is naming some of the trends that are close to me, I like him even more.

I will get straight to what I believe is the heart of the book. The revolution George speaks of involves a radical shift from the local church being the primary spiritual caretaker of believers in USA to other emerging forms of church having equal allegiance. Barna names 4 ways that Americans will experience and express their faith and how that will change . .. ohhh heck - let me do a chart that mimics the chart in the book . . . I know you older people like charts. Gimme a minute here . . . Forgive me George if I am breaking protocol . . .

[Ok -  please leave the chart here - don't go viral on it. Its just a conversation piece until you can buy the book. And the final copy might not have these exact numbers.]

Barna's book, in my opinion, is an attempt to explain these numbers, the cultural trends that are influencing this trend, the possibility of having a spiritual life without the congregation, and the kind of people who will lead this radical upheaval. He calls them 'revolutionaries'. And many of them are currently kids.

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I don't think this is news for the emerging church people already involved in house church, internet based church, nu-monaticism and other forms - we can see these changes already, and many writers and researches have already said it. But it is very helpful when the “most quoted person in the Christian Church today” names it, publishes his findings in a book categorized under “Emerging Church” and puts a few numbers behind what he is saying.

And Its helpful to have an American say it also since most of the other voices are coming from other countries. And none of those researchers have painted such a clear scenario for the future.

As for me, I have no problem at all with Barna's numbers, both present and future. And I have to confess an element of delight that he would put this in print.

- Great to see him use the word “aggregation” - a word I have been substituting for 'congregation' since last year.

- Great to see him talk about family faith experience as a holistic model of church. I hope the number will be greater than 5% when we get to 2025.

But I would differ on two small points in his book, neither one worth squabbling over:

1. I don't see these changes as rising primarily from key individuals, as in past revolutions, but rather from the emergent behavior of a much smarter, better equipped demographic. Small, invisible increments of change across the board, from a mass of people empowered to make changes. Evolutionary, more than revolutionary. And it may be congenial rather than abrupt and radical.

2. It wont be as rigidly defined. The expressions of our faith will be more modular than singular. A higher level of fluidity between the 4 forms will make the boxes less rigid and much harder to identify. Even as I write this in 2005, the spiritual life of my family is equally spread between the four means of expression, without any of them taking the primary role.

But I have to voice my disagreements, lest people accuse me of being a giddy Barna fan, which might be somewhat true.

Conclusion: The book is tight, concise and offers a realistic future scenario that leaders need to read. But it is very small (think of one man behind a desk talking to himself), it avoids the global conversation that could inform and reinforce it, and unless it gets beefed up before the final edit, it lacks a decent bibliography - which is why i have recommended some books at the end of this post.

I would recommend it as a first base book for those wondering what the emerging church is all about, and for those trying to explain these new forms of church to their superiors and are looking for someone recognizable and authoritative to quote. Those looking to get to second base in these new emerging forms will need to go much further.

Other Reviews
David Robinson
Jason Clark

Related Reading 
You might have to wait a month or two before you get your copy of Revolution [you poor sods!] but in the meantime, there are other books and resources that will round out your experience.

- The most obvious book that will no doubt  rise up on the long tail of Barna's Revolution is Kiwi Alan Jamieson's  A Churchess Faith. I was with him last year in London at Jason's church. Alan's research and description of this transitional journey is the best yet, despite his book having the cheesiest cover in the history of publishing.

- James Thwaites “The Curch Beyond the Congregation” helps Aussies explore their spirituality outside the confines of the local church and suggests a Hebraic way of thinking to match it.

- Robert Wuthnow did an excellent research in USA, published in All In Sync: How Music and Art are Revitalizing American Religion (see my review in Christianity Today) Wuthnow saw the writing on the wall but did not see it as a positive thing. “The idea of spirituality being pursued outside of organized religion is both plausible and worrisome.” Still his research unearthed some similar results to Barna's, in particular the reality of Americans expressing their faith in contexts outside the church and it forms not often acknowledged by the church (cooking, traveling, etc)
- For those in UK, Peter Brierley's research has uncovered similar trends in UK, although more entrenched. Peter told me that he believes there are more believers outside the church structure in UK than inside.
- Patrick Johnstone's “The Church is Bigger Than You Think” also looks at models outside the dominant ecclesiastic structure.

For those of you too cheap to buy a book or too impatient to wait, there are internet resources:
- Andrew Careaga on Barna's Cyberchurch prediction (1998) is a good start.
- Reinhold Scharnowski, DAWN Europe, wrote about  Christians Without Churches.

- Wolfgang Simson's “Houses That Change The World” is a perenial. Download here.

- In my Post-Modern Time Capsule, 2001, I said that two of the significant developments were: (6) Churchless believers got more vocal. and (9) the House Churches got more organized.

- My Gripes About House Church is a few years old but still kicking.

-  I might be mistaken, but Peter Caldor's research and National Life Survey in Australia is focused inside congregational life. Although I did come across this recently -  Emerging Church Research in Australia

Lots more but I have to go. More later on this week. What are your initial thoughts?

UPDATE: Jan 2008 - Check out George's new book where he takes this further - Pagan Christianity?