The Barnabas Ministry
Book Review


Revolution
By George Barna (Tyndale House Publishers, Carol Stream, IL. 2005.)

Revolution is about the trend of more and more Christians to move outside of the walls of the institutional church in expressing and living out their faith. Barna shows this following chart, indicating survey results and projections to the question of the "Primary means of spiritual experience and expression (p. 49) for people in 2000 and 2025."

year
local church
alternative faith-based community
family
media, arts, culture
2000
70%
5%
5%
20%
2025
30-35%
30-35%
5%
30-35%

The point of the chart is to show that the local church is and will be waning, and alternative faith-based communities (such as house churches) will be picking up most of the slack. This is the crux of the "revolution" Barna is talking about, and t
he book is directed mostly towards leaders in the institutional church in defense of the legitimacy of this new generation of "unchurched' people.

In a chapter entitled "What Does God Expect," Barna defines seven "passions" that supposedly characterized the early church, mostly taken from passages in Acts 2-5 (p. 22ff):
  1. Intimate worship
  2. Faith-based conversations
  3. Intentional Spiritual Growth
  4. Servanthood
  5. Resource Investment
  6. Spiritual Friendships
  7. Family Faith
In subsequent chapters he describes how these are areas where the institutional church often fails, but they are (surprise, surprise) supposedly at the core of the "revolutionaries" approach to faith. Barna backs up these observations with survey data showing that the most mature and involved Christians in institutional churches don't really measure up with these ideals.

So to Barna, the "revolution" is that some Christians are eager to be all that "God expects" and they are shaking off the institutional church in pursuit of giving God "what he expects:"

They have no use for churches that play religious games, whether those games are worship services that drone on without the presence of God or ministry programs that bear no spiritual fruit. Revolutionaries eschew ministries that compromise or soft sell our sinful nature to expand organizational turf. They refuse to follow people in ministry leadership positions who cast a personal vision rather than God's, who seek popularity rather than the proclamation of truth in their public statements, or who are more concerned about their own legacy than that of Jesus Christ (p. 13-14).

Though post-modernism has quite a bit to do with this "revolution" phenomenon, Barna doesn't spend much effect going into that side of it. Maybe that's because citing any post-modern influence might make the revolutionaries seem like apostates in the eyes of his intended audience, which is leaders of institutional churches. Thus, he focuses on the things that revolutionaries are doing that would impress leaders of institutional churches.


To his credit, Barna argues that this whole "revolution" is a good thing. He talks about how mini-movements through the ages have often called the larger church back to its core values and mission. Barna recognizes that this revolution can be (and is) of God because of its fruit.

He closes by discussing how the institutional church and especially its leaders can respond to this trend-- they can fight the revolution or they can embrace it. The institutional church can realize that they are making revolutionaries and will eventually lose them because the institutional church can't contain the spirit of the revolutionary. Or they can fight the trend, either cramming all "faithful" Christians into the local church model that has become the standard in American Christianity, or withdrawing the blessing of the local church from all who leave it in pursuit of what they consider to be God's plans for their lives.

Barna then describes the reactions of two different real-life pastors to the revolution. One praises God for it, recognizes God working in it, and is at peace with it, even if it means his attendance and budget numbers drop and the size of his ministry decreases. He even realizes he can create revolutionaries on purpose. The other pastor rejects it and asserts the primacy of the local church over all things spiritual.

I had a few problems with the book, but in the overall context these are relatively small matters. For example, Barna tends to present revolutionary Christians as some sort of "super-Christians" who are delivering on "what God expects." This is troubling on several fronts. Expressing ideal Christian behavior as a minimum expectation is law-based, and we all ought to know what law-keeping gets you (in case you don't know, the answer is death). Barna presents revolutionaries as basically better fruit-producers (i.e. law-keepers) than the people who are part of the institutional church. I think revolutionaries want to reach the ideals of the Christian faith. But they want them through grace and God's working, not through law-keeping, man's programs and trying to generate "fruit" with ulterior motives like justifying themselves or making their approach look better that everybody else's.

It seems like Barna did this to justify the existence of revolutionaries to his target audience. But it reminded me of how the first black major league baseball players had to be really good, not just average. For that matter, the first documented Gentile convert to Christianity had to be a great, God-fearing person. Only later could "average" black ballplayers play in the big leagues, only later could "average" Gentles become Christians. If that's the case, most of us "average" revolutionary Christians are a generation away from being accepted and the revolution isn't nearly as thorough as it needs to be. I hope this isn't the case!

I also had a problem with Barna's epistemology. For instance, he used the old "get back to the early church" and "Jesus was a ____" (in this case, "Jesus was a revolutionary") tactics. I've grown quite weary of people reading their agendas (even if I may agree with much of their agenda) into the biblical discussions of Jesus and the early church, and then (surprise!) they show how Jesus and the early church did just what they think we should do now. He did this with his "seven passions" I cited above, and he also did it with this
idealistic definition of the revolutionaries:

... they are confidently returning to a first-century lifestyle based on faith, goodness, generosity, kindness, simplicity, and other values deemed "quaint" by today's frenetic and morally untethered standards. (p. 12).

I've also grown weary of these sort of distorted, idealized presentations of the lifestyle of first-century Christians. The first-century church had its share of adulterers, idolators, liars, moochers and egomaniacs, and virtuous living is hardly confined to that age. Why Barna sticks a "first-century" label on biblical virtues doesn't make any sense to me.

If anyone is pursuing this lifestyle, it's because that is what is left when you strip away all of the institutional church baloney that revolutionaries have grown weary of.
Furthermore, these traits aren't just written off by the world as Barna suggests; they're often written off by the institutional church. Who needs goodness and integrity when the building is full, the worship band is rockin' and the leader has the best program around?

Barna also makes the common error of assuming that Christians can only express their faith in some "spiritual" endeavor. They can also express their faith in their careers, their families, their communities and their daily lives. Revolutionaries typically want more of a holistic approach to life instead of the compartmentalized approach that the program-driven, institutional church seems to have conditioned us to have. (The interested reader can take a look at this review of Your Work Matters to God for more discussion on this topic.)

Revolution also had far more non-sequiters and unfounded conclusions than I was expecting. Some parts of the book just seemed to ramble on as Barna waxed eloquently about this or that ideal but lacked purpose, punch and cohesion.


Barna's presentation of the revolutionary left some big things out as far as I'm concerned. But again, after reading through the entire book and thinking about it, I came to understand Barna wasn't writing to "would-be revolutionaries" (he actually used that phrase once) but to church leaders in the institutional church. Once I settled on this, the book made more sense and I was more willing to cut Barna some slack on these things that I found irritating. But if you want to know why revolutionaries are revolutionaries, you might want to consider the Barnabas Ministry article, "Why I'm a "Revolutionary." "

The book tries to educate church leaders about the new generation of "unchurched" Christians who are sick of being in program-driven institutional church systems and have ventured into "alternative faith-based groups." I hope he succeeds at this goal, but am concerned that his seeming failure to comprehend and express why revolutionaries are leaving institutional churches and his portrayal of revolutionaries as super-Christians doesn't really help achieve that goal.

R
evolutionaries looking for a road map for where they are going won't find it here. In fact, I'm afraid they will find they are being measured by the same performance-based mentality that made them want to leave the institutional church in the first place. For the person considering the "revolutionary" choice, a great book to help with that decision is Brian Sanders' "Life After Church." 

Copyright © 2007 John Engler. All rights reserved.

Send a letter to the editor concerning this article