The founder and president of Barna Research Group of Ventura, Calif., has often been the bearer of bad news, especially for evangelical and born-again Christians. Three years ago, he raised eyebrows with a study showing that born-again Christians divorced more than non-Christians. This year, he’s reported that only four in 10 adults discuss religious matters during the week, and that tithing is down 62 percent.
An evangelical Christian himself, Mr. Barna’s passion lies in trying to help church leaders build better churches and better Christians – those with what he calls “a biblical worldview.”
In Dallas this week to promote a new book, Think Like Jesus: Make the Right Decision Every Time, Mr. Barna talked with Dallas Morning News Staff Writer Berta Delgado. Here are excerpts.
Question: You started the Barna Research Group in 1984. How did that come about?
Answer: I’d been working with a Christian media management company, for clients who produced television programs, radio shows, magazines. We wanted to help be more effective. I had experience in large market research agencies and political research. I was using the same skills, but changing the focus to the religious realm: What are some things that churches and ministries could do to help people grow in their faith?
After a few years, I felt there was a need for a research company that focused on the Christian community. We started with the intent of providing very focused research for ministers.
Question: What’s your most surprising finding of the last year?
Answer: The research we’ve been doing related to children, and how ineffective our ministry is to young children. We don’t tend to take them very seriously.
They almost come as part of a package deal – churches want to reach adults because they think that’s where the action is. Often, to get to those adults, they have to do something for kids. So they have programs geared to try to make kids feel good about church, so they’ll want to come back.
The difficulty is, you find that 91 out of every 100 born-again adults don’t have a biblical worldview – which really ought to be the foundation of their faith and life. You have to ask, “Well, how do you get to that situation?”
It all starts when you’re young. A person’s moral and spiritual foundation is pretty much set at age 9. But most churches don’t take somebody seriously as a spiritual individual until they’re teenagers – or maybe young adults. And if you wait until that age, basically, it’s too late. Individuals already have a worldview. It’s not a Christian worldview, but they’ve been using it for years. Now, suddenly, the church comes along and says, “Hey, that’s not right. We’ve got to change what you’re thinking.” It’s tough.
Question: So there’s little substance in what kids are being taught in church?
Answer: There are 30 to 35 Bible stories and characters that the typical church will make sure kids are exposed to. Then they beat those stories to death year after year. How many times do you have to hear about Noah and the ark and Moses parting the sea?
Those are good, valuable stories, but the corner we tend not to turn is to ask the “So what?” question. Very few kids know why those stories are important.
Question: Are pastors not providing depth because they don’t want to run off the “seekers” who are new to the faith?
Answer: That brings up another huge issue – how do you define success in a church? Is it numbers? Numbers of people, programs, staff, square feet in your buildings, dollars in the plate? Or is it a more biblical perspective, which is life transformation?
Jesus didn’t die on the cross just so we could fill up buildings and have fun events. He died so people’s lives could be changed, so they would be more like him, more like God, and live in a more holy and proper way.
That’s not always a popular message. It means you have to sacrifice. It means you have to suffer. You have to be very conscious about what you believe and why and how you’re living that out.
I think sometimes we’re not very good about telling people when they come in that it’s not all fun and games, that there’s going to be accountability, there are going to be rules – not our rules, God’s rules – and if you want to be part of this group, you need to live by them.
That’s a hard message for a lot of pastors to give. Frankly, it’s a hard message for a lot of Christians to live out as well.
Question: Do you think most evangelical Christians wear their faith on their sleeves, without having a biblical worldview, as you say?
Answer: In our research we talk about two different groups, evangelicals and born-again Christians. Evangelicals I don’t think we can make the same kind of disparaging remarks about. We find that evangelicals – who are 6 percent of the population – do think differently, do behave differently, and a higher proportion have a biblical worldview.
But the larger group, the foundation on which most churches are trying to build their ministries, is the born-again constituency – about 38 percent of the population. There, the most discouraging thing is the incredible capacity that most born-again Christians have to compartmentalize their faith, to isolate it from the rest of their lives. At church, we tend to be one way, and in the world we may be a different way.
It’s hard to see what difference a person’s faith makes when you actually observe how a born-again Christian lives.
Question: Dallas has many big churches, many well-known pastors. When you talk about the evangelical community or born-again Christians, is Dallas significant?
Answer: I wouldn’t be any harder on Dallas than any other metropolitan area. The key issue is, what are we trying to do? Are we trying to build numbers or are we trying to allow God to transform people?
If that transformation is happening, there ought to be tangible evidence of it. We ought to be able to point to statistics on divorce, abortion, debt, drunkenness, pornography exposure. All these things should be way low, and we don’t see that.
It does raise the question, “So what are we doing?” We know it’s a spiritual battle. We know we’re not going to become perfectly holy people. But we should be able to see some discernable progress.
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