Tuesday, 4 August 2020  

The Church and the Mosaic Generation

George Barna is the president of the Barna Research Group, Ltd., a marketing research firm located in Ventura, California. To date, Barna has written more than two dozen books about ministry, the culture and church dynamics. Included among them are bestsellers such as The Frog in the Kettle, The Second Coming of the Church, User-Friendly Churches, The Power of Vision and Marketing the Church. His recent books include Growing True Disciples, and Boiling Point. Free subscriptions to The Barna Update are available via e-mail. Sign up at www.Barna.org.

Many people know Barna from his intensive seminars for church leaders that are produced by Barna Research and based on original research. He is a popular speaker at ministry conferences around the world and has taught at several universities and seminaries. He has served as a pastor of a large, multicultural church and has been involved in several church plants. He is currently participating in the startup of a national church association for innovative churches.

He has served on several boards of directors, including Compassion International, Evangelicals for Social Action and the Wagner Institute for Practical Leadership. He is the founding director of The Barna Institute, a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing strategic information to ministries.

We met with him at his office in Ventura, California, the day after the fall of Kabul in Afghanistan, and it provoked our first question.

HOMILETICS: Since 9/11, has the country found religion?

BARNA: Whenever you go through a period of suffering or something that causes great fear, there tends to be a period of time where people look for something that will give them stability and consistency. So what we saw was that for the immediate month after the attacks, people were pondering the existence of God, the character of God, the role of the church, how faith fits into their lives. There was a brief spike in church attendance, but since that time it's come back down — we're about two months out now — and we're pretty much back to pre-attack levels in just about everything.

HOMILETICS: You talk about "turnaround churches." If this experience isn't an instrument to turn around churches then —

BARNA: The whole research we did on turnaround churches had to do with congregations that had been strong at one point and then pretty much fell apart and then had a particular catalytic activity or series of events take place that enabled that congregation to be strong again. One of the necessary components is that those churches brought in a new individual to be their primary leader, and that individual is not just a preacher-teacher — not that that's bad, we need those — but that the individual who came in to spearhead that ministry was first and foremost a leader. This is one of the driving difficulties we have in most churches in America today. We have good people who are well-educated, good-intentioned and called to ministry, but they are not for the most part leaders. They are teachers, preachers, counselors, they have good skills, and they certainly have spiritual gifts and they can help people, but they can't lead.

HOMILETICS: So where do they get that leadership gene?

BARNA: God. It's something you're born with. I've studied leaders for 20 years now in thousands and thousands of interviews —

HOMILETICS: So what does a church do that doesn't have a leader?

BARNA: Get one! Get one. The whole model we're suggesting that we've seen work in churches well is a leadership-based model that uses a team approach rather than expecting the dynamic, charismatic superstar to be the answer to everyone's problems and needs. The difficulty is that we've got a few extraordinary cases in this country where we have leaders who are so phenomenal that it appears they've been able to pull it off. But they're the aberration. Unfortunately we look at them, we have conferences, we talk about them and what they've done, and we say "That's the norm! Why don't we all do that?" Well, God didn't call us to do that. He's called each of us to lead a little bit differently. We need to figure out, "What is my leadership capacity or aptitude?" and we would argue that there are four different leadership aptitudes, and you need to understand which one you have if you're truly a leader and then surround yourself with a team of leaders who possess those other aptitudes so that you're covering all the bases, you're complementing each other's activities rather than simply duplicating them, and you're really focusing on the vision that God has for your church's ministry.

HOMILETICS: How important is the preaching component in the turnaround phenomenon?

BARNA: It's huge. But it's huge only if that preaching is followed up with authentic discipleship. Simply throwing good information at people is what we've been doing in America for years and years now. We have tens of thousands of great teachers and preachers in America. I don't think the issue is "How can we find more good teachers and preachers of God's word?" We have a lot of those. The difficulty is — and we hear this in our research — is when people walk out of the service and we ask them, "What did you get out of that experience?" and they say, "Well, I got a few good tidbits." We've got to do a lot better than give people a few good tidbits. Part of that issue is helping people to connect the dots with the bigger picture. Where are we taking this thing?
What we know, because we just finished a study on this a few days ago, is that the vast majority of people when they make their decisions never consider what their faith has to say about that situation, particularly what the Bible has to say about it. Instead, what they look at is: What do people expect me to do? What have I done in the past that didn't get me into trouble? What would be easiest to do right now? So those become the limiting decision-making factors that we turn to. Instead, what we have to be doing is to be thinking over a three-to five-year period of time "How can I expose people to all the elements that Scripture gives us to us that would help us to understand what it means to truly be a Christian?" Not to just understand what it means to be a Christian, but to truly be a Christian, to act like a Christian. When we look at the values, lifestyles, the moral perspective and behaviors of Christians, we can see that there's virtually no difference between Christians and non-Christians.

HOMILETICS: But do we really want to know what it means to act like a Christian?

BARNA: There are a couple of things that go into that. One of them is that we're happy to take the label of Christian and not have to deal with the responsibility. Part of that is because of an absence of leadership in churches. You see, most of the churches in America have no God-given vision that they're centered on. And so what do we wind up doing? We revert to playing the religious game. Let's have more programs, let's get more people in the seats, let's build a bunch of buildings — all the things about which the world would say, "Ah, that's success." This has nothing to do with God's equation of "Are you holy? Are you obedient? Are you serving? Do you want to be like Christ?" So we've missed the boat there. We've got to have the leadership component.
Secondly, people have to see it modeled. A lot of educational research has come out in the last five to seven years that shows that 60 — 70 percent of the behavioral change that takes place in a people's lives in America is based upon finding someone that they know, and that they trust, watching what they do, and imitating their behavior. So modeling is huge. Where in the church do we see this being modeled for us by high-profile, trustworthy, credible individuals? So this is another missing component.
Then, we could get into the whole discussion about the family. Is there such a thing as a Christian family? We know that less than 10 percent of all Christian families ever spend time studying the Bible and praying together. Less than 10%. So what does that mean? It means that most Christian families are saying to the local church, "Here are my kids. You deal with them and I'll do my best to get them there next week. That's my contribution." So that's not enough.
Then we need to look at the whole element of "What is it that actually influences people's thinking and behavior?" This is the focus of the research we're doing right now. I don't know the ultimate answers. But the preliminary insights would suggest that when we look at the major sources of influence in people's lives, the church is not on the list. The major ones are movies, television, the Internet, publishing, public policy officials, parents and —

HOMILETICS: The church only makes that list when there's a bombing.

BARNA: Even then, it only makes it for a few weeks.

HOMILETICS: When people do want to get reconnected with the church, what are they looking for?

BARNA: What are they looking for? Are we talking 9/11 or —

HOMILETICS: — Pre-attack levels. They walk through the door to check it out, what are they scouting for? [pauses to check tape recorder]

BARNA: Make sure you get all this heresy down — [laughter]

HOMILETICS: That's right!

BARNA: Generally, what people are looking for is a place where they will feel comfortable, a place where they feel like they fit in and relate to other people in a significant way, a place where their children will have a positive experience, and a place where they will get some information that will help them lead a more productive life.

HOMILETICS: In many communities, the megachurches evidently provide what people are looking for. Do you think that is going to continue to happen, or are people looking for smaller communities in which to connect?

BARNA: I don't think the megachurch is the church of the future in America. We still have a lot of them, and they'll continue to have a lot of influence in the church community, but what we're seeing already is a move away from the large religious venues to the more mid-sized kind of places where it's easier for people to make some of those connections and feel like they're really adding value to what's really taking place through that ministry. They're not so overwhelmed by the size so much. Not true of all people, of course, but there seems to be a move toward that.
And then, as we look at this youngest generation, the mosaic generation —

HOMILETICS: Why do you call it the mosaic generation?

BARNA: Whole parcel of reasons. Their thinking style is nonlinear, tends to be mosaic, eclectic in fashion, their lifestyle in terms of how they put together their agendas, their priorities, again is very nonlinear, the nature of their relationships is mosaic in the sense that not only do they have a constantly changing tribe of friends, but it's also much more multicultural in nature than we've seen in prior generations. Their theological perspectives are very idiosyncratic —

HOMILETICS: — syncretistic no doubt, too.

BARNA: Absolutely. Very much.

HOMILETICS: So when we look at the mosaic generation, in terms of what they're looking for, you were saying before I rudely interrupted you —

BARNA: What we're finding with the mosaics is that, first of all, they're hard to get a handle on, they're so contradictory in nature. You look at them and you see one thing, and what you see is not what you get. Right now their participation is not driven by spiritual opportunity, it's driven by relational opportunity and desiring experiences with their relational tribe. If the tribe happens to be there, that's where they check it out, that's where they do what they do, but they're not saying, "Wow, church is a great addition to my life; I need to keep this in mind for the future."

What they do want for the future, they're not thinking about the traditional forms of the church, they're thinking, "If I'm going to have some kind of spiritual interaction, it's going to be in some smaller units, maybe with some of the people I work with, hanging out at lunch and dealing with spiritual stuff. Maybe it's going to be more of a familial or family-oriented spiritual endeavor, maybe it's going to be more of a tribal endeavor where 5, 10, 15 of my closest friends we'll get together on an irregular, unpredictable basis, we'll talk about spiritual things." I think, probably to a much greater extent than anyone is expecting, that generation is going to reshape what the church looks like in the future.

HOMILETICS: But isn't that generation going to change as it grows older? This is the way they function now, but —

BARNA: That's not the same. There are all kinds of change. One of them has to do with life cycles.

But we've got to remember that this group of people does not come into the game with the same set of presuppositions that we did. So given that they don't believe in just one God, given that they don't believe that one faith is the true or appropriate faith, given that they don't believe that there is any such thing as absolute moral truth, given that they do believe in absolute freedom of lifestyle and choice — you put all that and a lot of other things together and their question is not "What church will I go to when I am living independently?" but "Why would I go to church when I'm living independently?"

HOMILETICS: Do you see any way in which the church should be more responsive to the culture?

BARNA: I think the first thing we've got to do is not so much look at culture, but look at God's vision for the nature of the church that allegedly we as leaders are leading. We found that fewer than one in five Protestant churches in America have a sense of what God's vision for its ministry is. In my bolder days, I might even question, "Did God call these churches into existence, or did we do our demographic studies and decide ÔOur denomination doesn't have a church here. We need to have a presence here.'"

HOMILETICS: But isn't that a function of the pastor's theological vision?

BARNA: I don't care what a pastor's theological vision is. I care about what God's vision is for that pastor's life.

HOMILETICS: Right, I understand that. But if you have a church like you were talking about — fewer than one out of five have no sense of what God's vision is for them in that place — doesn't that say something about pastoral leadership in that context?

BARNA: Yes, and what it says is what I was indicating before: these people aren't leaders. A leader is driven by a vision; a teacher is driven by an audience who can be affected by information.

HOMILETICS: Ooh. I like that. Cool!

BARNA: [laughs] Well, it is and it isn't. It's cool to know it, it's harder to see it in practice in 97 percent of our churches. Again, it's not to put down teachers and preachers. Leaders need those individuals working along side them to help make things work theologically and spiritually, in terms of what we're trying to do as the church. We've come up with this awful idea that if you're the primary leader of the church, you must also be the primary teacher. The reality is that those are very different gifts, very different ways of thinking, different ways of spending your time, take a different kind of temperament. Now, great leaders are great communicators, but they're not necessarily going to spend all their time preaching sermons, teaching Sunday school classes and leading small groups and those kinds of things. Really, what they need to do is to partner with those whom God has brought to that ministry whose primary love and skill and gifting are in the area of teaching and preaching — and work as a team.

HOMILETICS: What you do reminds me of the radiologist who's just taken an X-ray and is holding it up to the light to see what's there. When you hold up that X-ray of the church, are you pessimistic, optimistic?

BARNA: There are a number of really great churches in America today. There are literally millions of individuals who love Christ with their whole body, heart, soul and strength. But in terms of where are we going? If we continue down the same path that we're going down now, the final frame of the movie is not a pretty picture. I mean, ultimately God wins, and his cause prevails. But getting to that point, we've radically lost our way. So unless we're willing to go back and significantly rethink what we're doing and why we're doing it, there's not an awful lot of hope of authentic Christianity surviving in America.

HOMILETICS: That seems such a strange prognosis from you. When you look at many evangelical churches, so many are booming.

BARNA: Numbers. But so what? You're not measuring just numbers. That's irrelevant.

HOMILETICS: But for many churches, especially mainline, it's not irrelevant. Many are in survival mode.

BARNA: But that's not the issue here. The issue that needs to be addressed is, "Why has God called you here?" I don't care if you're mainline, evangelical, charismatic, fundamentalist — we all have to struggle with the same underlying fundamental issues of what is the church supposed to be about. I can show you a bunch of churches that are small and are much healthier churches than some of the megachurches that we've studied which are growing by 20 percent, 25 percent, but so what?

HOMILETICS: So what impresses you then? We have this mega Twist-and-Shout Revival Center that is doing everything, and you're not impressed. What impresses you? [voice rising]

BARNA: [Calmly, not responding to this outburst] What impresses me is when I find people in a church who are living their lives around the notion that we exist for one reason and that is to know, love and serve God with all our heart, mind, strength and soul.
When I find people who don't just think of Sunday morning as the time to worship God but who look at every moment of their waking life as an opportunity to somehow worship and praise God, that their life is an act of worship —
When I find individuals who are willing to sacrifice some of their own joys and pleasures and resources to serve people who through no fault of their own have nothing in life, or certainly a lot less and they need help and they need encouragement and support —
When I look at individuals who want to a part of a community of faith that's encouraging each other, that's holding each other accountable, that's really serious about showing the world an alternative to the stuff that others are saying constitutes success —
That's what impresses me! When I find churches of people like that, and who have a leader who says, "You know what? That's our focus. And my job as a leader here in this church is to make sure that I'm not only holding you to that perspective, but empowering you or enabling you to achieve that by providing whatever resources it's going to take, by providing whatever encouragement it's going take to be that kind of body.

HOMILETICS: Are brand names important anymore?

BARNA: No. With a small segment of the population they are. But we find that for most people the brand is irrelevant. At the outer fringes, you have maybe 15 percent of the population for whom that brand name is very important in a positive way. And there's another 15 percent for whom the brand name is very important but in a negative way, so those groups sort of cancel each other out. The majority of the people are somewhere in the middle. They're looking for the substance of the church, rather than the title.

HOMILETICS: We've got to wrap this up. I was thinking of all the hats you wear: pollster, researcher, author, church leader, husband, parent. By the way, ever meet George Gallup? Influence your work?

BARNA: George is great.

HOMILETICS: When I was a student in Princeton, I was —

BARNA: — I grew up in Princeton.

HOMILETICS: Really? I was at the seminary, and once was hitchhiking back into town and he picked me up —

BARNA: No way!

HOMILETICS: — and we had a great conversation. Very interested in what I was doing. Gracious man.

BARNA: A great guy. I probably spent more time in the seminary gym playing basketball than most seminarians.

HOMILETICS: You studied there, too?

BARNA: No, we just broke in [laughter].

HOMILETICS: Do you like to think of yourself as a pollster? Sort of mundane. What's your contribution to the kingdom?

BARNA: Well, again, as a leader, it goes back to what's the vision God has for my life. And I would describe it as trying to be a catalyst for a moral and spiritual revolution in America. So the Barna Research Group is one part of what we do to facilitate that revolution. But my role is more akin to that of a prophet, causing people to rethink what we're doing and why we're doing it, and what are we really called by God to be doing. Not to be saying "Hey I don't like what you're doing," but just to hold up the mirror and say, "Here's what it looks like. Is this what you want it to look like? When you stand before a holy, righteous, omnipotent God are you going to say ÔI'm really proud of this? I really poured my life into looking like this?' Is that the portrait you want?" So in that sense I'm trying to be a part of a team of leaders within the church to make sure that the church people experience is the authentic, biblical Christian church and not the comfortable, cultural Christian church.

HOMILETICS: Our last interview that we did was with Terry Mattingly, who writes a religious column for Scripps-Howard syndicate, and he's got this Mennonite beard thing going [Barna starts laughing], although he's Orthodox. What's with the scruffy look? Been sleeping in the office overnight?

BARNA: I'm in book-writing mode. I've got two books I've got to finish before December 20, and I just got started. My daughters keep saying, "Daddy, get rid of it, get rid of it! It scratches!"



George Barna



Other Homiletics Interviews:

Preaching Is an Incarnational Event
Richard Ward

Jesus and the Consumerist Culture
Tyler Wigg Stevenson

Taking God to Work
David Miller

Why Things Are the Way They Are
Paul Shepherd

Let’s Try to Keep the China on the Table
N.T. Wright

Stitching Together the Patchwork Family®
Barbara Carnal

Praying with Body and Soul
Jane Vennard

The Competent Pastor
Ron Sisk

Being Christian in the 21st Century
Marcus Borg

Lectio Cinema
Rose Pacatte, FSP

Getting Things Done
David Allen

Bored in a Culture of Entertainment
Richard Winter

Building “Mobility” Into the Craft of Preaching
David Buttrick

A Generous, not Suspicious, Orthodoxy
Brian McLaren

From Worship Service to Gathering
Ken Medema

The Middle East: The Absence of Hope
Imam Ibrahim Kazerooni

Bonhoeffer: The Truthful Witness
Stanley Hauerwas

The Church: From Postal to E-mail
Spencer Burke

The Church in an Emerging Digital Culture
M. Rex Miller

Jesus Has a Lot of Explaining to Do!
Randy Cohen

The Art of Biblical Storytelling
Dennis Dewey

Flowers in the Desert
Kathleen Norris

The “Taming” of Religion in America
Alan Wolfe

What Younger Evangelicals Want—and Are Getting!
Robert E. Webber

Leaders: Build a Church You Would Want to Go To
Larry Osborne

Does Prayer Change Things? Yes, if you're an Open Theist
Clark H. Pinnock

Keeping the World from Getting Worse
Jean Bethke Elshtain

If you get the congregation to God, sit down!
Thomas H. Troeger

The Gospel is personal, but never private
Jim Wallis

God Is Not My Buddy
Kenneth L. Woodward

Worship in the Digital Age
Len Wilson and Jason Moore

Preaching and the Arts
Catherine Kapikian and Laura Wyke

The Virtual Church of the Blind Chihuahua
John A.H. Futterman

A Blind Man's View from Mount Everest
Erik Weihenmayer

We're Taking Communion at the Mall
Terry Mattingly

The Church and the Mosaic Generation
George Barna