any of you are probably familiar with George Barna. For years, church leaders turned to Barna’s research polls as a barometer of the culture around them and within their own churches. Many of the church growth principles that drove the megachurch model since the late 80’s and early 90’s found their support in Barna’s statistics.
Unfortunately (in the minds of some), Barna’s focus in recent years on the ways in which the institutional church is failing, along with his controversial book Revolution, has meant that he is no longer a welcome voice to many church leaders. I have been disappointed over the past year to see my prediction back in February come true.
I tend to feel, however, that any criticism of Barna amounts to “shooting the messenger”. After all, we can’t decide that we like polls only when they reflect what we want to see! I don’t personally believe that Barna has anything to gain by bringing bad news. In fact, from what I can gather, it has severely affected (in a negative way), his bottom line. (I tried unsuccessfully to locate the article where Barna described the severe downsizing that his organization went through about a year ago. If I find it, I’ll update this post with a link to it.)
Anyway, I say all of that to lead up to discussing a finding that Barna published earlier this year. It was brought back to my attention in a recent roundup of discoveries from 2006 that the Barna Group released this week. In that summary document, the following statement is found:
Evaluating spiritual maturity remains an elusive process for clergy as well as individuals. Across the nation, the only measure of spiritual health used by at least half of all pastors was the extent of volunteer activity or ministry involvement.
The more detailed analysis is found in this January, 2006 article on Barna’s website. It appears that pastors tend to think their congregants are deeply spiritual, but people themselves differ in their responses about their own spiritual commitment. In trying to understand this discrepancy, Barna describes the characteristics that pastors often use to judge the spiritual commitment of “their people”:
Overall, only one measure — how many people are involved in some form of church-related volunteer activity or ministry effort — was listed by at least half of all pastors (54%) as a measure of the spiritual health of their congregation. Only two other criteria — church attendance and some type of life change experience (usually meaning that a person has made a first-time commitment to Jesus Christ as their savior) were named as important criteria by more than one out of every seven pastors. (Each of these criteria was listed by 45% of all pastors.) Other top-rated standards were whether congregants were involved in evangelism (13%), how much new information or knowledge about Christianity the people received (10%), how much money was donated to the church (10%), and the comments made by congregants to the pastor (10%).
I’ve linked to the article above, so you can read it in its entirety, if you wish, but this paragraph is very telling. Many times on this blog, I have mentioned that I feel like the institutional version of church tends to put barriers in the way of believers actually growing and maturing. I don’t believe these barriers are intentional in any way! However, I keep coming back to this idea that it is next to impossible for someone to actually “pastor” large groups of people (i.e., anything over about 20) because that person can’t possibly know the spiritual condition of the people he is “pastoring”.
This report from Barna seems to support my ideas a bit from the standpoint that it shows that the way church leaders measure spiritual condition is severely flawed in and of itself. Notice the criteria that topped the list: involvement in church-related activities. While involvement in activities of the church may be the result of a spiritual passion, the reality is that those activities can easily be carried out without much in the way of spiritual depth in an individual.
Some of my commenters in the past have felt like I was being a bit too hard on the institutional church by seeing it as largely failing at its task. I don’t wish to overly emphasize the negative things that I have seen in my own experience, but I do think there’s something to be asked here. If Barna’s numbers are accurate, what does that tell us? I think that it tells us that the church is going to continue to “miss the point” if it evaluates spiritual commitment and passion based on a checklist of external actions.
And that is really the position I continue to hold. I don’t think that anyone inside the institutional church is seriously trying to miss the point. At least that is true for the vast majority, in my opinion. After all, “it’s always been done this way”, right? But I do think that, by and large, we continue to miss the point.
If we are to be making disciples, as Jesus told us to do, then we need to be aware of what a disciple looks like. We need to have some kind of relational sense of where someone is in their progress as a disciple. And I don’t think that can be measured solely by looking at attendance records, giving records, or even amount of involvement within the institution itself. Nor can it be measured from a distance.
Until next time,