Book Details

Discerning Reader Editorial Review

Reviewed 09/11/2007 by Mark Tubbs.

Not Recommended. Yet another book that undermines the foundation for the church.

Pollsters are the new prophets. At least, that’s what George Barna would have you believe. From his plinth atop the Barna Empire (comprising BarnaBooks, BarnaFilms and the ubiquitous Barna Research Group, among other entities), for the best part of thirty years George Barna has surveyed the American Church and many of the local churches that comprise the national Church, consistently finding it severely wanting. In this volume, Barna frames his perception of the character of the newest and most “successful” type of Christian (enter the ‘Revolutionary’), while taking aim at naysayers who continue to hold to the biblical model of the Church.

By mentioning Barna’s various ventures, I have begun with the content of the latter pages of Revolution. The end of this book is as good a place to begin reviewing as any, since Barna concludes with a relentless stream of admonitions issued against those who would question the Revolution. Appealing to the prognostic success of his 1990 book Frog in a Kettle, Barna warns his readers and critics to ignore the information contained in his latest book at their peril. As I learned in literary criticism class, when a writer or narrator goes to great and obvious pains to remove doubt from the reader’s mind, the possibility of the narrator’s unreliability skyrockets. Suffice to say my unreliability gauge was set on ‘high’ while skimming these pages. While other reviewers have taken Barna to task for his propensity to wield percentages as biblical truth, and others yet have chronicled Barna’s succession as high priest of the church growth/seeker-sensitive/market-driven movement, this review will focus almost entirely on the actual contents of the book.

Revolution rises and falls on Barna’s stunted and anemic ecclesiology. In fact, I would go so far as to say it does great violence against the doctrine of the Church – not that Barna will prevail against the local church. He paints an acceptable, even encouraging, picture of Revolutionaries (those that ascribe to the amorphous tenets of the alleged Revolution) “choosing to grow outside” the bounds of a local congregation, thereby creating a “personal ‘church’ of the individual.” He seems to be oblivious to the dangers of Revolutionaries entering and exiting churches at will: “They may wish to plug into your faith community for limited periods of time.” He puts the onus on the congregation to “give and take”, to choose between being “open or closed”, and not to judge the Revolutionaries for their transience. What Barna fails to realize is that sudden departures leave a tear in the tissue of the Body that cannot be remedied by a simple, heartfelt “Oh, let him go, he’s a Revolutionary. Thank you, Lord, for the Revolution.”

As a reviewer elsewhere has put it, one of the most fundamental elements of being in a church family is that you don't get to pick your relatives (echoing Tim Keller). In my experience, it is brushing up against these people whom I wouldn’t normally pursue as friends that sharpens and sanctifies me most. Many walls of pride had to fall before I realized God’s kindness in placing me in a body with diverse individuals of all temperaments and levels of spiritual growth. As such, a congregation is a place of positive discomfort, and that’s the way God intended it to be.

Rather than exhibiting biblical attitudes like Paul (Romans 9:1-4), Barna places the felt needs of the individual above that of the body of Christ, demonstrating elitist tendencies among Revolutionaries. The prevalence of “self-this” and “self-that” in the book is just one indicator of this inclination. Earlier (remember, we are reviewing backwards), Barna asserts, “Your capacity to connect with God intimately and, therefore, to follow through on the challenges posed by the cause of Christ is inextricably bound to your self-image.” All this flies in the face of Christ’s injunction to ‘deny yourself.’

Countless other wrong, odd or just plain awkward statements abound:

“Revolutionaries’ complete and total surrender to Him and His cause is the essence of eternal victory.” No, the essence of eternal victory is Christ crucified.

“More often than not, [Revolutionaries] resort to departing from a local church in order to foster [a Godward] focus.” In other words, they leave the family of God in order to know the Father better? They draw near to God by neglecting to meet with His people (Heb. 10:25)?

“If a person is able to live a godly life outside of a congregation-based faith, then that, too is good.” A godly life lived outside the church is a contradiction in terms, according to Scripture.

“When the word church appears in the Bible, it refers to people who are ‘called out’ from society to be the full expression of Jesus Christ on earth. This reminds me of what being a Revolutionary is all about: rejecting the norms and paying the cost to stand apart from the crowd to honor God.” Here Barna equates being called out of the world to being called out of a non-Revolutionary church; this is a faulty exercise in exegesis, to say the least.

“Amazingly, we have been invited to be His partners in developing and advancing His Creation – minority partners, certainly; not so much peers as associates – and as such we can take heart in the fact that we matter to God.” (emphasis in the original). Apart from the business-ese that characterizes Barna’s writing and the theological stretch from undeserving co-heirs (Titus 3:7) to ‘associates’, this sentence is awash with man-centeredness.

Jesus’ “self-worth was not based on His own performance; it was based on how faithfully He did the will of God and operated in the power of the Spirit.” The ‘self-worth’ of Jesus (emphatically not one of the attributes of Christ) is a cultural anachronism at best.

And now we come to the beginning of the book, headlined by its catchphrase: “Millions of believers have moved beyond the established church…and chosen to be the church instead.” This type of statement assumes ownership of the church by the people, for the people. But Christ is the head of the Church, and He has chosen how He has built it: “On this rock I will build [or ‘establish’] my church…” (Matthew 16:18). The irony is striking.

Revolution must be taken to task for one other recurring issue, that of Barna’s understanding of the atonement. If his understanding of ecclesiology is anemic and stunted, then his doctrine of the atonement is at least incomplete. Consider the following statements, none of which get at the heart of Christ’s death on the Cross: Christ died to repudiate going with the flow; Christ died because He was loving, good, compassionate, wise, humble and gracious; Christ died so we can die to self, pick up our crosses, and follow the way of the Master; Christ died for a Revolutionary life agenda. All of these items have varying elements of truth, but when we attempt to communicate the main reason Christ died, we must be clear: Christ died to restore and reconcile His chosen people to His Father, for His glory. This is the centerpiece of the Gospel, and Barna never gets even close to articulating it. Any less is unjust to Christ himself.

Revolution isn’t rotten through and through. At various points in the book, solid doctrine perks up its beautiful head. For almost an entire page, Barna iterates the gospel responsibilities of the true Christian:

  • Each member is personally responsible for his or her spiritual state
  • Complaints against leaderships disappear from the conversation
  • Performing acts of community service
  • Growing one’s family in faith maturity
  • Worshiping God regularly and developing intimacy with God
  • Understanding and applying the content of the Scriptures
  • Representing the Kingdom in all walks of life

Barna portrays these as lost ideals from the first century, but one wonders what rock Barna has been hiding under. There has always been a faithful remnant within the Church, dedicated to these ideals. The Puritans, the Huguenots, and the Victorians are just a few of the communities who used every day and every breath of their lives to the glory of God.

To be fair, there are other bright spots:

“The hallmarks of the Church that Jesus died for are clear, based on Scripture: your profession of faith in Christ must be supported by a lifestyle that provides irrefutable evidence of your complete devotion to Jesus.”

“What matters most is that each of us, working together as a community of people in love with Christ, does whatever we can to advance God’s kingdom. I need to please God. I need to teach and lead people in how to do that. I don’t need credit, I don’t need public recognition, I don’t need job security.”

“Absolute moral and spiritual truth exists, is knowable, and is intended for my life; it is accessible through the Bible.”

“The Kingdom of God is not about buildings and programs.”

Despite these refreshing statements of orthodoxy, Barna remains the progenitor of the market-driven church he now despises. Lumping all local churches into the category of outdated, outmoded and worn out, is dismissive and ignorant of God’s design for His Church. To quote Mark Twain, whose pithy sayings will long outlast those of Barna, recent reports of the local church’s demise are greatly exaggerated.