George Barna is touting a new book called Revolution. Kevin Miller’s recent review in Christianity Today provides a brief summary and an excellent critique. The revolution Barna write about involves a trend Barna has observed in his work: young believers walking away from the church to pursue more intimate and personally satisfying experiences of God. Barna is apparently passionate about the Church in the universal sense, but has come to see the local body as superfluous.
The article noted that Barna used to be something of an apologist for the megachurch and mass-marketed consumer Christianity. The writer notes the apparent irony in Barna’s new stance that questions the validity or necessity of the local church and even champions a church-less Christian life as a step forward. Perhaps he has carried the pragmatic, consumer orientation to its logical conclusion – individualized spirituality that resembles the “Have it your way” mentality that pervades our culture. I suppose that can happen when you pay more attention to surveys than to biblical theology. (Did I say that out loud?)
If you will pardon me a brief philosophical excursis, it is almost as if Barna is advocating a spiritual version of Rousseau’s myth of the Noble Savage. For Rousseau, of course, the myth (now strong in the popular mind) was that the “natural man,” unfettered by the shackles of civiliation and technology, lived in a state of natural purity and goodness. Civilization, however, brings with it bondage, degradation, self-interest, and all sorts of other vices. (Many who disparage the work of missionaries in primitive cultures buy into this idea.) Barna seems to have a similarly romantic image of the “Noble Christian Savage,” unfettered by the trappings of dry institutionalism, empty tradition, and other vices that often beset American evangelicalism. Of course it is ironic in that many of Barna’s books aimed to help churches market themselves to the consumer culture.
I share the concern that the Church and evangelicalism in general has become too institutionalized. But the answer is not to walk away from churches. The challenge, rather, is to recover a biblical vision for the church and the centrality of Christian community in the believer’s life. Our culture may seek spirituality without religion or, more likely without responsibility. Many Christians apparently seek the same, and George Barna wants to give it to them. But that’s not real Christianity. Real Christianity is not an individual affair, but participation in a community, a family, a kingdom. It is, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes so powerfully, a “life together.”
(Matt Hall has some nice thoughts on the subject. )