George Barna has devoted his career to researching the attitudes of Americans about religious faith and activities. Through a series of best-selling books, such as The Frog in the Kettle and What Americans Believe, he has communicated the results of his extensive research to church leaders who are struggling with social and demographic change and how those changes impact the church.
Preaching: You do a great deal of research involving surveys of both churched and unchurched people. Can you offer a brief profile of the churched community in the ’90’s, in terms of values and practice, based on your research?
Barna: What you find is that they tend to be older than the national norm. They tend to be slightly less well educated; slightly lower in terms of income levels. Women radically outnumber men in terms of the portion of people who are coming. Values-wise, it is a group of people who, for the most part, are trying to figure out what is the purpose of life, and the reason that they are coming to church is to try to get a grip on meaning, a grip on values that will help them make it through the tough stuff they encounter day to day.
We find this especially with people returning to the church who have been away for a while. They are individuals who are coming because they have families and they perceive that they need help raising those families and inculcating values and moral perspective on the world.
And in many cases, too, what we find is that there are people who are coming to the church because they want to be part of some kind of a community. Interestingly, not necessarily a community of faith, but they are looking to become part of a group of people who understand each other, know each other, can start to build meaningful friendships through that network of relationships. So they are looking in some ways for different things than the church is trying to foster. Nevertheless, there are certainly opportunities to connect with the sense of needs the people have.
What we are also finding is that when you look at the Christian church in America today, it is not as monolithic or as coherent as it used to be. Today, you have essentially a society which is a niched society, and increasingly the churches that people choose to go to are “niche churches” — they are reflecting the sociological divisions that are taking place within the culture itself. It is even very difficult to come up with a single profile. Look at the churches that we have across the country; there is a much greater variety in terms of worship styles, the preaching, the styles of Christian education, the styles of events and types of events — it is much more disparate than it used to be.
Preaching: Do you find that kind of profile is fairly common as you go from the mainline denominations to evangelical churches?
Barna: Actually we found those in mainline churches are older than the evangelicals and independents. And in terms of values, there is a very different kind of approach to how they look at the world. Evangelical non-denominational churches tend to be on the conservative side on issues of public policy and issues of personal morality — not as conservative as some people would suggest, but more toward that end.
I think there are definitely some distinctions, even in terms of willingness to embrace change and openness to new forms of technology, with evangelicals more open to change. Mainline churches, from what we have observed at least, seem to be much more reluctant to try a lot of the new stuff out of fear that it is going to wind up accommodating a culture as opposed to protecting the truth. A lot of the evangelical churches — certainly not all of them, but a lot — are of the opinion that we can use those things to help make the truth relevant — things not relevant, but appearing to be relevant, can be used to provide truth without compromising it, by using those as tools to that end.
Preaching: You talk about the development of the “niche churches.” Does that signal a limited future for the “old First Church” that has tried to minister to the entire community?
Barna: I think “old First Church” is going to grow differently than it has in the past. What used to take place did so because we were such a homogeneous population. You could throw out the shingle and let people know we were in business and pretty much everybody who lived in the community was similar in some key ways. You no longer have that luxury. Now if you’ve got 100,000 people who live in the community, you probably have 100,000 different lifestyles and value systems.
Churches that we’re observing are now identifying a niche. The ones that are growing are identifying a niche of people that they want to target and reach; if others come in from outside that niche, that is fine, but the churches are targeting. And typically what happens is that they attract those niche people; then those individuals reach out to their friends who may be from a related but different niche, thus expanding the boundaries just a little bit. Then those people do the same thing, and the boundaries keep growing. Eventually what you will wind up with is a large church that is reaching a real multitude of niches. It didn’t start out that way; it started out being very focused. It grows because of the network of relationships within the church — yet the style and focus of the church’s ministry remains pretty much targeted to the initial niche group. The churches are still not trying to be all things to all people.
Is the “old First Church” concept dead? No, I don’t think so. I think it can still work, but it does need to be fine tuned, and expectations about growth need to be understood within the context of the twenty-first century. It is a very different type of population we are trying to reach. Organizational dynamics are very different. Leadership styles and responsibilities in many ways are very different. I don’t think “old First Church” is dead, just different.
Preaching: How important are doctrinal and theological beliefs to people today?
Barna: Sadly to say, there is very little interest in doctrine or theology. People are interested in practical solutions to their own personal problems. If you can take theology and apply it to those personal concerns and interests, then suddenly people are interested in it. But if you say, “These are the ten basic principles of your faith that you need to know,” the first question they will ask is “why?” The underlying question to what they ask is, “so what?” They want to know: what does it have to do with me not getting along with my wife, with my kids being brats, with my job being on the line, with my in-laws saying they want to live with me? Help us with those things, they say, and then maybe we will have time to listen to your doctrine.
The dangerous implication of this is to see the depth of people’s spirituality; it is getting more and more shallow. Then again, that comes back to preaching, teaching Christian education, communication. There is a whole different style of communicating in this age and there is a whole different context that has to be given to people to make it practical and meaningful to them. I think if we could show them practical theology, so to speak, there would be a big market for it.
Preaching: What do you think contributes to that kind of attitude?
Barna: I think a lot of it has to do with the public’s overall impression of what takes place in a church when they go there. They come in and they hear music that they don’t hear anyplace else. They see clothing that they don’t see anyplace else. They hear ancient forms of the English language that they don’t hear anywhere else. They see all kinds of rituals and traditions — which may be very rich to those who understand them but most people don’t understand them — and there is no attempt usually to help people understand them.
So they come in and the first impression they have is, “You know, this is some kind of insider’s club that I don’t get. I mean, I guess I am welcome here, but why would I come? It doesn’t make sense to me.”
The second thing that happens is, when we communicate with people frequently, we are again using outdated models. Someone stands up in front of a group of people and talks at them for thirty to forty-five minutes every Sunday, using texts and approaches different than the people are used to hearing. These talks have no apparent relationship, connections or ties to how they communicate with each other the other six and one-half days of the week. Again, the message to them is: this doesn’t have anything to do with me; it is that religious game.
So, I think a lot of that attitude comes from their impression that this is church — that this is how they do stuff here and its probably not going to change, So, there are two options: put up with it or get out. I think that is why many people are getting out.
Preaching: What about the rest of American society in terms of openness to faith? What does your research reflect?
Barna: A growing openness to faith — not to Christianity, but to faith — more than at any time over the past quarter century. People are looking for something beyond themselves. I think the ’80’s was a pivotal decade for America because we kept turning inward. We said we had the solutions to our problems. We thought materialism would do it, selfism would do it; in all kinds of ways we thought we had the answers. Turning inward didn’t work and so now people are asking, “Where do I turn?”
People are reluctant to turn to careers, professionalism, as being the answer. They know materialism isn’t the answer, although they haven’t given up on it. Increasingly what we are finding is that people are saying, “There must be something to this spiritual realm. It worked in the past; we don’t know how. It is a very different culture today, so spiritualism has to work differently than it used to. So let’s try to figure out if there is some way of getting spirituality ingrained in what we are trying to do, to accomplish, and to be.”
The baby buster generation (those born since 1965) is a very spiritually intense generation. A major difference is that it is the first American generation — at least that I can tell — that has ever had a starting point for their spiritual journey that was not Christianity. In the past you started with Christianity, and you probably ended up there. And if you started there but it didn’t work for you, at least you had that Christian experience. Now we increasingly see people under the age of thirty who started in other places — maybe with Eastern mysticism, maybe with the Muslim faith, maybe with Buddhism, or another faith system — and, if their systems don’t work, then they may get around to Christianity. But it is no longer a given that one starts with Christianity and branches out.
Preaching: Any other characteristics of the busters, or “Generation X” as it has been called?
Barna: The typical approaches to getting them involved in ministry, in faith, and in spiritual development don’t work. For instance, in the past you had what I term “hit and run evangelism.” You threw the gospel out there, told people to do it or else — some did it, some didn’t — and then you went on to the next group of people. With this generation, that doesn’t work at all — their composure is very different, their worldview is very different, their relational capacity is very different.
What tends to work best with them — from what we can tell so far — is what I call “Socratic evangelism”; you keep asking questions and making people think through what it is that they say is their perspective until they realize the foolishness of the way they have been perceiving or thinking about things. Eventually they come to a responsible conclusion which they possess because they came to it themselves; you didn’t give it to them and declare: here, take this or else.
The busters are a very discussion-oriented generation, and if you go in and you preach at them and say: this is absolute truth, this is the way to heaven, this is the reality of Jesus Christ, this is the nature of human beings, this is the only way it is; you’ll lose them. What you want to do is bring up the question and say, let’s talk for a while about the nature of truth; what do you believe about truth? Let them put their values on the table and in a non-threatening, non-defensive manner say, “Now that is very interesting. I don’t happen to believe that might be true, but help me understand your point of view. Tell me about that.” Then go back and probe a little bit more on the different descriptions and definitions that they give to you and say, “If that is true, then how does that fit with this other thing that you told me? I am not saying it doesn’t; I just need you to help me understand, how does that work?” Keep the conversation going back and forth.
If that approach is going to work with them, the question is, will the church do it? Right now in America, the Christian church is not poised to engage in that kind of dialogue for several reasons. First, the church in America typically doesn’t make relationships its first priority; it does its speaking act first and, if you accept that, it makes relationship. Second, the approach suggests that we have to have Christians who are willing to engage in dialogue about their faith, which for the most part we don’t. Most people like to learn about faith and then they kind of tuck it away in their hearts. That is not sufficient. Christians have to do something with their faith, other than just have it infiltrate their daily actions.
The third difficulty has to do with being able to articulate our faith. One of the most interesting things we do in our research is to ask people to articulate what they believe and why. It is interesting, but it is extraordinarily depressing, because what I find is that most Christians couldn’t tell you even the basics of their faith: most people didn’t know what is in the Bible; they didn’t know why they supposedly believed what is in the Bible; they weren’t able to explain to other people what is in the Bible; and they couldn’t explain to a buster — or anybody else who doesn’t believe that the Bible is absolute truth — why it is possible that there could be such a thing as absolute truth and that it might be found in Scripture.
I am concerned, gravely concerned, about the future of the church in America because the culture has been changing and, while we cannot accommodate to society’s values, we do need to revisit our methods, which we are not poised to do.
Preaching: Are there some churches out there that are modeling what you describe?
Barna: There are some that are doing it well. But I am of the opinion, having studied a lot of this stuff, that there is no single model that is the right one to follow. For instance, a lot of people would look at Willow Creek Community Church and say, “Boy, what a great model, why can’t all churches be like that?” I used to attend Willow Creek. I love Willow Creek. I think it is one of the great churches on the face of the earth. But I would be horrified if every church in America that was being planted or that underwent some kind of internal renewal tried to become Willow Creek II. Given the kinds of resources, leadership, and community niche of Willow Creek, it would be very inappropriate for another church to emulate it. Willow Creek is one very appropriate model for certain types of ministries, but it is not for all types.
There are other models out there as well which probably aren’t as well known nationally. But frankly, because every community is becoming so heterogeneous, I think it is imperative that we raise up church leaders who are not looking to mimic what other churches are doing, but are willing to go out and study them and try to figure out the principles that can be taken away to help them contextualize without compromise. They should lead without accommodating everybody, and be an authentic church while having some of the idiosyncrasies that reflect the kind of people that we want to reach. It is going to take a lot of creativity, innovation, and courage to make the church go forward in the twenty-first century.
Preaching: A lot has been written about the Baby Boomers, and now we are beginning to see books on the Baby Busters. Could you compare and contrast the two generations, and is it possible for the same church to do an effective job of reaching both?
Barna: It would be very, very difficult for the same church to reach the Boomer and Buster. First of all, there is an animosity between the two generations. Second, their styles of communication are different. Third, the ways in which they define success are different. Fourth, their lifestyles are very different. I have looked at a lot of churches that claim they are reaching both generations and, frankly, when you come right down to it there are at best a handful of churches around the country that are doing it well.
I think you almost have to develop independent congregations, which may be under the same umbrella. It may all be “First Church,” but there is probably a congregation of boomers, a congregation of busters, a congregation of builders, and a congregation of seniors all under that umbrella. The builders and seniors can live with anybody, as long as you don’t play rock music. But the builders and busters really clash — their heroes are different, the kind of information processing skills they have are different, the types of preaching they respond to is different, their willingness to read Scripture is different, even their literacy skills are very different. No, I don’t think that the best approach is to try to build a church that is going to unbridge the gap between the two, unless you have a cause that is going to be so compelling to both generations in your particular community that they will be willing to put aside all their other differences and get behind a cause — a social cause that is going to attract them.
What we have found, though, is that busters also are different from boomers in that they are very much cause-driven, just like the boomers were at the same life-stage. The difference is that busters’ intensity in that cause is much shorter-lived. They will be intense on any given issue that they choose to embrace for about nine to twelve months, and after that it is out of their lives; they are on to something else. And many of the busters get out of the whole cause-driven lifestyle at that point anyway. So, I am not sure that trying to mix the boomers and the busters around a cause is a good tactic for trying to build a church. It is one way of attracting both at the same time; but I am not sure it is good long-term strategy.
Preaching: Given all these different things that are going on with the various generational segments and the characteristics that you’ve dealt with, what kind of counsel do you give to preachers who are trying to understand and minister effectively in the ’90’s? For example, you talked about communication styles; which ones are more effective in the current climate, according to your research?
Barna: In thinking generationally, I would say to somebody who wants to reach the busters: understand first of all that they think differently than every other generation we know. Also, one of the realities of their lives is that they communicate differently and for the church to have a lasting impact and a lasting relationship with them, we need to reflect a sensitivity to that. Thirty-to forty-minute sermons don’t work with busters. Doing a service which does not incorporate video and contemporary music for the most part does not work with busters. Having a church which is not relational and accomplishment-oriented doesn’t work with busters. Busters are terribly relational; they’re looking for that much more so than other people.
Some of the fascinating churches I have visited that are trying to reach busters and are doing so well may have a thirty-minute sermon, which is broken into three segments during the course of the service. You have a ten-minute introduction to the topic, then you have an eight-minute video on that topic. Then the preacher comes back and preaches another ten minutes. Then you have a drama sketch for five to eight minutes, and the service is closed with ten minutes of preaching. That fits their communication style. It fits their attention span. It fits their style of thinking — the “mosaic” style of thinking.
For boomers it is: give me the problem, give me a solution. Busters are not assured that you are ever going to give them the solution. They are much happier with an open-ended sermon where you have raised the issue, where you have given them stuff to chew on, and then you give them opportunities through other forms of the ministry to come back and deal with it. But to stand there and say “here is the problem, here is the solution,” doesn’t work very well with them.
Boomers can sit still for a longer period of time. They can do the twenty to thirty minute sermon; beyond that they tend to get antsy. There is a whole different approach in terms of what they are looking for; they want references, almost a scholarly approach to what they are being given. But I would say the thing that both of these generations have in common has to do with what they see modeled in the life of the person who is teaching. They want somebody who is realistic, who is vulnerable, who is struggling, and who is saying “I have not mastered it, but this is where I am at this point in time and I think this is a useful strategy or perspective. I don’t have it totally together; grow with me.”
You have seen what has happened with some of the media preachers. What we are finding is that while people don’t necessarily hold the behavioral patterns of Jimmy Swaggart, Jim Bakker and the rest of them against the church, there is a sense of skepticism about any one person having it all together and one’s ability to dispense from on high all the truth that another needs to know about any given topic. Increasingly, we just don’t buy that. So in that sense, I think, having the authoritative spell-binder standing up front is anachronistic. Am I depressing you?
What I have started to do, in my books and teaching, is to try to help people understand the underlying principles so they will go out and explore church models. I love for pastors and other church leaders to get out there and see what else is going on. Yet as I talk with pastors, they are so protective of the pulpit that they are afraid to leave four or five times a year to see what other churches are doing — and to experience it. You have to do that.
Try to convince me that GM doesn’t buy at least one model of every Ford or Toyota and Nissan that comes out so they can tear it apart and inquire how they are doing. Of course they do that! Nabisco does the same thing with every product that comes out of General Mills and General Foods. We have to do the same thing; not because we are in competition, but because we want to learn, we want to explore, we want to really experience what else God could be doing through us. It is an educational process.

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About The Author

Michael Duduit is the founding publisher and editor of Preaching magazine. He is also the founding Dean of the new College of Christian Studies and Professor of Christian Ministry at Anderson University in Anderson, South Carolina. Michael is author and editor of several books, including the Handbook of Contemporary Preaching (Broadman & Holman Press), Joy in Ministry (Baker Books), Preaching With Power (Baker) and Communicate With Power (Baker). From 1996 until 2000 he served as editor of the Abingdon Preaching Annual series. His email newsletter, PreachingNow, is read each week by more than 40,000 pastors and church leaders in the U.S. and around the world. He is founder and director of the National Conference on Preaching and the International Congress on Preaching, which has been held in 1997 at Westminster Chapel in London, 2002 at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, and 2007at Cambridge. He has been a pastor and associate pastor, has served a number of churches as interim pastor, and speaks regularly for churches, colleges and conferences.

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