Russell Chandler, Racing Toward 2001: The Forces Shaping America’s Religious Future (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992), 354 pp., cloth. Condensed version available on audio tape.
George Barna, The Frog in the Kettle: What Christians Need To Know About Life in the Year 2000 (Ventura, CA: Regal Books, 1990), 235 pp., cloth.
The impending dawn of a new millenium frames contemporary “future-talk” with a sense of urgency and suddenness. Change is now accepted as a fundamental law of life in Western society, and mortals step back to observe the tidal wave of change with a mixture of fascination, awe, and foreboding.
The church finds itself addressed by new challenges and crises, but also by unprecedented opportunities as well. Journalist Lance Morrow suggests that the 21st century will represent a “cosmic divide” in human history.
That cosmic divide represents the most critical challenge the church has faced in the past two centuries. The pace of change has caught the church off guard, and often without defenses. But ministry requires an effective reading of the times and seasons of life and a keen sense of historical context.
The mega-shifts which frame our contemporary social, economic, and political transformation form the radical and undeniable context for contemporary ministry. Preachers are among the first to recognize the impact of these critical shifts, for they are revealed in the lives of the persons to whom we preach and minister.
Russell Chandler, resident religion specialist at The Los Angeles Times for over eighteen years, has taken a comprehensive look at these issues in Racing Toward 2001, one of the most thorough surveys of social transformation yet published. Chandler writes with an intentional focus on the meaning of these trends and developments for the church.
Chandler writes with an eye for how emerging trends affect the lives of ordinary persons — “pew people,” he calls them. But his books bear enormous insight for “pulpit people” as well.
The project is the work of a journalist, not a theologian or social scientist. Chandler does not rely upon a formalized theoretical framework for the course of his survey. The book reads like a series of well-documented feature articles, held together by common threads and bolstered by an array of authorities, statistics, and citations.
The book begins with a survey of major trends and patterns in emerging American life. If “demography is destiny” in some sense, then Chandler’s survey indicates just how massive the tidal wave of social change now underway will be.
The rise of the baby boom generation, the aging of America, and the emergence of well defined focal groups will bring about radical changes in church life. Like the rest of society, the church must now talk about YUPPIES (young urban professionals), BUPPIES (black urban professionals), and SITCOMS (single income, two children, outrageous mortgages).
Whatever their designation, Americans all feel the impact of fast-paced changes which now occur in economics, the media, high technology, politics, education, and family life. Chandler provides a review of these mega-shifts, providing a bird’s eye view of emerging patterns.
These patterns range from population shifts (from the rust-belt to the sun-belt) to contemporary lifestyles (privatistic, consumer oriented, and focused on leisure). Added to the demographic issues are the conflicts over values and the struggle to define America’s moral fiber.
Each of these patterns represents a challenge to the ministries of a church — and to the effectiveness of the pulpit.
Chandler races through a gauntlet of future trends before turning to explicitly religious issues. But Racing Toward 2001 also includes an interesting survey of America’s emerging religious life as well.
His survey moves from an analysis of mainline Protestant decline to a look at prospects for evangelical expansion. Included in his survey is a look at the development of mega-churches (membership over 2000) and “metachurches” (membership over 10,000).
Chandler also reviews trends and movements among Roman Catholics, African-Americans, and the emerging thrust of non-Christian religions. He also peers into the significance of the New Age movement and, in Robert S. Ellwood’s phrase, the “alternative altars” of American life. These alternative altars are redefining spirituality for millions of Americans, and that new definition is often decidedly non-theistic.
Chandler understands the importance of worldviews, and he acknowledges that the battle over worldviews “is being waged in a cultural supermarket of competing beliefs and philosophies.” He challenges churches to defend the biblical worldview against the claims of the “competing cosmologies” which are now in abundance.
Racing Toward 2001 is not the last word in future-talk, but it is an interesting and well-written overview of current developments. His book comes armed with a warning: “We need to anticipate these new challenges and assess the values implicit in each before they overtake us.”
A similar word comes from George Barna. Unlike Chandler, Barna is a specialist, but his specialty is a newcomer to church life: Barna is a market analyst. His Glendale, California-based research group is billed as “a full-service marketing research company” which has provided analysis for businesses and organizations ranging from VISA and The Disney Channel to Focus on the Family and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.
The basic thrust of Barna’s approach is this: Marketing techniques apply to church life and ministry as well as to business and commerce. With several books and research reports already in publication, Barna has produced two recent volumes which provide fascinating glimpses into the attitudes and lifestyles of contemporary Americans.
In The Frog in the Kettle (an unfortunate but memorable title), Barna provides insight into American life in the 1990s. The news for the church, he acknowledges, is not good. American Christians, he says, “have been mesmerized by the lures of modern culture.”
Barna argues that the 1990s are a pivotal decade in the history of American Christianity. “It is a time in which the Church will either explode with new growth or quietly fade into a colorless thread in the fabric of secular culture…. In this decade, Christianity must prove itself to be real and viable, or become just another spiritual philosophy appearing in the history of mankind.”
Barna knows the American marketplace and has emerged as one of the most popular church growth specialists on today’s scene. His writings reveal both the benefits and the limitations of a market-driven approach to American religion — a tension Barna makes evident in his considerations.
The Frog in the Kettle documents the lifestyle shifts and transformation of values which mark our national landscape. The news is a mixture of good and bad, but the sum total has caught many churches unaware (and unconcerned?) about ministry that is genuinely faithful and effective.
Churches have been slow to realize the loss of Christian knowledge among American citizens — and church members. Barna argues that “while people may use concepts such as ‘sin’ or ‘the Trinity’ in polite conversation, they have little idea how those concepts fit into a deeper spiritual perspective.”
“Thus,” Barna insists, “we cannot assume that when we urge people to pray, they know what it means.”
Stated positively, the 1990s “represent an ideal time for us to reinforce the basic aspects of our faith, emphasizing the application of such knowledge to a new mode of behavior and thought that reflects Jesus.”
The preacher who assumes that the congregation shares a basic understanding of the Christian faith may be “whistling in the dark,” blissfully unaware of how little meaning is shared in the preaching event. But Barna’s research also indicates the opportunity for the church to rediscover its role as teacher of the faith. The answer to a lack of knowledge among the congregation is not to “dumb down” church life in order to meet the lowest common denominator of congregational comprehension. To the contrary, the church must meet the challenge of faithful and effective teaching.
Yet, the nature of congregational life is itself in the midst of change. The consumerist individualism of contemporary Americans leads many to reject the notion of congregational commitment, while considering themselves Christians.
As Barna notes, “the average adult thinks that belonging to a church is good for other people, but represents unnecessary bondage and baggage for himself.” By 2000, less than half of all American adults will be church members.
That lack of commitment mirrors a deeper rejection of absolute truth and the notion of personal obligation to bring lifestyles into alignment with the dictates of revealed religion.
Barna reveals that Americans now cling to a notion of “conditional truth” defined in individualistic terms. Absolute truth, the assertion that truth exists as an objective reality independent of our individual apprehension or acceptance, is rejected out of hand by many citizens. In a later research report, Barna documented this trend, indicating that 67% of Americans reject the concept of absolute truth — including 52% of ‘born again’ Christians.
By means of this research, Barna has rendered a genuine service to the church. The rejection of absolute truth by a majority of Americans and by 52% of those identified as Christians, indicates the depth of our spiritual crisis.
Christianity, unlike some other world religions, requires an acknowledgement of absolute truth. The gospel witnesses to a God who exists, whether we believe in Him or not; who has acted in human history; and who will call all human beings to account, whether or not they acknowledge Him during their earthly lives.”
The church will face no more critical test of its faithfulness in the critical decade of the 1990s than the test of whether or not the people of God will hold fast to the truth-claims of Christian revelation.
Nothing less than the soul of the church is at stake. The church has no choice but to bear witness to the gospel as absolute truth and to confront secular society — and “pew people” — with the truth-claims which God has addressed to us. This commitment to absolute truth is part of the scandal the church is called to bear before a secular society in a post-Christian age.
This is a critical test for the pulpit. Will preachers abdicate their responsibility to preach “the faith once received” in favor of accommodationist messages designed to draw crowds, but dilute convictions?
Neither Chandler nor Barna is a preacher. Their books offer unique and creative surveys of American life, within and without the church. Both authors are stronger on description than prescription, but both have addressed critical issues the church must face.
Preachers will do well to read these two travel-guides to the future, and ponder faithfulness in the present.
Book Notes
George Barna, User-Friendly Churches (Regal Books, 1991), 191 pp., cloth.
George Barna, What Americans Believe (Regal Books, 1991), 309 pp., paper.
Once you’ve finished The Frog in the Kettle (see main review), you may be interested in other recent Barna books. In User-Friendly Churches, Barna discusses the attitudes, approaches, and programs that characterize growing churches today. In What Americans Believe, Barna presents results of a major survey on the values and religious views of Americans — and you won’t like much of what you read. Yet it is important for preachers to understand the mindset of those to whom they preach, and George Barna’s research is helping us do just that. (JMD)

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