The following is my interview with George Barna about “one” of his most recent books — well, may two actually…keep reading.
READERS:Make sure to leave comments/questions in the dialogue box at the end of the interview…
George Barna – Bio excerpt below from The Barna Group
After graduating summa cum laude from Boston College, Barna earned two Master’s degrees from Rutgers University. At Rutgers, he was awarded the Eagleton Fellowship. He also received a doctorate from Dallas Baptist University. He lives with his wife (Nancy) and their three daughters (Samantha, Corban, Christine) in southern California. He enjoys reading novels, watching movies, playing guitar, and relaxing on the beach.
Questions from Bill Dahl are in red. George’s responses are in this color.
Here we go:
1. How are you and your family? Any major strategic initiatives on the horizon for 2011 in your professional life?
A: Life is good, God is better. Like many families, we have our ups and downs. Our children all have health issues, so that produces various forms of stress and hardship but we do our best to work and pray through that. If nothing else, those challenges keep us looking to God for strength and wisdom – which is an under appreciated gift in itself! Generally, though, we’re fine. When you have the opportunity to travel to countries where people are challenged in so many ways, where they lack the opportunities and blessings we take for granted, it puts things into perspective. We can whine about the high cost of health care and other daily challenges, but we are blessed to live in a country where great medical care, among other things, is available.
As for strategic initiatives, this year we launched the Maximum Faith Project, which focuses on my research concerning how God transforms people’s lives. I think it’s perhaps the most significant research I’ve ever done. 2012 will entail more emphasis on getting that information in people’s hands to facilitate more people experiencing all that God has in mind for them.
2. “Changing one life at a time” is a theme of your book. Yet, mass-production of disciples seems to be the dominant model in North America. How do leaders facilitate this change in their respective community of believers?
A: In some ways the mass-production model is another reflection of the American Church accommodating the culture. Americans are fed – and blindly accept – the notion that success is based on bigger, better, faster. I think a more biblical understanding of success is about deeper, simpler, truer. So perhaps the shift in our disciple-making strategy needs to start with how we define success. In a church setting, success is not about higher attendance, bigger budgets, expanded programs, hiring additional staff, or building out more square footage. Jesus didn’t die for any of those things. He died for us to invite Him to completely transform our lives, moving from sinners infatuated with the ways of the world to forgiven followers of Christ who live only to honor and obey God and pursue His agenda.
Metrics are a critical part of this discussion. Most churches measure some outcomes, but often they are irrelevant outcomes. What we measure is important because you get what you measure. If you measure attendance you’re going to focus on becoming a megachurch. If you focus on budget, you’ll emphasize tithing and budgeting. If you measure program availability, you’ll be focused on the breadth of offerings, sufficient staffing, adequate attendance in each program, and the like. We won’t actually begin to approximate the biblical Church until we begin measuring indicators of transformation. The best way to do that is to evaluate the increase in the fruit emanating from people’s lives.
The central message from Maximum Faith addresses this challenge. That research shows that there is a ten-stop journey God moves through with us. The purpose of the journey is to enable us to become lovers of God and other people. Life, in that sense, is all about our relationships. So how do we change the current programmatic emphasis in churches? Redefine success and facilitate behavior and experiences around what’s important. We have to place less emphasis upon irrelevant measures and instead focus on the things that represent irrefutable evidence that God is at work in a person’s life. To get there we need to focus on coaching individuals in how to grow from one stop on the journey to the next, rather than simply winning the attendance award and graduating from another program. The bottom line is about who we are becoming rather than what we have achieved or what we know. The goal is holiness, Christ-likeness, wholeness – not churchliness or wall-to-wall religious activity.
3. In the early part of the book Futurecast, you speak about the new degree of uncertainty and the deterioration in hope and optimism (in the U.S.) – These conditions typically cause human beings to go into survival mode…the foxhole posture – vs. embracing new forms of behavior that focus on the needs of others (“your desire and ability to bless people”(p.25). “The inconsistency between how people see themselves and how they behave” (p.12) has become more pronounced. What can leaders do to make people aware of this “disconnect” and initiate change to bridge the gap?
A: Our behaviors reflect our beliefs. Four out of five adults call themselves as Christian, yet less than one out of five identify first and foremost as Christian in their mind and heart. Two out of three adults claim to be spiritual, yet barely one out of ten says their faith is the most important component in their life. For the millions of Americans for whom being a Christian is a statement of religious preference rather than the essence of their identity, despair and pessimism is a reasonable perspective. In that frame of mind, this world matters more than anything, and their own performance on this planet is of paramount importance to shaping their identity, their well-being, and their hope. A devoted follower of Jesus, however, lives for His purposes and sees this life within a bigger frame of reference. Such an individual understands the imperfections of this world and our lives, and instead places their hope in the eternal future with God.
Leaders have the opportunity to help people shift their life emphasis from accomplishments in this life to investments in the life that will occur after they die. This speaks to how individuals define purpose and success in life. Most Americans, including born again individuals, do not possess a biblical worldview so they behave in ways that suggest what we experience here on earth is the sum total of reality, with a helping of fire insurance thrown in for safety. Helping people to adjust their frame of reference is critical.
Developing a biblical worldview is more critical now than it has been at any time since we’ve been alive. With secular perspectives becoming more pervasive, even within the church body, making such a worldview practical and integrated into the fabric of their being is crucial. That requires a substantial change in how most families, schools, churches and Christian organizations teach people and help them remain accountable for the things they say they believe. It’s also vital that we do this more effectively among children, since that’s when our worldview forms and it’s difficult to change after it has been formed and embraced.
4. Much of the research you cite involves the issue of the “belief in opposites.” It appeared to me that this is the source of where the “hypocrisy” label hung on Christians comes from? Can you elaborate?
A: A lot of the confusion I describe in Futurecast is not so much new as it is now more widespread and touches a broader range of life dimensions. Examples of the confusion and resulting contradictions abound. For instance, people maintain that marriage is important yet they have become accepting of cohabitation and divorce. Most Americans claim they are deeply concerned about the moral decline in the US, yet their own moral values are slipping. People bemoan the loss of the common good yet they pursue personal advantage and benefit whenever possible. Born again Christians say that they have been saved by Jesus yet a large percentage also says there are ways to eternal salvation apart from Jesus. Tens of millions of adults still pursue knowledge but only trust experience. It is increasingly common for people to demand respect, yet they act with incivility toward others. People extol the virtues of tolerance, but harbor islands of intolerance in their life. Most adults emphasize the importance of good parenting but treat their opportunity to invest consistently in their children as a secondary responsibility. You get the drift.
So, yes, some of this may be the source of people calling Christians hypocrites, but really it’s a problem endemic to almost every segment of our population. I don’t think we can attribute this deficiency to any single factor. It occurs in response to a number of cultural and personal transitions, such as the dismissal of moral absolutes, the demise of trust in leaders, people’s unwillingness to live within moral and civil boundaries, and the acceptance of religious pluralism. People in America are distracted by countless options and overwhelmed by information, resulting in nonsensical, individualistic responses to the circumstances they face. Without the moral standards that have traditionally been in place, everything is up for grabs.
5. You have, for many years, used certain measurement devices to evaluate the degree, and typology of a “Christian” in North America/U.S. These measurements have been fully disclosed by you and typically are associated with the definition of what has been heretofore referred to a “biblical worldview.” I have a question related to this. On page 124 you write: “There must be a connection between claiming the name of Jesus Christ and one’s lifestyle and choices.” One thing I see missing in today’s social research measuring tools as applied to the area of Christian faith, are tools that measure one’s transformation – from the standpoint of the individual respondent – as well as – from someone else (a spouse, friend, co-worker, neighbor etc). The measurements would be unequivocally biblical…an increase in the last year in your ability to love, to forgive, to tolerate, to behave compassionately, to invest your time in the care of elders, the sick or the disadvantaged etc. Can you comment on your perception of the value of these types of measurements? Is it possible to measure a biblical worldview through new measurements of a biblical lifestyle?
A: I think what such measurements would reflect is more than possession of a biblical worldview, and more so one’s progress in the process of transformation. I agree that we need a completely different set of metrics. If you study what Jesus examined in His interactions with people, He showed less interest in their beliefs than their behavior. Why? Because behavior is the proof of what you believe. Satan may say one thing but his actions demonstrate what he really believes in right or significant. Satan knows the right answers but behaves in contrast to what he often leads people to believe. He may whisper particular lies to us but his actions give him away.
It’s the same with us. Your worldview is important because you do what you believe. Your behavior, not your statement of faith, is what gives you away. And that’s why Jesus said He wanted to see the fruit.
So as I look at how things are evaluated in churches and individual lives, I think the measures we tend to rely upon reflect what we think of as success or significance in this life. Churches emphasize attendance, money, programs, staffing, and square footage. Jesus didn’t die for any of those. As individuals we tend to measure physical comfort, interpersonal acceptance, financial security, happiness, stellar health, and image. Jesus didn’t die for any of that, either. The problem is that you get what you measure. That being the case, it’s no wonder America is infatuated with megachurches, big homes, popularity, and the like. Those kinds of outcomes simply reflect what we contend is important.
Through the Maximum Faith research I realized that at each stop of the transformational journey, you are a noticeably different person than you were at prior stops. The only way to know, though, is by the fruit you produce. I have been encouraging people to pay attention to what they produce because you cannot produce stop 7 fruit if you’re currently living at stop 3. You cannot produce stop 9 fruit if you’re still at stop 2. The fruit you produce relates closely to how much you have cooperated with God in allowing Him to transform you.
So I think the kinds of measures that examine beliefs and knowledge are helpful insofar as they help us understand what underlies behavior. Religious knowledge for the sake of knowledge is rather meaningless, perhaps even counterproductive.
6. You make the statement (p.183): “Loyalty as a cultural value has seen its best days come and go.” Wow! What are the implications of that observation as it relates to creating and maintaining a life dedicated to Jesus Christ as one’s Lord and Savior?
A: In some ways, the product of that reality upon our spiritual condition is already visible. People no longer believe it is necessary to belong to a church or group of believers for an extended period of time. Denominationalism is dead. Families are being divided and reformed with regularity. People feel comfortable with the notion that there are multiple gods. A majority contends that all of the major faiths teach the same basic principles.
A true relationship with Jesus Christ demands that you make a permanent and singular commitment that will not waver or change based on circumstances or emotions. When people live in a culture that celebrates freedom, independence, change, experimentation, randomness, and emotions rather than commitment, responsibility, stability, consistency, and logic, it is almost inevitable that their inclination would be to view all relationships as utilitarian, maintaining them only as long as they feel they are getting sufficient benefit and having to expend minimal energy and resources to keep it going. That’s not how a relationship with the God of all creation works.
Having said all of that it’s important to recognize that there is a bit of a counterbalance that provides a ray of hope. America’s ongoing love affair with postmodern thought and behavior does place a greater emphasis upon experiences and relationships, so while people are less likely to buckle down and really study the scriptures or church history, they are at least more open to the notion of developing a relationship with the living God, and having an array of encounters and shared moments with God.
7. Can you elaborate on what your research shows about the rise in the American consumption of media (in ALL its forms) and the ability of one to “read” books or “study” material — or pray regularly/extensively – that is a critical component of “lifelong learning” — and a fundamental element of growing in Christ?
A: We are an entertainment-obsessed, distraction-loving, attention-challenged nation. We read an average of one-third of any book we start before discarding it in favor of some new option that has caught our ear or eye. The media have now trained us to “analyze” reality on the basis of sound bites and video clips. Instead of examining pages of newsprint or magazines, we now examine 140 characters on a mobile phone screen. USA Today was chastised as journalism lite when it began; today it is the norm. Newspapers are going under in favor of simpler, quicker, easier sources of information. News is what the Kardashians had for dinner. Amazingly, the content drawn from talk radio exchanges and from the late-night talk show monologues have become the primary news sources for millions of people.
All of this has resulted in a growing tendency for people to feel adequately versed in a topic once they grasp a few themes or dominant concepts. Memorization is looked down upon in society as a simplistic, empty-headed learning tool. Students often believe that the object of studying a subject is simply to pass a test or write a paper. The idea of “learning” is being redefined.
On the other hand, educational institutions that are tracking with these changes are discovering that it is possible for peoples’ interest to be sparked and maintained if the new learning tools can be properly used. I don’t think we’re entering an era in which people will be heavily inclined to use traditional study guides or attention traditional classroom-style learning options. However, Americans remain a somewhat inquisitive bunch, so if we can harness some of the new tools and use them responsibly, it is reasonable to expect that the current state of biblical illiteracy may not get worse. Will we rapidly transition to identifying and intelligently using the new tools of the trade? That remains a big “if.”
8. What are the two most troubling trends you are most concerned with, as identified in Futurecast?
People’s disinterest in and failure to diligently pursue transformation on God’s terms. The rejection and abandonment of absolute moral and spiritual truth.
9. It seemed to me that your two most recent books, Futurecast and Maximum Faith – play off of one another…that perhaps Maximum Faith is a response to the realities revealed in Futurecast. Can you comment on this?
I do think they help interpret each other. Futurecast provides the cultural context for why understanding God’s transformation process described in Maximum Faith is so critical – and why so few people are willing to go through the fullness of that process. On their face, the books seem very dissimilar, but there is a useful interplay between them.
In the past I’ve often heard people complain that my presentations about current trends caused them to feel discouraged – that the data presented were too pessimistic. My typical response is that accurate trend data is neither optimistic nor pessimistic; they are realistic, and it is your response to those realities that provides a sense or hope or despair. I think Futurecast fits snuggly within that framework. The book contains some harsh and startling views on the present and future. But what makes those views hopeful or hopeless is the nature of your trust in God, your commitment to changing those conditions, and the depth of your belief that God can do miraculous and mighty things through you and others.
At the same time, I think the portrait of society painted in Futurecast is made more bearable by the process of transformation described in Maximum Faith, which reminds us that we start changing the world by cooperating with God in His transformation of us, first. Knowing the nature of the journey, what the stops along the way require, and what to look for as evidence that God is at work in our lives and that we are working effectively with Him, provides enormous help and hope. It starts by understanding that you are not responsible for changing everything of dubious value or character that’s described in Futurecast; you only have to get your life right with God and give Him total access to your mind, heart, body, and spirit. When you do so, then He is able to affect the world through you, one life at a time, as He chooses, on His schedule and utilizing His resources. And suddenly things are no longer overwhelming, there is great hope for the future, and perhaps even a sense of excitement and anticipation.
Thank you George!!! Best wishes from our family to yours for 2012…and our deepest expression of gratitude for your ongoing, inspiring contributions in 2011.