Ministry Today magazine cover

Stat Man





Research guru George Barna--perhaps the most quoted man in the church--is not a nerdy number-cruncher who prefers to quietly calculate. A look at the man behind all of the statistics and his bold challenge to church leaders.
George Barna may not be a traditional "thus saith the Lord"-type of prophet, but there's an unmistakable prophetic nature found in the "thus saith the numbers"-type of predictions he makes as Christianity's foremost researcher of trends and belief systems. And while the medium--statistical data--may differ from that of the Old Testament prophets, Barna admits he identifies with their unique, lonely and often difficult calling.

"Throw me a rope," says the founder of the Barna Research Group (BRG), a full-service market research company located in Ventura, California. "I feel like a lone ranger, but it comes back to vision. I'm convinced this is why God put me here on earth. So if I were to abandon this, it would almost be as if I were turning my back on God and saying, 'I don't care what You want.' I have a lot of those days, but I don't think He has released me from this yet."

Following his unique call has proved to be both fulfilling and frustrating for the researcher. When asked about his biggest frustration, Barna responds, "Not seeing evidence of faith-driven transformation in people's lives." It's a response that not only echoes prophets of old, but many modern-day church leaders as well.

Barna first attracted attention among evangelicals more than a decade ago with his breakthrough book The Frog in the Kettle, which challenged the perceptions of the effectiveness of the evangelical church and its influence in the United States. Today, Barna has published nearly three dozen books that continue to take a fresh look at the church. Backed by statistics compiled through in-depth, cutting-edge research, he explores the real attitudes of both churchgoers and nonchurchgoers alike in titles such as The Second Coming of the Church, Boiling Point--It Only Takes One Degree: Monitoring Cultural Shifts in the 21st Century and The Habits of Highly Effective Churches.

In an exclusive interview with Ministries Today, the king of statistical analysis shared why he has chosen to pour his life into serving the body of Christ instead of pursuing success and acclaim in the secular arena. He candidly talked about his research methodology and what it's like to be the brunt of criticism when the conclusions he shares make people feel uncomfortable. And true to form, he passionately challenged all of us as church leaders to come to grips with what it means to effectively minister the love and power of Christ in the postmodern era.

KNACK FOR NUMBERS

Born in New York City, George Barna was the oldest of four children. When he was 7 years old, his family moved to Princeton, New Jersey, where George says his childhood dream was to become a professional athlete. In addition to spending countless hours playing a variety of sports, including tennis, basketball, soccer, baseball, football, squash and racquetball, he also enjoyed sports-related memorabilia, including baseball cards.

"I went through statistics on players and played board games and analyzed the statistics of make-believe players," he recalls. "I had notebooks filled with game statistics that I would tabulate."

The obsession with numbers grew to the point that Barna began recalculating the percentages and statistics listed on baseball cards. Occasionally he would find errors. "That was before computers and was done with hand calculators they had to typeset," he says. "So, there was a much greater percentage for errors."

After high school, Barna graduated summa cum laude in sociology from Boston College. Later he earned two masters degrees from Rutgers University and a doctorate degree from Dallas Baptist University. He says his years in undergraduate and graduate school taught him one basic principle: question everything.

Barna first questioned his altar-boy upbringing during a premarital counseling session with his soon-to-be wife, Nancy. A Pandora's box opened at the end of the final meeting when the priest asked by rote, "Do you have any questions?"

"I had waited all my life for a priest to ask me this," Barna recalls. "So I unloaded. There were 24 or 25 years of questions. I don't think anyone had ever responded to the invitation. He listened to a few before he started getting really upset."

The priest began pounding on his desk with his fist and told the 20-something Barna: "Don't you ever question the Catholic Church. You're to be here when we tell you and do what we tell you. Who do you come to church for? Yourself or God?"

"He answered every question with one answer," Barna remembers.

Barna couldn't accept a belief system that wouldn't allow itself to be questioned, and after several deep discussions with Nancy, they decided to pursue alternatives.

Married in 1978, the Barnas--who knew absolutely nothing about the Protestant church--went on a search for God. They began talking with friends and eventually accepted an invitation to visit their first church: an all-black, charismatic congregation.

"It was like nothing we had ever experienced," Barna says. "We could not imagine it in our wildest imagination. It was a great experience, but we didn't get it."

Eventually, the young couple landed in a fundamentalist Baptist church that met in a school gymnasium. They listened as the preacher opened the Bible and explained its meaning during the sermon. It was a novel concept to Barna.

"Growing up we had a bunch of Bibles in our house, but we never opened them," Barna says. "In our Catholic training it was a source document, not a life document."

The couple was so taken by the approach of trying to make the Bible useful that they kept attending the services. Within a month (along with a little prodding from the pastor), the Barnas became Christians. Their faith grew until the legalistic nature of the church--and a demand that Barna shave his beard and cut his hair--overwhelmed the young believers, resulting in their decision to leave. What followed was a period of church shopping.

But the couple's faith wasn't the only thing in transition. Upon graduation, Barna had accepted a position at a media research firm in Los Angeles. He later transitioned to a Christian ad agency in Wheaton, Illinois. It was in that season that he and his wife connected to Willow Creek Community Church, pastored by Bill Hybels.

A new adventure started in 1984 when the Barnas loaded up a U-Haul, hitched their small Datsun to the back and traded the outskirts of the Windy City for sunny California so that George could start his own research firm. That same year the young entrepreneur launched BRG in a bedroom in his home.

"We had no money, no clients, no equipment, but the Lord [was] true to His word," Barna recalls. "We had two Christian clients that came out of nowhere."

In addition, a woman from a secular agency Barna had worked with years before randomly called. She was the new vice president of research at Disney and wanted to hire the newly founded BRG.

"I was staring at a mortgage bill that day, and it took a nanosecond to decide," Barna says. "The irony is that Disney has taken a different stand on social issues from where the church would stand, but Disney helped build Barna Research."

In 1991, the same year the Barnas adopted their first daughter, Samantha (their second daughter, Corban, was adopted in 1994), Barna said he had a supernatural encounter with God that challenged him to redefine his focus. He was at a point where he was considering pulling back from ministry research--which often proved unprofitable and seemed to have little impact--to focus on the Disney account.

While on vacation in Hawaii, Barna felt the Lord tell him (paraphrased): "Barna, you idiot, do you think I've given you this company and the opportunities and relationships with people all over the country so you could turn your back on them because it's tough? Do Me a favor and read the Old Testament."

Reading some passages, Barna discovered he had it "pretty easy" compared to what Jeremiah, Daniel and others had to endure.

"I lacked adequate context," he says. "I realized that I didn't have sufficient depth of perspective to understand that I wasn't even playing in the 'big leagues' at that time--and would never receive a bigger assignment from God if I didn't get better perspective."

Barna says he began putting the bulk of his research and resources into the church. "We have not pursued relationships with businesses since," he states. "Sometimes they'll come to us, and sometimes we'll entertain the work, but that was a key turning point."

Today, BRG employs a dozen full-time workers and 70 to 80 part-time employees. "I want to stay small by design," he says. "My perspective is that God wants us to be constantly sensitive to what is happening in the church, so we have to be pretty nimble and flexible so we can change as we need to, so as to be able to help them. The larger the company, the more you have to spend feeding the machine."

ROCKING THE BOAT

In fulfilling his call to serve the church, however, Barna isn't winning any popularity contests for his findings. His survey results often make him the bearer of bad news rather than glad tidings, rocking the boat of traditional church thinking.

After September 11, 2001, for example, BRG's research revealed the country was largely unchanged in religious belief or church attendance. His conclusion: "The September 11 tragedy was another amazing opportunity to be the healing and transforming presence of God in people's lives, but that, too, has now come and gone with little to show for it."

Such declarations tend to rub some religious leaders the wrong way. And though he has served as an executive pastor and teaching pastor at a large, multicultural church and been involved in starting several new churches, Barna has come under scrutiny for offering advice in an area where some say he has little experience.

Yet, Barna says he learned a lot from his experimental stints in church leadership. One of the most valuable came from an attempted church-plant in Glendale, California, which ultimately failed.

"I learned that it's a mistake for me to pull back and not try to have a significant influence on a ministry I'm involved in," he told Ministries Today. "I wanted to be involved without it being a 'George Barna' church. We would have conversations, but I didn't want to drive the key decisions. So, consequently, we ended up with poor decisions that undermined what the church was going to do."

Barna, who has been described as the Christian Gallup, says people are often dismayed by his comments on church leadership.

"I make no bones about the fact that most pastors are not leaders and explain that it's not a bad thing, but [I challenge them to] team up with people who are leaders," he says. "Don't masquerade around with the church; it will hurt people and undermine the culture."

It's a position that has drawn criticism. When asked what he finds in his mailbag, Barna replies, tongue-in-cheek, "I don't know, but it's always ticking."

The researcher says the letters encompass a wide range of responses to his work. "Some want to remind me that I'm the Antichrist, while others are so grateful," he says. "Dozens and dozens of people write with questions [such as] 'Why not research on this?' or 'Where do I find this information?'"

Barna has also been criticized for his research. The majority of scrutiny isn't focused on the way he conducts surveys as much as it is on the conclusions he draws from them.

"Those people would do the same if they were working with numbers," says Barna in response to such critics. "We're human beings. We have to come to an interpretation through an intellectual framework.

"There is no such thing as complete objectivity if you're a human being. It will impact how you view anything. That criticism is good for Gallup, Harris or any researcher you name. We are all human beings and are all subjective in our interpretations."

Barna says his research provides two types of information: an analysis based on questions and a second, more objective, area of analysis. Personally he is often challenged by his own findings.

"Frankly, every piece of research we do, if it deals with spirituality, is always a helpful gut check for me," he explains. "Sometimes I feel fairly comfortable that I understand key issues. Then, I put them together and think, Look in the mirror buddy!"

For example, BRG has done a number of studies on worship. Some of the early statistics suggested that a significant number of Christians have never really experienced God's presence. Reflecting on the results of the study, Barna says he realized he didn't typically experience God's presence during worship either.

"It really caused me to go back and ask questions about my own worship experience and how much of myself I'm willing to pour into that," he says. "That was a real helpful thing."

EFFECTIVE LEADERSHIP

Despite rejection and misunderstanding, Barna isn't giving up any time soon. In addition to writing books--his new title Single Focus: Understanding Single Adults and a relaunch of The Power of Vision: Discover and Apply God's Vision for Your Ministry are scheduled for release in June--he continues to travel throughout the country to host all-day seminars based on his findings.

This year, the theme for the seminars is "Leading Your Church Forward." The four-part, daylong seminars are based on new research done specifically for each session. This year's sessions cover topics such as emerging trends that affect ministry, developing a biblical worldview, effective ministry to children and handling common challenges that leaders inevitably face.

Barna says two different types of research methodologies are employed for the research used in the seminars. The first includes interviews with individuals and pastors about key issues. The second includes studying churches that are handling the dimension of ministry with excellence and looking for commonalities. By searching for the common threads among successful churches, Barna says he can point out transferable concepts.

Expressing those concepts through writing is Barna's passion. "Because I don't write fiction--contrary to what some pastors believe--but base my books on research data, it's quite exhilarating to conceptualize a hypothesis, conduct original research, analyze the data and attempt to write about the results in a way that moves people to change their behavioral and thought patterns," he says.

As for the immediate future, Barna says his focus will likely remain on leadership. "Everything stems from leadership," he says. "If I wanted to penetrate The New York Times Best-Seller List, I'd write different books. [The niche I address] is a small niche, but it's an important niche."

So what advice does he have for pastoral leaders today?

"Number one, be very certain that if you are in a position of leadership that you have been called by God to be a leader. If you're holding down that position and you're not called to leadership, you're going to hurt a lot of people. That doesn't mean you shouldn't be doing ministry even on a full-time basis, but maybe you should restructure how you do ministry in the context you're in.

"Second," he continues, "it's imperative that we not operate on the basis of assumption. We assume that if more people come to church that they're having a real significant encounter with God. Or that because they tote a Bible in church they're reading it during the week. We assume...so much of that is simply not accurate.

"Third," he concludes, "in spite of the challenges, don't be discouraged. We operate in a culture today in an area where people are spiritually hungry and confused, and there are incredible opportunities to take advantage of that level of spiritual interest, but we've got to be constantly reinventing our approach to communication and building bridges with the culture, never compromising what Scripture teaches, but reflecting that it still does work today in a culture that reinvents itself every three to five years. We have the skills and resources. Be intentional and strategic."

So how does a church know if they're doing it right?

"They must have meaningful criteria for self-assessment," Barna asserts. "What does effective ministry mean? It should be related to transformation in key ministry areas such as worship, evangelism, discipleship, stewardship, community service, accountable relationships among believers, family solidarity and leadership."

These sentiments are echoed in his new book, Grow Your Church From the Outside In, in which Barna stresses the importance of honestly assessing both the culture at large and the ministry of the church. He reminds us to never forget what is at stake.

"There are almost 100 million people living in our own country who are not connected to a church," he writes. "Millions and millions are desperate for a meaningful faith connection. You know some of them. What will you do to meet their needs?"

It's a question Barna is willing to ask. It's up to the leaders of today's church to answer it.


What the Unchurched Dislike About Church

Barna Research Group's survey of 230 unchurched adults reveals what they liked least about their previous church experiences.

The results were enlightening when Barna Research Group (BRG) conducted a survey of 230 unchurched adults, asking them what they didn't like about their previous church experiences:

Hypocritical behavior of the churched 21\%
Strict/inflexible beliefs 21\%
Nothing in particular 21\%
The worship service (long, boring, etc.) 12\%
Too much emphasis on giving money 9\%
Air of superiority among the churched 6\%
Pressure to join/return to the church 4\%
They tell you what to do/how to live 4\%

Other statistics of interest: When BRG asked unchurched adults to describe why they currently do not attend a church, the top-rated reasons were that they were too busy to do so (or had scheduling conflicts), that the church had nothing of interest to offer and that the individual was just not interested in being involved in a church. These reasons describe the reticence of almost half of the unchurched.

A sizeable segment (one-seventh) responded that their religious beliefs differ significantly from those of the church crowd. This was most common among baby busters (people under 37) and among wealthy adults (people who earn $75,000 per year or more and those with a college degree). About one out of every eight unchurched people write off the church because they do not believe in organized religion or in the necessity of worshiping God through a church experience.

Each of the remaining reasons represents a relatively small segment of the unchurched population. For instance, only 4 percent said the beliefs of churches are too rigid or inflexible. Three percent mentioned that they dislike church people or that the church is only interested in their money. Each of the following reasons was named by 2 percent: They do not believe in God or Jesus; they had bad past experiences in church; a physical disability precludes their attendance; they have not found a church they like; they are held up by family issues; and they are not religious or Christian.

Fifteen percent said they do not attend church, but they do not know why. Qualitative research BRG has conducted in the past has shown that most of those people, when pressed, simply have little interest in a church or have not felt a need to get involved in one. There is no guarantee that such people will continue to stream into the church.

Adapted from Grow Your Church From the Outside In by George Barna, ©2002. Published by Regal. Used by permission.


Top 12 Misconceptions About Reaching the Unchurched

George Barna exposes the 12 biggest myths that keep pastors from successfully reaching the unchurched.

In an extensive research study during the last two years, Barna Research Group (BRG) evaluated churches that are unusually effective at ministering to the unchurched. In doing so, BRG found a number of inconsistencies between what many people believe about reaching the unchurched and what really works.

Misconception No. 1: Successful ministry to the unchurched depends on following the right model. BRG's studies of churches that do stellar work among the unchurched found that they have a different mind-set than simply having a program or formulaic mentality about evangelism. Evangelism is not an activity but a lifestyle in these churches.

Misconception No. 2: Dealing with the attitudes of the unchurched toward the church and Christianity is a big problem. The people with the attitude problem, according to successful pastors in the BRG survey, are more likely to be the churched Christians. The more audacious task is getting churched people genuinely to care about the souls and lives of those visitors.

Misconception No. 3: You must have a seeker service. In BRG's sample of the congregations most effective at reaching the unchurched, few offer a seeker service. Most, however, provide full-on worship services that have been cleansed of Christian jargon, pipe organs, formal dress and traditional symbols.

Misconception No. 4: The best way to attract the unchurched is through large-scale events. Only a couple of the effective churches BRG studied rely upon events to bring about change in the lives of the unchurched. Relatively few expect most of the individuals who attend the event to show up in church next Sunday.

Misconception No. 5: The route to success is to copy Willow Creek or Saddleback. Not one church leader said that he uses either as a model. While these church leaders revere pioneers such as Bill Hybels at Willow Creek Community Church and Rick Warren at Saddleback Church, they also recognize the limitations of blindly copying what has worked in other places.

Misconception No. 6: If you do it right, most of the people in your church will have been unchurched before they chose yours as their church home. Even among the churches that best reach the unchurched, the average number of current attendees who were previously unchurched was in the 40 to 50 percent range.

Misconception No. 7: If you do a good job, most of your unchurched visitors will return. Even in churches that effectively reach the unchurched, a majority of the unchurched who visit will not ultimately stay. On average, about half come only once or a few times and then vanish.

Misconception No. 8: Ministry to the unchurched requires a large staff. Most of the successful churches gave up this approach once they realized that the only way to be successful in ministering to significant numbers of unchurched people is to have the lay members of the congregation assume ministry roles.

Misconception No. 9: When the unchurched are ready to get involved, they will tell you. It's true that the unchurched do not want to feel coerced into anything. However, BRG's study revealed how aggressive the effective churches are at facilitating a commitment among the unchurched. They provide an easy and minimally threatening process by which the unchurched can get into the mainstream of the church.

Misconception No. 10: If an unchurched person comes five or six times, he or she will stay for good. Not true. Once a person finds a point of connection--a class, a means of serving, a new friend--then he or she is more likely to feel like a part of the church.

Misconception No. 11: Success in reaching the unchurched depends on the pastor's personality and preaching. According to the successful leaders BRG interviewed, the environment of the church and the attitude and spiritual commitment of the congregants are more important than the pastor and the preaching.

Misconception No. 12: Once you start attracting the unchurched, the challenge is simply managing the flow of incoming people. Many pastors seem to believe that once you tap into the unchurched population, the word gets out and there is no stopping them from coming. Pastors in BRG's sample said there is no guarantee that such people will continue to stream into the church.

Adapted from Grow Your Church From the Outside In by George Barna, ©2002. Published by Regal. Used by permission.


Margaret A. Feinberg is a freelance journalist. She may be reached via e-mail at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. . For more information on the Barna Research Group, log on to www.barna.org.

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