George Barna’s “Megathemes” of 2010

December 14, 2010

Several years ago, when I started noticing the name of George Barna and his research group in newspaper reports about religious trends in society, I signed up for his email updates. I’m glad I did, they make fascinating reading. Barna is an evangelical Christian who uses polling techniques to study trends and suggest strategies for growing the church. Although his world view and his purposes are very different from mine, I don’t perceive him as a “fire and brimstone” type at all, and moreover he seems to be a reasonably scrupulous  pollster, so I find it interesting to see what trends he considers important and how he feels about them. The first thing I noticed is that he tries to be precise and objective in his use of the terms “born again” and “evangelical,” not relying on people’s use of those words to characterize themselves but rather assigning them according to the answers to particular questions: the “born again” (a bit over 40% of the US population)  are those who answer affirmatively to having made a personal commitment to Christ and to relying on him only for their salvation; the “evangelicals” are a subset of the “born again,” less than 10% of total pop., who give the “theologically correct” answers to 7 other questions. My point isn’t that these are the only or best ways to define these terms, but that I respect Barna for his effort to be clear and consistent with them.

It goes without saying that many of the trends which Barna finds worrisome are ones which I and my fellows on the Liberal- to Non- religious end of the spectrum tend to feel good about, but this doesn’t mean we can’t agree on what the facts are.

Anyway, at the end of each year he does an article defining the themes that have emerged in his research, and this year’s Six Megathemes are:

1. The Christian Church is becoming less theologically literate.
What used to be basic, universally-known truths about Christianity are now unknown mysteries to a large and growing share of Americans–especially young adults…. few adults believe that their faith is meant to be the focal point of their life or to be integrated into every aspect of their existence.. a growing majority believe the Holy Spirit is a symbol of God’s presence or power, but not a living entity…

Of course Barna has his own conservative Protestant view of what “theological literacy” should entail, but I can agree with him that relatively few Americans regardless of their church affiliation share that view or even have a clue what it is.

2. Christians are becoming more ingrown and less outreach-oriented.
…Christians are becoming more spiritually isolated from non-Christians than was true a decade ago… most Americans are unimpressed with the contributions Christians and churches have made to society over the past few years. As young adults have children, the prospect of them seeking a Christian church is diminishing–especially given the absence of faith talk in their conversations with the people they most trust.

3. Growing numbers of people are less interested in spiritual principles and more desirous of learning pragmatic solutions for life.
…Spiritual practices like contemplation, solitude, silence, and simplicity are rare… Practical to a fault, Americans consider survival in the present to be much more significant than eternal security and spiritual possibilities. Because we continue to separate our spirituality from other dimensions of life through compartmentalization, a relatively superficial approach to faith has become a central means of optimizing our life experience.

I wonder if this is really new, or if people are just more self-aware and up-front about it. I’ve always suspected that many religious affiliates are there for the community rather than the doctrine. Anyway, the “superficial approach to faith” as well as Barna’s fear of “theological illiteracy” bring to mind Albert Mohler‘s characterization of the real religion of young Americans as “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” – a kind of common-sense feel-good belief system that is of course abhorrent to a good Southern Baptist theologian like Mohler…

4. Among Christians, interest in participating in community action is escalating.
Largely driven by the passion and energy of young adults, Christians are more open to and more involved in community service activities than has been true in the recent past.

Here’s one bit of good news even to Barna, although he cautions that

…churches run the risk of watching congregants’ engagement wane unless they embrace a strong spiritual basis for such service. Simply doing good works because it’s the socially esteemed choice of the moment will not produce much staying power.

5. The postmodern insistence on tolerance is winning over the Christian Church.
Our biblical illiteracy and lack of spiritual confidence has caused Americans to avoid making discerning choices for fear of being labeled judgmental. The result is a Church that has become tolerant of a vast array of morally and spiritually dubious behaviors and philosophies… There are fewer and fewer issues that Christians believe churches should be dogmatic about.

Again, a problem for Barna, a cause for celebration at my end of the spectrum. Still, as I said, he’s not a “fire and brimstone” type, and recognizes the need for the church to find a “delicate balance between representing truth [as he understands it] and acting in love.”

Finally

6. The influence of Christianity on culture and individual lives is largely invisible.
Christianity has arguably added more value to American culture than any other religion, philosophy, ideology or community. Yet, contemporary Americans are hard pressed to identify any specific value added. Partly due to the nature of today’s media, they have no problem identifying the faults of the churches and Christian people.

OK, he says “partly.” I would say the media have simply informed us of more of the faults that were already there.

In summary, we live “in a society in which choice is king, there are no absolutes, every individual is a free agent, we are taught to be self-reliant and independent, and Christianity is no longer the automatic, default faith of young adults.” For Barna this is a challenge, for me it is a cause for celebration.

I expect to write more in days to come about the varieties of conservative theology, and about the fact that one and the same culture and society can be too “Christian” for many of us and at the same time frustratingly “unchristian” for people like Barna and Mohler…

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