LARGE CHURCHES, NOT IMPRESSIVE
By Lori Arnold

       VENTURA - Armed with a bedside manner of a concerned physician, George Barna searches for a pulse while using his stethoscope to detect signs of erratic breathing. Sometimes, he determines, surgery is needed.

       Sometimes, the patient doesn't like what he hears.

        "I think what I do is so often misunderstood," said Barna, a former political researcher and campaign manager who has made a name for himself as one of the foremost experts on Christian ministries, non-profit groups and the cultural trends that impact them.

       Barna said detractors have often compared him to the anti-Christ for what they say is removing church focus away from God. Others say Barna's research too often paints a negative view of the church.

        "What I really am is realistic about the church," he said. "It is in the best interest of the church to change, rather than closing our eyes and ignoring it.

        "We need an honest sense of what we are and what we can do to have a tremendous, positive impact for churches without compromising Scripture."

       Barna evolved into the specialized Christian research field after going to work with an ad agency that worked exclusively with church organizations. It was there that he built up a research division from scratch. In 1984 he formed Barna Research Group, which employs about a dozen full-time staffers and 80 part-timers. He's written 29 books and led countless seminars, including a recently launched 52-city tour tackling the top four ministry issues of church leaders.

        "Marketing is about relating to people, trying to understand them and creating a transformation," Barna said.

        "Marketing is a means to an end, it's a method like preaching, like Bible studies," he said. "Can you abuse marketing? Yes. But marketing has no ethics. Marketers have ethics."

       Despite his critics, Barna has developed a high profile business chronicling a wide range of issues facing the church. He's also been hired by big name evangelists and para-church organizations to conduct proprietary research. Much of his public research is presented in concert with his books, seminars and bi-monthly news releases.

        "We are trying to help the church to understand our cultural context, the state of the church and its challenges and opportunities," he said.

        "The hope with all of this information is not just to have these factoids circulating around in the brain, but starting to understand some of the things (Christians) do will make a difference in the world."

       Ultimately, he said, the numbers only have value through strategic application. Barna said he discovered that value through his contact with Fortune 500 companies.

        "I quickly realized their decisions are driven by information," he said.

        "Everything (churches do) was based on how do we feel about this. We are not thinking or ministering strategically, we are thinking and ministering either emotionally or traditionally."

Strategic assessment

       As a statistician, Barna said he realizes that the information he produces will be used by two types of people, those who will skim the results and skewer them to promote their own views or those who are genuinely interested in the findings.

        "The others are interested in the truth and reality and they want to use information to give them a strategic advantage in what they want to do," he said.

       Strategic advantages is what Barna will be dispensing on his seminar tour, courtesy of a two-year research project examining ministry challenges as identified by more than 6,000 churches. The details of his discovery are contained in his new book, Re-Churching the Unchurched, released last month.

       As a result of the survey, Barna identified four of the top ministry issues facing the church: reaching the unchurched, creating true disciples, developing lay leadership teams and ministry evaluation. At each seminar stop, Barna said participants will be given information and applications on the survey's findings. The second phase will include a video case study of a church doing a solid job within each of the four areas. The seminar concludes with breakout sessions where participants begin developing action plans for their own churches.

        "When you measure how they are doing, they are really doing a great job," Barna said of the case study church models, which range in size from about 100 to 4,000.

       In the area of discipleship, for instance, Barna looked at how the lives of most church members are being transformed. Success, he determined, had little or nothing to do with attendance.

        "How is a person changing?" Barna said. "Are they becoming more Christ-like or not?"

       Too often, he said, success is measured solely by size.

        "I don't get excited about big churches," he said. "I get excited about deep churches.

        "We obviously want to reach everyone we can. When we put too much energy on the numerical growth that usually comes at the quality of growth."

Developing strong ministries

       A student of information, Barna said his research topics are developed from a variety of sources, including secular publications and suggestions from the public. In addition to monitoring ongoing issues of significance, Barna said sometimes he goes on self-described fishing expeditions to discover new issues and trends. He also studies topics that he believes need to be explored.

       Although there are areas that need improvement within the church, Barna said he believes strides have been made in sharing the gospel.

        "I think there is a heightened sense toward the importance of evangelism over the past few years and a heightened sense to the necessity of having strong, visionary leadership. That's absolutely important," he said.

       Even so, Barna said he believes the church could become even more successful by developing stronger lay leadership teams, an issue difficult for pastors who are hesitant to release control.

        "I love helping the church to have a better sense of its own reality," Barna, citing the development of committed, zealous followers of Christ.

       That sense of reality, he said, must be anchored in an honest assessment of how effective the church is working.

        "What makes it difficult for people is that it requires leadership, it requires change and it requires a real diligence of sticking with the task," he said.

        "You don't formulate a person's spiritual form within a week, you don't change a spiritual culture within a week and you don't turn around a church with a week."

       George Barna will present his seminar on the four top issues facing the church at Lake Avenue Church in Pasadena on Jan. 30 and at Foothills Christian Fellowship in El Cajon on Feb. 1. For complete tour information, log on to www.barna.org.

Reprinted by permission, Southern California Christian Times.

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