It’s been years since George Barna and I released Pagan Christianity. Joe Miller caught up with George and me, giving us our first exclusive interview years after the book came out (the book released in 2008).
Here’s the interview. (Note: Reposting this interview is not permitted. But you are free to place a link to it on your blog or share it on Facebook or Twitter via the share buttons below. Click here to review our copyright policy.)
Before we get to your current life, can you tell us, what has been the most enduring and positive legacy of your book, “Pagan Christianity?”
George Barna: The book has helped many people to open their minds to the fact that the organized, localized, congregational form of ministry commonly known in the west as “the church” is a human construct that was neither dictated by God nor described or found in the Bible. In that sense I think the greatest legacy of the book, based primarily on Frank’s extensive research, is giving people an awareness of the truth about the history of the modern local church body and the tremendous possibilities for more meaningful ministry experiences and expressions.
Frank Viola: One of the most enduring qualities (and effects) of the book is that it has given millions of Christians permission – biblical and historical permission – to question cherished church practices and traditions in the light of God’s written Word. It has effectively driven many believers – including pastors – to reexamine the way they practice church in view of New Testament principles and church history.
Since I have a very high view of Scripture, I count that as a positive thing. It’s also given many Christians a new appreciation for those believers in the past (like the Anabaptists) who dared to challenge the religious establishment of their day on the basis of Scripture. In this regard, the Reformation has never ended, including the Radical Reformation of the Anabaptists.
As John Stott famously said, “The hallmark of an authentic evangelicalism is not the uncritical repetition of old traditions, but the willingness to submit every tradition, however ancient, to fresh biblical scrutiny and, if necessary, reform.” I believe the local church is highly important to God and His purpose. Our book merely demonstrates that the local church has (in many cases) been redefined and reinvented outside of scriptural lines. Thus restoration is needed.
I wonder if there are things you wrote in that book that do not reflect your thinking today. Is there one thing you can point to in your current writing or ministry that reflects the biggest change from the man you when you wrote the book?
Frank Viola: With respect to the content and research, I am more convinced today than I was in 2008 that what we wrote was accurate. Part of that conviction is based on the fact that thousands of reviews and critiques tried to refute the book, yet none of them were successful in discounting it. Instead, many critics had to resort to personal attacks and/or misrepresentations. We dedicated an entire page that answers questions, objections, and critiques to the book.
With respect to writing, I’m a perfectionist when it comes to my own work. Thus one of the worst punishments that can be inflicted upon me is to force me to look at one of my books after it’s been published. I immediately see all the flaws and weaknesses. That said, I would do three things differently:
(1) I would have announced in the beginning, all throughout the middle, and at the end that Pagan Christianity is not a stand-alone book. The book is only the first part of a fuller argument. As such, it doesn’t seek to solve the problems we address. It only deconstructs. In the original release of the book, this was stated in some of the footnotes and in a big advertisement at the end for the upcoming constructive sequel, Reimagining Church. But many people missed these announcements despite that it’s been repeated all over the Web. The recent printings have a new preface in it that makes this point loud and clear.
(2) I would have added more “Question and Answers” sections to some of the chapters. But we were limited by page count.
(3) I would have removed all the exclamation (!) points. Not too long ago an exclamation point denoted emphasis and passion. And that’s how I’ve always read and used them. Today, however, it denotes anger in the minds of some readers. There’s no anger in the book at all, but some people read anger into the book due to several exclamation points that we used for emphasis. So I’d probably remove those if I wrote the book today. Hindsight is 20/20, of course.
George Barna: It’s not repudiation or change of content from what we wrote, but my primary focus has shifted away from corporate religious structures and behaviors to the means of personal life transformation that God uses to enable us to become who He intended us to be. That’s a natural progression for my work if you assume that religious institutions are not supposed to have a stranglehold on people’s faith experience and expression.
Can you summarize for my readers what you have been doing since the book came out in 2008? Where have you been and what have you been writing that we should know about?
George Barna: In 2009, I sold the Barna Group to David Kinnaman. That has freed me up to write a more diverse range of books and other pieces about the Christian life and experience, including some books I have written for others. The most significant book I have done recently – perhaps ever – is Maximum Faith, which took six years of research, identified the process by which God transforms people’s lives, and describes what we can do to get on board with His process.
I have also had some involvement in the 2012 presidential campaign, have invested a lot of time in family challenges (addressing some serious health issues facing our three daughters), have been much more heavily involved in playing music, and will soon start writing my first novel.
Frank Viola: Up until recently, I was busy establishing and working with organic missional churches in the trenches. In 2012, however, I changed the focus of my ministry to the other aspect of my calling for a season to Jesus studies and the gospel of the kingdom of God. As such, I’ve been speaking at various conferences and churches (of all types) on these themes.
I’ve also been burdened to help the poor more and develop relationships with those who don’t know Jesus. In addition, I’ve forged relationships with pastors and others in different types of ministry. My convictions on the unity of the body of Christ are quite strong. To my mind, Christians should join arms in the greater cause of God’s Kingdom no matter what their convictions are about church structure or form. Cooperation without compromise is where I pitch my tent.
Another major focus of mine right now is my blog, Beyond Evangelical, which is geared to serious Christians in their 20s and 30s (though we have some older and some younger readers). My blog subscribers belong to all types of church structures and denominations.
With respect to writing, following the release of Pagan Christianity, I wrote three other books as constructive follow-ups: Reimagining Church (the companion volume to Pagan), From Eternity to Here, and Finding Organic Church. Pagan Christianity really can’t be fully (or properly) understood without these other volumes, as it’s not a complete work on its own.
Following that was over ten books listed on my books page.
I regard the new titles on that page to be my best and most important contributions to date.
From my experience on the West Coast, men and women in their late teens and early twenties have lost their bearings. Even those who are attracted to religion, gravitate toward groups that are disconnected from the foundations of our historic Faith. Overall, the Church has not been effective in bringing young people to the Gospel. What must we do differently to usher in a Jesus revolution among America’s youth?
Frank Viola: Based on my talks with 20-somethings from all over the country who aren’t Christians, two things come to mind:
(1) That Christians would treat one another the way they want to be treated. I’ve written extensively on this, but the fact is, Christians (especially evangelicals) are viewed as being judgmental, condemning, narrow-minded, harsh, and legalistic in the eyes of many young people. Just look at the kinds of awful things Christians say to and about one another online and it becomes patently clear why they feel this way.
(2) Taking the time to get to know young people, hang out with them, and love them as people rather than as projects. At the same time, don’t compromise our distinctiveness as believers while we befriend them. It seems that many Christians have a struggle knowing how to love people without selling out to the world system on the one hand, and keeping people at a condemning distance on the other.
George Barna: I do not believe that problem is limited to young people or to individuals living on the west coast. I would attribute it to the gravitational pull of cultural forces, especially through the media. The effect of contemporary media content and media-driven calls to action has been facilitated by ineffective leadership by the Christian church in response to these challenges. At the same time the role of the family has eroded significantly during the past four decades, making the media and public policy much more powerful in directing people’s thoughts, perceptions, and responses. Children are now being raised with a completely different set of authority figures, core values, and expectations than has traditionally been the case, leaving them defenseless against the onslaught of new and unfortunate ways of perceiving and responding to the world.
So, you ask what we must do differently. The needed changes are deep and complex, and will take decades, not weeks, to implement. First, a significant body of Christians must be united in this battle to restore biblical principles to the center of our experience. Second, we must be committed to a long-term investment of resources: time, energy, power, relationships, money, and so forth. Third, the family must reclaim its rightful place at the center of child development, accepting assistance from others in the community of faith, but not abdicating its role as the anointed leader in child development. Fourth, we must embrace and support new models of faith experience and expression, to remove existing obstacles to people integrating their faith into every dimension of their lives. Fifth, we need to set maximum transformation as the objective of our life, and work toward that result. That would include the creation of different forms of community among believers than currently prevail, and a new set of and measurement process related to transformational metrics.
From all of your travels over the years, who have you met that inspires you the most in both who they are and what they do in their service to Christ?
George Barna: Matthew Barnett, pastor of the Dream Center, is the real deal. His passion for helping people is contagious. Francis Chan seems to be authentic in his quest for genuine spiritual growth. Mike Huckabee is the best model I have encountered of someone who is able to take his or her faith into the political arena, and impact that arena through the uncompromised application of biblical principles. John Saucier, a little-known evangelist and discipler of young people and professional athletes, has been an inspiration to me through his consistent effort, willingness to be bold and creative, and devotion to the word of God.
Frank Viola: It’s been the largely “unknown” Christians who are gathering together in various cities, who are hungry for more of Jesus, and who are learning to live by His indwelling life together. Especially those who have a heart for the poor, the oppressed, and the hurting in their neighborhoods. These Christians don’t return evil for evil and know the secret of losing when under attack and being gracious toward those who misunderstand and misrepresent them.
They are the salt of the earth in my judgment. Many of them are humble, of meager means. When I meet such believers, I walk away having seen my Lord. And I thank God that the song I’ve been singing for many years is taking visible shape in some quarters. I’ve also been impressed and inspired by the Millennials who make comments on my blog posts.
Lately, because I have been teaching college and seminary students here in California, I have been writing about the changing world of Christian Education. I hope this is not too far out of your area of expertise, but do either of you have some insight regarding what is good about Christian Education today and what needs to change?
Frank Viola: We have an entire chapter on Christian education in our book (Chapter 10). In it, we discuss where Christian education came from, including the origin of the seminary and the Bible college. On a personal level, I have a special passion for young men who are called to the Lord’s work. I think that many seminaries and Bible schools have wonderful teachers in them. And as far as traditional teaching methods go, they are quite good.
But as I’ve argued in Finding Organic Church, I believe the best way to educate and train others is to duplicate what Jesus did in Galilee and what Paul did in Ephesus. Jesus and Paul both trained younger workers in a hands-on way. It was on-the-ground, real-life, intentional mentoring that went on for years. And it was done in a real-life ministry context. I wish more older servants of God would begin to do this. (Many of them whom I respect have no concept of it.)
Right now, the typical young person who is called to the Lord’s work sees the seminary as the only option for ministry preparation. In short, while the typical seminary is good at what it does, I’ve met scores of seminary graduates who admitted that they didn’t get the kind of training that ministering to people with real problems demands. Nor did they learn how to minister and unveil Jesus Christ to others. Billy Graham once said something priceless about this very issue.
George Barna: No comment.
Finally, let me ask a broader question about the world as you see it. Based on your experience and research, what would you say is the greatest social, political, or theological challenge facing the Church today in the West. What is the Church doing well and what does the Church need to do better in confronting that challenge?
George Barna: The encouraging reality is that when God’s people set their mind on something, they often prove they can meet their goals. For instance, churches generally measure success based on attendance, raising money, constructing buildings, operating programs, and hiring staff. Over the past two decades, Christian churches in the US have been effective at meeting those goals. We are better at marketing, and event planning and execution, than ever; raise more than $60 billion annually for domestic ministry; have extensive, valuable, and expanding real estate holdings; and continually introduce new programs that we fill with hopeful students. By church criteria, our churches are successful; unfortunately, Jesus didn’t die to fill auditoriums, buy land, promote programs, or hire religious professionals. If we take His death and resurrection seriously, our criteria need to relate to life transformation that produces discernible and meaningful spiritual fruit.
So discussing the major challenges facing the western Church is not a simple matter. There is no single greatest challenge; there is a multi-faceted group of serious challenges that need to be addressed. Among those, as noted earlier, are the need for better leadership that is devoted to fulfilling a God-provided, biblically-consistent vision; the need for Christians to possess a biblical worldview to serve as the basis of their choices and behaviors; the need for Christian families to be more aggressive and better equipped in the moral and spiritual development of their children; the need to radically manage media and technology for the benefit of the nation rather than that of shareholders; the need for different models of ministry to facilitate more genuine spiritual experiences and expression; and the need to create and deploy better metrics regarding life transformation.
Frank Viola: I don’t think we can lump everyone or every fellowship into the same basket. Some are ahead of others in some areas, and vice versa.
Speaking in regard to the Christian population as a whole, four great challenges come to mind:
(1) the pervasive problem of Christians trafficking in slander against other Christians without blinking. Many Christians are bold in slandering others while few Christians are bold in defending others or rebuking slander when it’s happening. Jesus was clear that if we have an issue or concern about someone, we should go to them directly. Treating others the same way we wish to be treated appears to be rarely observed today among God’s people, even though it was Jesus’ summary of the Law and the Prophets.
(2) the inability of many Christians to disagree without being contentious and to carry on civil and gracious dialogue. Rick Warren spoke about this not terribly long ago.
(3) the problem that many Christians are either libertine or legalistic, knowing no other alternative.
(4) the fact that Christianity has largely been about ideas, causes, and issues, rather than about the Person of Jesus Christ. (Jesus is often relegated as a footnote, a mascot, or a stamp.) What Len Sweet and I wrote in Jesus Manifesto about this is still very much needed today, I feel.