Questions by Dries Conje, originally published in Book Disciple.
Tell us a bit about yourselves … How did you end up where you are, serving God and bearing fruit for Him?
George: I began by managing political campaigns for people running for Congress and other elective offices. I enjoyed the speech writing and survey research most, so I returned to grad school to get more degrees in research, then began working for a large marketing research firm. One of our clients was a Christian media management company, which eventually hired me to run their research and marketing operations. After several years, my wife and I felt called to begin a company that provided strategic information for ministry leaders. Consequently, we returned to California to start The Barna Research Group in an effort to provide current, accurate and reliable information in bite-sized pieces, at affordable costs, to ministries so that they could make better strategic decisions. Along the way I’ve had the privilege of writing books that allow us to disseminate the information to a wider audience, along with all the articles and other free information we post on our website (www.barna.org). I’ve also been able to serve various roles in churches, from teaching pastor at a megachurch to founding elder in a church plant, and currently, as the leader and teacher in a house church.
Frank: After I retired from Major League pitching, I quickly became bored. So I started writing controversial Christian books J. Just kidding. Ever since I’ve been a Christian, I’ve questioned the things we do and sought to evaluate them by the teachings of Jesus and the apostles. This has led me on an interesting journey, one that has landed me on a path that many have called “the deeper Christian life” which includes a fresh understanding and experience of the church.
As for serving God, I had many opportunities to publically serve the Lord in my 20s, but I came to conclusion that I wasn’t ready. I first needed to know Christ deeply, and I needed to understand His church experientially. Therefore, I spent my 20s learning those two things: Jesus Christ and theexperience of the body of Christ.
Most of my peers were doing something different. They were taking leadership positions in parachurch organizations, some became pastors, some missionaries, etc. When we all hit the age of 30, something telling happened. Most of them burned out and a number of them aren’t even following the Lord today. When I was 31 years old, the organic church of which I was a part laid hands on me and sent me out to begin the work of planting organic churches. And I’ve been engaged in it ever since.
Guys, I guess it is fair to say that Pagan Christianity is causing a bit of a stir. Maybe even more so now that George Barna’s name has been added to the second edition of this book. How, and why, did you two work together for the second edition of Pagan Christianity?
Frank: When George discovered the book and expressed interest in publishing it, I was thrilled because this meant that the message would get out to a much wider audience. George, being a seminal researcher, also added a good bit to it and made it a stronger and more compelling book. I’m very pleased that the book continues to change lives. So many have written to us saying the same thing, “I always knew that there was more to Jesus Christ and His church than what I have experienced. Thank God I’m not out of my mind!”
George: When I was writing the book, Revolution, I searched high and low for a book that described how the conventional church became what it is today. I couldn’t find such a book. After Revolutionwas published, one reader sent me a note asking if I had read a book called Pagan Christianity. I’d never heard of it but got a copy and realized it contained much of the information I had searched for in vain. We contacted Frank and discussed the possibility of producing a revised version, which is what Tyndale has published. Frank did an amazing quantity and quality of research that forms the foundation of the book, and I was able to add a few insights to the revised edition.
It looks like a meticulously well-researched book on which you spend an enormous amount of time. How long did it take to write the book?
Frank: Ever since I’ve been a Christian I’ve studied church history. My feeling is that if we don’t know the past, we are doomed to repeat its mistakes. As Hegel once said, “The only thing that history has taught us is that men learn nothing from it.” I would like to see that trend broken. Nonetheless, the initial research for this particular book took around four or five years. When George and I collaborated, it took around a year for us to put the new version together.
After reading the book, I am sure that many people will want to experience Church like Jesus wants us to be the Church. Leaving the institution and establishing a gathering of disciples at someone’s house is not an easy process. Do you have any advice for these followers of Jesus?
Frank: Yes, I’ve written a very practical article that answers this very question. (It’s been expanded into a book called Finding Organic Church.)
George: My own experience has been that as you talk to people about matters of faith, their hopes, dreams and experiences become evident. It was fairly easy for us to initiate our house church simply by listening to other people who were frustrated with their experience in a conventional church. We asked several families if they would be interested in exploring an alternative way of being the Church rather than just going to a church event every week, started by spending a few months studying the Bible’s teaching about what it means to be part of the Church, and then organized our community around the things we had learned. Through the studies conducted by The Barna Group on house churches across the nation, we’ve found that one of the most challenging aspects is having a good leader to keep things focused and organized. We have been fortunate in that regard.
To George: What books are you working on now and how will they help move Christians forward from the things you’ve written in Revolution and Pagan Christianity?
George: In May I will have a book release entitled The Seven Faith Tribes that delves into the seven dominant faith groups in America, and challenges us to rethink how we are attempting to be good citizens at the same time that we try to integrate our fundamental faith principles into our lifestyle and have a positive influence on the world for Christ. The old strategies don’t work in this new world, but there are strategies that will produce spiritual fruit. In June I have a book, co-authored with Tony and Felicity Dale, entitled The Rabbit and The Elephant, describing how to get involved in a healthy simple church. In September I’ll have a book entitled Master Leader, which draws insights into leadership from more than two dozen of the best leaders in the country. The leaders I’ve interviewed for that book come from ministry, government, business, military, education, sports and entertainment. It has been mind-boggling getting inside the heads of these incredible leaders.
To Frank: We see from other materials that you recommend an apostle or worker visiting the house church after an Aquila, Priscilla type of role has been fulfilled by some starters. What if we are in Africa, and we can’t get a worker or apostle to visit, indefinitely? What should we do then?
Frank: I’ve never seen a situation where those who sought apostolic help didn’t get it. One of my coworkers has been to Africa, for example. Another brother and I are planning to go there next year in fact :). I read the NT once and somewhere in there it says, “you receive not because you ask not.” The truth is that lots of groups don’t receive apostolic help because they have never invited an extra-local worker to visit them.
If, however, a group asks for extra-local help and every person they invite says “I can’t come at this time,” I believe the Lord will sustain them until they get sufficient help. That’s been my experience anyway.
In your opinion, is it at all possible to move closer to an organic house gathering with a few Christian friends while staying involved with the institution?
Frank: Yes, it is. However, according to my experience, once God’s people touch and experience true, authentic organic church life, they have little time for institutional church programs and services. (Many people, quite frankly, lose interest in such things after they experience body life for a while. Instead, they are wrecked to know and express Christ in the setting of Christian community.) Properly understood and experienced, organic church is a shared-life together. It’s not a once or twice a week “event,” and there are only so many hours in a week. I trust that makes sense.
George: Our research shows that currently, most of the people involved in various types of organic churches have kept one foot in the conventional church world. As Frank indicates, it’s a difficult balancing act to pull off successfully because it’s not simply about attending events and programs, but about a commitment to a community. More often than not, the balancing act lasts only as long as necessary to ensure the individual that he/she has found a healthy faith community, at which time they make the transition from their old place to a new community.
To George: What trends do you see happening among those who remain a part of the institutional church, among pastors, and among Christians who are gathering in alternative forms of churches?
George: Among the trends of interest are:
- the impact that the growing reduction in donations to conventional churches will have over the next 12-18 months;
- the changing of the guard in Christian leadership, away from the spokespeople of the past 25 years to a new group of leaders, in addition to the transition in local church leadership to an increasing percentage of pastors who are under 40 and a growing number of female senior pastors in conventional churches;
- the increasing percentage of people are sampling alternative forms of church meeting;
- the aggressive marketing of atheists;
- the shifting moral and ideological positions of the born again community, largely driven by the under-40 crowd and emboldened by the Obama victory;
- the rapid growth of church franchising, through the multi-campus model adopted by many megachurches;
- the rise in ecumenism, again driven by young adults, in which increasing numbers of people believe that all of the major faiths essentially believe the same thing;
- the challenge of raising up strong leaders to lead organic churches. There is more interest in participating in a house church than there are leaders who are capable of facilitating the meetings of the growing numbers of people who are inclined to test those waters;
- and the increasing media addiction, especially among children and adolescents, that is altering the nature of relationships, life goals and scheduling.
To Frank: I have read Reimagining Church about halfway through. I think after reading Pagan Christianity, people are in dire need of some very practical advice on how to move forward.
Frank: To my mind, there’s another step that must be taken if we will see lasting change. We Westerners want formulas, quick solutions, and five steps before we even understand the problem andthe solution. We think in terms of add water and stir, even when we don’t grasp the bigger picture. It’s for this reason that many movements crash and burn within five years.
Pagan Christianity was only one part of the argument – a very introductory part. It deconstructed what we do in our churches today, exposing their roots and challenging their spiritual value. Reimagining Church begins the second part of the argument, which answers the question: “Okay, if the modern institutional church doesn’t map to God’s original intention, then what does a church look like that does? If the institutional church was never God’s perfect idea, then what should stand in its place?”
Reimagining Church is a positive answer to that question. It roots the practice of the church in both the NT and the Trinity. It also gives practical examples of what it looks like in our day and time. It paints a picture of the main characteristics of organic church life that will always be present if the church is truly organic, despite time, culture, or location.
Let me give you an analogy of what I’m talking about. Consider a puzzle. You can’t easily put a puzzle together without looking at the picture on the box. Pagan Christianity pointed out that the picture on the box was wrong. So that’s why the pieces weren’t fitting together. Reimagining Church presents a new picture for the box, one that I believe is painted by the New Testament narrative. The book isn’t trying to reconstruct a first century church for the 21st century. Instead, it describes the main features of “the organic expression of the church” that will always emerge regardless of space or time. That’s because it’s rooted in the eternal Trinity and the timeless teachings of Jesus.
Now, here’s the problem. Many Christians want to start putting the puzzle together before they’ve even seen the picture on the box. The result is that the pieces still won’t fit together. So the temptation is to try and force them to fit into what we have previously known in organized Christianity.
Example: Sometimes I get emails from people who have read Pagan Christianity, but not the follow-up book. They hit the ground running only to hit a brick wall. They tell me, “We’ve started an organic church and we’re having this problem and that problem, etc.” However, when they describe their “church” to me, it’s not organic at all. It’s just another version of performance-based, duty-driven, institutional, clergy-led Christianity. When these same people read Reimagining Church, they respond by saying, “Oh, now I get it. I just read the deconstruction without first understanding the construction.”
That’s where we should begin. We begin with what Paul called “the heavenly vision.” Without a vision, the people disintegrate (Proverbs says). So let’s first get an understanding of what organic church life is before we put our fallen hands to the plow of trying to create such a thing ourselves. Let’s first remove the old garments of Babylon and behold the city of Jerusalem before we begin rebuilding her walls. If not, we will unwittingly repeat what we know in institutional Christianity. I’ve seen it too many times to count.
Right now, I’m working on a very practical book that gets into the “putting the pieces together” part. It’s a discussion on how churches were planted in the NT, and how those principles can and should be reclaimed today.
Again, we Westerners want all of this reduced to five steps. A flower doesn’t grow into full bloom in a day. It takes planting, watering, time and patience. This is one reason why there is so much superficiality and shallowness in much of Christianity today. I was speaking at a conference recently and many 20 and 30 year olds attended. One of my coworkers and I met with them for lunch, and we had a great conversation. Some of them said that the thing that drew them to organic church life was the depth, the purity, the Christ-centeredness, and the authenticity. The churches, parachurch organizations, and mission organizations they all knew were shallow, superficial, and in many respects, unreal. Those are their words.
On the heels of all that, some of my friends have created a website for those who are asking practical questions: www.HouseChurchResource.org. It’s only been up for about a year, but the site is connecting thousands of Christians throughout the world in this new move of God and helping to plant new churches that gather under the headship of Jesus Christ all throughout the world. We are in the beginning stages of this work. And it’s very exciting.
Once a person has read your books, and moved away from the institution, planted a house church, and gotten to know each other well, how do we become missional? How do we really impact our community in a way that Jesus would have done?
George: It’s a matter of volitional obedience. You do not become missional by getting into a program or by developing events that have an external orientation. The foundation is to have a heart dedicated to God and His principles, which include an outward, service-oriented perspective. One of the reasons America has so few missional churches is because they contain so few people who are truly sold out to the purposes and principles of Christ. In that regard, every community of faith, regardless of its nature or structure, faces the same challenges: facilitating the transformation of people’s minds and hearts. To become more missional requires accountability for one’s commitment; leadership that focuses us on the core scriptural principles through modeling, through vision, and through applauding people’s investment in missional endeavors; teaching that underscores the fundamental values of our faith; and a community dedicated to being the Church that Christ died for, in all of its biblical aspects. These needs are the same, no matter what type of faith community we discuss, conventional or organic.
Frank: Mission begins with understanding God’s eternal purpose. There is no mission outside of that. The Missio Dei is nothing other than God’s eternal purpose (Eph. 3:11).
God’s purpose goes beyond saving souls and helping the poor and oppressed. It’s much higher than that, and it goes beyond the meeting of human needs (though it includes it). It has to do with satisfying something in the burning heart of God Himself. I dedicate an entire chapter on the eternal purpose in Reimagining, and my next book will discuss it in great detail.
The churches that I’m in relationship with are truly missional in that:
1) They understand that God’s mission is His eternal purpose, which is God-centered rather than man-centered. Bringing lost people to Jesus Christ has a higher goal than simply preparing them for heaven or motivating them to get other people saved.
2) They understand that God’s mission is fulfilled not by human efforts, trying to do good works, getting people motivated by religious duty and obligation, but by living by the indwelling life of Jesus Christ. How did Jesus fulfill God’s mission in His earthly days? Christ learned how to live by an indwelling Father. That’s how He did it. He would often say, “Without my Father, I can do nothing … it’s not me, but the Father doing it.” And then He turned around and said to us, “Without me you can do nothing.” In the same way, a “missional” church that will bear fruit that has eternal value is learning how to live by an indwelling Christ. Unfortunately, many Christians have never been taught how to live by Christ, and so they are trying to serve God in their own strength.
3) They understand that mission is not focused on the individual or individual discipleship, but on the life of Christ being shared and expressed by a local community that is learning how to live and meet under Christ’s headship. So the real question comes down to: What is mission according to the New Testament, and what is the vehicle for its fulfillment?
The answer: A) God’s eternal purpose and B) learning to live by an indwelling Christ in the context of Christian community that gathers by, through, and to Jesus Christ alone. These two themes were neglected in the first missional movement of the 1970s. And that’s one main reason why it died and gave way to the seeker-sensitive movement. Yet the root and goal of both was the same: The central focus was the meeting of human needs instead of God’s ageless purpose and ultimate passion.
Today we are in a second wave of the missional movement, which has some of its own unique nuances to match our postmodern world. My hope and plea is this: let’s not repeat the mistakes of the first missional movement, but identify and correct them.
If we will make mistakes, let’s make new ones.