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Pollster Prods Christian Conservatives

Change: George Barna stirs emotions in the evangelical world as he pushes for a more relevant church.

September 14, 2002|WILLIAM LOBDELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Pollster George Barna, best known these days as the bearer of bad tidings about the state of Christianity in America, arrived in his Ventura office a few minutes late for a 10 a.m. appointment.

His hair was ruffled. His eyes were puffy. His shoulders slouched. Being the George Gallup of the conservative evangelical world is a heavy burden for Barna, who often works into the early morning, deciphering numbers generated by his surveys to find church trends.

The lanky, 48-year-old author of 30 books, who describes himself as a raging introvert, is a popular national speaker. And he produces enough in-your-face statistics and blunt talk to irritate pastors, cost him business and earn a reputation for having, as one magazine put it, "the gift of discouragement."

His data undercut some of the core beliefs that should, by definition, set evangelical Christians apart from their more liberal brethren. Findings of his polls show, for example, that:

* The divorce rate is no different for born-again Christians than for those who do not consider themselves religious.

* Only a minority of born-again adults (44%) and a tiny proportion of born-again teenagers (9%) are certain that absolute moral truth exists.

* Most Christians' votes are influenced more by economic self-interest than by spiritual and moral values.

* Desiring to have a close, personal relationship with God ranks sixth among the 21 life goals tested among born-agains, trailing such desires as "living a comfortable lifestyle."

"Are people's lives being transformed" by Christianity? Barna has asked. "We can't find evidence of a transformation."

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Wide Impact

Even Barna's toughest critics concede that Barna Research Group's polls carry considerable weight because of Barna's first-rate surveying techniques and his 17-year record of tracking church and cultural trends.

His work has been used by major companies (Ford Motor Co. and Walt Disney, for example) and religious organizations such the Billy Graham Evangelistic Assn. and World Vision.

"He is the accepted authority on church trends," said Bob Cavin, director of the Texas Baptist Leadership Center. "He gives pastors insight, not only into the effectiveness of the church, but with trends in society that helps the pastors with their strategic planning."

Because of his influence, many are watching with interest as a frustrated Barna begins branching out from his usual business. He has been preoccupied with quantifying contemporary Christian beliefs, attitudes and practices; comparing them with biblical truths; and delivering the results to pastors, Christian leaders and laity. He said that he once hoped that his analyses would be used as building blocks for more relevant churches.

But he decided earlier this year to take a more proactive role by helping to identify and develop a new and better generation of church leaders who will boldly go where their predecessors haven't gone before: to radically revamp the church. He said he believes the process will take decades--generations--to complete.

"One of our challenges is to revisit the structures and means through which people experience Christ," Barna said. "People have been talking about developing the 'new church' for the past several decades, but nothing new has been forthcoming. The time is right."

According to Barna, pastors are great teachers, but not necessarily adept at leadership. To back up his claim, he cited one of his own polls: It showed that only 12% of senior pastors say they have the spiritual gift of leadership and 8% say they have the gift of evangelism. In contrast, two-thirds say they have the gift of teaching or preaching.

"We, not God, have created a system that doesn't work and that we're reluctant to change," said Barna, who addresses the problem in his latest book, "A Fish Out of Water."

Barna also is in the early stages of an effort to establish a genuine and appealing Christian presence in secular entities: film, music, media and politics. He has identified these as the institutions that hold the most influence over Americans, a position once held by the church.

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Concerns Underscored

What is needed is the effort of "skilled professionals who love Christ and model his ways through their thoughts, words and behavior in enviable and biblically consistent ways," he said.

For Barna, the need for better leadership and better Christian role models in the secular world was underscored by a poll his company released earlier this month.

The survey showed that the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks had virtually no lasting effects on America's faith, despite a 20% rise in church attendance during the first few weeks afterward.

"We missed a huge opportunity," he said, adding that, because of their own shallow faith, church regulars needed so much reassurance themselves that they couldn't minister to newcomers.

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