Barna Backhands God’s Providence?

Tim Brister —  January 2, 2008 — 9 Comments

A couple of days ago Joe mentioned to me a book by George Barna and Frank Viola which is scheduled to be released later this month called Pagan Christianity: Exploring the Roots of Our Church Practices. From a quick search on Amazon, what you will find is that this book is basically a face-lift of a previous book by Viola called Pagan Christianity: The Origins of Our Modern Church Practices which was published in 2003. In any case, many of you will remember Barna’s last book, Revolution, was less than enchanting (see Sam Storms‘, Chris Treat at Ref 21, and David Wayne’s reviews). David Miller explains in his review at CT,

Unlike the Great Awakenings, which brought people into the church, this new movement “entails drawing people away from reliance upon a local church into a deeper connection with and reliance upon God.” Already “millions of believers have stopped going to church,” so Barna expects that in 20 years “only about one-third of the population will rely upon a local congregation as the primary or exclusive means for experiencing and expressing their faith.”

Accordingly, the decline and decentralization of the church is an amazing and exciting thing. Well, it looks like Barna was just getting started.

In his newest release, Barna and Viola argue that the practices of the church are not derived from Scripture but have been developed from pagan influences throughout the ages. Such practices as ordained ministers, the centrality of preaching, order of worship, etc. are not a product of biblical fidelity as much as cultural syncretization, or so they say. If Revolution was to overthrow the existence of the local church, Pagan Christianity has the idea to overthrow the practice(s) of the local church.

In all of this, I cannot help but think that of all the problems that this book brings, not the least of which is the doctrine of God’s sovereignty and providence throughout church history. Perhaps I am wrong in my concerns. But I would strongly encourage you to check out Joe’s blog as he has begun blogging through the book this week. I intend to read the book soon and hope to interact with Barna/Viola as well.

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  • I haven’t read the book, obviously, but just the blurb makes me shake my head. Sermons are pagan? Choirs? Has he never heard of the synogogues? The temple? Has he read Acts?

    I’m afraid I’m going to be pretty hard to convince on this one.

  • Thank you for this helpful and discerning article. I also appreciate the link to Joe; he will do an excellent thorough job in critiquing this tome.

    We must remember that Barna is a pollster – not a pastor. He is not even an applied, careful student of God’s Word or an expositor. We should weigh his words not to heavily as being authoritative nor important.

    IMHO, if he had applied himself to not only read the pastoral epistles – but study them carefully, he would not have come up with some of tertiary conclusions he has so recklessly done.

    I could be wrong, but though this book is a genuine concern, I don’t think it will be widely embraced.

    Grace and peace to you,
    2 Cor. 4:5-7

  • Yeah, I find it really hard to believe that Barna could come up with such conclusions. I find it also a bit troubling that the editors of a major publishing house find this book acceptable for print.

    Here’s a couple more reviews:

    Trevin Wax

    Daryl Dash

  • Bill Nettles

    Amazon lists the publisher as “BarnaBooks” which I found through a search to be “an imprint of Tyndale House.”

    Sounds like Barna has his own editors and a contract with Tyndale. I suspect that Tyndale doesn’t do a lot of theological vetting on their “imprints.” They’re not exactly P&R or even Crossway.

    Barna is a culture-follower and he apparently thinks if you can justify culture’s drift from the local church then he’ll sell more books. I’m very cynical about his motive, plus recently his sampling methods have drifted down. I think he’s riding his own coat tails.

    For once, I’ll be interested to see what Warren and Hybels say, if they review this work.

  • I’m just wondering about whatever happened to The Second Coming of the Church!

    For a funny take, you’ve got to check out iMonk’s response. Here it is:

  • Brethren — The comments being made about PC raise a number of issues. To just select one for now, I think it is important to think through a few perspectives concerning “church.”

    Jesus said that he is indeed building his “ekklesia.” This word was used in the political area in the first century, referring to what we might call a “town meeting” — people with common concerns gathering together to take care of business.
    Thus at its root, ekklesia amounts to an action word. Ekklesia takes places when believers under Christ’s headship gather to do kingdom business, which can involve everything from singing (“each of you has a song”), confronting sin in the body (Mt.18:17; 1 Cor.5), resolving disputes (1 Cor.6), caring for the needy, etc.

    What I see in much of the discussion about Pagan Christianity is the very questionable assumption that everything that calls itself “church” can be equated with ekklesia. The truth is that much that has the label “church” does not in fact practice what ekklesia is all about. Ekklesia is organic and dynamic. “Church” for the most part has become institutional and the structures actually stifle the expression of ekklesia. That’s why so many people are concluding, “There much be more to church than this, I’m out of here…”

    So it is very possible that the ekklesia Christ has been building over the centuries cannot be equated with the visible “churches” that became Roman Catholicism and Protestantism. Ekklesia takes place wherever brethren are practicing those organic patterns displayed in the New Testament. Just because there is a building with people going in it to hear a sermon and put a check in the plate does not mean ekklesia is coming to expression.

    For another perspective on PC, I’d encourage people to check out this review.

    Frank Viola is responding to various objections at I suggest you read the book yourself and decide on its historical and biblical merits. One has to consider that it is highly unlikely that Tyndale would publish a book that was woefully inaccurate historically. I’ve been studying the issues raised in PC for 30 years, and I find the presentation to be painfully accurate. Don’t forget that the publisher’s founder (Tyndale) was declared a heretic and murdered because he went against the status quo of his day.

    Thank you for considering these points! Jon Zens

  • Jon,

    I agree with you that the church is an organism (body) and not an organization. But that does not mean there isn’t any organization, structure, or order to being the body. God has revealed in Scripture that the body of Christ has many members and parts with various gifts and purposes. The administration of these gifts is not something done spontaneously but orderly.

    I agree with others who are reviewing the book that Viola and Barna are asking and even recognizing some problems in current forms of ecclesiology, but their solutions and alternatives do not reflect what Scripture reveals to be “first century Christianity.”

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