The Barna Group has come out with another provocative statistical study on the American church (you can see it here HT Ed Stetzer). Ed Stetzer refers to it in his blog post here. The implication of the study is that the larger the church is – the more conservative its theology. One might be led to think that this means the larger churches – bigger than 1000 – are doing a better job of discipling people into orthodox believers than smaller churches.
Now I know most people, including Ed, are not going to jump to such an overly simplistic conclusion. A perusal of the comments from Ed’s post already gives one an immediate glimpse of the cynical cloud that hovers over these statistics. So no need to try to undermine the validity of this study and the way it has gone about gathering these statistics. Instead I’d like to ask the question: is it possible these statistics tell us more about what it means “to be born again” than the conservative/orthodox quality of the mega-churches’ theology? I suggest that far from revealing that the mega church somehow nurtures/disciples orthodoxy better than small churches, we see that “born again” (along with the other terms Barna uses to locate evangelical orthodoxy) hardly means what it used mean, that indeed the born again revivalist and activist Christianity of my parents and grand parents generation is on a stark decline. What we really have here is the morphing of what it means to believe in an inerrant Bible, a divine Christ and a conversionist theology into a very vapid form of Christianity best thought of in terms of Christendom (as opposed to a vibrant revivalist evangelical activist Christianity we most often associate with these words).
I am in the middle of a writing project that describes how the main markers of traditional evangelicalism – high view of Scripture, conversionist soteriology (you must be born again) and an evangelistic activism – do not mean what they used to mean in their evangelical origins say prior to WW2. They have become belief structures, ideological objects, identifiers which in effect mean less and less in our real lives yet somehow enable us to go on claiming a very secure identity as Christians – the identity of an evangelical Bible believing Christian who knows where he/she is going when she dies! The actual practice of a high view of Scripture – i.e that this is God’s history of Mission in the world continuing on to this day, the actual practice of born again conversion – a visceral repentance and turning towards a Christian life of repentance, reconciliation, and service to God’s Mission in the world, has become an ideology where these dramatic ways of life are lost, and instead organized into corporate forms of behavior that have little impact in people’s concrete living and the Christian engagement of society. This is of course a description of what happens when Christianity becomes accommodated to an existing culture. The point then is: far from telling us that it is the true believers, orthodox Christians, the “born again, Bible believing, evangelistically oriented, vibrant Christians” that go to mega churches, this survey of Barna might actually tell us something quite different: that the remainders of what’s left of Christianity have been herded into the large mega churches to live out their days in a much more comfortable socially accommodative form of Christianity. OK, this might be harsh – but I’m just asking!!
From all indications, Barna didn’t survey the growing band of missional communities I am in communication with. I don’t blame Barna: for one – these communities are hard to find – they don’t advertise a lot!! But here, these small communities (under 200, many under 50) live Scripture in ways rarely visible in corporate Christianity. In the way they submit their lives to Scripture, its call on their lives daily, they show their assent to a high view of its authority in their lives. Here in these missional communities they believe in the divine Jesus and seek to follow him. They believe in conversion, but that conversion is more than a momentary decision, it is the turning into/the baptizing into an entire new life under His Lordship. I AM NOT SAYING THIS IS NOT VISIBLE TO SOME EXTENT IN THE MEGA CHURCHES. But I am suggesting that the high view of Scripture, the assent to Christ divinity, the believe in a “born again” life is not simply assented to but is forced to be a form of living for the smaller missional communities. Their form of organization allows for nothing else. After all, who would want to go to such a small organic community unless they were intentional in these ways? This is something completely missed by Barna’s survey.
To be sure, mega-church Christianity is organized to be accessible to individuals. We should not be surprised then when individualist aspects of Christianity (the personal born again experience, the inerrant Bible perspicuously available to each individual) find their largest prevalence in large churches. Likewise, the protestant mainline churches which have long been in decline, aren’t as attached to individualist Christianity. We should then not be surprised that their churches will be smaller more communal. The real lessons from these Barna numbers however, may be that a.) It is the smaller missionally- minded communities of younger evangelicalism that might be the ones truly living out these beliefs, and, while this is happening b.) Christendom (what’s left of it) continues to consolidate into the mega church.
I’m open for comments and push back on this interpretation of Barna.