I've been reading Revolution by George Barna and a few people want to know what I think of this little book. Barna is attempting to describe and encourage a new kind of "revolutionary" who has "chosen to live in concert with core biblical principles" which puts him/her at odds with both the world and the established church. Hey, that sounds like my kind of revolutionary! Many of his criticisms of established churches are fair enough. He says these revolutionaries "have no use for churches that play religious games, whether those games are worship services that drone on without the presence of God, or ministry programs that bear no spiritual fruit."
Revolutionaries eschew ministries that compromise or soft sell our sinful nature to expand organizational turf. The refuse to follow people in ministry leadership positions who cast personal vision rather than God's, who seek popularity rather than the proclamation of truth in their public statements, or who are more concerned about their own legacy than that of Jesus Christ. (pg. 14)
One of the common characteristics of these revolutionaries is that they have left the local church. According to Barna, that's a good thing. He explains that the "Bible neither describes, nor promotes the local church as we know it today," though he admits it has existed for 2,000 years. Therefore, Barna argues that one can be a radical revolutionary, who is following Jesus and doing Kingdom work, apart from a local church. He says, "My goal is to help you be a Revolutionary... Whether you become a Revolutionary immersed in, minimally involved in, or completely disassociated from a local church is irrelevant to me (and, within boundaries, to God). What matters most is not whom you associate with (i.e., a local church), but who you are."
I agree that many of our established churches have lost their way; some doctrinally, others missionally, and some are not churches at all. I also agree that traditional church forms and structures that are not purely biblical, must be evaluated, changed, and in some cases dropped altogether. Program driven models abound where the bulk of our "kingdom work" is Bible study, and making disciples who can live very private, personal spiritual lives that rarely touch anyone else. Churches are ultimately weak when all we are doing is "ministry" to one another, producing followers of Jesus who know some of his doctrine but not his ways. When church life consists of intellectual learning and not sacrificial service there is a major problem. I am wrestling with that as a Christian and pastor; so are many other local churches. Many are discovering a biblical/missional model of church life that redeems us from our navel gazing, holy huddles. There is room for cultural accommodation and new models of church within the spectrum of what qualifies as "biblical." But Barna goes beyond this to say that the "congregational model of the church" is not biblical, or unbiblical, but abiblical (something not addressed in Scripture).
What isn't Biblical about the local church? Barna explains that the "congregational model" of church is a "definable group of people who regularly meet at the same place to engage in religious routines and programs under the guidance of a paid pastor who provides doctrinal teaching and organizational direction." What he calls "religious routines" some might rightly call sacraments. Meeting regularly? Pastoral guidance? I believe most of these things are biblical and necessary, though they can and should look different than what is popularly experienced.
His emphasis on the church universal, "The Church," is out of balance. I'm no Landmarker, and therefore believe the Bible does teach that all believers are a part of God's universal Church regardless of local church affiliation. But the bulk of the New Testament speaks of and to local churches that are characterized by the very things he dismisses, and one he does not address - discipline.
One of my concerns is that many of the young, disenfranchised Christians will read or hear this and decide they want to be "revolutionaries" (a very cool thing to be) and bail on a local congregation. Maybe one ought to leave their local church, but they should do so with the hope of finding a fellowship to be a part of where the word is preached, the ordinances (sacraments) are administered, discipline is practiced, and the Gospel is proclaimed in word and works in the community. Such people could even be the seed of a new work, but Barna's book does not encourage that as much as it does an individualistic, go-west-young-man form of spirituality.
In the end, I find the book reckless. I have never looked to Barna for theological accuracy and strength, but with his latest book he's passionately trying to drive people in a new direction, one that ultimately works against the way God has designed us to function. Unfortunately, I believe he will be successful in encouraging people to go their own way at the expense of the communities of faith God would have us belong to. Let's call for reformation where needed, let's be revolutionaries in our day with the Gospel of God's grace. Let's be radical enough to allow sola scriptura to form our beliefs and practices as God leads us into the world to accomplish his will.
I agree that the church in America is in bad shape. Evangelical churches, Southern Baptist Churches, our "Bible-believing" churches need to experiences reformation and revival. This is yet another book that raises some very good questions, diagnoses some of our major problems, but does not come up with the right answers and solution. For some solid reading on what the church can be try this eclectic mix: Mark Driscol's The Radical Reformission, Darrell Guder's The Continuing Conversion of the Church, Richard Baxter's Reformed Pastor, Mark Dever's The Deliberate Church. You may not agree with everything in these books, and not all of it will apply in your context, but these books have something worth reading and implementing. Read the ones you are not familiar with. If you have any recommendations, leave 'em here in the comments.