Book Review: Boiling Point, by George Barna
George Barna has been without a doubt the most frequently quoted author in all the books that are reviewed on this site. Not all of them, of course, quote Barna, but a substantial number do. Barna’s newest book is called Boiling Point, easily recognizable by its radioactive gold-foil cover. You’ll probably want to take the book jacket off before reading to minimize retinal damage, but in its favor, you won’t have any trouble finding it while perusing the “church-help” shelves at the bookstore. Barna’s book doesn’t say much that I haven’t read in other books, but the plethora of Barna-quotes I have found in other books makes me seriously wonder if Barna didn’t single-handedly come up with the notion of post-modernism. At the very least, he is the recognized evangelical Christian expert on all things cultural.
Boiling Point has ten chapters, ranging from religion to the global economy. After an introductory chapter on 1) the challenges, opportunities and inevitability of change, the book turns to discuss 2) changing demographics in America, 3) generational differences, 4) evolving values in America, 5) changes in lifestyle, 6) technological advance, 7) medical advance, 8) changes in business, 9) American religious beliefs, 10) religious practice, 11) the local church, 12) the global economy, and 13) international politics and one-world government. The best chapter in the book is chapter 9, “What Americans Really Believe.” Barna describes the results of a survey his group has done on the changing belief structures of Americans. What is most interesting about his findings are the egregious numbers of people who are identified as “born-again Christians” who reject some of the most foundational beliefs of the Christian faith. Some of the more egregious examples: ¼ of “born-again Christians” believe that Jesus was a sinner. 53% believe the Holy Spirit is just a “symbol, not a living entity.” 47% believe the same about Satan. (For some reason, we’re solid on the virgin birth—97% believe in that one.) Only 65% of “born-again Christians” believe that “People who do not consciously accept Jesus Christ as their Savior will be condemned to hell.” Fully 1 in 10 (“born-again” Christians, not the population at large) believe that “after death, some people are reincarnated in another life form.” 1 in 10!! What this tells me, first of all, is that there are millions of people in the world who call themselves “Christians,” who sit in our church pews and listen to our teaching, who are no more Christians than those who avowedly deny Christ. And second, it tells me that far too many churches have traitorously abandoned their God-given mission of preaching the gospel. Pastors, make sure that your sermons are filled with the truth of the gospel. The people sitting on your pews have no end of books and web-sites that will tell them how to be healthy, well-rounded people and have fulfilling friendships. But who besides the church is going to tell them the gospel? Who’s going to explain salvation to them? If you, pastor, don’t tell them about sin and hell, atonement and reconciliation, faith and justification, then where else exactly do you expect them to hear it? God has set up precisely one institution in the world where the most important truths in the universe can be heard. That’s it. And he has given you, as a pastor, the responsibility of faithfully bearing that charge. If you drop the ball, you can be sure that no one else is going to pick it up for you, and people are going to die because of it.
But back to George Barna. One of the reasons his books have been so popular must be that they so closely reflect the values of popular evangelicalism, for good or for ill. In many arenas, especially social and political, popular, suburban evangelicalism is, I believe, right on the mark. Boiling Point obviously comes from this culture, and it is clear why it is so popular there. The book shares almost all of the presuppositions of suburban evangelicalism, from the importance of Christian radio and small groups, to an emphasis on evangelism, to dispensational “Left Behind” premillenialism, all of which are evident throughout the book. Chapter 13, for example, is yet another warning against the United Nations and the European Union hurtling us toward a Nicolae Carpathia-ruled one-world government. (That’s the anti-Christ in Left Behind, by the way.)
Suburban evangelical culture today has a huge interest in what is happening in our society. In large part because of the very public legal and political fight over abortion, and now the emerging fight over attitudes to homosexuality, evangelical Christians have made a splash on the national public scene. Falwell’s Moral Majority and Robertson’s Christian Coalition are the most well-known of these attempts. It doesn’t take long flipping through Christian radio stations to figure out that evangelicals are intensely interested in what is happening in our country’s politics and legal issues. The most widely-heard Christian talk shows in the country are politically oriented (e.g. Janet Parshall’s “America”). The most widely-watched Christian television shows are focused on cultural, political, and legal issues (e.g. “The 700 Club”). Evangelical Christians are convinced that their battlefield is the political and the cultural. In large part, I can agree with that. I think Carl Henry was right to encourage Christians not to disengage from the culture, but to take it head on. It is good for Christians to be involved in politics and cultural commentary. It is good and necessary for Christians to be a vital part of America’s national conversation. What concerns me, though, is the possibility that the real good news of Christianity—the truths of sin and Christ’s atonement and faith—could get buried under the drive to elect the right man to the presidency. Is it really all that unrealistic to say that people have come to define Christianity more by advocacy of a certain set of cultural and political issues than by the message of salvation? If you tell someone on the street that you are a Christian, what comes to their mind? Is it, “This person believes that he is a sinner saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ?” No, more likely is that they think, “This person is a pro-life, anti-homosexual Republican who watches the 700 Club and hopes Pat Robertson runs for President next year.” That, friends, is not a good thing, and it does not speak well of Christians that we have helped our culture define us in that way. Books like Barna’s, though, have fueled that fire. The impression I get from reading his book (and from listening to Christian radio, for that matter) is that the job description of a Christian is to stem the moral decay in our country and make it as much as possible a Christian society. It is that idea, I think, that leads Barna to write over and over again sentences like, “We must become engaged and involved. . . . Christians are an important constituency in the public and private dialogue that must take place regarding the morals and ethics of pending possibilities,” (162-3). And in another place, “Keep pressure on our government to keep its eye on the ball. Providing strong national defense, a fair and unbiased legal system and an environment in which a market-driven economy can flourish are the primary functions of our government.” And again, “Prayerfully consider getting involved in local politics, supporting politicians who share your values, voting in elections and voicing an informed opinion to policy makers,” (300). And in one of the most telling sentences, “The positive spin on the reach of [computer] networks, of course, is that global communication of religious, democratic, and capitalistic ideologies are also unstoppable. Truly, we rapidly approach the day that the whole world will hear the good news of Jesus Christ,” (131) One wonders from that if the “good news of Jesus” includes democracy and capitalism as well as redemption.
When Christianity is understood in this way, it is not difficult to see how evangelism could come to be conceived of as a means to the end of reforming the culture. Evangelicals always put a high value on evangelism. In every evangelical book, whether about church growth or Barna-like statistics, evangelism is a theme that is hit hard and often. But it is interesting to note that very seldom is the motive to evangelism presented as the fact that individuals are going to be judged and condemned to hell. The motive is not presented as the glory of God and His Son in the redemption of sinful people. Instead, the motive is presented as cultural transformation. Consider these sentences: “When God changes people’s hearts, the culture in which they live will be altered in tangible ways,” (222). “We all know that the cultural change that has occurred in the last 10 years or so has not been for the better. . . .Much of this can be attributed to the heart condition of Americans,” (223). The motive to evangelism is ultimately to Christianize the culture. If enough people are evangelized, eventually the number of people who think and vote with a “Christian worldview” will rise to a critical mass and the culture will be reformed.
The church, for its part, exists to facilitate evangelism, and thus cultural reform. At least that’s the thinking. The upshot of that is that any form of church that looks like it might be efficient at disseminating the Christian message is hailed as a good and creative innovation. Barna, for instance, predicts that “You will find worshiping communities, confessing communities, dialoguing communities and faith-driven relational communities that exist entirely through digital communication [that is, the internet].” He continues with an evaluation: “The benefit of such a ministry medium is the reach it affords, along with the potential for honesty (driven by the protection of anonymity), widespread prayer support, and opportunities for personal expression and the development of relationships,” (251). A little further down, he describes the “Boutique Church”:
Thousands of unidimensional churches will spring up, offering people one type of ministry experience—e.g. worship, discipleship, fellowship, community service—on a regular basis and done with excellence. The key to making these churches effective is that they will be part of a network of boutique ministries that enables individual Christians to select a group of boutique ministries that will fulfill their personal needs and round out their spiritual experience. (251-2)
Whatever happened to the New Testament’s teaching that it is important for Christians to share one another’s lives? Whatever happened to the need for real human interaction, not filtered through an internet server? Whatever happened to serving and loving one another, even if our personal needs are not immediately filled and our spiritual experience not “rounded out,” as we would conceive it? A “boutique church” is the bitterest fruit I have ever heard of from the individualistic narcissism that characterizes so much of suburban evangelicalism. The thinking behind these ideas is that they will be useful in evangelism. People will want to be a part of internet and boutique churches. I think that’s a false and harmful idea. Our witness to the world as Christians is how we live together as a community. Jesus Himself said, “By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another,” (John 13:35). Loving one another in the deepest way—that is, sharing one another’s hurts and celebrations, sharing one another’s lives—is simply not possible in an internet or boutique church. God forbid that the church should move in that direction; our witness would be utterly dissolved.
Barna’s book certainly has some interesting statistics, and he makes some fascinating predictions. (I am especially looking forward to one day being able to download an object! p.142) I worry, though, that the role of the church and the gospel itself is lost in a drive for converts to the end of creating a Christianized culture. That is not the primary end of our labors. Our primary end is to preach the gospel and be the instruments of God’s glorifying Himself through the redemption of a lost world.