New Barna Research – The Dangers of Defining Down our Relationship with Jesus

In my first blog I noted the need for a discipleship movement to help believers grow to spiritual maturity. Earlier this month, Barna Research Group released its latest survey data, conducted as part of an annual survey going back twenty years, and the trends identified make it even clearer than before that we need a renewed focus on discipleship. You can read the Barna findings and the commentary here: You can also read additional commentary from George Barna at
Barna’s research confirms what many of us have seen firsthand in our churches. His research shows significant declines in church attendance, Sunday School attendance, Bible reading, trust in the accuracy of the Bible, and a dramatic rise in the number of those “unchurched.” But, strangely, at the same time, there has been an increase (5%) in the number of people who profess a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.
Now, one would think amid the drop in almost every other statistic, we would see a drop in this one as well. What is going on? Well, Barna has a theory, and I think he’s on track:
“I think part of the explanation for why we are seeing increases in being born again has to do with how we market salvation… The research indicates that almost all of the people who are accepting Christ as their savior do so without being truly broken of their sins. They say the prayer to ask for forgiveness, but not with a heart that is shattered by the reality of their sin in the context of their relationship with God. We have a lot more people who think they’re born again, based on following prescribed procedures, than we have people who experience true grief and sorrow for their sins and shift to total dependence upon Christ. They have acknowledged and confessed their sins but are not turning their life over to God or seeking His guidance in all matters. They understand salvation intellectually but they don’t allow a deeper and more complete transformation to occur.” George Barna, August 2 commentary on his website.
I think this gets to the heart of how we can see many churches growing in number but still not see the transformational change we expect to see in people who follow Christ and accept him as their Lord and Savior. As a church, we are reaching people and witnessing to them, but we are doing very little to help them grow into spiritual maturity. This, I believe, is the great crisis facing the church today.
Barna would seem to agree. In his article on his new book Maximum Faith, he writes:
“If you were to objectively evaluate all the data, as I have tried to do, I believe you would reach the same conclusion that I have: astoundingly few Americans who identify themselves as Christians – and even a minority of those who might be deemed to be “born again” by traditional measures – appear to be serious about letting God transform them into the person He desires them to be. “
Even when it comes to “born again” believers, Barna, also in this article, sees the same problem:
“Even if we narrow the scope of our focus to born-again Christians, the picture is not flattering. In essence, the born-again community has invited God to reside in our hearts, accepting the special gift of love and forgiveness that He offered, along with His promise of eternal salvation. Sadly, once we felt certain that we had His gift securely in hand, we abandoned Him and have continued to operate by the standards and values of the world, searching for earthly treasures and pleasures. That is why the research has consistently shown over the past two decades that the lives of born-again Christians are essentially indistinguishable from those of people who do not claim Jesus Christ as their savior. We may be “religious” but we are not truly transformed by our faith in and relationship with God. Only a tiny proportion of born again adults get beyond their profession of faith to experience the more robust and significant life that is available through Christ to His followers.”
In our discipleship programs, we have noticed a dramatic difference in people once they get to the point of “absolute surrender” to Christ. Once they turn everything over to God, the Holy Spirit begins to truly transform that person. We have neglected this teaching in the church today. Paul writes, “…In view of God’s mercy, offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God – this is your spiritual act of worship.” (Romans 12:1) Too often, our churches focus on things that are easily measured, but we neglect the harder, perhaps more significant, challenge of helping people in their walk to spiritual maturity. I am not suggesting we pull back in the mission of evangelism, but each of us individually and the church as a whole needs to confront the broader mission of making disciples and recognizing that evangelism and discipleship are two sides of the same coin. An article by Regis Nicoll in the upcoming Fall issue of Knowing & Doing gives some helpful guidance to churches who want to focus more on discipleship.
If the disturbing trends from Barna’s research continue, we will be left with churches that are hollow at the core, and with an even more shallow understanding of what it means to walk with Christ and be transformed.
One bit of good news in the findings is that much of the statistical drop took place in the decade from 1991-2001, and the trends leveled off after that. I pray that we have hit bottom and are beginning the long climb back.
Please pray that God will raise up a new generation of leaders with an anointing for discipleship, and that pastors, other church leaders, and ministry leaders will begin to focus on discipleship alongside evangelism. I continue to pray that the Holy Spirit will spark a discipleship movement in this nation and beyond that will build the church back up to be even stronger than before. Please join me in that prayer.

Kerry Knott

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2 Responses to New Barna Research – The Dangers of Defining Down our Relationship with Jesus

  1. It is certainly tragic when we read of the results of Barna Group’s research. It is my belief that there needs to be some real soul-searching done. We need to go back to the Bible (each one of us for ourselves) and let the Bible define for us what being “born again” really is – and then ask ourselves, “Has this been my experience? – Am I truly ‘born again’?”

    When Jesus described salvation as being “born again”, he was describing a critical, life-changing event (think what a change of existence that first, natural birth brings as a child is removed from its mother’s womb). Paul describes it as becoming a “new creation” – the “new birth” it would seem is not an insignificant event – it is very profound and life-changing. So, I think one of the reasons Barna’s research disappoints us is that we have a problem with our definition of what the new birth is.

    Secondly, and this has been an issue from the beginning – many who are born do not grow to maturity. The early church worked on this problem as evidenced by the epistles. Jesus warned that there were different types of soil onto which the Word would fall as seed. One kind would not even allow the seed to germinate before the devil stole it away – these people are never “born again”. The other types of soil seem to describe those who are “born again” and then go on to to maturity or not. The second reason, Barna’s research disappoints us is because those who have not gone on to maturity continue to claim their “new birth” even though they may not be actively following Christ.

    So, we need to first of all make sure our definition of the “new birth” is truly the Biblical one. Secondly, we need to recognize that many people who may have truly been “born again” just have not gone on to growth and maturity – they have not continued to be Christians in heart and practice – they have become Christians in name only.

    It might be worthwhile to ask – just what good can we derive from Barna Group’s research? I do think there is good to be had. I think the greatest benefit can be in causing us to get back to God’s Word and re-examining our own theology and Christian walk. Let’s not be too inclusive – let’s not be so anxious to define someone as a Christian as to make it too easy. Let’s let God’s Word define (rightly dividing the Word) what a true disciple is – it is supposed to involve taking up a cross in our lives, you know.

  2. Amy Grace says:

    Thank you for your insights on discipleship. I have been crying out for wisdom and searching the Scriptures in this area and rereading many of the C. S. Lewis books and others, which led me to you. It so touched me to read in his Letters to Children his response to a mother concerned over her son’s attachment to Aslan when he observed that trying to force emotions is useless. In my own walk with God, the Holy Spirit has moved me to deeper levels of repentance through both “godly sorrow’ and the “Goodness of God.” Jesus’ disciples asked Him to teach them to pray and as we pray the Scriptures and meditate on them God is always faithful to His Word. As I’ve integrated the “Prayer of Jabez’ into the “Lord’s Prayer,” I’ve found God is enlarging my “territory” and my heart for people. That love causes me to ask for more wisdom and excellent books such as those of Lewis, and those he read, help us to be ready to give and answer to all who ask us; not TV and junk reading. May the Lord continue to give us great hunger for His Word and Truth!

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