“Viva la Revolución!” (Again!)

From the Parousia Weekly Update Letter For The Week of January 26, 2006

A feline fracas is fomenting and the fur is flying fast and furious (don’t you just love alliteration). I’m referring of course, to the release of Barna’s latest and perhaps most controversial book, Revolution. And the current fracas involves a recent commentary by the editor of Charisma magazine, J. Lee Grady, in which he pretends to review Barna’s book. Unfortunately, he didn’t review the book. He simply popped a cork and vented. And frankly, I thought it was embarrassing. Now, in order to be fair, if you would like to read the commentary for yourself, you can click on the following link where we have it posted:

O.K. Now that I’ve been fair, I want to address his points, what few he actually made. According to Charisma, Barna is “advocating the demise of the local church.” Nope, sorry. Barna’s merely reporting a demise which was well underway when he published his first book, Frog In The Kettle, back in 1990 and which has been steadily accelerating in our Post Modern culture. The difference now is that in Revolution Barna has drawn a disturbing conclusion, namely, that the life, nature and expression of “church” as we have known it is undergoing a radical transformation, led by people whom Barna labels “Revolutionaries” (hence, the title for the book, Revolution).

At this point I need to discuss a glaring omission in both Barna’s book and in Charisma’s commentary, specifically, the absence of any clear definition of what constitutes “local church.”  Barna does distinguish between “church” with a “little c” (a local gathering of believers) and “Church” with a “capital C” (the Church consisting of all believers everywhere), and he does hint that by “local church” he is referring to the traditional congregational model. But still, no definition of what actually constitutes a “local church” is ever clearly given (a point which I originally made in my preview article of this book in my e-letter of


). The “assumed” definition appears to be that a “local church” consists of a traditional, institutional, identifiable congregational gathering of believers meeting in a facility for programs and preaching, led by a paid pastor & staff and overseen by a governing board of some description (denominational ties optional). Both Barna and Charisma appear to be basing their arguments on some such definition of “local church.” There is a further assumption that anything falling outside of this definition cannot (by definition) and does not constitute a “local church,” and therein lies the problem (btw, this definition is what has maintained and fueled the “church vs para-church” debate for well over 50 years).

This now inevitably confronts us with three questions: First, is this definition of “local church” accurate? Second, is this definition of “local church” biblical? And third, how do we in the “emerging church” movement (of which house church is a significant part and for which Barna is becoming a significant advocate) define the concept of “local church” (by doing so we also define house church)?  As I observed in my letter of 10/17/05 (posted in our E-Letter archives on our website if you’re interested), “The emerging church movement, and more specifically the house church movement, is about to be thrust front and center into a huge national church debate on the very nature of church paradigms, and in this unfolding debate, ‘He who defines the terms wins the argument.’“  Wow, sometimes I hate being right!

So, here are my answers to these three questions. First, yes this definition of “local church” which underlies both Barna and Charisma is “culturally accurate” in that it is an accurate description of how our culture (both inside and outside of the


an community) understands the concept of  “local church.” If you doubt this, check out the 14 criteria which the IRS traditionally uses in determining whether or not you qualify as a “church” for tax purposes. You’ll find them listed on pages 27 & 28 of Dan Busby’s “The



and Nonprofit Tax and Financial Guide: 2006 Edition” (Isn’t it interesting that the IRS can define “church” –rightly or wrongly – but we can’t?!). Second, no, I do not believe that this is a biblically accurate or necessary definition of “local church” (hey, New Testament churches were ALL house churches – get over it!). Third, here’s the rub for the “emerging church” movement. What is our biblically acceptable working definition of “local church,” one that does justice to Scripture while embracing everything God is doing in the way of manifesting His Kingdom presence in gatherings of believers (what the N.T. calls ekklesia), including house churches. After all, if you can’t define it with some degree of biblical authenticity, how will you ever know whether or not you are doing it!  And I don’t know about you, but I’m not convinced that “whatever” constitutes a valid working definition of ekklesia. How can Charisma claim that Barna is out to destroy the “local church” if they can’t define what constitutes a “local church” (biblically speaking). And how can Barna advocate new forms, paradigms and expressions of “church” if he, too, can’t define what constitutes “church” (local or otherwise). Just to stimulate your thinking, here’s a definition I’m chewing on: church (ekklesia) is any gathering of believers irrespective of day, time or location, for the purpose of worship, fellowship, mutual ministry and the equipping of one another for the work of service, overseen by elders, served by deacons and ministered to by an identifiable five-fold ministry of apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers. Don’t like that one? Offer a better one, but remember: if you can’t define it, how will you ever know whether or not you are doing it! (P.S. In addition, the inability to define it makes “rapid multiplication” somewhat problematic: “We need a movement of rapidly multiplying whatevers”!).

O.K., now that I’ve thoroughly beat that poor horse, let’s return to horse-whipping Charisma (hey, at least I’m not feigning objectivity!). I remarked earlier that in his commentary Mr. Grady “simply popped a cork and vented”. Here’s the statement which led up to that observation: “But Barna has crossed the line with his new book . . . . The tempered sociologist has now become something of a mad scientist. By cooking the numbers, reinterpreting the data and injecting his own bias into this odd experiment, he has created a Frankenstein that is now on the loose. We should all be concerned about this monster.”  Wow, that’s what I would call reasoned, dispassionate objectivity! But one of the surprising realities of Revolution (at least I was surprised by it) is that it contains very few statistics (uh, “numbers-to-be-cooked”). The only real statistics are found in chapter 4 (specifically, pages 31-35), and even then they are simply a restatement of statistics which Barna has previously published and which most of us have quoted at one time or another (“Only 9 percent of all born-again adults have a biblical worldview . . .”, that kind of thing). The only new and potentially disturbing statistic is a projection which appears on page 49. Here Barna projects that whereas today 70% of Americans rely upon a local congregation as their primary spiritual expression, by the  year 2025 (only 19 years away, if you’re counting) this number will decline to 30-35%. During that same time frame Barna projects that “alternative” expressions of spirituality (e.g., house church, market place gatherings, etc.) will rise from the current 5% to between 30 and 35%.

And therein, fellow Frankensteins, lies the heresy which has awakened the local villagers from their slumber and motivated them to light their torches, grab their pitchforks and head for the nearest Starbucks in search of heretics sipping over-priced lattes, having unfettered fellowship and seeking to “be the church” outside the castle walls (sorry, I just couldn’t resist!). So long as Barna was content to limit his activities to statistically documenting the demise of the prevailing “local church” model, leaving church leaders to accept, reject or “cook” his numbers as they saw fit, they were willing to tolerate his work, read his books, attend his workshops and subscribe to his services. But, in Revolution, Barna has indeed “crossed the line.” He has gone from collecting and analyzing statistics to drawing specific conclusions and projecting unfolding future trends. He has, in essence declared that “the Emperor has no clothes” to the great embarrassment of the assembled court and peasantry who suspected as much all along, but were too intimidated to say so. And such an honest declaration is simply unforgivable, even “Frankensteinian.”

Consider all of this from the perspective of Charisma and the Pentecostal megachurch pastors with whom they apparently spend way too much time. Your $12 million church “campus” has just been completed, but since your “mosaic” and  post-modern congregation really doesn’t give in any biblically recognizable way you were forced to borrow over half the money. Your monthly cashflow to cover the mortgage, staff and operating expenses is now approaching $400,000. And Barna has just told you that over the next 20 years (less than the life of that mortgage you took out) your attendance could potentially fall by half. To your sensitive ears all this talk about the rapid growth of  “emerging church” and “alternative church” is nothing less than “code speech” for “Torpedo in the water! Brace for impact!”  Yep, from your perspective this whole Revolution business is a nightmare in the making, a monster, a Frankenstein.

O.K., I’m almost done, but I want to make a couple more observations. According to the Charisma commentary on Barna, “To follow this defective thesis to its logical conclusion would require us to fire all pastors, close all seminaries and Bible colleges, padlock our sanctuaries and send everybody home to be discipled by somebody on the internet or at a ‘spontaneous’ worship concert.”   For those who skipped the “Intro To Logic” class in college, this is known as reductio ad absurdum“the disproof of a proposition by showing its consequences to be impossible or absurd when it is carried to its logical conclusion.” (Thank you Websters ). Charisma is arguing an absurd conclusion that no one, including Barna, is seriously suggesting. My own daughter recently graduated from a Presbyterian liberal arts college, is contemplating church staff positions and a possible future at Fuller Seminary. And I will be her biggest cheerleader. Why, because I’m not really committed to the emerging church movement? Of course not, but because I understand what Barna sees, that the changing nature of church doesn’t mean “extinction” but transformation, and we will continue to need qualified leaders in the emerging church regardless of what outward form it takes (so, sweetie, you can always come back from Fuller and work with dad in the house church movement – right.)

Finally, Charisma opines that “Barna is also surprisingly absorbed with American culture and seems out of touch with global spiritual trends. As a result his book has relatively no application in developing nations where churches today are growing faster than ever.” Duh! How can one be “surprisingly absorbed” with one’s own culture? Barna isn’t writing for or to third world countries. He is writing a book intended to address the realities of what it means to “be the church” in our Post


an, Post Modern western culture where the impact of the traditional institutional church model is quickly vanishing (where it hasn’t already disappeared). To argue that the church in


is in good shape because the church in


is growing is to illustrate the old adage that for some people “denial is still a river in



The Charisma commentary closes with the admonition that “this flawed proposal needs to be recalled before it causes some serious damage.” I agree, and the sooner they publish a retraction and apology for this unfortunate commentary, the better for the church as a whole. In closing, let me encourage you to purchase and read Barna’s book. I did. And therein lies a tale. I had the book store put a copy on hold for me, because they were back ordered. When I went to pick it up I mentioned to the young sales clerk (in her early 20s) how difficult it was to find a copy locally. She asked what it was about and I explained the idea of a movement towards “alternative forms of church”.  Her response was great, “That’s what I’m interested in, alternative church!”. I resisted the urge. You know. The urge to encourage her to send an e-mail to the editor of Charisma magazine. I settled for giving her one of my cards along with a promise to talk to her again . . . about house church.

And, oh yes, “Viva la Revolución!”

© 2005 THE PAROUSIA NETWORK of House and



4 replies on ““Viva la Revolución!” (Again!)”

You’re right, Jeff. Barna is just reporting it. The only thing he’s pushing is his opinion that people need to lead an individual christian life that’s up to a certain standard, as he sees it.
My biggest disappointment in the book was that he almost didn’t discuss house church at all. The only thing he really said was that christians should be allowed to fulfil his “checklist” standard in any form or method they see fit… which is a far cry from your call for a “definition”.
By the way, I like how you always seem to focus on practical questions.
My best defniition of the church is not written in words, but in the lives of those I meet with here. But I’ll try.
See my new blog post.

Once again you are on target. The IC/Denominational Leaders are lashing out at the messenger because they refuse to deal with the reality.
Isn’t interesting that most of what is going on in China, India and Africa follows the house church pattern, not the IC pattern. Seems like Mr. Grady needs to rethink his views when looking to the mission field.
My brother-in-law was recently told by his pastor, along with the rest of the congregation of his Northwest Arkansas Megachurch, that the only giving that counted towards a tithe was giving that was given to the local church budget. All other giving didn’t count. Isn’t interesting that this same pastor is trying to raise $38,000,000 to build a second campus for his megachurch. Isn’t interesting that this pastor is driven by a security detail between both campuses so he can preach in both locations on the same Sunday morning.
A wise brother in Christ once told me that men, money and organization can do lots of impressive things, but can they be sure it was of God?
Keep up the good words Jeff.

Not sure how I missed this when you originally posted…great response.
I LOVE that you raised the question of our lack of definition for the local church. I have been raising this same question on other blogs (such as Tod Bolsinger’s “It Takes A Church”) but I’ve found a lack of willingness to explore the issue from anything other than a traditional mentality. In all fairness, it is a difficult task.
Ecclesia certainly is an interesting word. It’s used 116 times in the NT, 73 of which refer to a broader, generalized designation of all believers in a given city or region. 23 x’s it refers to the “universal” body of believers; 8 x’s to a specific but uncharacterised gathering of believers; 5 x’s to a town hall meeting of citizens; 4 x’s to a group of believers that met in someone’s home; Twice to the nation of Israel; Once to all non-Jewish (Gentile) believers.
What’s most interesting about the NT ecclesia is that those things of which we most often associate the local church (elders, deacons and other organizational characteristics) are applied to the city-wide, dynamic community of faith. The next step down was the smaller communities that met from oikos to oikos (house to house), which functioned on an entirely relational construct as opposed to an instituional construct that characterized the Temple life of the Jews. In the “evolution” of the ecclesia, a TRANSITIONAL FORM developed somewhere between these two: The Local Church–most often bigger than home groups, yet significantly smaller than city-wide gatherings. Much better organized than the home groups, yet more autonomous than a city-wide delegation under apostolic care.
So then, what insight does the word ecclesia have for us in terms of understanding covenantal communities outside the “culturally relevant extrapolations” that are so difficult for us to see past? In other words, what might the ecclesia look like if redefined for the 21st century without using the Local Church Transitional Form that dominates the landscape?
I think this is THE question raised by Revolution.
Maybe a “less threatening” place to begin is by asking the following questions:
1. At what point does the “church” cease to be the “church” and must it be downgraded to some other description, be it fellowship or another?
2. What elements or characteristics are necessary to make covenantal relationships qualify as “church?”
This conversation is long overdue. My prayer has been and continues to be that Barna’s Revolution will help spur these issues to the forefront of our thinking.

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