June 2004 – Author and pollster George Barna is more than your run-of-the-mill political pundit or off-the-cuff cultural commentator. Barna is more accurate. More grounded in fact. More credible. And often more frightening. His observations and commentaries are based on hard data.
Barna founded the Barna Research Group in Ventura, California, in 1984, and ever since, he’s been pouring out an endless stream of research that defines the state of the church in America today.
More frightening? Yes – if we’re serious about absolute truth and moral values based on Scripture. For example, one recent Barna poll reveals that most Christian teenagers see nothing wrong with making illegal copies of CDs for their friends. Another shows that only half of Protestant pastors have a Biblical worldview. These two facts are representative of a long list of startling studies available at www.barna.org.
George Barna talked recently about his ministry and contemporary moral issues (Q & A interview below); and about parenting. He and his wife, Nancy, take very seriously their responsibility to teach, model and encourage right moral behavior for their daughters, Samantha and Corban. His latest book is Transforming Children into Spiritual Champions (Gospel Light, 2003).
“We’ve got to train our kids to think on a moral and spiritual level,” Barna says. “The schools aren’t going to do it, churches aren’t going to do it. That’s our primary job as parents. When we look at Scripture, it says that responsibility is nobody else’s but mine. I chose to have kids, so that’s part of my job. You don’t want the job? Don’t have kids.”
The Barnas are home schoolers. It gives them an advantage in what Barna sees as the most critical element in rearing godly children – relationship. He says a sound and positive relationship between the generations encompasses parental control, authentic faith and on-going dialogue.
“We basically don’t watch television,” Barna says. “When we do, we watch together as a family. My wife and I pretty much determine what anybody can watch. We will talk to the kids about it afterwards – What was good about that? What was bad? Was that true? Was that appropriate?”
They allow the girls up to 90 minutes of screen time each day – computer, television or movie screen. Still, everything they choose must be approved first by Mom and Dad.
The Barnas try to model their Christian faith, offering a consistent and real example for their children. “If kids don’t see you living out your faith,” he says, “they won’t take it seriously.”
Finally, it is critical for parents to talk with their children – debate the issues, analyze what’s occurring in culture. “You’ve got to spend a lot of time talking with them about what they’re seeing, how they’re interpreting it, what’s right or wrong and why,” Barna says.
Measured against the context of discouraging research findings, George Barna might well have become a cynic. But he hasn’t. He’s still a warrior in the battle to redeem American culture and he hopes to see a Biblical worldview gain ground again.
“This whole worldview discussion is so critical,” he says. “Most Christians have no idea why any of this stuff [is morally right or wrong.]” Barna’s book Think Like Jesus (Integrity Publishers, 2003) is in effect a basic textbook on how to develop a Christian worldview. It covers a full range of moral issues and cites Scriptural principles that establish truth.
Barna says research shows that what a person believes at age 13 is what he pretty much dies believing. So it is critical that parents be moral role models and teachers for their children. “What we know about the younger generation in America today is, if they don’t see it, they don’t care what your say or what you’re asking them to do because you’re not real to them.”
Strategic intelligence for ministry decisions
Editor’s Note: These questions and answers are condensed from AFA Journal Editor Randall Murphree’s interview with George Barna for AgapePress. AFA Journal frequently cites statistics from the Barna Research Group.
How did you get into polling and research?
I originally got involved in doing research by managing political campaigns. I enjoyed doing that, but it’s kind of a burnout profession.
After a few years of that, I decided I needed to specialize in something, and I realized that the two areas I really enjoyed were speech writing and polling. I went back to graduate school and while there, I became a Christian. I came out and started working with a market research firm that was primarily doing media-related research in Los Angeles.
So, I was a new Christian working at one of the ten largest market research firms in the country. One day a Christian media development company came in. They were producing programs and doing the marketing for a whole group of televangelists. That client, because they saw a Christian, said, “Oh, good. You guys take this work. We want this Barna guy working on it.” That was my first foray into religious-oriented research.
How was the Barna Group born?
Well, you know, a lot of times, you have a calling and you don’t know it. That was my situation. Eventually, that [televangelists’] media management company, which was based back in Wheaton, Illinois, hired me. I moved out to Wheaton and worked there for a few years. I had been a Christian for five or six years, working with ministries like Billy Graham, Navigators, Youth for Christ, and World Relief. This was really expanding my horizons and opening my eyes quickly.
My wife and I spent time praying about our future. ... [W]e came back to California and started Barna Research in 1984. The Lord has been incredibly gracious to us. In retrospect, just from a business perspective, it was really kind of dumb because we had no money, no clients, no reputation, nothing.
How hard was it to be a pioneer?
There we were, living in LA. My wife was working two jobs to pay the bills. I was trying to start this company not really knowing what I was doing. Then, within our first month of business, the vice president of marketing research at the Disney channel called.
It was a woman I had worked with at the big firm where I started out. She said, “I just finished interviewing all the different research companies that we work with, and I learned one thing about all of them – I can’t trust any of them. The one thing I know about you is you’ve got integrity. I can trust you. Would you like to do some work for the Disney channel?”
Wow! When God answers prayer, He answers in a big way. The irony is, you look at Disney today, and they’re on the “other side” of the battle lines from us in most cases. That’s kind of how we started – made money off Disney. That allowed us to build up the company. Eventually, we left Disney just to focus on the ministry aspects [of research].
How do you hope the church will use your information?
We understand God’s vision for our company to be that we’re to provide strategic intelligence so that churches can make better ministry decisions. What we want to see is our information coming out in bite-sized, affordable pieces on focused aspects of ministry that churches, parachurch ministries and Christian individuals can take and immediately convert into practical, strategic action that results in lives being transformed for Christ.
What is your greatest frustration with the Body of Christ in America today?
I think it’s that we are so distracted from our faith that, when people make decisions, the faith aspect of their lives generally doesn’t even influence the decisions that are being made. That’s the frustration with individuals. We have become so acculturated that we lose sight of the fact that we are to be spiritual people first.
This whole thing on worldview [highlighted in Think Like Jesus] is partly a reaction to that, the fact that when people are making decisions they don’t go back and try to figure out, “How would Jesus think about this situation? What kinds of alternatives would He consider? What are the choices He might make?” That’s our best clue of how to make a good choice.
What are the best books you’ve produced?
Think Like Jesus is a very important book. Actually the most recent one I’ve written is starting wildfires all over the place. It’s called Transforming Children into Spiritual Champions. Everybody was shocked that it’s selling so well. We’ve got churches ordering case after case. I’m really excited about what the Lord is doing with it.