Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Shocking Barna Statistic

*A new study shows that 100% of Barna statistics are skewed to lend credibility to his anti-church bias. 

I had a friend the other day quote me a Barna statistic.  My response was the above sentence.  I am not doubting that we can gain some benefit from Barna research and that some of it is actually legit and could be helpful.  However, I have become very leery of accepting anything that Barna throws at us.  First, because some of his findings have been shown to be off.  Secondly, because from what I have read of Barna he seems to be promoting a churchless Christianity. 

Bad Numbers

As Frank Turk has pointed out, there are a few secular studies—especially this one from The Wall Street Journal—that pulls the rug out from under Barna’s research.  Reputable statisticians from Baylor have shown that young people are not leaving the church in droves as Barna has reported and there is not statistical evidence that women are fleeing the church like lemurs on holiday. 

Further evidence is found in a book written by Bradley Wright entitled Christians Are Hate-Filled Hypocrites…and Other Lies You’ve Been Told: A Sociologist Shatters Myths From the Secular and Christian Media.  Wright shows how many of the scare pollsters (like Barna) have bad numbers.  It seems that when those that are actually “born-again”, instead of those just claiming to be, are polled the numbers change dramatically. 

So why the bad numbers?  Think about this for a moment. 

How many times have you read a Barna quote and came away thinking, “wow, the Lord really is working and moving and building His church as He said He would”?  More often than not what you’ve came away from a Barna statistic thinking is, “This is NOT working! Something needs to change in the church because it is obvious that we are not reaching people as we ought to be.  The church does not seem to be working the way it ought to”. 

Enter Barna…

Driven by Bad Theology?

When he quick jabs you with a shocking statistic and puts you on the ropes, dizzy and wondering why the church of Christ isn’t “working” as it ought to, then he comes thundering with an uppercut. 

The church isn’t working you say?  Well, that’s because we are not doing church correctly.  If you read your New Testament you will find that churches are meant to be organic and not institutional.  They are meant to be led by the Spirit and not held together by human institutions and programs. 

Read his book Pagan Christianity (or at least peruse Tim Challies review of it) and you will see what it is that Barna is promoting.  So I’m left to conclude as I began this little article, “A new study shows that 100% of Barna statistics are skewed to lend credibility to his anti-church bias”. 

So, when you read and quote Barna just be aware of this.  I am not saying we ought to trash every bit of his work.  Or even that he does not have some good things to say.  But keep your eyes open and know that there is a bias there that seems to drive a good amount of his research. 


*Okay, I’ll admit it, that statistic may be a little high.  But I read somewhere that 67% of statistics are made up anyways and so I figured why not shoot for the stars.  Also I should mention that the new study that was conducted was only in my mind—but I think it still may have some credibility. 


  1. (1) Do you think Barna has a "profit" motive?

    (2) What is the theological background of George Barna? Does he have an axe to grind?

  2. This is another entry in the category, "Why Mike Leake will one day be at the top of the Blogging heap."

  3. Back in the day when all Barna did was publish research findings it was pretty good. Then he decided to interpret the findings and I often found his interpretations very different than my own. While it is true that stats don't lie, they can be spun in a context to make them look the opposite of what they really mean.

  4. Barna isn't owned by George Barna anymore, it's owned and run by David Kinnaman; he bought George out a few years ago. So the "He" in your post may have been true back then, but George Barna no longer drives or breathes into the company. So you could argue that David and everyone else at Barna Research have the same agenda pushing their research, but the "He" argument is no longer accurate.

    1. Michael,

      Thanks for pointing this out. I appreciate it.

  5. Thank you Mike Leake for saying what I've been thinking for many years. Yes, yes, yes.

  6. Several things make me uncomfortable with this article. First, no matter WHAT the statistics reveal, i would not say that "the church is not working." The church is working just fine, thanks! What "the church" means is simply this: God's people all around the world, called out from the kingdom of Satan and serving in the Kingdom of the Most High, having been redeemed by the blood of Jesus. The church is God's people, not some organizational model! If all the "church buildings" were to be firebombed overnight by terrorists, the church would not be in any way affected... the church has nothing to do with those buildings! Those are just settings in which religious activity takes place.

    Second, George Barna is not "anti-church." That's a libelous and ridiculous thing to say about a brother in Christ! He is one of the most pro-church people i've ever read, assuming a correct understanding of what the word "church" actually means, and i find his books extremely refreshing! I am involved in a small church that meets in homes myself, and it seems painfully obvious to me that it's the institutional model, with its origins in the Roman Catholicism of late antiquity and the early middle ages, that needs to defend itself against the plain teachings of God's New Testament, not the other way around!

    1. Just to be clear. I don't believe for one second that "the church is not working". You won't find any disagreement with me in your first point.

      Obviously, we'll disagree on your second beef with the article concerning Barna. We could probably chat about that one all day.

      Thanks for your comment.

  7. Mike, I hear you and empathize with your frustrations about research methods and interpretations. Lord knows I took it up as a challenge in 2005 re Barna/Sider 'Divorced' research -- see my blog post back then...

    But let me encourage you to give these reputable brothers a little more grace. Or better yet, a lot more grace. After all, consider how much grace Christ has given each of us, and that He teaches us to become more & more Christ-like.

    In this case, we should be particularly thankful that Barna Research has led the way regarding FAITH-based surveys --> definitions of 'evangelical'... rather than following secular researchers and basing everything on (self-described) 'notional' evangelicals.

    That said, I too would like to see more of Barna's data offered for 'vetting'.

    P.S... Dig deep. You'll find Barna's stats reveal that there's a growing percentage of Evangelicals in the U.S. today. And yet surely NONE of us are content with the American 'Church's effectiveness today. Let's indeed revisit what scripture calls us to be -- a seamless, multicultural tapestry of Jesus-is-LORD set of believers in a city... granularly down to the home-church level.

  8. I've done quite a bit of study on this, reading sociology articles and books, etc., and it seems to me that at least one problem with many of the statistics, and many of the books that look at attendance trends and such in churches, (often offering many different solutions) is that they tend to have too tight a focus with their polling. It is polling about "religious" people and it focuses on "religious" involvement, etc. But there is a larger social picture, there are larger social trends, that are going on in the culture as a whole in relation to people's involvement with ANY type of volunteer or benevolent organizations. From what I've been able to find, churches are not "shrinking" or "growing" in any way distinct from other "volunteer" groups in our society. Churches don't seem to have any inordinate shrinkage due to any particular failings of the church, though if you read enough books, you will keep finding people who will state statistics which show the church is "shrinking" and they will tell you why they think it's happening and what they think you should do about it. But it is a cultural reality that people are becoming more and more isolated and less and less involved in ALL "public" institutions that require an actual physical presence. It's not strictly a church phenomenon and so it doesn't really help to treat it as if it is.

  9. Mike, perhaps you have your own bias ? I don't think describing him as having an "anti-church" bias is accurate. He may not see the church in the same way you do, I do believe he none the less does love the Body of Christ, however you define it. I am curious if you made any attempt to contact George Barna to discuss his personally held beliefs regarding the Church ? He is a brother in Christ, and deserves the respect of that position. Rather than making assumptions, which clearly are faulty at best (i.e. As mentioned above, Mr.Barna does not own the polling company any more.)
    Perhaps knowing about your "bad" research your readers should also be a little skeptical of your writing as well ?

  10. The latest categories Barna uses. I don't event think he knows what a Christian is, how about a category for Christlike Christians - people who deny their life, and follow Christ! novel.

    Evangelical Christians
    Non-evangelical born again Christians
    Notional Christians
    Associated with non Christian faith
    Atheist or agnostic
    All born again Christians
    All non born again Christians

    What in the world is a notional Christian?!? And a non born again Christian is he joking!!

    I'm not making this up:



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