This is the third installment of our series on the book Pagan Christianity (from now on PC). This post covers the Introduction written by George Barna. PC is an historical study, and the main focus of this chapter is church history: how we are at a turning point in church history today, and how knowledge of church history can protect us from embracing both old and new church practices that are unfruitful and even potentially harmful.
According to Barna, contemporary Christianity is undergoing a revolution of faith at the moment. Research shows that “millions of Christians throughout the world are leaving the old, accepted ways of doing church” (page xxiv). Although some will see this is a result of nominal Christians falling away, many of these people are apparently genuine Christians who are seeking a greater experience of God and deeper fellowship with other Christians. This growing portion of believers have not stopped meeting with other Christians, they are just meeting in non-traditional ways. Some of these ways are newer and more modern, but many are also older than traditional (such as gathering in homes). Barna’s explanation of this massive exodus of believers from mainline churches is that they are frustrated by their church experience – “They are tired of the institutions, denominations and routines getting in the way of a resonant connection with Him. They are worn out on the endless programs that fail to facilitate transformation. They are weary of being sent off to complete assignments, memorize facts and passages, and engage in simplistic processes which do not draw them into God’s presence” (page xxv). The problem, it seems, might be just as much with church systems as with sinful churchgoers.
There have been many attempts at planting more ‘modern’ churches to cater for people who aren’t interested in the “time-frozen” traditional variation. The emergent church and seeker-friendly movements are just two examples of revamped church models. However, Barna feels that all this change has actually been mere ‘window-dressing’; superficial adjustments to style rather than fundamental overhauls. They have changed the worship team style, the sermon style and the venue style, but they haven’t gone to the root and questioned worship teams, sermons and venues. They have changed their procedures, but kept the same old pagan principles. Barna seems to think that the reason for this is that most believers are quite ignorant of their roots. They don’t know the church’s history, and so they don’t know where their church practices come from, when they began or why. They also don’t know Scripture very well or in context, which means they do not realize that most of what they do on Sundays has no biblical warrant. Biblically illiterate believers read the Scriptures through the lens of their church experience, and easily accept the dubious assumptions and proof-texting that are used by others to justify pagan traditions.
The message of PC is that it is God Himself who is bringing this worldwide correction to His people and placing a new desire in their hearts for an organic expression and experience of the faith. We are living in a crucial era of church history. For Barna, “it’s time for the body of Christ to get in touch with Word of God and the history of the church to arrive at a better understanding of what we can and should do – as well as what we can’t and should not do”. The reader is encouraged to read PC with a healthy skepticism and a desire to find out for themselves, but also to be willing to “consider making more significant changes to the way we practice our faith” (page xxxi) than window-dressing if necessary.
Do you agree with Barna? Do Christians need to study more church history to avoid deception? Is God the one behind this global move away from ‘traditional’ church?