George Barna Mixes It Up With Frank Viola

It’s been four years since George Barna and I released our groundbreaking book, Pagan Christianity. Joe Miller caught up with George and me, giving us our first exclusive interview in four years. Here’s the interview. (Note: Reposting this interview is not permitted. But you are free to share it using the share buttons at the bottom.) If you have a question, comment, or objection, the comments are open. ;-)

Pagan Christianity

Before we get to your current life, can you tell us, what has been the most enduring and positive legacy of your book, “Pagan Christianity?”  

George Barna: The book has helped many people to open their minds to the fact that the organized, localized, congregational form of ministry commonly known in the west as “the church” is a human construct that was neither dictated by God nor described or found in the Bible. In that sense I think the greatest legacy of the book, based primarily on Frank’s extensive research, is giving people an awareness of the truth about the history of the modern local church body and the tremendous possibilities for more meaningful ministry experiences and expressions.

Frank Viola: One of the most enduring qualities (and effects) of the book is that it has given millions of Christians permission – biblical and historical permission – to question cherished church practices and traditions in the light of God’s written Word. It has effectively driven many believers – including pastors – to reexamine the way they practice church in view of New Testament principles and church history.

Since I have a very high view of Scripture, I count that as a positive thing. It’s also given many Christians a new appreciation for those believers in the past (like the Anabaptists) who dared to challenge the religious establishment of their day on the basis of Scripture. In this regard, the Reformation has never ended, including the Radical Reformation of the Anabaptists.

As John Stott famously said, “The hallmark of an authentic evangelicalism is not the uncritical repetition of old traditions, but the willingness to submit every tradition, however ancient, to fresh biblical scrutiny and, if necessary, reform.” I believe the local church is highly important to God and His purpose. Our book merely demonstrates that the local church has (in many cases) been redefined and reinvented outside of scriptural lines. Thus restoration is needed.

I wonder if there are things you wrote four years ago that do not reflect your thinking today. Is there one thing you can point to in your current writing or ministry that reflects the biggest change from the man you were four years ago? 

Frank Viola: With respect to the content and research, I am more convinced today than I was four years ago that what we wrote was accurate. Part of that conviction is based on the fact that thousands of reviews and critiques tried to refute the book, yet none of them were successful in discounting it. Instead, many critics had to resort to personal attacks and/or misrepresentations. We dedicated an entire page that answers questions, objections, and critiques to the book.

With respect to writing, I’m a perfectionist when it comes to my own work. Thus one of the worst punishments that can be inflicted upon me is to force me to look at one of my books after it’s been published. I immediately see all the flaws and weaknesses. That said, I would do three things differently:

(1) I would have announced in the beginning, all throughout the middle, and at the end that Pagan Christianity is not a stand-alone book. The book is only the first part of a fuller argument. As such, it doesn’t seek to solve the problems we address. It only deconstructs. In the original release of the book, this was stated in some of the footnotes and in a big advertisement at the end for the upcoming constructive sequel, Reimagining Church. But many people missed these announcements despite that it’s been repeated all over the Web. The recent printings have a new preface in it that makes this point loud and clear.

(2) I would have added more “Question and Answers” sections to some of the chapters. But we were limited by page count.

(3) I would have removed all the exclamation (!) points. Not too long ago an exclamation point denoted emphasis and passion. And that’s how I’ve always read and used them. Today, however, it denotes anger in the minds of some readers. There’s no anger in the book at all, but some people read anger into the book due to several exclamation points that we used for emphasis. So I’d probably remove those if I wrote the book today. Hindsight is 20/20, of course.

George Barna: It’s not repudiation or change of content from what we wrote, but my primary focus has shifted away from corporate religious structures and behaviors to the means of personal life transformation that God uses to enable us to become who He intended us to be. That’s a natural progression for my work if you assume that religious institutions are not supposed to have a stranglehold on people’s faith experience and expression.

Can you summarize for my readers what you have been doing these past four years?  Where have you been and what have you been writing that we should know about?

George Barna: In 2009 I sold the Barna Group to David Kinnaman. That has freed me up to write a more diverse range of books and other pieces about the Christian life and experience, including some books I have written for others. The most significant book I have done recently – perhaps ever – is Maximum Faith, which took six years of research, identified the process by which God transforms people’s lives, and describes what we can do to get on board with His process.

I have also had some involvement in the 2012 presidential campaign, have invested a lot of time in family challenges (addressing some serious health issues facing our three daughters), have been much more heavily involved in playing music, and will soon start writing my first novel.

Frank Viola: Up until recently, I was busy establishing and working with organic missional churches in the trenches. Last year, however, I changed the focus of my ministry to the other aspect of my calling for a season: The deeper Christian life. As such, I’ve been speaking (free of charge as always) at various conferences and churches (of all types) on the deeper Christian life.

I’ve also been burdened to help the poor more and develop relationships with those who don’t know Jesus. In addition, I’ve forged relationships with pastors and others in different types of ministry. My convictions on the unity of the body of Christ are quite strong. To my mind, Christians should join arms in the greater cause of God’s Kingdom no matter what their convictions are about church structure or form. Cooperation without compromise is where I pitch my tent.

Another major focus of mine right now is my blog. My blog subscribers belong to all types of church structures and denominations. I blog five times a week and the conversations have been invaluable.

With respect to writing, following the release of Pagan Christianity, I wrote three other books as constructive follow-ups: Reimagining Church (the companion volume to Pagan), From Eternity to Here, and Finding Organic Church. Pagan Christianity really can’t be fully (or properly) understood without these other volumes, as it’s not a complete work on its own.

Following that was Jesus Manifesto, Revise Us Again, Epic Jesus, Beyond Evangelical, and the recent Jesus: A Theography.

I regard the above five books, including From Eternity to Here, to be my best and most important contributions to date.

The next books that are in the queue are also on the deeper Christian life. So they too will appeal to Christians in every kind of church form and denomination.

Finally, let me ask a broader question about the world as you see it.  Based on your experience and research, what would you say is the greatest social, political, or theological challenge facing the Church today in the West.  What is the Church doing well and what does the Church need to do better in confronting that challenge?

George Barna: The encouraging reality is that when God’s people set their mind on something, they often prove they can meet their goals. For instance, churches generally measure success based on attendance, raising money, constructing buildings, operating programs, and hiring staff. Over the past two decades, Christian churches in the US have been effective at meeting those goals. We are better at marketing, and event planning and execution, than ever; raise more than $60 billion annually for domestic ministry; have extensive, valuable, and expanding real estate holdings; and continually introduce new programs that we fill with hopeful students. By church criteria, our churches are successful; unfortunately, Jesus didn’t die to fill auditoriums, buy land, promote programs, or hire religious professionals. If we take His death and resurrection seriously, our criteria need to relate to life transformation that produces discernible and meaningful spiritual fruit.

Frank Viola: I don’t think we can lump everyone or every fellowship into the same basket. Some are ahead of others in some areas, and vice versa.

Speaking in regard to the Christian population as a whole, four great challenges come to mind:

(1) the pervasive problem of Christians trafficking in slander against other Christians without blinking. Many Christians are bold in slandering others while few Christians are bold in defending others or rebuking slander when it’s happening. Jesus was clear that if we have an issue or concern about someone, we should go to them directly. Treating others the same way we wish to be treated appears to be rarely observed today among God’s people, even though it was Jesus’ summary of the Law and the Prophets.

(2) the inability of many Christians to disagree without being contentious and to carry on civil and gracious dialogue. Rick Warren spoke about this recently.

(3) the problem that many Christians are either libertine or legalistic, knowing no other alternative.

(4) the fact that Christianity has largely been about ideas, causes, and issues, rather than about the Person of Jesus Christ. (Jesus is often relegated as a footnote, a mascot, or a stamp.) What Len Sweet and I wrote in Jesus Manifesto about this is still very much needed today, I feel.

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Responses to Objections and Critiques by George Barna and Frank Viola

About Frank Viola

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  • David M

    Great interview. It’s good to see that you haven’t regretted or changed your mind about anything in “Pagan”, which shows how serious you were about it. As someone who enjoys writing, that’s been something I’ve learned from your example: don’t put a book out unless you are confident about what you believe in. The last thing I want to do is write a book only to contradict or correct what I said years down the line. It happens, sure, but it doesn’t hurt to be careful and intentional.