Barna Group Made Some Ten-Year Predictions: Let’s See How Well They Did

Barna Group Made Some Ten-Year Predictions: Let’s See How Well They Did May 9, 2020

Hello and welcome back! Not long ago, I ran across this 2010 post by Barna Group (an evangelical survey house). And well, I can’t help but love evangelicals’ prophecies and predictions, so you can bet I was right there. In their post, Barna’s people drew upon many surveys of theirs to make six ‘megatheme’ observations about where they saw evangelicalism going by 2020. Today, let’s just see how well they did!

sheep in a field
(Max Böhme.) No, no reason for this image. Why do you ask?

(Related posts about lifestyle evangelism: Evangelicals’ Bad Witness; They’re Not Different From Everyone Else; ‘Jesus Aura’ Evangelism Fails Too; Another Evangelism Failure; Setting Soulwinners Up to Fail; Personal Questions; Magic Christians Seeking the Perfect Sales Pitch.)

(Related posts about Christian coercion: The Dawn of Christianity’s Legitimacy; From Tolerated to Dominant; How the Golden Age of Christian Coercion Began; Coercion and the Marketplace of Ideas; The Last Ditch of Virtue Signaling; Christianity Minus Coercion: What’s Left?; The Real Center of Christianity’s Decline: Lost Coercion; Airline High School: What Evangelicals Want To Do To ALL Of Us.)

Everyone, Re-Meet Barna.

Barna Group (“Barna”) is an evangelical survey house. They are not a nonprofit group or a ministry.

When I criticize evangelical researchthey’re at the top of my list

For decades, Barna has executed shoddy research with poor methodology to discover all sorts of stuff about how Christians operate and how they’re perceived by outsiders, as well as to make suggestions about what evangelicals ought to do to increase their share of the religious marketplace.

After doing that research, Barna sells stuff to their target audience of worried evangelical leaders. They offer a bunch of related titles, all of which make ridiculous promises and cost a whale of a lot of money considering what you get:

  • Household Faith: The Rituals and Relationships That Turn a Home Into a Sacred Space
  • How Christian Leaders Around the World Can Strengthen Faith & Well-Being Among 18-35-Year-Olds
  • The State of Youth Ministry: How Churches Reach Today’s Teens – And What Parents Think About It
  • Better Together: How Christians Can Be a Welcome Influence in Their Neighborhoods
  • Making Space For Millennials: A Blueprint For Your Culture, Ministry, Leadership, and Facilities
  • Guiding Children To Discover the Bible, Navigate Technology and Follow Jesus
  • Reviving Evangelism: Current Realities That Demand a New Vision for Sharing Faith

At every turn, Barna wants their marks to believe two things above all else.

First: OMG y’all, we’re in so much trouble!

Second: This product totally fixes the problem!

Weirdly enough, however, Barna’s never done a study of how well any of these materials upholds its associated promise! Gosh, how strange! (/s)

With these concerns in mind, let us now turn to their 2010 post, “Six Megathemes Emerge from Barna Group Research in 2010.”

Megatheme One: Theological Literacy Plunges.

From the post:

What used to be basic, universally-known truths about Christianity are now unknown mysteries to a large and growing share of Americans–especially young adults.

Their main complaint involves how few people on one of their Easter surveys gave the tribe-approved answer to what the holiday meant. However, that interpretation has evolved over centuries. Evangelicals’ notions aren’t truths — any more than they were ever basic or universally-known.

Their prediction for 2020: 

The theological free-for-all that is encroaching in Protestant churches nationwide suggests the coming decade will be a time of unparalleled theological diversity and inconsistency.

What actually happened: SORTA. Their leaders definitely fused further together into a party-line and authoritarian cluster-of-ducks. At the same time, the tribe became far less tolerant of what they’ve dubbed “unorthodox” beliefs.

They’re all still theologically illiterate, but then, they were in 2010 too.

What’s really got Barna upset is their inability to strong-arm other Christians into partaking in their culture-war mentality. That definitely continued into 2020.

Megatheme Two: Christians Are More Insular, Less Interested In Evangelism.

From the post:

Despite technological advances that make communications instant and far-reaching, Christians are becoming more spiritually isolated from non-Christians than was true a decade ago.

Oh, but Barna isn’t sad about the flocks cutting themselves off from heathen friends due to religious differences.

No, they’re upset because if evangelicals don’t mingle with the unwashed, they can’t try to recruit them.

Indeed, their main objections to this growing insularity involve their desire for evangelicals to make heathen friends, then evangelize them.

Their prediction for 2020:

With atheists becoming more strategic in championing their godless worldview, as well as the increased religious plurality driven by education and immigration, the increasing reticence of Christians to engage in faith-oriented conversations assumes heightened significance.

What actually happened: SORTA. Even evangelicals value their social capital too much to waste it by alienating people for no return. Their Dear Leaders experience more and more difficulty by the year in persuading them to do exactly that.

This truth has nothing to do with atheists and whatever Barna interprets as “their godless worldview.” It has everything to do with evangelical pastors’ shrinking powers of coercion over their own flocks.

Megatheme Three: People Are More Practical. BOO!

From the post:

Among adults the areas of growing importance are lifestyle comfort, success, and personal achievements. Those dimensions have risen at the expense of investment in both faith and family.

This one’s just hilarious. It’s the most flippy-dippy, self-contradictory pile of horse patties I’ve seen out of Barna lately, and y’all, that’s a damn high bar to clear.

People have less time for “reflection,” Barna asserts, but they also have plenty of time to think. However, they’re thinking about finances or relationships, not undiluted evangelical blahblah from the evangelical blahblah drip.

“Spiritual practices like contemplation, solitude, silence, and simplicity are rare,” they chide. Immediately afterward, they roll their eyes at the notion that “four out of five adults claim to live a simple life” — because obviously, living a simple life must include their preferred elements.

Their prediction for 2020:

Because we continue to separate our spirituality from other dimensions of life through compartmentalization, a relatively superficial approach to faith has become a central means of optimizing our life experience.

What actually happened: SORTA, KINDA, MAYBE. People still embrace plenty of woo, just not evangelical woo. As for compartmentalization, they’re projecting bigtimeagain. They’re just upset that people accept their woo less often.

Megatheme Four: An Increase in Community Action. BOO!

From the post:

Largely driven by the passion and energy of young adults, Christians are more open to and more involved in community service activities than has been true in the recent past.

Barna’s main beef with this trend is that it’s happening outside of an evangelism context. If churches don’t push Jesus Jesus Jesus at every opportunity, their charity and community work doesn’t matter to Barna. (Yes, they’re hinting at lifestyle evangelism.) Further, Barna doesn’t like that this work doesn’t have a “biblical perspective” as its basis, meaning that it doesn’t advance their awful culture wars.

Also, Barna insists that charity work really needs to show people that government welfare programs are silly and unnecessary because look y’all, Christians can totally handle the need! (Except they really can’t.)

Their prediction for 2020:

And the more that churches and believers can be recognized as people doing good deeds out of genuine love and compassion, the more appealing the Christian life will be to those who are on the sidelines watching. Showing that community action as a viable alternative to government programs is another means of introducing the value of the Christian faith in society.

What actually happened: NOPE. As church membership dwindles, churches seem to pull back further and further from community programs. A few churches seem to recognize how important it is to be involved at a community level, to make their churches valuable additions to local culture, but those aren’t usually evangelical churches. As for lifestyle evangelism, it bombed hard; I don’t know many evangelical leaders even talking about it these days — except to criticize the idea.

Megatheme Five: MUH POSTMODERNIST OVER-TOLERANCE!

From the post:

Our biblical illiteracy and lack of spiritual confidence has caused Americans to avoid making discerning choices for fear of being labeled judgmental. The result is a Church that has become tolerant of a vast array of morally and spiritually dubious behaviors and philosophies.

Oh noes! Yes, that’s the only thing that could be causing rank-and-file evangelicals to withdraw from the culture wars: biblical illiteracy and lack of confidence! That’s it, that’s all! Good day, sir!

Barna criticizes those withdrawn evangelicals as operating under a “redefinition” of love. However, they’re just projecting again. Of course, they still insist that there’s some magical way to reject, harass, and dehumanize people without being hateful dillweeds.

Their prediction for 2020:

There is a place for tolerance in Christianity; knowing when and where to draw the line appears to perplex a growing proportion of Christians in this age of tolerance.

What actually happened: SORTA. Nowadays, younger evangelicals increasingly reject the party line of hatred and intolerance. Of course, this trend has nothing do with “postmodernism.” I don’t think evangelicals even know what that word means. They just apply it to negate anyone criticizing their claims.

Megatheme Six: Button, Button, Who’s Got the Jesus Button?

From the post:

The influence of Christianity on culture and individual lives is largely invisible. Christianity has arguably added more value to American culture than any other religion, philosophy, ideology or community. Yet, contemporary Americans are hard pressed to identify any specific value added.

Of course, Barna blames the mean ole lamestream media for publicizing all the horrific scandals, abuses, and overreaches the tribe commits. It’s not the that stuff that’s the problem. It’s the publicity. (JFC, these people.) So really, Christian leaders just need a better marketing campaign.

Also, Barna calls again for lifestyle evangelism, which involves evangelicals pretending to take their religion’s rules seriously, solely to impress potential recruits.

Their prediction for 2020:

In a society in which choice is king, there are no absolutes, every individual is a free agent, we are taught to be self-reliant and independent, and Christianity is no longer the automatic, default faith of young adults, new ways of relating to Americans and exposing the heart and soul of the Christian faith are required.

What actually happened: HAHA, NO. Ten years later, evangelicals still struggle hard to demonstrate what, if anything, their religion provides that anyone actually needs. They struggle even harder to demonstrate any value that their religion adds to their own lives. Really, they’ve gone for broke on fearmongering since 2010. Meanwhile, the tribe is marked more by hypocrisy than by anything they could call “Christian virtues.”

Alas for Barna, I’d say most people are quite sufficiently familiar with evangelicalism’s “heart and soul” — and we don’t want it.

Whew!

Reading between the lines, I perceive great frustration in Barna’s post.

Barna’s upset about Christianity’s growing irrelevance in American culture. They see more and more people seeking unapproved answers and solutions to their problems. And there’s really nothing they can do to change those facts.

At the same time, Barna sees more and more people repelled from and disgusted by evangelical antics. The tribe’s leaders can’t stop the news coverage of any of it, either, as much as they try by whining and complaining about feeling picked-on and hard-done-by. (They think it’s easier to silence their critics than to fix an endemic, baked-in problem, I suppose.)

Nor can evangelical leaders find a way to push past public perception with better marketing, because that would require evangelicals to start caring about their tribe’s rules, and there’s no way for anyone to force the flocks to do that. Escaping punishment for hypocrisy has become a venerated tribal virtue, while at the same time the tribe offers no real reward for following their rules. Even if anybody ever finds evidence that lifestyle evangelism even works, there’s no way for evangelical leaders to force their flocks to play along with those plans.

Thus, the only people gravitating to evangelicalism now are folks very susceptible to fear-based marketing — or folks who want permission slips to act out and abuse others.

Explanations, Maybe.

Barna’s concerns may come down to their leaders enjoying less and less automatic deference and unwarranted power. There was a time when Billy Graham screeching about Communism was enough to mobilize countless evangelicals to slam down hard on anything that earned that label from him — whether it was or not. When evangelicals latched onto the idea of “postmodernism” as their enemy, countless evangelicals began screeching about it and accusing every single person refuting their claims of being postmodern — whether they were or not.

Things are different now.

When evangelicals clutch their pearls and throw their tantrums over same-sex couples getting married, other people are likely to laugh at them instead of taking them seriously. When they endanger other people’s lives by not taking quarantine orders seriously and shilling snake-oil cures, we’re way more likely to criticize them than admire them.

That growing tide of cultural rejection may make very committed wingnuts in the tribe drill down, but I see increasing numbers of more-sensible (mostly younger) evangelicals clearly (and rightly) feeling uncomfortable with these unseemly displays.

Evangelicals’ brand has become hopelessly tainted. Their Dear Leaders are increasingly seen as out-of-touch wackadoos opposing human rights and acting out of hatred and fear. The flocks age in place and die off more by the year. And no serried ranks of indoctrinated children stand at the ready to take their place.

Conclusion.

I wonder how Barna Group felt back in 2010 when they wrote this post?

Clearly, they felt little cause for optimism.

Maybe they thought making these demands for greater obedience and MORE EVANGELISM MORE MORE MORE would work. Perhaps they hoped their listicle would maybe would help Jesus convict the hearts of enough evangelical sheep to matter.

Or maybe they thought that any day now, someone would come up with a great evangelical marketing campaign. Yes, even a perfect and divine one that would negate their scandals and hypocrisy.

None of it happened. The tribe’s in bigger trouble than ever; their culture wars continue to backfire hard; young adults increasingly reject their sales pitches and bleed from their ranks as soon as they can manage it.

But Barna belongs to that never-never-land of evangelical pseudo-intellectualism. Evangelical leaders can trust them to avoid all suggestions of change — or to tell them they were wrong all along in being so control-grabby and cruel.

When I joke “never change” about Barna, I already know they won’t.

NEXT UP: An evangelical pastor from an umbrella group I recently called out has apparently died by suicide. We offer our deepest condolences to his family as we examine an unacknowledged epidemic that’s run through pastoral circles for years. On Monday, look for our LSP! See you soon.


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About Captain Cassidy
Captain Cassidy grew up fervently Catholic, converted to the SBC in her teens, and became a Pentecostal shortly afterward. She even volunteered in church (choir, Sunday School) and married an aspiring preacher! But then--record scratch!--she brought everything to a screeching halt when she deconverted in her mid-20s. That was 25 years ago. Now a comfortable None, she blogs on Roll to Disbelieve about psychology, pop culture, politics, relationships, cats, gaming, and more--and where they all intersect with religion. She lives with an adored and adoring husband named Mr. Captain and a sweet, squawky orange tabby cat named Princess Bother Pretty Toes. At any given time, she's running out of bookcase space. You can read more about the author here.
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