For decades the primary way Americans experienced and expressed their faith has been through a local church. That reality is rapidly changing, says the founder of the group whose published polls are most quoted within Evangelical circles.
According to a new book Revolution by Barna Group Founder George Barna, there is a group of 20 million Christians in America who are trying to find alternate ways to fulfill their spiritual thirst.
After having been personally frustrated by the local church, Barna initiated several research projects to understand what other frustrated Christians were doing to maintain their spiritual edge, and he realized that there was a large and rapidly-growing population of Christ-followers that want to follow in the footsteps of the believers in the book of Acts.
These "Revolutionaries" may leave the local church for alternate methods of faith expression and experience. Others stay on with the local church, but supplement with other modes of expression. In either case, revolutionaries simply have a wider range of options than do people who are solely focused on a local church, according to Barna.
"A common misconception about Revolutionaries is that they are disengaging from God when they leave a local church, he stated. Americans are leaving churches precisely because they want more of God in their life but cannot get what they need from a local church.
"They have decided to get serious about their faith by piecing together a more robust faith experience. Instead of going to church, they have chosen to be the Church that harkens back to the Church in the book of Acts."
Currently, the local church holds two-thirds of the nation's adults, but by 2025 it will lose roughly half, according to Barna. Meanwhile, alternative forms of faith will pick up, such as the phenomena as the house church, marketplace ministries, and increased Internet surfing to satisfy faith needs and interests.
The researcher said the movement is "robust," "significant," and even "more defensible than what emerges from the average Christian church."
However, Barna cautions against assuming that all Revolutionaries have completely turned their back on the local church.
"The defining attribute of a Revolutionary is not whether they attend church, but whether they place God first in their lives and are willing to do whatever it takes to facilitate a deeper and growing relationship with Him and other believers," he said.
He continued, "Our studies indicate that the vast majority of American churches are populated by people who are lukewarm spiritually. Emerging from those churches are people dedicated to becoming Christ-like, but who will leave that faith center if it does not further such a commitment to God."
To possible critics of the movement, the book contends that Revolutionaries face the same chance of exposure to heretical teaching, isolation from a true community of faith believers, and reason to hoard material blessings, as do regular churchgoers.
"These are the very same problems that we identify among people who rely upon a local church to facilitate their growth," he said. "We find plentiful evidence of unbiblical teaching in small groups, Sunday school classes and other local church venues. We know that few churched Christians give 4 percent of their income back to God, much less 10 percent. Most people attending worship services leave feeling that God was not present and that they did not personally connect with the living God. We have identified the relative absence of accountability within most congregations."
However, Barna finds that the revolution has seen positive attributes in the believers, such as an intense pursuit of godliness, new networks of believers supporting each other, heightened financial giving to ministry endeavors, greater sensitivity to the presence of God in the world, a greater sense of freedom to be a genuine disciple in the midst of a secular society.
The challenges of the new movement are that it requires new ways of measuring how well the Church at-large is doing, and getting beyond attendance figures as the indicator of health, stated Barna. New tools and resources must be accessible to a growing contingent of people seeking to introduce their faith into every dimension of their life.
Revolution, published by Tyndale House, is what the author calls "a brief introduction to the most important spiritual movement of our age." He believes that fifty years from now historians will look back at this period and label it one of the most significant periods in American Church history.
"I would not be surprised," the California-based researcher noted, "if at some point this becomes known as the Third Great Awakening in our nation's history. This spiritual renaissance is very different from the prior two religious awakenings in America, but it may well become the most profound."