Hi and welcome back! About a year ago, we had a good laugh at George Barna and his shrill attempts to sell evangelicals his products through the use of fear and dread. It was a pleasing chaser for the sour scariness of his dystopian world-domination plans. Well, he didn’t learn a thing after evangelicals largely ignored his sales pitches last year. Lately, he’s returned with another attempt to frighten evangelicals into buying his product. Today, we ask why hucksters like George Barna just can’t stop, well, huckstering.
(In this post, we discuss self-interest. Before we start, I want to make very clear that self-interest obviously isn’t a bad thing. I’m talking more here about unethical behavior inspired by self-interest, like not declaring the presence of a conflict of interest. Also, I am not accusing George Barna or anyone else mentioned in this post of committing any crimes.)
Everyone, Meet George Barna (Again).
George Barna might just be a natural-born huckster. After growing up a very fervent Catholic, we learn in Christianity Today in this 2002 writeup, he got a job working for a politician — but quit cuz the boss wanted to arrange an ickie BORSHUN. So right out of the gate, we see that his culture-war creds are solid.
Barna converted to evangelicalism some years later as the culmination of his search for TRUE CHRISTIANITY™. However, it took time for him to locate a church and flavor embodying exactly the correct amount of patriarchal authoritarianism for his taste. In the meantime, he got to work doing market research for a Christian company. Sometime soon afterward, he figured out that this job connected well with fundraising.
I’m sure that moment when he connected those two concepts rang like a bell in his mind.
His church search eventually led him to none other than Willow Creek Community Church. I laughed when I saw that name. It’s connected to so many awful evangelicals (like Lee Strobel). It’s like the Rat King of evangelicalism.
Naturally, George Barna just loved the place. Yep, he’d finally found his new church home.
(Quick Christianese: A “church home” is just the church an evangelical attends regularly. Evangelical pastors encourage their congregation to think of their church as an actual home. Thus, the people within it become their “church family.” In reality, that “family” is more like work friends. And nobody wonders who actually gets to treat the “church home” as their own property.)
Barna Group Finds Its Niche.
In 1984, George Barna started Barna Research (also called Barna Group). This business performs what I consider to be very shoddy faux-research, then packages the results into publications that church leaders can buy to hopefully boost attendance and retention in their congregations.
By now, most people who even know who Barna Group is think it’s always been a evandagelical-pandering faux-research group. (I bet many people think it’s nonprofit, too. LOL, noooope!)
But that wasn’t always the case.
At first Barna Research was a generic market-research business. One of their very first steady clients was the freakin’ Disney Channel. Seriously. If not for the House of Mouse, Barna Group might just have folded.
Just as Disney began demanding more of his time, though, George Barna heard the seductive clarion call of evangelical huckstering.
And he went with that call.
He’s been selling stuff to evangelicals ever since.
The Dread Game George Barna Plays.
Misogynistic dating sites talk about this thing called the dread game. To play it, a man drops hints to his romantic partner that he’s considering leaving the relationship (or that he’s deeply dissatisfied with it). These hints are supposed to motivate his partner to become more attentive and cooperative. Women sometimes do the same thing with spoken ultimatums, but the dread game works best (insofar as it works at all) if the hints are unspoken.
In reality, it’s a really bad strategy. It doesn’t produce long-term changes, can cause deep and lasting resentment in the partner, and indicates a severe lack of respect on the dread-giver’s part.
But that’s the game we see on display in pretty much everything George Barna did with Barna Group. They still play this game. It’s like they have a flowchart operating here.
- Do a blahblah study about something evangelical pastors are worried about.
- (Will the study scare the pants off those pastors?)
- No: Better redo the study.
- Yes: Write recommendations based on the study that sound easy doable.
- Slap a price tag on the recommendations.
- Get stinky rich — the Jesus way!
Whatever Barna Group does, it’s all designed to make pastors think their churches are gonna wither away and die if they don’t shell out for Barna Group writeups of these studies they do. Their recommendations always sound absolutely surreal, and of course they have never worked on any kind of reliable or consistent basis.
And I guess George Barna got tired of that failure eventually.
Meet the New Business, Same as the Old Business.
George Barna sold Barna Group in 2009. I couldn’t find out why, but strongly suspect that he felt he could make way more money on his own. Barna Group, as an agent of hoped-for change in evangelicalism, had failed. And he admitted as such in that Christianity Today writeup:
God had called Barna “to serve as a catalyst for moral and spiritual revolution in America.” He had hoped to push church leaders to revitalize the church, to make it as beautiful and powerful as God meant it to be. His ten-year campaign had failed. [Source]
(Gosh, it’s really easy to thwart this godling’s plans, isn’t it?)
Either way, that realization apparently occurred around 2001. Clearly, it took some time for George Barna to plot out his next course.
Eventually, he headed out on his own. It looks like he sold Barna Group and then immediately started up a new business. He calls it Metaformation.
This new thing focuses more tightly on leadership seminars and resources for evangelicals. In marketing it, George Barna assures worried Christians that he can turn them into lean, mean, Jesus-in’ machines.
The Anatomy of a Dread Pitch.
Here’s George Barna’s promise from the site:
In his trailblazing research for the book Maximum Faith he discovered that there is a ten-stop journey people take en route to becoming the fully transformed, whole person that God intends us to become. Most people never get past the halfway point on that journey and thus miss out on the best that God has in store for them. George’s day-to-day efforts are designed to help individuals, groups, and organizations understand and make continual progress on that journey.
And here is how George Barna made a dread-based sales pitch in that blurb:
- There’s this thing Christians could be doing to become ultimate awesome amazing Jesus-errific TRUE CHRISTIANS™, but they’re not doing it.
- Somehow, in his busy career, George Barna has figured out what that thing is.
- It’s weirdly simple and doable-sounding, somehow taking a magical-sounding exactly-ten steps to perform.
- Only George Barna knows what that thing is.
- For a low, low price, he can tell you what it is.
- If you don’t pay him that price, then you will never know what it is.
- And you will fizzle out halfway to becoming an ultimate awesome amazing Jesus-errific TRUE CHRISTIAN™.
- And that means you will miss out on all the prosperity Jesus wants for you! ZOMG!
- (The first four steps are free, kids!)
This sales technique is just so laughably simplistic. But it’s stood evangelical hucksters in good stead for decades now.
Clearly, he sees no reason to change anything up.
(If you just feel a burning need to know what his suggestions are, by the way, they’re just the usual subjective, undefined, poorly-described Christianese, according to this Goodreads reviewer.)
Self-Interest Goes Deeper Than George Barna.
Evangelical Christians have long ago been trained out of recognizing self-interest in Christians’ various pious suggestions. I doubt they can even recognize it as a motivating factor in their own reasoning and perceptions.
As just one example, check out this opinion post from USA Today. It begins with a pious call to Christians to “stop fighting each other and serve our neighbors in need instead.” Its writer, Chris Palusky, is pretty sure he knows what The Big Problem Here is with Christianity’s tanking credibility. See, Christians have become consumed with infighting (which is true, though it’s far from their only dealbreaker). That infighting is getting outsiders disgusted with them (also true, though it’s not just that). The solution, he tells us, is more charity involvement. As he writes:
The world is watching us. For the sake of our Christian witness in a challenging culture, I hope for a day when Christians can unify around loving God, loving our neighbor and serving the vulnerable.
Aww, that sounds so SPEERCHUL, y’all.
Then, our eyes slide to his tag line: Chris Palusky happens to be the president and CEO of Bethany Christian Services. Yes. By wild coincidence, this guy’s grand solution to The Big Problem Here happens to be something that would super help him out.
I’m not at all saying his charity is a bad one. Charity Navigator seems to like it just fine. Nor am I saying he’s an awful person. For all I know, he actually believes that focusing on charity would lift Christianity’s sagging credibility.
I’m just saying his judgment is, at best, clouded by self-interest here.
How Self-Interest Drives George Barna.
Christians can’t recognize self-interest in the wild. In the case of the op-ed above, they might get as far as realizing that infighting isn’t Christianity’s only problem and that doing more charity, in and of itself and by itself, won’t actually solve their ultimate problem, which is declines in almost every single metric that matters to them (like membership and donations). Focusing more tightly on charity might even make some of those declines worse.
Instead, Christians get trained to trust fellow Christians — and to trust Christian leaders even more. When a Christian leader gets caught doing something hypocritical, they’re trained to forgive that person, ignore the offense, and continue to send money. Unless the hypocrisy is absolutely beyond the pale, and sometimes even then, they can be counted upon to follow their programming.
We’ll be waiting a long, long time for that ethics scandal to explode!
That’s how things are with George Barna. From what I’ve seen, his suggestions aren’t terrible. They might even benefit a few Christians whose problems fall within whatever narrow case Barna has identified as The Big Problem Here.
However, like Charity Lad above, George Barna has defined The Big Problem Here in such a specific and exacting way that his offered solution becomes the only thing that addresses it.
And he sees no reason why he can’t monetize that solution.
The Tainted Game.
Self-interest isn’t a bad thing by any means. People should be looking out for their own best interests.
What I’m describing here is more like undeclared self-interest run amok. When it’s allowed to lead to unethical behavior, like not identifying conflicts of interest or potential profit motivations, then people can’t make informed decisions about where to spend their resources.
The only way to keep such unethical players out of the game is to avoid creating situations that vastly reward unethical behavior. For example, the rewards for unethical behavior can be made minimal compared to the rewards other games offer, so they just leave on their own once they realize they’ll get better payouts elsewhere.
Similarly, the game’s administrators can ensure that self-interest gets declared clearly at all times (like how social-media influencers must reveal sponsorships on all of their advertising posts). Or the game can reward preferred behavior patterns more lavishly, as this paper suggests, so unethical players never feel drawn to the game in the first place.
If it isn’t nipped in the bud, then bad-faith players will start showing up to Christians’ Happy Pretendy Fun Time Game.
In other words, we won’t see ethical use of self-interest any time soon in Christian marketing.
Why George Barna Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop.
In a lot of ways, Christianity contains so many self-interest-dominated salespeople because the fields are white unto harvest, to borrow a Christianese phrase.
The dynamics we see in Christianity, especially in evangelicalism, are there because they serve Christian leaders. They make very good livings with the system as it is. And so I would expect them to resist any such changes.
So ultimately, George Barna does what he does because it profits him, and because he can. Christians themselves are beyond incapable of detecting the self-interest that drives him, much less to critically analyze his suggestions. They just automatically trust whatever he suggests because they think he’s done the research, GYAHHH.
And ironically enough, his earlier work with Barna Group may have plowed the field for his new business venture.
Hey, wouldn’t it be a hoot if it took George Barna so long to leave Barna Group because he needed to prepare the way for his new gig to succeed, like Thom Rainer seems to have done?
NEXT UP: We’ll check out George Barna’s new handwringing sales pitch. After that, we’ll turn our attention to the SBC’s 2021 Annual Report. See you tomorrow!
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Note: Please be cautious exploring George Barna’s new site, if you head there. Most of his links are broken. At least a few, like his official Maximum Faith site, have been taken over by sketchy cybersquatters. I’ve archived it, so it should be fine in that state, but if you go to the actual site then please just be aware.
Also: I am gonna scream. My blog engine is acting up again in the new browser that was working fine for a week. But at least I was finished this time when it decided to do that! All I had left was a picture and tags. So no funny tags today.