". . . and having done all . . . stand firm." Eph. 6:13


Barna: Discipleship Is a Journey, Not a Destination

September 8, 2023

It’s the central command of Great Commission, but for many Christians, making disciples seems to be an accessory to their walk with Jesus. In his new book “Raising Spiritual Champions: Nurturing Your Child’s Heart, Mind and Soul,” George Barna, a senior research fellow for Family Research Council’s Center for Biblical Worldview, tackles the subject of discipling America’s children. Following a significant body of research among the practices of churches in the United States, Barna identifies some of the shortcomings of children’s ministry today, and offers some potential solutions based on that research.

The Washington Stand asked Barna about some of the key points from the book.

TWS: You write about how “ministry to children” was a topic for your seminar tour that you began researching with a grudging mindset, but then it became “the most important topic” you could have explored. What did you learn in that time that changed the tide for you on the topic of children’s ministry?

BARNA: Until we began doing that research, I had bought into the misconception that the brunt of a person’s spiritual growth happens during their adult years. The research opened my eyes to the fact that adults do not change much spiritually, except in unusual circumstances typically induced by a major life crisis. I traced how spiritual foundations are laid when a person is very young and those foundations generally do not shift much, if at all, once an individual reaches their teens. The research also underscored the importance of intentionally developing a biblical worldview, rather than allowing worldview to develop by default. That research further identified the entities that have the greatest influence on a child’s spiritual development — and that currently in the U.S., the local church plays a minor, supportive role in most cases. It was the first time I understood what some people meant by saying we are engaged in a battle to win the mind, heart, and soul of children, and that the trajectory of the larger spiritual war is greatly determined by the time someone becomes a teenager.

TWS: If discipleship has gone by the wayside in American churches, what has replaced it?

BARNA: Our surveys among pastors revealed that churches across the country measure five factors to determine their success in ministry: attendance, giving, number of programs, number of staff hired, and square footage. The prevailing belief is that a rise in those numbers indicates a “healthy and growing” ministry. Unfortunately, Jesus did not die for any of those outcomes, nor do they correspond with the Great Commission. Rather than measuring size and activity, we ought to measure aspects of spiritual formation related to beliefs and behavior, and how those influence and shape lifestyle. Instead of focusing upon genuine spiritual transformation, churches more often focus on shallow measures of institutional marketing and loyalty. Even discipleship programs tend to emphasize information transfer rather than life transformation.

TWS: A big point in your book is that children establish their worldview by the time that they are 13 years old. What do you have to say to parents reading your book of children that are older than 13, and who want to begin infusing a biblical worldview in their child’s life now? Even if they are older than 13, is all hope lost?

BARNA: No, all hope is not lost, it just takes a lot longer and is much more difficult to facilitate transformation. Keep in mind we do not regenerate a person’s soul, that’s the work of the Holy Spirit, who is never limited by age. My research shows that spiritual transformation is faster and more likely in response to a major life crisis. It’s during those moments when you are more likely to come to the end of yourself and realize that without God at the center of your life, you’ve got nothing. I found that the major life crises that are most likely to lead to life transformation, including a radical worldview revision, are the agonizing death of a loved one, being imprisoned, experiencing bankruptcy, an acrimonious divorce, a debilitating injury or illness, and losing all of your possessions in a natural disaster. It’s a lot easier and less painful to help your child develop a biblical worldview when they’re young! To become a disciple at an older age requires eliminating pre-existing beliefs and behaviors, then replacing them with biblical alternatives. That’s at least twice as much work to accomplish, and the numbers suggest that most of the people who start that process abandon it before reaching the goal, but it does happen.

TWS: You point out that parents have the responsibility to pursue spiritual growth concurrent with the child. What would be your best practical advice on how to maintain your own spiritual growth, personal to you as a parent and your relationship with God, while also pouring what you learn on your children and infusing your spiritual lives as a family?

BARNA: Recognize you need to be a spiritual warrior, not a spiritual master, so commitment and consistency are more significant in the process than perfection. Frankly, to effectively disciple your child you only need to be a step or two ahead of them and to be vulnerable enough with them that they understand discipleship is a lifelong growth process, not a static condition that one reaches. Let them see you sweat and let them know it’s a journey, not a destination. When they realize you’re invested in the process and it means enough to you to be consistently and fervently working at becoming Christlike, that will have a profound positive effect on your family. Every disciple is engaged in a challenging process to be transformed; it does not need to be invisible or secretive. If it was hidden, we would learn little, if anything, from the example of Jesus’s disciples, and yet their missteps offer some profound insights. Share the journey with your family. Let your kids see the struggles and the joy you receive from growing into Christlikeness — it becomes infectious.

By the way, in studying effective discipleship practices, an important insight is that we grow in our faith mostly through one-on-one coaching, not congregational or educational events. Facilitating those one-on-one experiences will be an important part of how you — and your children — get discipled. That’s partly because discipleship is not so much about learning more information as it is about understanding and applying the information you already possess. Americans have more religious information than they have processed and internalized. We typically fall short when it comes to converting belief into action, which happens more readily through a trust-based relationship where experiences are shared and dissected for growth, and growth is reinforced and celebrated.

TWS: How did you personally find people to disciple your children? You write about bringing in others, in addition to the parents, to mentor children and be a voice of influence and spiritual direction in their life. What are some specific and personal ways that you found these people for your children?

BARNA: During a key period of our children’s formation, we left the conventional church and formed a house church with five other families who had children similar in age to ours, and who were more concerned about their children’s spiritual formation than about what other Christians were saying regarding our absence from recognized churches. The parents involved committed to a multi-year emphasis on worldview development, and having interfamily experiences designed to have multiple voices investing in each other’s children.

TWS: One of the more concerning findings of your research was the fact that only 41% of senior pastors surveyed and only 12% of children’s ministers had a biblical worldview. How do you think this came about, and what can we do about it?

BARNA: There is a long and involved answer to that question. Let me summarize it by saying that the conventional church model has contributed to the rise of teachers filling positions of leadership, to the detriment of everyone; that because you get what you measure, churches have measured the wrong outcomes for a long time, producing unhealthy results; seminaries have played a major role in the decline of American churches; and the quest for institutional acceptance and popularity has enabled the culture to change the church more than the church has changed the culture.

TWS: You talk about parents managing media exposure. What do you have to say to people who say that their children need to “be in the world and not of the world,” and need to have an understanding of the modern world around them?

BARNA: There is a significant difference between being aware of what takes place in the world and accepting and being immersed in that world. I do not advocate complete abstinence from all arts and entertainment media but rather applying a better set of filters regarding both the quality and quantity of a child’s (and adult’s) media exposure. Parents need to be the adult in the room and determine appropriate limitations and boundaries. Enforcing those standards will create conflict with their children, but that’s one of the prices of leadership and one of the requirements of individual growth. When it’s done with purpose, communication, and love, children will eventually understand and appreciate how their parents protected and benefitted them through such strategy and structure.

TWS: What is the biggest thing you have learned through the process of writing this book and researching the importance of children’s ministry and parenting?

BARNA: How much the narcissism and selfishness of adults limits our ability to raise spiritual champions, producing our refusal to make the necessary investments and sacrifices required to spiritually develop our children.

Jared Bridges is editor-in-chief of The Washington Stand.