Being a parent is so important to George Barna that he, his wife and their young daughters left their conventional church and, with a small group of other families, started a house church four years ago. It is centered on a simple, salient idea: that their main task as a church body is to rear godly children.
“It’s what we needed to do,” Barna said in a phone interview this week. “From God’s perspective, parenting is one of the most important things we do, maybe the most important thing. This is Job One.”
Barna makes no claims as a professional parenting expert. But he is indeed a parent – and also a researcher.
In the 1980s he launched the Barna Group, a California-based research company that specializes in exploring “cultural transformation and faith dynamics,” as company literature says. Out of his organization’s studies and polls, which often draw national attention, he has written more than 40 books that describe the changing American cultural and religious landscape and sometimes offer strategies for shaping it. Roughly speaking, Barna puts research on a Christian mission.
Over the past five years, he’s applied his organization’s expertise to issues of family life, parenting and spiritual development, which were the topics he addressed at First Christian Church in Johnson City on Sept. 10.
“Our research shows that children’s moral and spiritual foundations are pretty much in place by the age of 13,” according to Barna. “The second key thing we learned is how important it is for parents to take control of the spiritual development of their children.”
And that’s the problem, he said, because vast numbers of parents, religious or not, virtually abdicate their parental roles, allowing anything, from sometimes erratic educational systems to decadent video games, carry greater influence in their children’s thinking than they do. Even churches contribute to the problem by allowing – or encouraging – parents to hand off responsibility for their children’s spiritual nurture.
“We’ve twisted things around in our culture to treat children as a kind of add-on,” he said this week.
The results can be catastrophic, visible in rising obesity rates or declining educational performance. Stunted spiritual growth is part of the picture.
“By their own admission, our children are confused theologically,” Barna wrote in 2007. A national survey the previous year found that most 8- to 12-year-olds are “biblically illiterate.” Fewer than half – 46 percent – say their religious faith is very important in their lives. Most American teens say they are Christians, but only one-third of them “ardently contend that Jesus Christ returned to physical life after His crucifixion and death.”
Barna considers this “crisis” – his word – the almost inevitable result of what he calls “default parenting” and “experimental parenting.” In effect, most parents let popular assumptions or faddish theories dictate what they should do with their children and expect from them. Most child-rearing, in other words, goes too much with the flow.
Barna’s solution is what he calls “revolutionary parenting,” the title of his 2007 book that described his organization’s findings when it looked for the traits of effective parents. Revolutionary Parenting has mushroomed into church-based curricula and seminars like the one he presented last week.
The research identified six characteristics common to effective parents, made up of intentional attitudes and practices. These “critical dimensions” include the parents’ priorities in life, how well they mentally connect with their children, the non-negotiable boundaries they establish for children, the importance of behaving like a parent, the crucial values and beliefs needed by children, and the “transformational goals” the parents want for their children.
This list isn’t a cafeteria menu, Barna said. It’s more like a list of ingredients that must be combined into a recipe for all parts of the family’s life.
“Some elements have to do with realizing that (parenting) is my priority in life,” he said. “Look at your values and beliefs. What are you trying to build in the child? What are the goals you set, and how are you measuring them? Part of it is just wrapping your head around what it means to be a parent. The ability to bring life into this world is a privilege, but it comes with a huge responsibility.”
Such words should be obvious statements, but in these days and times they can sound insightful, profound and challenging. Some people might even say revolutionary.
Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 19 Sept 2009.