In the Internet age, data has become increasingly important. Sites like Facebook and Twitter thrive off gathering and distributing specific information about users likes and habits.
But sometimes it’s hard to know how data fits into the mission of the Church and individual Christians. How much should we pay attention to Internet trends and the constant stream of information being thrown at us?
We talked with David Kinnaman, the president of Barna Group, about the role of data in ministry, the changing landscape of the Internet era and the hope for millennials in church.
What do you see as the mission of Barna?
To try to help to give people basically current, accurate and affordable information in bite-sized pieces in a timely manner to help them make better decisions. In a lot of ways, we’re driven by the notion that a good leader, a good Christian has to define their reality accurately. This is something Jesus does so well with His disciples and with the people He ministers to: He constantly reframes questions about what’s really at stake. So what we’re trying to do is use research and good analysis to reframe for people what’s really happening, what’s really at stake at the center of these cultural and faith-related questions.
What would you say is really at stake with these questions?
Well, so much. It’s an incredible challenge. The way I would say it right now is that particularly younger Christians are living in what I describe as Digital Babylon. It’s very similar in some ways to the kind of head-snapping change that Daniel and his peers would have experienced in Babylon—exposure to a broader world, immersion in a whole set of worldviews and beliefs and ideas about spirituality, interacting regularly with people with very different points of view, very different perspectives about God, very different perspectives about human meaning and flourishing.
For a lot of millennials, the question of how to live faithfully, how to have a life of conviction in a world that overwhelms and steamrolls conviction and belief is a really pressing question. Good research can point to what’s really happening in our culture—and then with good solid analysis and interpretation of biblical perspective, we can sort of articulate how it is Christians, and particularly younger Christians, can make sense of and lead effectively in that changing world.
There’s nothing new in human nature, there’s nothing new in human identity and the need for a Savior. But what is different is the incredible amount of access that human beings, and particularly millennials, now have. It’s more accelerated, it’s more immersive, it creates a whole reality.
Do you have to deal with criticism that you’re trying to put a program on something that is sort of inherently mysterious and just hard to quantify?
With the rise of a lot of big data and social data through Twitter and Facebook and other places, we’re quickly becoming a more quantified planet, a quantified species. Quantifying spirituality isn’t the end in and of itself. But a lot of churches have very little clarity about the kind of transformation they are actually having in people’s lives. A good research program ought to give real clarity to the kind of transformation that’s actually happening.
Spirituality is an incredibly complex thing to measure, but it can be measured, and there is important work to do there. This is what Barna tries to do in filling some of this gap in thinking through are we actually making a difference with our dollars and our hours and our efforts in helping to change people’s lives? Or is it just like a cool social club?
Now just a quick caveat: as a Christian, as a committed Christ-follower, saying that doesn’t in any way invalidate what Jesus and the Holy Spirit can do in our lives. But for me, it’s the parable of the talents in Matthew, where if we’re given opportunities to influence people and it turns out we are not stewarding that influence well, then we’re accountable to God for that. Good data should give us a clear sense of accountability.
Do you think most churches overestimate the spiritual health and effectiveness of their millennial congregation or underestimate it?
One of the really cool trends we’re beginning to see is that among millennials who are born-again Christians, they’re actually more likely to be evangelistic—that is, share their faith with others—than is true of Boomer born-again Christians.
I actually believe there’s something of a millennial counter-trend based on the data that is happening which is among these Christians. They’re really turning to their faith more than ever to find meaning, purpose, community, a sense of mission in the world. It’s a positive, powerful trend.
Millennial born-agains are actually showing incredible signs of kind of counter-trend behavior, which often goes under the radar because in fact the millennial generation, as a generation, is more post-Christian. There’s a lot of disconnection and a lot of disillusionment with the church.
It’s easy to miss the signs because you can either be looking for reasons for optimism or reasons for pessimism, and you can find both. Having a more complete picture, where both of those realities can be true, is really hard for most church leaders to come to. Church leaders ought to be both incredibly concerned about the trajectory of this millennial generation and wildly optimistic about the hope for the Gospel that’s being expressed through these young Christians.
What would you say to somebody who feels called by God to do something, but the data would suggest it’s not going to be effective right now?
The data should always be a tool concerning our calling. It should never be the final authority in anyone’s decision. Our data—first of all, it rarely proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that any particular course of action, any particular calling would be a complete waste of time.
This is why being a theologically oriented research company matters. I would never suggest that what we’re trying to do is create a mass-production approach to discipleship. I think, in some cases, we’re called to be more faithful and not necessarily more productive as disciplers.
I don’t think God calls us necessarily to try to convert the world individually. He asks the Church to do that, but that’s not the job of each individual Christian to do that. So just because our data says a particular kind of thing doesn’t work or doesn’t work as well, it doesn’t mean that people should not go down that path. But it also means that if there’s a sort of a blind rejection of the data, then there’s a matter of stewardship that comes with it. Find a way of making sense of the data and using what wisdom was provided through it to become the kind of called Christian you’re meant to be. That’s the way I would sort of hold both of these things in tension.