Evangelicals’ favorite for-profit prophet, George Barna, has surfaced for air with new fretting over the ‘extinction’ of what he calls ‘a biblical worldview.’ Sounds serious, doesn’t it? To evangelicals, it’s as serious as a heart attack. Their Christianese definition of a biblical worldview makes it into a barometer of evangelical dominance over American culture. So yes, they’re gonna panic when George Barna tells them that the sky is falling. Today, let’s examine what they call a biblical worldview and see if his made-to-order surveys have caught sight of a real phenomenon.
(This post first appeared on Patreon on 3/9/2023. Its audio ‘cast lives there too! Both should be public by the time you read this. <3)
Biblical, as a Christianese word
When you hear any evangelical use the term biblical, you’re hearing an attempt to grab authority.
Biblical, used as a modifier, indicates a 100% Jesus-centric, culture-war-embracing, and evangelical-approved way of looking at the modified noun. Evangelicals use this word constantly to make their extremely-modern culture wars sound like something the Bible—and by extension Jesus himself—commands Christians to do. For instance, biblical marriage means opposite-sex only spouses, no foolin’ around, and antiquated gender roles whether they suit the spouses or not.
So when Fred Clark wrote his iconic slapdown of evangelicals’ war on abortion accessibility, he called it “The ‘biblical view’ that’s younger than the Happy Meal.” See, McDonald’s introduced the Happy Meal in 1979. Right then, evangelicals largely supported abortion rights. It wasn’t for a few more years that evangelicals embraced the notion of life beginning at conception, which now informs all of their culture-war doings. By the 1988 presidential elections, evangelical leaders had pivoted completely to their new belief, and then for good measure declared that it was the only biblical view that Christians could hold on the subject.
When someone disagrees with a belief marked as biblical, then they are at risk of displeasing Jesus and going to Hell. If that rebellious person influences others, then they risk sending all the souls they influence to Hell alongside themselves.
This mindset is also how evangelicals get away with calling their doctrinal stances orthodox Christianity. They want to make their beliefs sound like the most Jesus-y and biblical ever. Everything else sounds like the fast track to eternal torture in Hell.
I’m sure their hilariously obvious attempt to grab authority makes more knowledgeable Christians raise their eyebrows in concern. After all, there’s no real way for any Christian to declare that their quirky li’l interpretation of the Bible is any more or less authoritative, Jesus-y, binding, or, well, biblical than any other. But evangelicals are authoritarians through and through. Their audiences eat this kind of bullshit up with a spoon. Their team is the biblical team, donchaknow.
A biblical worldview: Its early years of Christianese
About 20 years ago, I began hearing about a biblical worldview. But the term is older than that.
In a 1907 college catalog, we find the term used as a course name:
CHRISTIAN APOLOGETICS.—Elective. [. . .] The main divisions of the subjects treated in this course are as follows: The Method of Apologetics, The Message of the Old Testament, The Message of the New Testament, The Biblical Doctrine of God, the Biblical Worldview and Modern Thought, [. . .] Though this course is an elective, it is required of candidates for the ministry.
In 1912, we find the term again—this time in The Reform Advocate, one of the first Jewish publications in America. It remarks upon Christians’ already-fraught battle between science and religion:
The correspondence between doctrine and life must be preserved, not by altering doctrine to fit the demands of the age, but rather by so controlling education that men will come to think in terms of the biblical world-view rather than in terms of modern naturalistic science. [. . .]
By carefully guarding the ideas which are allowed to enter a child’s mind, it is possible to create and to foster the indispensable prerequisites of an authoritative theology which shall not yield to the importunities of modernist teachers.
As you can see, not much has changed since then.
Jumping forward a few decades to find its more modern usage
All that said, biblical in the culture-war-supporting meaning is pretty new. It’s a tiny bit older than the Happy Meal, though still strikingly young. One early example of its modern use can be viewed in this 1960 evangelism manual. It ain’t wrong, either, I reckon:
Biblical worldview vs. modern secular worldview
An even greater difference may be found between the distinctively Biblical view and that of modern secularized society. [. . .] The Bible presents God as making man in His image; but contemporary man insists that man has made God in his image, psychological as a parent substitute or a prop for failure, or philosophically as an excuse for ignorance or a sentimental label for the unknown.
And well, I guess that’ll just about covers flybys.
As it had in earlier decades, the biblical worldview phrase in the 1960s and 1970s usually indicated a break with science over Creationism. However, Catholics also used the phrase. For them, it explained the austerity and focus of their various clerical orders.
By the mid-1990s, we start seeing an explosion of books using the phrase biblical worldview. And they seem to come almost entirely from evangelicals. For the first time, the phrase appears in the books’ titles. Moreover, they don’t only attack established evolutionary science. These books’ authors attack everything they perceive as a tribalistic enemy of evangelicalism: New Age philosophy, postmodernism, other branches of science, and encroaching secularism.
Now, of course, evangelical use of the term biblical worldview can be found literally everywhere. You can’t throw a rock without hitting a half-dozen uses of it. Put into quotation marks for an exact hit, the phrase pulls up almost a million results on Google.
George Barna, an early adopter of the biblical worldview obsession
One of those books, from 1998, comes from none other than George Barna himself. Barna titled his book The Second Coming of the Church.
It’s a Christianese joke! See, Christians all hope for the Second Coming of Jesus, which means his return to Earth for a second time. (That momentous event leads directly into the end of the world.) Barna’s title evokes images of TRUE CHRISTIANS™ finally taking over the entire world. And here’s what he tells us about today’s phrase-that-pays:
One of the most important things we [meaning regular church-attenders] can do is to motivate people to desire a biblical worldview. This can happen any number of ways. We can model this behavior ourselves; people mimic the actions they observe of their respected peers. We can saturate our church ministries with a worldview mentality, creating new ministries designed to promote a biblical worldview, or adapt existing ministries as needed. Finally, we can motivate the desire for a biblical worldview among our congregations through the ministry visions cast by church leaders. People respond to the confident vision and wisdom of godly leadership.
After that, Barna suggests that pastors “assist in charting a plan to develop a biblical worldview.” They should also “instruct Christians in the content of the Bible, and how to interpret its content in light of everyday experiences.”
Apparently, though, the book’s ideas did not catch on. Clearly, evangelicals needed a little more goosing to get them moving in the correct direction.
The six points of a biblical worldview
For the rest of the post, we’ll be dealing mostly with George Barna and the six-point qualifying list he developed. If a Christian accepts these six points, then they have a biblical worldview. In 2003, here’s how Barna defined them:
- Jesus Christ lived a sinless life
- God is the all-powerful and all-knowing Creator of the universe and He stills rules it today
- Salvation is a gift from God and cannot be earned
- Satan is real
- A Christian has a responsibility to share their faith in Christ with other people
- The Bible is accurate in all of its teachings
In turn, a biblical worldview leads to these beliefs and overall behaviors, as defined in 2020:
- Belief in the existence of absolute moral truth or that God is the basis of all truth
- Believing that human beings were created by God, in His image
- Believing that He loves people unconditionally
- Praying and worshiping regularly
- Seeking God’s will for their lives
Interestingly, by 2020 actual obedience to evangelical rules is no longer part of either the definition of a biblical worldview or the expected result of having one. In 2003, that had certainly been the case. But we’re getting there, I promise.
The supposed ‘radical effect’ of a biblical worldview
George Barna, as you might have guessed from the name, started Barna Group. That’s a for-profit business that creates surveys and studies about Christianity. (They’ve done plenty of marketing work for other, secular businesses. Today, we’re just focusing on their Christian-aimed work.) Once they finish writing up analyses of those surveys and studies, they sell the results to worried, fretful evangelical leaders. They market their products as a possible help in slowing down Christianity’s decline—or even packing churches full once again.
So any time we talk about any Barna Group product, we must keep in mind that whatever it is, it was designed from the ground up to sell something to evangelicals.
In 2003, a writer for Barna Group waxed rhapsodic about the supposed “radical effect” of holding a biblical worldview. It begins with a bang:
Any objective social analyst would conclude that the United States faces its fair share of moral and spiritual problems. A new research study from Barna Group suggests that a large share of the nation’s moral and spiritual challenges is directly attributable to the absence of a biblical worldview among Americans.
Oh, my stars and garters! Hold my pearls, cuz I can’t clutch them myself in this state!
Barna Group defined a biblical worldview as holding six particular—and extremely evangelical—beliefs. Holding these beliefs obviously leads people to following the rules. (Yes, we’re back to evangelicals’ favorite mistake, as the night the day.)
It’s easy to see how Barna Group made that mistake. They only interviewed about 2000 people, about 4% of whom held those six beliefs. Those 80-ish people reported vastly higher levels of disapproval over evangelical rulebreaking than the heathens did. Our 80 liars-for-Jesus also admitted to vastly lower levels of rulebreaking themselves.
Most people know nowadays that there’s no real difference in behavior when it comes to heathens and TRUE CHRISTIANS™. But back then, evangelicals loved the idea that TRUE CHRISTIANS™ are just so, I dunno, DIFFERENT, I guess.
Many still do.
The biblical worldview becomes rarer and rarer over time
For years, it seems that most evangelicals either adopted or riffed off of Barna’s six-point definition. I found a 2011 post from a pastor’s blog using almost exactly the same six points. In it, he also cautions his followers about the “three dangers facing a biblical worldview.” These are:
- “Not viewing all of life through the Bible.”
- “Viewing opposing worldviews as enemies rather than opportunities. [. . .] Satan is the enemy. People are an opportunity for evangelism.”
- “Not believing your worldview is absolute. Not just right, but absolutely right.”
The whole post sounds like a primer for indoctrinating authoritarian followers.
As popular as his definition was, however, George Barna was fighting a losing battle. In 2018, Barna Group discovered that only 4% of Gen Z young adults held a biblical worldview. At the time, about 6% of Millennials did, along with 7% of Gen X and 10% of Boomers. This Gen Z thing was big huge news at the time, as it should have been. Evangelicals thought for sure the sky was falling.
By 2020, Barna determined that just two years later, only 2% of Millennial Americans held a biblical worldview. Everyone had dropped in that two years. In fact, only 9% of Boomers and 5% of Gen X could wear the princess tiara. Overall, 6% of Americans held that all-important biblical worldview.
Barna Group had summarized their 2018 report as “not an encouraging trend.” But George Barna himself called the 2020 results “profoundly disturbing.” Then, he tried to gin up fears of Americans losing their rights and liberties if the trend continues.
The current fear of extinction of a biblical worldview
Our latest entry in the fear-of-extinction category was published just a few days ago on Christian Post. It’s got quite an attention-grabbing headline:
Biblical worldview ‘much closer to extinction’ after COVID-19 lockdowns: survey
And you will not be surprised in the very least to discover George Barna’s filthy fingerprints all over it. It’s not from Barna Group, though. He left there some years back. Nowadays, he hangs his hat at Arizona Christian University. He runs his own little fiefdom there, the Cultural Research Center. That’s the same outfit that did the 2020 study we just talked about, the one that found only 2% of Millennials have a biblical worldview. Those folks do a regular survey they call the American Worldview Inventory, and that’s what the 2020 one turned up.
Well, their 2023 inventory gave them even more cause for alarm. Suddenly, the overall percentage of Americans holding a biblical worldview stands at 4%, not 6%. Barna himself lamented:
Americans tinkered with many things during the three lockdown years—from home-improvement projects to baking sourdough bread—but improving their worldview apparently was not one of them.
Then, he characterized the drops as “frightening,” adding:
“When you put the data in perspective, the biblical worldview is shuffling toward the edge of the cliff,” Barna said. “As things stand today, biblical theism is much closer to extinction in America than it is to influencing the soul of the nation. The current incidence of adults with the biblical worldview is the lowest since I began measuring it in the early 1990s.”
But he failed to hint darkly about persecutions and tribulations. I guess he’s mellowing in his old age.
Gen Z: Slowly fading from the Christ-o-sphere
George Barna cut his teeth on studying Millennials, so obviously he’s really concerned with what these now middle-aged Americans are doing. But the real news is what’s going on with Gen Z.
In 2021, according to Religion in Public, only about a third of Gen Z young adults belong to any flavor of Christianity (22% Protestant, 14% Catholic). At the same time, 48% of Gen Z respondents said they had no religious affiliation (the so-called Nones, or Nothing in Particular). That number’s been rising steadily since 2016 (when it sat at 39%).
As we find in almost every decade, though, it’s these youngest Christians who tend to be the most energetic and devoted. When Gen X people were teenagers, we were the ones going out and evangelizing and witnessing in parks. I remember being a little saddened at noticing how few older people worked beside us whippersnappers. It seemed like they figured they’d done their time. Now, they could relax and let younger shoulders handle those burdens.
And Gen Z is no exception at all to that rule.
If you ever played SimCity 2000, maybe you remember how you could trip a global event with arcologies, those gigantic apartment buildings. If you built enough of the most expensive arcology, they’d eventually launch themselves off into space!
Well, that’s what Gen Z’s flight from Christianity in general, and evangelicalism in particular, looks like to me.
Gen Z: Evangelicals’ hope for the future
For his own part, George Barna has been hoping for a while that Gen Z will save his tribe’s bacon.
That’s one of the reasons that the Asbury Revival was seen as such a big, game-changing miracle by so many evangelicals. They really hoped it’d become this massive movement like the one that inspired the recent Jesus Revolution movie. But I’ve heard nothing about it since the university hosting it had to end the festivities. Oh, sure, Regent University—yes, the very one Pat Robertson started—is trying to have their own continuation of it over their spring break. Yes, sure, fine. It’s still unlikely to get as big as the Asbury scene. (Pictures indicate a far sparser than standing-room-only crowd in attendance.)
But evangelicals have no clue in the world how to keep Gen Z in the pews. None at all.
Seriously, just a couple months ago Christian Post ran a post about how evangelical parents could imbue their children with a biblical worldview. It’s hilarious. There’s no way a self-aware reader could finish it and think that evangelicals have any idea in the world how to deal with Gen Z’s increasing secularism.
How to give kids a biblical worldview through media consumption
Its writer, Kathy Athearn, hails from the Family Research Council. She name-drops just about every single lackluster, know-nothing fundagelical blogger and speaker in her end of the Christ-o-sphere, including Natasha Crain and cringey nepo baby Sean McDowell. Then, she suggests field trips to Ken Ham’s ridiculous Creationism museum, Ark Encounter, as well as Steve Green’s Museum of the Bible. (Steve Green founded Hobby Lobby and dabbles in right-wing fundagelical projects like the “He Gets Us” ad campaign.) I’m not entirely sure much will be left at the museum, though, after they had to return over 11,000 looted, smuggled, and misappropriated objects back to the Middle East back in 2020.
To save Gen Z from apostasy, Athearn suggests having parents and children watch and consume apologetics materials from all of those purveyors and more.
Mind-blowing, isn’t it? An apologist with lots of apologist friends thinks apologetics will for sure definitely and for realsies save Gen Z from apostasy. That’s the advice evangelical leaders have: more apologetics.
It’s like they have no idea that apologetics actually doesn’t work at all, except in two cases. It works on authoritarians who just need that little glossy veneer of acceptability that it can provide, and it works when its targets are extremely inexperienced with that kind of manipulation and have absolutely no pushback anywhere in their environment.
Gen Z people tend to stand against authoritarianism. And they definitely don’t exist in a sterile bubble lacking all pushback.
(Has anybody vetted this writer, Kathy Athearn? Are evangelicals completely certain that she’s on their side, and not secretly wanting everyone in Gen Z to abandon evangelicalism by the time they’re 25? Because her suggestions leave very little to chance on that score.)
♬ I believe the children are our future ♬
For my own part, I also hope that Gen Z leads the way to positive change.
Throwing off religious indoctrination is a great first start. They’re well on their way there. But we’ve got to be sure that whatever comes next isn’t as bad as the religious blahblah. People can be very inventive when it comes to rationalizing their desire to mistreat others. If they can’t use religion, then they will find something else. The trick is maybe becoming kinder to each other—and to our planetary home—without resorting to a framework made of untrue claims.
We can build a truth-only framework that carries us forward. We’re already doing it around the world. Doctors Without Borders, GO Humanity (formerly Foundation Beyond Belief), Water Aid, and many others besides are already hard at work to help others in a religion-free environment.
And who knows? Maybe Gen Z will help us get that framework established for good. I hope they do. Evangelicals are getting increasingly desperate to maintain their fraying dominance. Nothing should worry people more than frantic evangelicals who start thinking that maybe Jesus needs a little help with kick-starting the Endtimes. We got a taste of that desperation during the January 6 insurrection attempt a few years ago. I’d rather not see a repeat.
Mr Wizard Gen Z, get us out of here!
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