VENTURA, Calif., June 10 (UPI) -- There are some 300,000 Protestant and 20,000 Catholic churches in the United States, but according to pollster George Barna, their impact on the nation's culture is less significant than that of the 91,000 post offices or 15,000 McDonald's locations.
The reason for this state of affairs is a lack of leadership in the Church, Barna told United Press International.
"Our seminaries don't train leaders," he complained -- and vowed to make up for this deficit by launching nationwide courses this coming fall.
In his latest book, The State of the Church 2002 (Ventura: Issachar Resources, 2002, 143 pp., $12.99), Barna explains, "Churches all over the country are crying out for strong, visionary, godly leadership.
"The people who fill positions of leadership in the churches are, for the most part teachers -- good people, lovers of God, well-educated, gifted communicators -- but not leaders. They do not have or understand vision. They fail to direct people's energies and resources effectively and efficiently."
As a result, says Barna, the Church suffers.
It has become the primary exporter of "cheap grace," a deficient form of religiosity so named by German theologian and resistance leader Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was hanged in the last days of World War II.
Cheap grace in America, according to Barna, is expressed in a consumerist approach to faith. The latter-day quest for salvation, as Barna describes it, is the exact opposite of Martin Luther's famously wrenching search for a "gracious God."
"Postmodern man says, 'What do I have to do to be saved? OK, I have to say this prayer, go to church, take the Sacrament, give some money, feel bad about the poor, and talk with friends about religion. Done! Now let's get on with business," punned Barna, a 47-year-old native New Yorker.
He called this a "salvation transaction from an assumption of strength," in contrast to the biblical worldview, according to which "the Christian wholly embraces Christ out of a sense of spiritual brokenness."
It was Luther's sense of personal wretchedness that led him to trigger the 16th-century Reformation with its emphasis on discipleship. But in predominantly Protestant America, most notional Christians -- and even spiritually lackadaisical non-evangelical born-again Christians -- "are merely lukewarm about Christ," he writes in his book.
Rather than striving to become more Christlike, "we have simply made it too easy to be part of the Church. Christianity has no cost in America. In fact, we've made it way too ease to be 'born again' -- perhaps much easier than Christ intended."
Barna, who since 1984 has been taking the spiritual pulse of America, is troubled by what he calls the "wacky, individualized and customized blend of Christianity that has emerged in the United States."
"Bluntly stated, we typically maintain a loose trust in a generic god for unspecified purposes, demonstrated by going through the motions at faith centers on a semi-regular basis," Barna writes.
"Nothing would have substantiated this view more clearly than America's response to the terrorist crisis of September 11, 2001. During the first several weeks ... there was a surge in church attendance. Within a matter of weeks, though, ... people returned to their typical life patterns.
"Post-attack surveys showed that people had turned to churches as a place to be with others and gain a sense of community, solidarity and stability. Shockingly, God had little to do with the comfort and security derived."
In a sense it could be argued from Barna's findings that for all their regular attendance of church services, many Americans have deserted Christianity as it is defined by the ancient creeds of the church.
Barna does not articulate this quite as harshly but states, "Most Americans deny the existence of Satan and the Holy Spirit and are blissfully ignorant of the spiritual battle that rages around and within them."
In the UPI interview he sounds exasperated: "They are cutting out half the realities of the supernatural world."
To Barna, this is a dramatic turn of events because of its implications for one's personal life.
For biblical Christianity teaches that the battle between God and Satan is precisely about the human being. And it is to man that Christ has sent the Holy Spirit as comforter and link to the Creator; it is within man that the Holy Spirit dwells.
To resuscitate the Christian Church in America is "a multi-generational task that will stretch over many decades," says Barna, an evangelical Christian and a convert from Roman Catholicism.
He has founded what "Barna University," a "virtual school" which offers leadership training in 8 live presentations aired via satellite programs to select locations around the country. And together with associates he has launched a campaign to work with today's most important means of influence, such as the Internet, music, television, parents and public policy.
Fuller Seminary in Pasadena, one of the country's finest Protestant divinity schools, will extend academic credits to participants in these courses.
Says Barna, "We must begin today if we hope to have grandchildren and great-grandchildren who will mature in a healthier spiritual environment than we have at the present time."