FamilyLife Today® Podcast

Building the Church, One Child at a Time

with George Barna | January 23, 2006
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Studies show that most of us make up our minds about our faith by the age of 13. This being the case, George Barna, founder of the Barna Research Group, encourages parents and those in the church to focus on reaching children if they want to win the world for Christ.

  • Show Notes

  • About the Host

  • About the Guest

  • Studies show that most of us make up our minds about our faith by the age of 13. This being the case, George Barna, founder of the Barna Research Group, encourages parents and those in the church to focus on reaching children if they want to win the world for Christ.

  • Dave and Ann Wilson

    Dave and Ann Wilson are hosts of FamilyLife Today®, FamilyLife’s nationally-syndicated radio program. Dave and Ann have been married for more than 38 years and have spent the last 33 teaching and mentoring couples and parents across the country. They have been featured speakers at FamilyLife’s Weekend to Remember® marriage getaway since 1993 and have also hosted their own marriage conferences across the country. Cofounders of Kensington Church—a national, multicampus church that hosts more than 14,000 visitors every weekend—the Wilsons are the creative force behind DVD teaching series Rock Your Marriage and The Survival Guide To Parenting, as well as authors of the recently released book Vertical Marriage (Zondervan, 2019). Dave is a graduate of the International School of Theology, where he received a Master of Divinity degree. A Ball State University Hall of Fame quarterback, Dave served the Detroit Lions as chaplain for 33 years. Ann attended the University of Kentucky. She has been active alongside Dave in ministry as a speaker, writer, small-group leader, and mentor to countless wives of professional athletes. The Wilsons live in the Detroit area. They have three grown sons, CJ, Austin, and Cody, three daughters-in-law, and a growing number of grandchildren.

George Barna encourages parents to focus on reaching children if they want to win the world for Christ.

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Building the Church, One Child at a Time

With George Barna
January 23, 2006
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George: The way that you change a culture is one person at a time, and so I've heard a lot of parents who say you know what?  I look at my children, and they're just in that awful environment in the schools, and they're growing up with all this lousy media around them.  What can I do?  Well, you have to make the commitment to say my legacy isn't the house that I bought and how big it is; it's not the car I drive; the bank account I leave behind."  The legacy is those children that you made a choice to have.  With that choice came responsibilities.

Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Monday, January 23rd.  Our host is the president of FamilyLife, Dennis Rainey, and I'm Bob Lepine.  So what are you doing today as a parent to fulfill your responsibility to help your children grow spiritually?

 And welcome to FamilyLife Today, thanks for joining us.  I feel like we've got one of the men of Isachar in with us today, you know?

Dennis: I do, too.  You know, the men of Isachar, in case folks haven't been reading about those guys recently …

Bob: … in an obscure part of the Bible.

Dennis: Those were men who understood the day in which they lived and had the wisdom to know what to do.  I was listening to a CD that a friend of mine gave me from – I believe it was Christian Management Association or a group that got together, and it was by George Barna.  And I was jogging down by the Arkansas River, as I have mentioned it here on the broadcast, I was not jogging on the Arkansas River.  Some listener wrote me and said, "You really are getting good to run on the river," but it's beside it, okay?  It's on the dike, on the dike side of the river.

 I was jogging along, though, and I was listening to George, and I have to say, George, that my heart rate went up not just because I was jogging, but I really agreed with the premise of your message, which was calling the church to turn their attention toward children to be spiritual champions for the next generation.  And you don't know this – I doubt that you know this, anyway – in 1976 when Barbara and I helped start FamilyLife along with a couple of other couples, it was my work with high school students for five years, nationwide – Dallas, Texas; Denver, Colorado; Seattle; New Orleans; Boston; Southern California – I traveled the nation working with high school kids, and it was the lack of spiritual life coming out of the Christian home and the church that convinced me of the need to help start FamilyLife, which went all the way back upstream – not to youth work but to the family because I felt the same thing you did – that children; that is, the next generation need to be raised to be spiritual champions, and after that bit of soapbox here, I welcome you to the broadcast.  Welcome to FamilyLife Today.

George: Thanks, it's great to be back with you.

Dennis: George, for our listeners, undoubtedly his name is known.  He is the founder of Barna Research Group, and he has written a book called "Transforming Children Into Spiritual Champions."  George, this really is the needed ministry of the hour for the local church, isn't it?

George: I believe it is.  You know, I've studied all aspects of the church for the last 20-something years, and it wasn't until we really began to do this research on ministry to children that my eyes were opened as to just how incredibly critical this is.

 I became a Christian while I was in graduate school, so I didn't grow up in the church, so to speak.  I came in as an adult and kind of bought into a lot of the assumptions that were handed to me, one of those being that the most effective thing a church can do is to minister to adults.  So I never really challenged it until several years ago, we were about to go on our seminar tour for that year, and we always proceeded with two years' worth of research so that I had something to speak about.  And we were trying to figure out, golly, we've talked about worship and discipleship and everything we could think of.  What haven't I done research on?  And somebody said, "Well, you haven't done anything on children."  And we all laughed and, "Yeah, yeah, that's funny.  What can we do research on?

 Then the guy came back and said, "No, really, we haven't done anything about children."

Dennis: Mm-hm, right.

George: Well, all right, let's do that.  And, you know, the first couple of studies we did, they came back, and the results were so shocking to me that I said, "This can't be right.  Do the study over."  And so we re-formulated it, we changed the sampling mix, we changed everything, and came back with the same results that kept driving home you know what?  The reason why the church is in such desperate shape in the nation today is because we don't take children seriously, and therefore when they come to our churches, we don't do much with them and, certainly, in our families, we're not doing the things that we need to be doing with them. 

 So all of that research and this book that's come out of it is an attempt to help people understand – of all the different ministries that lie before us, I would argue, having studied all these things for a long time, that this is the single, most important thing that we need to be focusing on.

Bob: Now, that's a pretty bold statement – to say this is the single most important thing we need to be focused on.  Why do you say that?

George: Well, I'm glad you asked.


 Because it's really that – answering that question that the research was geared to.  First of all, what we found is that with human beings, in this country, at least, by the age of 9, your moral foundations are pretty much in place.  So we can't wait until a person is in their teen years, the college years, the young adult years, and say, "Okay, now we'll get busy with them."  Very early, you've got to get to it.

 Secondly, we looked at the spiritual development of people, and we found that by the age of 13, most of what you believe about the content of the Bible, about the Bible itself, about God, about the church, about spiritually, about your role in God's world – all of these things are pretty well formulated in your mind, and pretty much do not change after the age of 13. 

 And there's another element, too, that I can't take you to research and say, "Look at this," but I can take you to Scripture and show it to you, and that's understanding that all life, essentially, is war.  We live every day of our life in the context of spiritual war.  Now, you've got to try to figure out what is Satan doing?  You know, you're either on God's side or Satan's side.  I'm on God's side, so I want to know what's the enemy trying to do to me?  And it finally occurred to me, as I looked at all the research and tried to understand how are the lives of people influenced that Satan, the brilliant strategist that he is, has realized "If I can win over children, the war is over."

Dennis: Right.

George: "The war is over, I don't have to worry about them when they're adults, because I won them over when they were kids."  And the reason that became so important to me was because of our research on what influences people.  We found that there are seven dominant elements that influence people's lives – movies; television; music; books; the Internet; public policy, or law; and the family.  Those seven things together comprise somewhere on the order of 60 to 70 percent of the influence in who a person becomes and what they believe about life and the world. 

 You say, "Well, wait a minute, you left out the local church."  We looked at all the different entities that influence people's lives – the local church was in the lower echelon of influence entities having virtually no influence, across the board, in our country.  There are exceptions, of course, but, by and large, those are the things – and, really, it's movies, television, and music that do the greatest damage.  They could be doing great things but, by and large, in our culture, they're not.

 So you look at all that, and it says to me, "Well, if the game is won or lost by age 13, then I better get busy doing what I can to help people understand that that's what's happening and to start to develop some tools and some insights that will help them in this process of growing spiritual champions.

Dennis: It seems to me that the battle you are speaking of begins at home in families.  And if families were doing their job and were being equipped to stay on the cutting edge of taking on those other six that you mentioned – the six influencers – that the family could begin to not only push the culture back but begin to change the culture by raising young people who are young men and women of courage, moral backbone and character who can not only stand for the truth but can begin to represent noble deeds in the culture.  Don't you agree with that strategy?

George: Yeah, and, you know, for many, many years, I was frustrated because we do all this research, we give it to church leaders, and we say, "Now make the appropriate changes so that we can see spiritual transformation happening everywhere."  They wouldn't make the changes, and I get frustrated but, you know, finally it dawned on me, but the way that you change the culture is one person at a time.

 And so I've heard a lot of parents who say, "You know what?  I look at my children, and they're just in that awful environment in the schools, and they're growing up with all this lousy media around them.  What can I do?  You know, you can do everything.  You can do everything through the power of God who strengthens you to do it and who has called you to do it.  But you have to make the commitment to say, "This is my legacy.  My legacy isn't the house that I bought and how big it is; it's not the car I drive; the bank account I leave behind."  The legacy is those children that you made a choice to have.  With that choice came responsibilities.  The responsibility isn't really even to the culture, it's to God, and so someday, you will be asked to give account for that.

Bob: It used to be that the culture was in place to reinforce what most of us, as parents, believed.  The culture has gone in the opposite direction and said, "We're not only going to reinforce but we're going to personally advocate against what would be your morality."

George: "We're going to challenge you."

Bob: Right.

George: Is what it's saying now.  And, see, part of the difficulty – it's not even just parents having the backbone.  I think part of it is parents being informed, because our research is showing that the average, born-again parent believes that a child is not capable of making important moral decisions until the age of 13, and that same average Christian parent believes that a child is not capable of making important spiritual decisions until age 14.  Well, guess what?  All of those moral and spiritual decisions were made long before that age.  So we dare not wait until that point and then say, "Okay, now I can get busy."  It's too late, it's too late.  Satan's won them over.

 You know, I'm not one to see Satan behind every rock, but the reality is, in our culture, Satan has done a brilliant job of communicating a whole different perspective on life to an entire generation of kids who no longer know the difference between truth and a lie; between goodness and evil.

Bob: But let me ask you about that, because you say in the book that moral development is pretty much set by the time they're 9; spiritual development by the time they're 13.  So I think there are a lot of parents who go, "Yeah, it's set by them.  About 13 you back off and let them do" – I mean, it's already determined what they're going to do.

George: Well, I don't think there's any reason to take a defeatist attitude about it.  You still have influence in their life.  If there are some principles that they've bought into, you still have the opportunity to challenge some of those principles.  If they've bought into good principles, then the next phase of development is now how do you apply those principles in difficult situations?

 So there's never a time when, as a parent, I can back off, and say, "Ah, well, it's too late," or "I've done my job," or "That's the best I can do."  You've got to envision yourself standing before God someday and then saying, "So tell me about what happened with your kids at age 14?  Where were you?"  What are you going to say?  "Oh, well, I figured they knew it all, I was busy?"  I mean, you still have that responsibility.  So, yeah, you can still have great influence.

Dennis: Barbara and I wrote a book called "Parenting Today's Adolescent," and with you having an 11- and 14-year-old, I'm going to send you a copy – but we outlined a dozen traps that kids step off into, and the way we attempted to do it, George, and we didn't do it perfectly.  We have six kids, and I'm going to tell you, we were not finished raising our children before we wrote the book.  That was a big mistake.  We should have waited 'til we were done, because we were humbled in an enormous number of ways before we were finished. 

 But here is how we said it – you know, the first six to eight years of life, we were developing convictions in them.  Then we began to shape those convictions as they ventured out and tested those convictions, increasingly, through the adolescent years.  And what we, as parents, do, as we give our kids the freedom to test their convictions, you then have the opportunity to affirm the right choices and to correct and teach and instruct in the wrong – because they will make foolish choices.  I did when I was a teen; my kids, because they're related to me, did the very same thing.  It provides an opportunity in a laboratory for instruction for our kids that's invaluable.  The family is what God created to pass on truth from one generation to the next, and what we have to recognize is the family isn't impotent, it is incredibly powerful if it just doesn't quit.

Bob: Yeah.  And as much as the church may need to listen to the research that you've done and reshape some of its programs, the church can do its best job, but if the family is not doing its job, it's fighting an uphill battle, isn't it?

George: Well, that's part of the difficulty, is that so many – in fact, too many parents allow churches to take on that as their responsibility.  It's not the church's job.  That is the family's job, the parents' job, in particular, and so the best thing that a local church can do is to come up alongside the family and say you know what?  We're not here to take on that responsibility.  We are here to help you as you take on that responsibility.

 We will provide resources, we will pray, we will encourage, we will do everything we can do help you, but that's not our job.  That's not why we're here.  We're here to help you.

Dennis: Just to clarify, George, because I remember thinking, as I was reading your book, you're not suggesting that the church so focus on children that they take over even more, you are challenging parents to assume their responsibility and the church to focus ministry on children, especially in terms of introducing them to who God is and leading them to a faith in Christ.  It's really the church and the family cooperating, working hand-in-hand, not one versus the other.

George: No, it needs to be a partnership where they both have the same ends in mind, and so they are working together to facilitate the kinds of outcomes that we would say are spiritual transformation.

 Now, it's been interesting studying churches around the country and how they evaluate success in their children's ministries and, frankly, it's not a very pretty picture.  More often than not, what you find are indicators such as how many kids show up, how happy they are in the program, whether or not their parents are satisfied.  Jesus didn't die on the cross to fill up Sunday school rooms.  He died on the cross so that we know Him, we love Him, we serve Him with all our heart, mind, strength and soul.  And in the process of getting to that place in your life, there's going to be some hardships, some suffering, some sacrifice and surrender – some things that are not all fun and games.  But you've got to go through that to get there.  That's what we need to be facilitating, so that we're growing spiritual champions not just spiritual observers.

Dennis: So what does success look like in terms of the children's ministry in a local church?

George: It has to do with, I would say, probably six or seven things that you can find in a child's life.  You need to look at their understanding and their engagement in worship; you need to look at their understanding of Christ and what He did for them on the cross; and if they are able to come to Christ and confess their sins and accept Him as their Savior, then to have the joy of being able to share that with other people; it has to do with their determination to become deep in their understand of God's ways, His principles, His word to us, and how they want to apply that to their life – the whole discipleship or Christian formation function; the notion of being a servant – that you are here to serve and to bless other people.  The whole Genesis 12 principle – if you've been blessed to be a blessing, not so that you just take it and squander it on your own pleasures.

 Also, the whole notion of developing relationships with other believers who love me enough that they are willing to hold me accountable for what I say, what I do, what I think, how I live, and they're not doing this just to hurt me or to put themselves up but because they love me.

 And then, finally, also their relationship with their family because family is so critically important – God speaks about it all throughout Scripture.  And being prepared, even as a child, so that when they have a family they remember back to what it took for them to be a whole-on Christian.

Bob: You started on that list, and I was thinking I ought to be taking notes – here is what we need to make sure our children's ministry looks like, and then as you started, I thought, well, this is what a ministry ought to look like.  You're talking about evangelism and discipleship …

Dennis: … worship …

Bob: … and let's acknowledge that children are capable of being evangelized and discipled at a young age.

George: This was one of those eye-openers for me.  We did the research; we found that, as a category, the best group of evangelizers in the country are children under the age of 13.  They bring more people to Christ every year than any other age group in the country.  I couldn't figure out why, and then we started talking with kids and studying and observing, and what we found out is they are so thrilled about who they understand Jesus to be and what He's done in their life.  They haven't been ruined by the culture yet to think it's illegitimate to talk about this in a public place.

 They are just so thrilled, it's, like, everybody ought to have this.  Why wouldn't I share this?

Dennis: Right.  You know, one of the benefits that you didn't mention specifically, but one that I'm passionate about and why I think the church and families need to focus on children is we are in the process right now of raising the next generation of missionaries to go to the world, and America, for several generations, has been the leader in terms of the number of missionaries we have empowered with money and resources and training to go to the world.  And if we don't win this battle with this generation of children, Korea will need to send missionaries to America – China, the former Soviet Union.  America will need to be reached as a population group itself.

George: Well, and let me just respond to that.  Our research at this point shows that's already happened.  America is no longer the biggest sender of missionaries in the world.  There are now more Christian missionaries coming to the United States than we are raising up and sending around the world.

 A Christian missionary I talked with recently – I said, "So what do you make of the church in America?"  And he looked at his colleagues, and he turned back to me, and he said, "We are just astounded at how much the church in America is able to do without the Holy Spirit."  That is the perspective of Christians outside of this country; that we've really lost our insight into our relationship with God to the extent that we say, "We've got to proclaim this all over the world," and they want to come here and see us saved.

Dennis: That's to our shame, it really is to our shame.

George: Absolutely.

Dennis: And I think the message you've brought to us today, George, is that parents and the church need to take their assignment from God seriously, but I think that really demands, first and foremost, that individual believers, I think, take a look at their own walk with Christ.  You can't pass on what you don't possess.  If you're not on fire for Christ and don't have the heart to transfer to the next generation, then perhaps these challenging circumstances around the next generation of children might be used by God to cause you to do a spiritual inventory in your own life.

Bob: And, you know, we've been told by parents that this issue is on the forefront of their own hearts and minds.  They want to make sure that their children are growing spiritually.  They are investing themselves, and they want to connection with the local church to see that happen.

 I want to encourage our listeners to get a copy of the book by George Barna called "Transforming Children into Spiritual Champions."  Read through it yourself and then pass it on to the senior pastor at your church and ask him if he wouldn't mind reading through it.  In fact, here is what you ought to do – you ought to read through it and highlight some parts that you think are important, and that might help give him a little shorthand opportunity – if he doesn't have time to read the whole book, he can at least read your highlights.  And then take your pastor out to lunch and ask him, "How can I help make this issue a priority in our church?  How can I pitch in and be a part of the solution? 

We've got copies of George's book in our FamilyLife Resource Center.  It's called "Transforming Children into Spiritual Champions, Why Children Should be Your Church's Number One Priority," and you can request a copy from us on our website at or call 1-800-FLTODAY to request a copy.  If you go to the website, click on "Today's Broadcast," and you'll see a link there.  You can order the book directly from us online.

We also have a DVD you may want to consider getting.  Many of you are familiar with the Jesus film, and it was recently re-edited and made in a special format for children.  And if you're interested in getting a copy of the Jesus film for children, along with George Barna's book, we can send you at no additional cost the CD audio of our conversation this week with George Barna.

Again, go to the website,, there's more information there about all that's available, or call 1-800-F-as-in-family, L-as-in-life, and then the word TODAY. We've got folks on our team who can help you get these resources sent out to you or answer any questions you might have.  The phone number again is 1-800-FLTODAY, and the website is

Let me encourage you, when you get in touch with us, would you let us know the call letters of the station on which you hear FamilyLife Today?  We try to keep track of where we're hearing from folks.  We just want to make sure that the stations that we're on across the country, we are being good stewards of the financial resources that folks have entrusted to us, and if we're not hearing from folks in a community over an extended period of time, we have to pull back and reconsider whether we ought to continue in that local community.  That's why it's important for us to know that you're listening, to know the call letters of the station, and it's also helpful if you are able to stand with us financially and help support this ministry with a donation of any amount.

Again, the toll-free number, if you want to get in touch with us is 1-800-FLTODAY or go online at, and we're looking forward to hearing from you.

Tomorrow we're going to talk about why it is important not only to share the Gospel with our children but to make sure they understand that walking with Jesus isn't just something you decide one moment, and then you never do anything after that.  We're going to talk about the priority of discipleship tomorrow.  I hope you can be back with us for that.

I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, and our entire broadcast production team.  On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I'm Bob Lepine.  We'll see you back tomorrow for another edition of FamilyLife Today.

FamilyLife Today is a production of FamilyLife of Little Rock, Arkansas, a ministry of Campus Crusade for Christ.


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