Barna clarified that while many seminaries have “good intentions,” they set young ministry leaders up for failure.

“You get what you measure,” he contended. “So if you measure the wrong things, you’ll get the wrong outcomes … [pastors] measure how many people show up, how much money they raise, how many programs they offer, how many staff persons they hire, how much square footage they built out. Jesus didn’t die for any of that. So we’re measuring the wrong stuff and, consequently, we get the wrong outcomes.”

To address these issues, Barna advocated for a radical return to biblical roots — but that, he said, might require rethinking the modern church structure.

“If we were to go back to the Bible, I think we’d recognize the local church, the institutional church, as we’ve created it, is man-made. It’s not in the Scriptures,” he said. “The programs, the titles, the buildings, all the stuff that has become sacrosanct in American culture and around the world is not necessarily biblical.

“Jesus didn’t come to build institutions, He came to build people. And we see that model in His life. He devoted the ministry portion of His life to investing in individuals. And that’s what each of us who are followers of Christ need to be doing.”

Discipling the next generation

Instead of focusing on programs and buildings, Barna, a father and grandfather, urged believers to invest in children, whom he sees as the future of the Church. This includes prioritizing spiritual education, modeling biblical principles and creating accountability structures within the family.

“We make a huge mistake by simply using children as bait rather than as the primary focus of who we want to build up through whatever ministry, impact or influence we can have,” he said. “We need to back and recognize it starts with families; parents have the primary responsibility to raise their children to become spiritual champions … local churches need to support parents in that endeavor. Our primary focus needs to be on children … and growing their biblical worldview. If we do that, we’ll be able to grow the 3 percent of adults who are disciples in America today to a larger proportion.”

Barna told CP his journey into religious research began with a desire to fill a crucial gap he observed in the church’s understanding of its own congregations.

“When I first got started, I was trying to figure out how I could add value to what was happening in the Church across the country,” he said. “There didn’t seem to be a lot of trend-oriented information relating to the depth of people’s faith.”

While existing data captured church attendance and Bible sales, Barna identified a need for insights into what people believe, why they believe it, and how these beliefs translate into actions. Over the years, Barna’s focus on deeper, trend-based data has provided pastors with tools to foster more meaningful spiritual growth, rather than simply tracking superficial metrics.

The rise of AI

One trend Barna said he’s also concerned about is the potential negative impact artificial intelligence (AI) will have on the Church.

“We’re already seeing an impact on sermons across the country,” he said. “Pastors, because they want to do well, in some cases, because they’re lazy, are realizing AI is a means of getting perhaps a better sermon.

“There are other ways that we’re going to see it impact us in terms of fundraising, in terms of media presence,” he continued. “As the Body of Christ, we’ve got to be very suspicious of and careful about anything that even labels itself ‘artificial.’ It’s probably not good for our mental health, our physical health or our spiritual health. I just encourage genuine leaders to be very cautious about inviting any of that into our lives, and particularly into how we’re going to take that and then influence other people’s lives.”

Barna also advised parents to approach AI and other media with a strategy of monitoring, minimizing, mediating and moralizing content to ensure it aligns with biblical values.

“Parents are the gatekeepers. Act like a leader, take the lead, and make the tough choices,” the Raising Spiritual Champions author said. “Make those tough choices in relationship to the vision that you have for what it means to be a parent of a spiritual champion.”

Barna said that today, he’s focused on worldview development and cultural development more than ever before. The Church is at a critical juncture, he warned, and the path to a thriving Christian community lies in returning to the core biblical principles, the empowerment of parents as spiritual leaders and the intentional discipling of the next generation.

“All the other stuff is noise,” he said. “If we don’t do those things, we’re going to lose even more in this war … this is our moment, we’ve reached a time of Christian invisibility in our culture. What I’m seeing now is that we’re getting to this place where the typical American … will not have anyone in their circle of influence who has a biblical worldview. You’re not going to be influenced with God’s truth.

“The consequence of that is that the elites in our culture will have the opportunity to shut down spiritual freedom,” he stressed. “We will no longer be allowed to go to churches; we’ll no longer be allowed to buy and read Bibles, we’ll no longer be allowed to speak in public about our faith. Why? Because it all traces back to disciples not making disciples. So this is our moment. We either will put up or shut up. And I would suggest that we put up.”