The Great Evangelical Recession: 6 Factors that Will Crash the American Church and How to Prepare, by John S. Dickerson. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2013. 247 pages. Review by David W. Brown.
The crisis alarm for the American church has sounded in John Dickerson’s book The Great Evangelical Recession. Dickerson is an evangelical pastor and award-winning journalist, writing to alarm the church and call it to action in reversing current recession trends. The declining trends are the typical church measurements in bodies, buildings, and budgets, but it is more than these in an overall culture clash. Culture is changing at rapid pace and those who ignore the warning signs will become its victims (13). The book is divided into two parts with the first six chapters diagnosis of six trends with each a chapter explanation: 1) Inflated numbers; 2) Hated by external host culture; 3) Division of the church based on political values; 4) Bankrupt of finances as a wealthy and generous generation passes; 5) Bleeding internally by losing not just outsiders but insiders, with a failure to retain children of evangelical families; 6) Sputtering growth as evangelicalism declines while population growth rapidly surges.
The second part of the book is prescriptive offering six potential solutions for the church: 1) Re-valuing priorities; 2) Good works of relational service; 3) Unity among essential doctrines of Scripture; 4) Financial solvency through hybrid ministry of both vocational and bi-vocational staff and conservation of debt; 5) Healing the bleeding loss of disciples within the church by minimizing superfluous ministry programming; 6) Re-igniting evangelism in the ordinary everyday and among every individual believer.
Dickerson’s book would be helpful for all who care about the future of the gospel and the Christian church. The strengths of the book are not the least but four. The first is its biblical faithfulness and prophetic edge. Many books that address the topic of Christianity with culture stray from truth, but Dickerson can be trusted. Multiple chapters open with an insightful Scripture verse or passage that relates to the theme of either a declining trend or proposed solution. The verses become points of meditation to ponder how God worked in the biblical context and how it may apply currently. A second strength is the fact that Dickerson writes of the wide spectrum of evangelicalism from the likes of Bill Hybels, Andy Stanley, and Rick Warren, to others such as John MacArthur, David Platt, and Tim Keller. However, Dickerson is not so wide-viewed to not define evangelicalism to affirm core doctrines of Scripture, Trinity, depravity of man, substitutionary atonement, Christ’s complete humanity and deity, and salvation exclusively through Jesus Christ (155-160, 229-232). Thirdly, Dickerson aids the reader with mental pictures and numbers to visualize his points. One example is picturing evangelicals not as broadly scattered across all fifty United States but simply fitting inside New York State, while non-believers fit in all other forty-nine states (34-35). Another example is the percentages and graphs representing seventy-percent of a church’s financial donations dropping in the next twenty-five (84-95). This number and graph stands out to awaken the current generation of church leaders to prioritize disciple-making and prepare with wise financial stewardship. Dickerson’s aggregation of statistical research is a helpful means to discern current trends in evangelicalism. A last but not least strength of the book is Dickerson’s proposed solutions. Each prescription is based on practical and easy to implement ideas and not just theory.
A minor weakness of the book is perhaps an overemphasis on the specific sin of homosexuality. While this issue is prevalent in society it is not the only issue related to evangelicalism’s decline. A second critique is a slight hint of contradiction in the author’s prescription for financial stewardship and hybrid ministry, while his own church rapidly hired numerous pastoral and ministry staff (170, 213). Overall, this book is a much needed read to open the eyes of Christians and church leaders today.
- Inflated The evangelical church in the U.S. is not nearly as large as we’ve been told. Overestimating the size and “value” of the evangelical church is – much like housing prices – one of the silent triggers, one of the unexamined fault lines under the Great Evangelical Recession. Evangelicals, and Christians in general, are losing influence politically, economically, culturally, and financially. Picturing a map of the U.S., evangelicals could fit the population of New York State, in contrast to the other 49 states.
- Hated Internal forces are weakening evangelicalism but also external cultural change will test and tear at our faith population. The “host culture” is aggressively changing faster than most of us (inside and outside the church) realize. The rate of the change toward anti-Christianity will further accelerate as the oldest two generations die.
- Dividing As United states culture reacts to the religious right, many evangelicals are splitting away from the right – not always because they disagree with its positions, but often because they disagree with its methods, priorities, or message to Americans at large. The more we attempt to respond to a rapidly changing culture, the more we seem to be fighting and dividing ourselves how to be Christ’s presence in a brave new world. Evangelicalism is dividing itself into a less powerful, less unified, and less organized movement.
- Bankrupt We often tie the drop in giving to the drop in the economy. But a larger undercurrent is also at play. The generation that gives almost half of total donations began passing away about three years ago. Over the next twelve years, this faithful and reliable generation will pass away – and so will their giving, which will decrease evangelical finances by as much as half nationally, regionally, and locally. Unless giving trends change – generationally – significantly, evangelical giving across the board may drop by about 70% during the next 25-30 years.
- Bleeding Evangelicalism is losing people, most specifically failing to retain our own children as disciples. We are losing almost 10% of our total U.S. evangelical church – from the generation that is most strategic to the future church. Further, the “next Christian” view of God is “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” – a self-centered worldview where personal happiness is the highest goal and a distant God is taken for granted in the background.
- Sputtering The evangelical church is smaller than we thought (Inflated); is losing its own population (Bleeding) and is declining in spite of the fact that U.S. population rapidly surges (Sputtering). Evangelicalism is shrinking while secularism is soaring. The overwhelming majority of Christians have not shared their faith, or do so infrequently. We are failing at the most essential purpose of making disciples of Jesus Christ.
- Re-Valuing The victims or victors are not our organizations or churches, but souls that will live forever. Rather than explaining these realities away or ignoring them because they’re uncomfortable, let’s pray that in our weakness, the church of Jesus Christ may be strong. Prayer becomes that more of a priority for the church. Return to the methods of the 1st Century church.
- Good: How To Conduct Ourselves In A Hostile Host Culture (1Peter 2:12, 15) Successful evangelicals will learn to take the same biblical approach to the foreign tribes now growing in the U.S. For too long we have expected nonbelievers to behave and believe like Christians. When they have acted like pagans, we have at times attacked them for being precisely who they are apart from Christ. How tragic that we are seen as hating the very people God commands us to love and do good among?
- Uniting: How To Unite A Divided Church (Ephesians 4:3-6)
According to Jesus, the world will know the Father sent Him because of Christian unity (John 17:20-23). An increasingly hostile culture means evangelicals no longer have the luxury of dividing ourselves internally. We no longer have the size, the strength, the momentum, or the footing in the culture to waste energy fighting against each other over non-essentials. Further, forward thinking evangelicals will respect the political diversity within the body of Christ today. They will intentionally avoid associating Christ’s message with any one political party or politician. Such positioning will ensure that these ministries do not become victims of political rifts now rupturing in churches and denominations. – 21st evangelicals will be theologically conservative but also believe in global warming, nuclear disarmament, international debt forgiveness, promote social justice, and overall leery of marrying Jesus to any political involvement.
- Solvent: How To Recession-Proof Your Ministry Financially (Luke 12:34)
Unless generational patterns change radically, many ministries will see revenue decrease by 50-70% in the next 10-30 years. What good will a dynamic 20th century ministry model be if that ministry has no fuel? What good is a national teaching ministry, a megachurch, a missions agency, or a Christian college if that ministry does not have fuel to operate? Without a rapid flow of cash, our sharpest, shiniest ministries will be Lamborghinis with empty gas tanks; pretty but impractical, and ultimately relics. Ultimately, the church must depend less on dollars and more on disciples. – Hybrid Ministry: Learn and launch ministry models that do not depend solely on paid staff. | – Conservation: Avoid debt obligations beyond the next ten years. – Preparation: Teach mature givers about the evangelical recession and create legacy vehicles for financial giving. – Abandon: Disciple the church in life surrender and biblical giving.
- Healing: How To Slow The Loss Of Our People (1Corinthians 12:27)
We put pressure on the bleeding wounds of the body by resurrecting biblical discipleship. We slow the loss of our people through personal training in Christian living, modeled outside of the church service and building. Love people, develop disciples, equip leaders, and shepherd the flock.
- Re-igniting: How To Restart The Engine Of Evangelism (Acts 8:4)
Like thriving, forward-thinking businesses, our ministries must shift away from the 20th century big-hit model and embrace the 21st century individual-focused model. Imagine millions of individual believers functioning as evangelists in their own lives. The vast majority of unbelieving Americans do not come to Christ – or to a church – because of a big hitter. They come because of a friend or relative.
The below videos are an interview with the book author hosted at Dallas Theological Seminary.