Randy Roberts, President of Western Seminary, and I often share books we are reading. We have a lot of similar tastes, though I could never keep up with his reading pace. Recently, Randy recommended John Dickerson’s THE GREAT EVANGELICAL RECESSION. It is one of the most important books I have read in some time—so important I took time to share it with my staff this week.
Dickerson, an acclaimed journalist who now serves as a pastor, believes we are in a time similar to the years leading up to the economic crash of 2008—only this will be spiritual in nature. Those who listened to the economic warnings sold homes that were over inflated in value, as well as shifted investments from the Stock Market to wiser opportunities abroad. Evangelicals who are wise will likewise prepare for their own upcoming recession, attentive to these trends:
1-INFLATED -we have overestimated the size and value and influence of the evangelical church. In the past ten years, we have shrunk ten per cent, comprising 7-9% of the American population. This means that our influence will diminish in culture, as recent political elections have revealed.
2-HATED -we have shifted into a post-Christian age with a growing antagonism against Christians. Those under 35 are four times more likely to be atheistic, agnostic, and irreligious. Evangelicals will be increasingly characterized as intolerant and abusive, homophobic bigots.
3-DIVIDING -Evangelicals are dividing over a number of issues, from politics, to theology, to church models, to ministry methods. We have lost the cohesion we once had, splitting into camps that no longer know how to live with differences. Our divisions will continue to cripple our ability to make an change culture.
4-BANKRUPT -the generation that has been the most generous is passing away. A younger generation is less likely to give, especially as they grow more suspicious of institutions. This means that total giving will eventually decrease by as much as half. Methods of the past will no longer work, leading to radical downsizings and closures.
5-BLEEDING -two of every three evangelical twenty-somethings abandon their faith—and are not coming back. Singles over 35 are also quietly leaving the church. Part of this reflects the church’s failure to equip the saints. Most of the upcoming generations are ill equipped to articulate their faith. The result of this bleeding will be a further weakened body of Christ.
6-SPUTTERING -the populace we are reaching for Christ is not keeping up with population growth. Evangelicalism is shrinking, and secularism is soaring. If the current trends continue, the US will be as secular as Western Europe.
This is his summation: “The American church is moving with speed and momentum in a direction that includes lethargic discipleship, sputtering evangelism, abandoned unity, pending bankruptcy, and failed ambassadorship to the lost. We are in need of a historic course correction” The church that is aware, awake, and alert—as well as strategic, will be prepared for these shifts. Here are, according to Dickerson, the core course corrections necessary:
1-RE-VALUE. The prospect of a shrinking size, a growing weakness in our evangelical witness is not the end of things. God’s grace is sufficient, His power is made perfect in weakness (2 Cor 12:9). God used a small group to turn the world upside down. He can do it again. Chesterton’s quote is fitting: “Christianity has died many times and risen again; for it had a God who knew the way out of the grave.” The key is to align ourselves with Scripture and pray strategically.
2-LIVE OUT GOOD LIVES. The way we respond to an increasingly aggressive and hostile host culture is to take God’s goodness straight into the darkness (I Peter 2:12). Our core strategy is to put less stock in words and more stock in actions. We dare not give the impression of insecurity, self-protectiveness, nor hate. When the church provokes one another to love and good deeds (Heb 10:24), the world takes notice (see Nicholas Kristof, NYT article, “Evangelicals Without Blowhards”, July 30, 2011)
3-UNITE. We must grant greater room to disagree on non-essentials—politics, church growth methods, issues of interpretation on lesser matters. At the same time, we must unite around the Gospel, the person and work of Jesus, and the authority of Scripture.
4-BECOME SOLVENT. We will have to prepare to do ministry with less. This means becoming more intentional to equip saints for ministry. We will need to do ministry that is less dependent upon Full Time paid staff. Ministry must include hybrid models—pastors with tent making jobs, people trained who do not require FT pay. It will be important to avoid debt obligations, though we should not be afraid of risk taking. Setting aside a healthy reserve, teaching mature givers to create legacies, trusts, with gifts that outlast ministry, and teaching a coming generation to be generous and sacrificial will all be critical mandates.
5-STOP THE BLEEDING. This begins with rebuilding and restoring our ministry leaders. Healing must include reaching the parents with authentic, relational discipleship. We must if we are to keep our young children.
6-RE-IGNITE. The entire body must take sharing their faith seriously. This is how the early church grew, keeping the great commission the main thing. It will be less about the big event, the big speaker. Everyone must become a proclaimer and a witness.
It could seem like doom and gloom. A recent report from Pew Research (“The Demise of Institutional Religion”) underscores much of what Dickerson has written. But as Dickerson would affirm, we are actually entering a great opportunity to do ministry. We will have to do it more effectively, more biblically, and with far better focus and discipline—and ultimately, with far greater trust in our God.