The sands are shifting. The times are changing. And like an ant on the edge of a sand trap, the American Church can sense something is happening. Ask any observer of Evangelicalism — inside the Church or out — and you will hear some explanation for the problem. Some point to our own failings, and others point at the encroaching tide of secularism. It’s our smug self-satisfaction, or it’s the bold advance of the homosexual agenda. But something is wrong, and change is afoot.
Although many recognize that times are changing, few see anything as dramatic as a recession on the Church’s horizon. But this is exactly what author John S. Dickerson expects. His book The Great Evangelical Recession paints a stark picture of what the American Church will face in the next 20 years. Dickerson draws on his experience as a first-rate journalist as he uncovers six trends which together spell the end of church as we know it. And by the end of the first half of his book, the reader will be convinced that, whether we like it or not, change is coming. But Dickerson is more than just a journalist: he is also the senior pastor of a growing church in Arizona. He offers the Church six corresponding solutions to the big trends that are targeting us as Christians in the 21st Century. And while his solutions are not easy, they have the potential to transform the Church in ways that will enable it to stay true to its mission no matter how devastating the cultural changes may be.
The Looming Recession
Dickerson compares the state of Evangelical Christianity in America today to the days before the recent financial recession that shook our country. Evangelicals in America have long been assumed to be a powerful juggernaut – a force to be reckoned with. Various polls put our numbers at between 25 and 40% of the population. But this sense of health and vitality is misplaced. Dickerson points to several pollsters who from a variety of perspectives and with independent measures all place the size of Evangelicalism at between 7 to 8.9% of the population — about 22 million strong. What makes this picture all the bleaker is that the Church is losing a high percentage of its young people and failing to keep pace with the growth of the general population.
Not only are we smaller than we thought, but we are increasingly aware of how the values we hold dearly are held in utter contempt by more and more people in the general population. The pro-homosexual movement in America has turned the tide in American thought in an unbelievably short time frame. And the trend is toward a normalcy of same-sex marriage and the increasing inability to even entertain debate on the question. By virtue of this one issue alone, the Church will become even more hated and marginalized in the years to come.
Faced with threat from without and a decline in numbers, the Church cannot afford to be so divided, but that is another trend which is building today. The polarized populace, split down the middle when it comes to politics, reflects the Evangelical church today, too. Politics, theology, and cultural traditions are a few of the many causes which separate the church in its most vulnerable time. And we are also becoming more and more hindered by a lack of funds. The older, faithful generation of givers is passing off the scene. And while larger institutions are able to continue, the Evangelical church will soon be realizing the same trouble that plagued mainline denominations years ago. The bankruptcy of the Crystal Cathedral, points to a bleak future, as this trend-setting church went belly-up, so too will many Evangelical institutions which are so beholden to the Almighty Dollar.
This bleak picture is often ignored or explained away by evangelical church leaders, who are sometimes too insulated from their location within Christian America, Dickerson contends, to truly be objective when it comes to evaluating the state of the Church. Dickerson hopes through his book, to encourage Christian leaders to own up to these problems facing us and to be willing to reevaluate how and why we do what we do. His solutions are not novel, nor are they edgy, but they may prove to be radical.
A Blueprint for the Future
In the final half of the book, Dickerson unveils his blueprint for our future. And it is here where the author gets emotional and starts preaching! He calls us to “release the way American church was done in the 20th century” in order to “rebuild and restore a culture of discipleship” (p. 186). And he chides, “We have gotten so much better at church than Jesus of Nazareth” (p. 187). He wonders “Will we spend the next decade working harder and harder at fundraising — or working harder and harder at disciple making?” (p. 174). His solution boils down to discipleship, one-on-one evangelism in the context of real life, and an emphasis on leaders training people to disciple others. He wants to bring back churches from the business-mindset toward a biblical one. Part-time, vocational ministers are both more biblical and more sustainable in light of the future financial difficulties sure to come.
His emphasis on streamlining church to be more discipleship focused also comes with a call to being noticeably good to the increasingly foreign culture that surrounds us:
We must stop acting so surprised that a pagan society, with its many tribes, would be hostile toward us. It’s time we stopped firing arrows at the hostages we’re called to rescue. It’s time we start going into the darkness with undeniable goodness. It’s time we sacrifice ourselves as Christ did…
The hostilities we encounter today — and in the coming decades — may seem severe to us. They are often soft next to the hostilities encountered by Christ, by Stephen, by Paul… Will we respond with self-sacrificing genuine love and concern, as Christ and His apostles did? Or will we respond in self-defense, fear, and reaction, as human nature does? (p. 149)
He also calls the church to a more tangible unity: “we no longer have the luxury of dividing ourselves internally” (p. 162). He calls us to draw firm lines at the edges of our movement and not stand for denials of Scriptural authority, but he also calls us to charitably allow for differences in the non-essentials, theological, political and practical.
In his conclusion, Dickerson draws parallels with the Reformers who looked at how church was done in their era and were not afraid to correct it with the Bible. “The Reformers before us abandoned comfort and convenience to boldly lead Christ’s church. If we wish to lead His church now, we must abandon many comforts from the 20th-century church paradigm” (p. 220-221).
This is a well-written and eminently readable book. I found the premise both captivating and alarming. Dickerson marshals the evidence well and includes numerous vignettes that flesh out the abstract concepts under discussion. He displays a command of the literature analyzing evangelicalism, and is a true insider to the movement. His unique mix of journalist and pastor, positions him well to write this book. And his thoughts on a cure are spot on. I was struck by how simple and biblical they were, yet how practical and relevant. And these are no mere social theories. One can see that for the last several years, the author has been seeking to implement these very principles in his own church of five hundred.
As more and more people flock to mega-churches of every variety, we are losing our ability to see the bigger picture. My church and yours may be growing, but small church after small church is folding. How many new converts to Christianity do you know? How many new disciples are in your congregation? Are you too busy with the latest Christian fad to notice the sputtering state of American Christianity?
Many will miss Dickerson’s message, and some will ignore it. I encourage you to pick up his book and think through it. You may disagree with some of his solutions, but you can’t fault him for trying. This book is a valiant attempt to warn the Church of its coming dark days, and it isn’t all doom and gloom. Dickerson presents a hope-filled view of the future that is tethered to the Biblical commission to make disciples. May we heed his message before it is too late!
Let me also offer a plug for an interview of the author by Trevin Wax — it will help give you a better sense of where the author is coming from, than my sympathetic review can.
John S. Dickerson is senior pastor of Cornerstone Evangelical Free Church in Prescott, Arizona. An award-winning journalist, his work has earned dozens of honors, including one of the nation’s highest, the Livingston Award for Young Journalists, given by Tom Brokaw and Charles Gibson. The Arizona Newspaper Association named Dickerson “Journalist of the Year” when he was just 24. John routinely publishes op-ed columns in some of the nation’s largest newspapers and is a sought after speaker. He lives with his wife and children in Arizona.
Disclaimer: This book was provided by Baker Books. I was under no obligation to offer a favorable review.