Book Review: The Great Evangelical Recession, by John Dickerson
John Dickerson, The Great Evangelical Recession: 6 Factors That Will Crash the American Church . . . and How to Prepare. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2013. 256 pages. $14.99.
It’s tough to imagine a society more fixated on sermons than colonial New England. And few sermons were more likely to be published and purchased than the type historians came to call the “jeremiad.”
Perry Miller first coined the term because of how often these glum sermons used texts from prophecies of doom like those in Jeremiah. Jeremiads were typically inspired by some natural calamity, impending war, or perceived decline in purity and devotion of an earlier generation. They evoked the terms of a special covenant and warned of disaster unless the people would repent.
In some ways, John Dickerson’s recent book fits comfortably into this venerable American genre, as one might assume given its title: The Great Evangelical Recession: 6 Factors That Will Crash the American Church…and How to Prepare. Dickerson, a journalist-turned-pastor of a thriving Arizona congregation, believes evangelicalism in America is teetering on the edge of collapse unless believers wake up and change course. And he attempts to provide a “bold” and “fresh” program for reclaiming vitality (18).
These are dramatic claims, claims I’m not convinced are fully justified. But the questions are worth asking: Is American evangelicalism declining? And what, if anything, can we do about it?
TRENDS OF DECLINE
The book’s argument divides evenly in two parts, one summarizing reasons for concern about the evangelical future and the other proposing steps to ward off disaster. In part one, Dickerson groups information collected by researchers like George Barna and Christian Smith into what he calls six “trends of decline.” As you might imagine, the portrait he draws is a bleak one.
First, studies suggest that evangelicals account for closer to 10 percent of the American population than the 40 percent who claim to be “born again.” I’m not sure it’s true that “we often hear that about 40 percent of Americans are evangelical Christians” (28), and the author doesn’t cite anyone specifically who holds an inflated view of the evangelical population. Nevertheless the 10 percent number seems to be an emerging consensus.
The next two chapters demonstrate a growing hatred for evangelicals in American culture, especially surrounding the issue of homosexuality, and the simultaneous divisions among evangelical insiders over matters like American politics.
Then chapters 4 to 6 present the quantitative meat of part one. Evangelical ministries have relied heavily on cost-intensive personnel and programs, but studies show a steep decline in income as the oldest givers—who give four times as much of their income as 25-44 year olds—continue rapidly dying.
Meanwhile, according to chapter 5, researchers have found that as high as 70 percent of millennials raised in church stop attending altogether by their early 20s. And according to chapter 6, given the death of evangelicalism’s largest generation and the departure of it’s youngest, growth among evangelicals is lagging farther and farther behind that of the American population.
Admittedly, I’m no sociologist, but I will say I was at times uneasy with Dickerson’s use of statistical evidence through this section. There is certainly nothing wrong with a journalistic presentation of information collected from other studies. But occasionally the author combines information from various studies to create statistics or projections of his own (e.g., 90-92).
And, more broadly, though the author offers a clear definition of what he means by evangelical, he never clearly shows that the researchers he cites share his definition. Because evangelical is a contested term, it isn’t clear that everyone is considering the same subjects.
That said, I found Dickerson’s information convincing overall: evangelical ministries are losing money, people, and the favor of the American public.
The book’s second part, which Dickerson identifies as most important, is strong. It is marked by love for the church, confidence in God’s Word, and solid pastoral instincts. Each chapter suggests adjusted ministry priorities to match each area of decline.
For example, these chapters call us to do good to those outsiders who hate us, and to rally insiders around the authority of the Bible and the content of the gospel. Dickerson suggests ministry models less dependent on paid staff and costly programs than on a growing network of disciple-making lay leaders. He calls pastors to emphasize individual shepherding as a way to stop the drift away from churches. And he proposes evangelistic methods less focused on events and headline evangelists than on “normal” Christians confidently sharing their faith.
I wouldn’t call these strategies “bold” and “fresh” in the way the author claims, but “bold” and “fresh” are overrated. But these simple methods reflect biblical priorities and come supported by centuries of fruitful precedent. They are tried and true, and that should be reason enough to get excited about them.
MELODRAMATIC AND OVERSTATED
As I’ve said, I’m not fully convinced by Dickerson’s account of American evangelicalism. But my hesitation has little to do with the specific numbers he surveys or strategies he proposes. Rather, I’d like to critically engage Dickerson’s work on two fronts.
First, the book is consistently melodramatic in a way that I believe obscures what’s at stake for us given the statistics in part one. I’m not disputing the specific numbers Dickerson presents, and I certainly wish we were seeing a higher number of conversions, a better reception of our message in the wider culture, and more money to fund ambitious outreach. But still I’m not sure what it would mean to “crash the American church.” And I don’t see why it’s necessary or helpful to speak of “saving God’s work in the United States” (124).
With occasional caveats, this tone pervades the book. At least on a subtext level, like the Puritan jeremiad, it frames what’s at stake as if God has made a unique covenant with American evangelicals and our ability to enjoy the promises of this unique covenant hinge on our behavior at this decisive moment. Dickerson claims that “God has eternal purposes that hinge on your strategic placement here in the United States ‘for such a time as this.’” (126). He argues the church’s “spiritual decay or restoration depends, in your sphere, on you and your leadership,” and, if we’re faithful to the model presented here, “we can reverse each of the 21st-century declines documented in this book” (218, 220).
I’m all for renewed faithfulness in gospel ministry, and I’m all for the ministry priorities sketched out in the second half of this book. But God simply has not promised to reward our faithfulness with numerical growth consistent with the American population, with predominantly believing children, with a steady flow of cash, or with a friendly host culture.
Put differently, we have not been promised that our faithfulness will yield anything different from what faithful Chrsitians experience in China, Afghanistan, or North Africa. Look at Hebrews 11. Sometimes faithfulness sees the dead brought back to life; other times it gets you sawn in two. God will take care of God’s eternal purposes; we’re called to be faithful and leave the results to him. My guess, based on some passages in the book, is that Dickerson would agree with this sentiment. Yet the book’s tone muddies the water.
My second concern goes more to the book’s portrait of decline. Though a decline of some sort is obvious, I’m not convinced the significance of decline is as straightforward as Dickerson’s account suggests.
Clearly, this review is not the place to defend an alternate view of the trajectory of American evangelicalism, but I suspect the statistics could tell a more complex and even hopeful story. Dickerson wisely shifts his focus in the second half of the book towards relational discipleship and away from fixation on numbers. Yet ironically his portrait of impending catastrophe assumes the numbers-heavy, results-oriented priorities of what we might call the megachurch era. But as the author himself concedes (e.g., 111), looking to factors like wealth, adherents, and cultural power can be a deceptive way to measure vitality.
Even decades ago, observers such as Os Guiness and David Wells were warning against unintended consequences of pragmatic, seeker-sensitive methods that inflated numbers and distracted focus from the sorts of activities that yield sustainable gospel growth. These methods and their results rested on a cozy cooperation between the priorities and tastes of American culture and those of the church. As cultural values have shifted, it is hardly surprising that cultural incentive to church participation has evaporated. Folks brought in by attractions other than the gospel and fed a diet hostile to the gospel (e.g., “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism”) can hardly be expected to stick around once church affiliation requires taking up any sort of cross.
But if this dynamic at least partly lies behind the declining numbers cited in Dickerson’s study, is what’s happening really a decline? Or are we merely receiving a clearer picture of what was already there, a vivid reminder that there’s no such thing as an accommodating host culture?
As C.S. Lewis observed of his own time and place, it could be that “the religion which has declined was not Christianity,” and that “when no man goes to church except because he seeks Christ the number of actual believers can at last be discovered” (“The Decline of Religion,” in God in the Dock, 219-20). If Lewis’s observation about mid-century England holds true at all for American evangelicalism today, then in fact we may be enjoying a view of long-lost clarity, even a step towards renewal.
NOT FEAR, BUT GOD’S PROMISES
Thankfully, whether and to what extent we’re actually declining is far less important than what we do know with timeless clarity: God will bear lasting fruit by the gospel as it is preached and as it is embodied in faithful local churches. Let’s pray for urgency rooted not in fear or guilt but in the promise that God will reward faithfulness to gospel-centered methods like those Dickerson prescribes.