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Tuesday, January 8, 2013

"Great Evangelical Recession" (John S. Dickerson)

TITLE: Great Evangelical Recession, The: 6 Factors That Will Crash the American Church...and How to Prepare
AUTHOR: John S. Dickerson
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2013, (256 pages).

The Evangelical Movement in America is not progressing well. In fact, there is a coming Great Evangelical Recession, so says John S. Dickerson. Listing six major factors that many Churches are suffering from, Dickerson paints a grim picture of the struggling Church. It is a Church that is struggling with both internal and external challenges. It is a movement whose strategies are one generation behind. It is a greater problem when leaders continue to remain in denial of what is happening.

In a work that borrows heavily from the Great Recession in the 30s, Dickerson gives us a spiritual version of this and applies it to the Evangelical movement. Borrowing many ideas from the physical effects of the crash, the key idea in the book is that a wise man will see the dangers ahead and make plans to deal with it. Using the next 15 years as a foreseeable future, Dickerson pointedly highlights six factors that can derail the evangelical mainstream.

  1. Inflated: Are we guilty of overestimating the size and the assets of our evangelical churches? Are we complacent about its finances, the number of church goers, and bloated structures? Are churches that are growing doing so at the expense of other churches? Are we losing our influence?
  2. Bankrupt: Our budgets are falling rapidly. The danger is that churches may use fund-raising tactics from the previous generation and apply it wholesale to the new generation. Seemingly invincible institutions from the past are now struggling, like Crystal Cathedral, D James Kennedy's Center for Redeeming America, and seminaries are losing ground. This is aggravated by dichotomous worldviews that divide the Church into paid vs unpaid staff; secular vs sacred calling; pastoral vs laypersons; sending vs goers; and so on. What is most troubling is that for the younger generation, not only are there lesser people who are giving, their giving is also lesser than the previous generation.
  3. Hated: The evangelical world and its proponents are increasingly despised. People are flocking to other religions more and to traditional churches less. Evangelicals are viewed less favourably than before. Often, people are more willing to criticize the Church. The culture is increasingly more intolerant of anyone speaking out against homosexuality and loose sexuality. 
  4. Dividing: The Church is not as united as thought. There is a battle line drawn to distinguish the political right and the left. Gregory Boyd, pastor of one MegaChurch saw his Church dwindle by 1000 members after he preached against Republican politics, despite his personal declaration of loyalty to America. What is worrying is that this example is just a precursor to something worse for the rest of evangelicalism. Instead, there is a growing segment of social justice proponents, against the pool that are staunchly political right. The problem is that this two different emphases are splitting the Church, despite merits on both sides.
  5. Bleeding: Like the leaves of an old tree, evangelicalism is losing its limbs and branches in alarming proportions. Two factors are accelerating this bleeding. One is external, the growing persecution by the world outside, and the other is internal, the growing discontent and unhappiness from within. There is the lost generation who refuses to follow their parents' tradition. There are the disillusioned singles or divorced. There is the problem of disciple-making that is out of step with the changing culture around. 
  6. Sputtering: Like an old car, the engines of the church are deteriorating. The Church has failed to measure up well to the important measure of Church health: Making NEW disciples. While evangelicalism is shrinking, secularism is soaring.
What is most troubling is that the leaders of evangelical churches are oblivious to the culture that is growing increasingly antagonistic to whatever the evangelical front puts up. Technologies are gaining prominence. Old regimes around the world are loosing their footholds. Change is becoming more rapid and its effects are more pervasive. Just like the Great Recession has cost many people their stocks, their pensions, their jobs, and their homes, the Spiritual Recession may cost us our resources, our financial situation, our membership base, and our churches. Worse, leaders who shrug, ignore, laugh at, or adopt some kind of a denial, are not only doing themselves a disfavour, they are risking the future of the Church. The key advice is this: Ignore these warnings at our own peril. Radical changes need to be made if we are to learn and adapt well for the next 15 years and beyond.

Thankfully, there is hope in six recovery propositions.

  1. Re-Valuing: Timely action is critical. Be humble and recognize the symptoms of the problem. Be nimble, be prayerful, and to revalue ourselves on the basis of being available for the work of the Holy Spirit in a new era. 
  2. Solvent: Learning from the fossil fuel crisis, ministries need alternative fuels. Four practical alternatives are offered. First, a hybrid kind of ministry that comprises both paid and unpaid volunteers. Second, be extremely conservative when incurring debt. Third, prepare people to give well, and to teach on giving. Four, to teach the Church on what it means to surrender and to live a life of abandonment for God.
  3. Good: In a culture hostile to Christianity, how then do we conduct ourselves? Instead of waiting passively for things to happen, we are to intentionally and proactively reach out to the needy. Moreover, many prominent and proming students at top Universities are growing anti-Christian and ever ready to dismiss any Christian claims that are contradictory to their deeply held beliefs. The example of Christopher Yuan, whose very position of maintaining traditional marriage, immediately unleashes all kinds of accusations of him being antigay, a bigot, and an intolerant individual. The point is that Christians are not to be easily discouraged by the overwhelming opposition. Instead, respond to all manner of evil with good and good works.
  4. Uniting: Unity is always in Christ, in worship of the King, and in proclaiming the Gospel. Strong, courageous leaders are needed to lead the way, to focus on the core essentials of faith, to be united in the common foundation of Scripture, and to be gracious when it comes to things peripheral to the faith. The more diverse we are, the greater the call for unity.
  5. Healing: This part is revealing. In churches where young people are leaving in droves, church leaders often try to mitigate the outflow by putting out attractive programs and putting up with some of the young people's preferences and desires. Such reactions are only limited steps. What is needed is far more, that churches must instill in themselves a culture of making disciples. Shepherding, discipling, and relating, all of these are part and parcel of what it means to disciple one another. Authentic, relational discipleship is key to healing. We cannot disciple our children until we disciple their parents. We cannot disciple their parents until we disciple their leaders. Leaders cannot be discipled unless we are disciples ourselves. This means individual discipling efforts. Public discipleship stems from private spirituality with God, both both informs each other.  Spiritual leaders are called to do three things. Love God. Love God's Word. Love God's people.
  6. Re-Igniting: This is about evangelism and to reignite the fervour that has first brought the previous generation to Christ. Adopting the "Long Tail" strategy, churches need to move away from a one-hit wonder to a multiple touch strategy. A whopping 79% of new people in Church are there because a friend has first invited them. Attractive programs or fanfare comprise the rest. 

My Thoughts

Most of us have heard of the Great Recession in the 30s. While some will see economic recession as times of opportunities, there are also others who suffer from emotional setbacks such as depression, despair, and discouragement.  Ronald Reagan has famously said that if our neighbours lose their jobs, it is a recession, and if we lose ours, it is a depression. This book is written more as a wake-up call rather than a doomsday prediction. Using examples from the world's economic and business front, Dickerson highlights how the most successful businesses and the most powerful figures in society, can succumb to the elements of recession, especially when they are ill-prepared for them. Sometimes, our present successes can blind us from factors that lead to future failures. At the same time, we may be overly busy with our short term present commitments that we fail to pay sufficient attention to critical matters for the longer term.

For the evangelical world, it needs to either evolve and adapt to change, or dissolve and sees its influence declines. Yet, for all the language it uses, this book is not a depressing book, but a wake-up call to the church sleepy in its status-quo. Hope comes when one recognizes the six potholes and then makes plans to do something about them.

Another interesting observations that Dickerson makes is that "distance often brings perspective." Indeed, for all our good intentions, and our good works, when we become too short-sighted, exchanging the importance of the long-term commitments for short-term conveniences. It requires us to take a step back, to reflect, and to put perspective back to what we are doing, asking ourselves the why and the purpose of the what. I admit that I feel a little discouraged at the first part of the book, with the doomsday scenario at nearly every page I turn. Fortunately, after the storm, there are rays of hope as the six factors for recovery come afresh with glimpses of a turn for the better. The author has hit all the right notes and played the right chords. What is needed now is for the spiritual orchestra to wake up from its slumber, and to practice the music score of discipleship and Gospel centeredness. As the Church becomes more open to change, and the young becomes more receptive of the Church, and when discipleship becomes a way of life, may we see instead a new Great Evangelical Awakening.

Rating: 4.5 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me free by Baler Books and NetGalley without any obligation for a positive review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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