If it bleeds it leads.
So goes the adage among newspaper and television reporters when constructing the front page or the evening newscast. We tend to become more engaged by bad news stories, and for statisticians who manufacture and sell reports on everything from the consumption of soup or soap or the latest revelations of sexual trends among youth, shock sells.
The book The Great Evangelical Recession (Baker Books, January 2013) by reporter-turned-pastor John S. Dickerson is this type of shocker. Forget the thrillers in the Christian bookstore fiction section, this book is far scarier. The full title is The Great Evangelical Recession: 6 Factors that will Crash the American Church…and How to Prepare. The book describes the challenges that the Evangelical church faces over the next few years. It’s a message that Canadians have been hearing recently through the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada’s Hemorrhaging Faith report, which I covered in this article; and Americans made aware of via a recent Pew Research Forum report which I discussed here.
The book is arranged in twelve chapters, six deal with isolating the particular urgent challenges faced by Evangelicals, and six offer hope and direction, but offered in the shadow of that same urgency.
Of the six issues there are two that I gravitated to in reading the book this weekend. The first has to do with the longstanding suspicion among many that the number of Evangelicals in the United States is grossly inflated. The author, no stranger to interpreting statistics — is more comfortable pegging the numbers at 7% or 22 million. Toward the end he states that while these numbers will be disappointing to some, there is a lot that may be accomplished by 22 million people.
The second issue concerns the financial health of churches and parachurch organizations. With each successive generation, people are becoming more stingy. Worse for local churches, is the tendency among the younger generations to prefer supporting parachurch ministries over local assemblies.
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. Nearly one thousand of them are called home every day. Their funerals and memorials are quietly held every morning, afternoon and evening in rural churches and metropolitan chapels across the country. Nobody seems to be noticing.
Over the next twelve years, this faithful and reliable generation will pass away. As they do, total giving will decrease by as much as half for typical evangelical ministries — nationally, regionally and locally. (p.82)
The older generation accounts for only 19 percent of our national church, but they give 46 percent of our donations. A combining of figures reveals that approximately 361,000 of these most generous Americans die every year, or 969 per day. (p. 91)
Some optimists reason that as the younger generations age, they will become more generous. And certainly, some of them will. However, the Purdue study compares how today’s older folks gave when they were younger folks. It tells us that a 75-year-old giver today was, at age 35, far more generous than his 35-year-old counterpart today. (p. 93)
Perhaps it’s wrong on me to focus on the ‘money chapter’ especially in view of chapters that deal with the erosion of belief that accompanies the drop in church attendance. But in a book that takes its title from an economic event — recession — it seemed an appropriate section of the book to serve as example of what it is the church is facing in the long term unless some of these situations turn around.
Bradley Wright’s unofficial counterpoint to unChristian, titled Christians are Hate Filled Hypocrites, reviewed here, still must have dealt with enough potential negatives that his follow up had the more buoyant title Upside, reviewed here. In John Dickerson’s case, the half empty glass and the half full glass are presented in a single volume. In a way, the first part of the book grabs us more, the frightful news story does indeed command the front page. But the second half — each chapter a response to the conditions described in the first — while more familiar to us, preach against a background of statistics that give their prescriptive advice much greater meaning. Of those, I found the chapter on pursuing unity across denominational lines one of the most powerful.
The Great Evangelical Recession released in January in paperback at $14.99 US and is available from a Christian bookstore near you. Though the book deals exclusively with U.S. stats, I believe Canadians would benefit greatly from reading it as well. A review copy was provided by David C. Cook, Canada.
- Watch a 6-minute interview with the author at Fox News