The Great Evangelical Recession by John S. Dickerson

I just finished an interesting new doom-and-gloom type book called The Great Evangelical Recession: 6 Factors That Will Crash the American Church … and How to Prepare, written by John S. Dickerson (Baker Books, 2013).  I call it doom-and-gloom, not because Dickerson paints a hopeless picture (this is certainly not the case), but because it paints a dismal picture of what will likely happen should the American Evangelical church continue doing business as usual without addressing major problems that will come home to roost in the next 15 or so years.

Whenever I read books like these, two things stick out: first, as historically-Reformed, confessional Protestants, many of the lures and pitfalls so prevalent in Evangelical churches don’t directly apply to us.  Most of our churches avoid being “program driven,” they diligently catechize their children and young people, they provide discipleship and pastoral care through elder visitation, and they have a strong commitment to systematic giving (whether tithing or other).

But second, just because we are confessionally-Reformed, that doesn’t mean that all of our churches behave that way.  Even traditional, conservative churches can (and do) fall prey to compromise in many of these areas.  Thus we too must take heed and ask just how recession proof our own churches are.  Have we begun drifting toward the program-driven model?  Have we become lax about insisting on catechesis and discipleship?  Have we become too hands off about teaching the saints about giving and financial stewardship?  Books like Dickerson’s play an important role for us, even if churches like ours don’t fall directly in their sights.

One aspect of this book was especially interesting.  Chapters 5 & 11 deal with “bleeding,” namely the loss of members.  Citing studies by Christian Smith, Kenda Creasy Dean and others who are studying the American church sociologically, Dickerson notes that young people (teens) and “emerging adults” (those in their twenties) are showing less and less interest in the church.  Though many believe that they retain a true personal spirituality, this is utterly false.  Dickerson notes: “…Smith’s research shows that when young people leave [the church] on the outside, they’ve left on the inside too” (pg. 102).

The anecdote?  Faithful catechesis and discipleship (i.e., shepherding).

The body is bleeding out because its leaders, its servants, and its people have forgotten how to make disciples as Jesus described and modeled.

We can call it shepherding.  We can call it discipleship.  We can even call it being relational.  What the three have in common is real people dealing with real life, together – and pointing each other to Jesus as they do.  What we are failing at is real ministry.  Not commercial or mass-marked events, but real ministry in real lives – the way Paul, Peter, John, and even Jesus did it.  We have somehow lost it on a large scale.

To slow the bleeding loss of our young people, we must first reach their parents with authentic, relational discipleship. And to reach the parents, we must first reach their leaders and in many cases, their pastors.

Great Evangelical Recession, pg. 183.

If we are failing in this way, if our churches – also the communion of the saints, remember – have neglected the mark of discipline (both positively in terms of shepherding and negatively in terms of admonition) and simply turned into “preaching stations,” may we repent and flee this hateful attitude toward the sheep (think Prov. 13:24 here).  Let us recover consistent home-visitation.  Not the quick “check-the-box” kinds of visits being practiced in some settings, but true, Pauline “house-to-house” ministry (Acts 20:20).

John Dickerson’s The Great Evangelical Recession was an interesting read.  Again, not relevant to every confessional-Reformed church, but certainly worth considering by those in confessional-Reformed churches, especially those who still “behave” like evangelicals (church hopping, consumerism, etc.).

Andrew Compton
Christ Reformed Church
Anaheim, CA

4 thoughts on “The Great Evangelical Recession by John S. Dickerson”

  1. “…Smith’s research shows that when young people leave [the church] on the outside, they’ve left on the inside too”

    This is what I’ve seen too. And if they’ve haven’t left it on the inside yet, they’re usually quickly on their way to. I’ve seen several young christians just spiritually dry up after extended periods of time away from church. Sometimes it starts off innocently enough, from being in a foreign country or some other location where finding a good church is hard to do. But it doesn’t take long before lack of church attendance, corporate worship, communion, etc, take its toll. And the strong social connections that should have been provided by fellow believers get replaced by those who may be down right antagonistic against the faith. Only God knows who is elect, but regardless, this kind of disconnect from active church membership will dry up the faith of even what appeared to be quite committed christians. Perhaps they were already leaving it on the inside prior to this, but being away doesn’t help at all.

    One thing I plan to do for my kids is make sure they understand the importance of being an active member of a church. It is absolutely essential for your spiritual health. From my perspective, it’s better to be a committed member of a so-so church than a so-so member of a really outstanding church. :-)


  2. Since Reformed Christians have more children than average, you would expect churches like the PCA and OPC to be growing rapidly in numbers also, but that’s not the case. Children are leaving Reformed churches when they grow up, often for evangelicalism, often for the unbelieving world.


    1. That is a great point, Walt. A good reason why our confessional-reformed churches aren’t completely recession proof! And why this book is still a helpful read even for us not in evangelical settings.


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