“Building that lasts: Christians in US dwindling fast” I saw this headline in my local newspaper this weekend and wondered why they had left off the exclamation marks. The columnist had read a new book by John Dickinson, The Great Evangelical Recession: 6 Factors That Will Crash the American Church… And How to Prepare, and gleaned that only 7% of the population of the United States are currently “counted as evangelical Christians.” Oh, and also, we should panic.
The Great Evangelical Recession presents a portrait of America that is losing its faith and in need of a spiritual bailout. The anxiety stems from Dickinson’s observation that churches “have fallen into a dollar-centric Americanized deformity of the Gospel.” Secular culture has perverted the true faith and churches are run more like Wal-Mart and McDonald’s than as true no-frills missions-driven congregations. Dickinson argues that the evangelicals who remain are defensive and reactionary, which antagonizes and alienates the population that they are trying to convert.
Dickinson is pastor of the 500-member Cornerstone Evangelical Free Church in Prescott, Arizona—a congregation that claims a focus on Gospel-based preaching and not current church fads. After investigating his background and pondering his concerns a bit, I came up with a few observations and questions:
There is a central tension here in terms of definitions. How do evangelicals define themselves? There has always been conflict and confusion amongst the diverse body of evangelicals in the United States over who belongs and who should be discounted. Dickinson may be falling into the larger problem of needing to define a faith that has a diverse body of followers and interpretation of beliefs. Some evangelicals view their faith as an aesthetic or a “feeling” and others need more firm doctrine. Either way (and Dickinson does admit that the term is tricky), there is no overriding factor or easy definition. The “fragmentation” of evangelicalism is a major concern of Dickinson’s, as evinced in an interview: “I see more evangelicals separating and defining themselves by who they oppose. This is really a new manifestation of Fundamentalism. Simultaneously, other so-called “evangelicals” are getting soft on Scripture and atonement. They are essentially reincarnations of the old theological liberals who sabotaged the mainline denominations. History demonstrates that those extreme oppositional and capitulating views both fail Christ and the Church over time.” But this fragmentation is also going to affect the way that Dickinson and other critics of the modern (secularized) church define the term and determine how it will be employed.
Some would-be evangelicals are not self-identifying as evangelical. Dickinson’s figures are based on studies like that done by the Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith who found that 7% of Americans call themselves evangelicals. Is the faith actually waning or are nondenominational congregations simply changing the way that Christians identify themselves? Is declension really happening or is there a shift in vocabulary and how people relate to traditional terms? A 2010 Pew Research Center study considered how the younger generation does not affiliated with a particular denomination but their beliefs are fairly traditional. In other words, where to the “nones” fit into evangelicalism? Are evangelical beliefs still influencing Americans who do not check the “evangelical” box?
Dickinson is also pairing evangelicalism with conservative Christianity and made a politicized argument in a December NY Times op ed: “In 2012 we witnessed a collapse in American evangelicalism. The old religious right largely failed to affect the Republican primaries, much less the presidential election. Last month, Americans voted in favor of same-sex marriage in four states, while Florida voters rejected an amendment to restrict abortion.” These political factors indicate to Dickinson that evangelicalism is on the decline. Is it or is Dickinson simply equating evangelicalism here with Christian conservatism? This seems to be a consistent with the narratives of Ken Ham, David Barton, et al, but negates the possibility of liberal evangelicalism.
The megachurch (and seeker-sensitive) is at the center of his critique. Dickinson admits that churches like Saddleback are effective in bringing people in, but they do not fulfill the Great Comission. His observation that these churches are part of a corporate, consumerist culture is not inaccurate. They are companies—with advertising and television networks and killer websites (see Kate Bowler’s recent blog post). But does this emphasis on family-life centers and gyms and sanctuaries with waterfalls mean that the churches are no longer evangelical? I see megachurches as the next step in evangelicalism, tailoring their services to mass culture to bring in more converts. Certainly, it’s a break from past practices but change is part of the evangelical experience in America.
It seems that the decline of evangelicalism that Dickinson describes is actually a part of the natural evolution of evangelicalism, and that dynamic ability to evolve is what has made the movement so fruitful in the United States. Within this history of evangelical evolution, fear of declension and secularization or loss of fundamental beliefs is one of the few constants. Every generation has voices that cry declension, but evangelicals have done an excellent job in adapting to cultural pressures and surviving/thriving. This adaptation, perhaps, is what Dickinson fears more so than the actual decline in faith.