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The Great Evangelical Recession

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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The Great Evangelical Recession: 6 Factors That Will Crash the American Church . . . and How to Prepare (Credit: Baker Books/John S. Dickerson)

In The Lord of the Rings, Frodo says to Gandalf, “I wish the Ring had never come to me.  I wish none of this had happened.”  Gandalf replies, “So do all who live to see such times; but that is not for them to decide.  All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.  There are other forces at work in this world.”

We live in a day when forces opposed to the gospel are at work in this world on an unprecedented level.  Spiritual awakening in America is more essential than ever before.  Unless something changes quickly, the U.S. will soon become a post-Christian nation.  The good news is that what we need to do, we can do—today.

What are we facing?

John Dickerson is an award-winning journalist, named “Journalist of the Year” in Arizona at the age of 24 and receiving national recognition for his work.  A few years ago he became pastor of Cornerstone Church in Prescott, Arizona.  Cal Thomas calls Dickerson’s recent The Great Evangelical Recession “an important book that every believer should not only read but heed.”  Gabe Lyons agrees that the book is “a must read for any Christian hoping to see their faith regain traction in a changing world.”  The book was one of my top reads of 2014, and a critical study for understanding the church’s engagement with contemporary culture.

Dickerson analyzes six trends that spell doom for evangelical churches in America:

1. Our numbers are inflated.

  • Dickerson defines “evangelicals” as people who believe the Bible is God’s truth without error, and that Jesus is the only way to salvation and to God.  We sometimes hear that they are 40 percent of the population.  Multiple studies actually place the number at seven to nine percent.
  • At current rates, that number will drop to four percent within 30 years, reducing evangelicals to one out of every 25 Americans.
  • Three-fourths of current church growth is transfer growth from other churches.
  • Total attendance at all evangelical churches is declining in nearly every state.

2. We face growing cultural animosity.

  • Americans under the age of 35 are four times more likely than older generations to be atheistic, agnostic, or nonreligious.
  • When university professors were asked if they had negative feelings about various beliefs, three percent reported such feelings for Jews, nine percent for non-evangelical Christians, 22 percent for Muslims, but 53 percent for evangelical Christians.
  • Some specialists are recommending a new entry in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders: “intolerant personality disorder.”  This inclusion would diagnose and include those who believe homosexual behavior to be sinful along with Ku Klux Klan racists.
  • There is a growing movement to make “homophobia” (defined as any prejudicial attitude or behavior toward homosexuals) a crime.
  • Standards regarding sexual behavior are being transformed rapidly.  The U.S. produces 89 percent of all pornographic web pages; the City of Philadelphia has lowered the age for condom distribution to 11 years old, or fifth grade; sex slavery is rising to epidemic levels.

3. We are divided by political and cultural agendas.

  • The evangelical “left” (11 percent) champions social justice issues.
  • The “right” (48 percent) still identifies with the Religious Right and the Republican party.
  • The “moderate middle” (41 percent) seeks a centrist approach.
  • Racial demographics are dividing evangelicals; most growth is among ethnic and immigrant minorities, not Anglo congregations.
  • Postmodern relativism is undermining our commitment to biblical authority.

4. We face a massive reduction in financial support.

  • People over age 75 give four times as much of their income as 25-to-44-year-olds.  Each younger generation gives significantly less of its income to Christian ministries.
  • The oldest two generations contribute the largest percentage of funds to Christian work.  As they die off over the next 30 years, ministry will lose up to 70 percent of its current funding.
  • The first phase in this reduction will occur over the next 12 years, as the oldest generation is dying (nearly 1,000 a day).  They account for 19 percent of the national church, but give 46 percent of our donations.  As they pass away, giving will decrease by half.
  • Seventeen percent of Christians say they tithe, but only three percent actually give 10 percent or more to the Lord’s work.

5. Younger members are leaving the church.

  • Two in three evangelical 20-year-olds abandon the faith by age 30, comprising 260,000 exiting the church every year.
  • Unlike previous generations, two-thirds of them never return.
  • Between 2005 and 2027, five million young Christians will leave the church; about 3.4 million will never come back.
  • One reason: we have taught young people “moralistic therapeutic deism,” not biblical faith.

6. Churches are failing to make disciples.

  • America is experiencing the largest population boom in its history, with more than four million births a year.  Immigration adds another million new U.S. residents annually.  However, with each passing generation, the number of evangelicals is shrinking.
  • Among Millennials (18-to-29-year-olds), there are twice as many atheists and evangelicals, and four to six as many secularists (atheists, agnostics, and self-identified non-religious people).
  • The most common name for newborns in Britain is now Muhammad.
  • Between 2000 and 2005, California lost 1.8 percent of its evangelical attendees; Texas lost 2.6 percent.

What can we do?

Abraham Lincoln noted: “If we could first know where we are, and whither we are tending, we could then better judge what to do, and how to do it.”  We have seen where we are and “whither we are tending.”  Now, what are we to do?

Love Jesus

Jesus’ Great Commission is clear: we are to “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19).  This is the purpose by which our Lord measures us—not by the size of our buildings or number of our members, but by the degree to which we make fully devoted followers of the Lord Jesus.

His Great Commandments teach us how to fulfill his Great Commission: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:37, 39).  When we love God, we will love others.  And our lives will impact our culture for Christ.

Here’s the problem: most of us don’t love Jesus, at least not to the degree he asks of us.

Jim Cymbala’s Storm notes a 2012 Barna Group discovery: 46 percent of churchgoers said “their life had not changed at all as a result of churchgoing.”  In addition, “three out of five church attenders (61 percent) said they could not remember a significant new insight gained by attending church services.”  And “one-third of those who have attended a church in the past have never felt God’s presence while in a congregational setting.”

First15 is a devotional resource written by Craig Denison and produced by the Denison Forum.  In the reading for January 5, Craig quotes Brother Lawrence’s The Practice of the Presence of God: “I cannot imagine how religious persons can live satisfied without the practice of the presence of GOD.  For my part I keep myself retired with Him in the depth of centre of my soul as much as I can; and while I am so with Him I fear nothing; but the least turning from him is insupportable.”

Is his experience yours?

As we have seen, a growing number in our culture reject Jesus.  Another percentage worships him on Sunday but ignores him on Monday.  Some make their lives about him, serving him as a cardiologist serves the cause of heart health.  Some live for him, as a servant lives for his master.  But he wants us to live with him, as a child with her father.

From Genesis 3, when God sought our wayward ancestors, to this present moment, God has been seeking intimacy with us.  He sought Abraham when he lived far from the Promised Land; he sought Jacob as he fled his brother at Bethel; he sought Moses at the burning bush; he sought judges and prophets and kings, sending divine and human messengers to them.

Then he entered humanity himself, as the Creator (see Colossians 1:15-16) became part of creation.  Now he seeks us by his Spirit at work in us and in our world, by his word which “never returns void” (Isaiah 55:11), and by his self-revelation through his creation and our circumstances.

However, our culture conditions us to seek not a transformational relationship but a transactional religion.  The ancient Greeks separated soul from body and religion from the “real world.”  They made sacrifices to their gods so the gods would do what they wanted.  Like them, we are tempted to make worship a means to our end, God a genie in our bottle.  We worship on Sunday, give money, pray, read Scripture, and serve so God will love and bless us.  We measure success in human terms—popularity, possessions, and performance.

All the while, Jesus longs for us to love him.  To serve him because he loves us, not so he will.  To worship and pray and work because he has blessed us, not so he will.  To love him with all our hearts.  When we practice the presence of Jesus, living in the reality of his presence in our lives, others will see him in us.  And we will have his transforming love for a culture dying to know our Lord.

Surrender to his Spirit

Missionary Hudson Taylor: “We have given too much attention to methods and to machinery and to resources, and too little to the Source of power, the filling with the Holy Ghost.”

Jesus’ last words to the church are clear: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).  Here we discover the purpose of the church: “you will be my witnesses,” taking Christ to your city and world.  Here we discover the people who fulfill the purpose: “you” will receive power and “you” will be my witnesses.  The Greek is plural, including every believer.

Here we discover the priority by which the people fulfill the purpose: “in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”  We begin where we are and reach those with whom we have influence.

And here we find the power by which the people fulfill the purpose and accomplish the priorities of the church: “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you.”  The power of God really is sufficient to accomplish the purpose of God.

However, we can rely on ourselves rather than God, trusting in our abilities and education and expertise rather than the Holy Spirit.  None of us can convict a single person of a single sin or save a single soul from hell for heaven.  We cannot do anything spiritual using human ability.  God’s word is clear: “‘Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,’ says the Lord Almighty” (Zech. 4:6). If Peter, James, and John, Jesus’ closest friends and greatest apostles, had to seek the power of God to fulfill the purpose of God, so must we.

Do you know that you need the power of God today?  Do you know how to receive it?

Jesus told the first Christians to “wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about.  For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 1:4-5).  So they prayed and waited, and the Spirit fell.

Paul told us how to have their experience: “Be filled with the Spirit” (Ephesians 5:18). First, ask the Spirit to show you any sin which would keep him from using you, and confess it with a repentant heart.  Second, ask the Spirit to take control of your life and empower you to be used by God.  Surrender and submit every part of your day to him.  Third, believe that he has done what you asked, that he will empower and use you as you trust him.  And he will.

This must be the daily routine of our lives, the way we begin every morning of the day.  You put gas in the tank before you drive the car.  You plug a computer into the power outlet before you turn it on.  This is how God wants you to begin every morning this week, and for the rest of your life.

Serve him in unity

Have you seen “Battle at Kruger“?  More than 75 million people have viewed the eight-minute YouTube video of lions attacking a Cape buffalo calf.  As the lions, and then two crocodiles, begin to maul the calf, the herd comes to its rescue.  They chase off the predators and rescue the calf.

Satan “prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8).  He loves to attack those who try to escape or fight him themselves.  But when the herd rallies to the lone calf, they can defeat any adversary.

So it is that God’s people, in love with God’s Son, working in God’s Spirit, can fulfill God’s purpose.  The church is a vine with many branches (John 15), a body with many members (1 Corinthians 12).  There are no solos in the Book of Revelation.  As we love and worship Jesus together and serve in his Spirit, we can advance the Kingdom in unprecedented ways.

However, the enemy knows the power of our unity.  That’s why he works to divide us, from Ananias and Sapphira to the present.  As Dickerson notes, the body is being torn apart by political and cultural agendas today.  When we resolve to love and serve Jesus, we will love and serve each other.

Put a chair in the middle of the room and ask those present to move toward it.  The closer they draw to the chair, the closer they draw to one another.

Conclusion

Oswald Chambers warns: “The great enemy of the Lord Jesus Christ today is the idea of practical work that has no basis in the New Testament but comes from the systems of the world.  This work insists upon endless energy and activities, but not private life with God.  The emphasis is put on the wrong thing.”

Here’s the right thing: loving Jesus and serving him together in the power of his Spirit.

fifth Great Awakening is advancing around the world today.  More people are coming to faith in Christ than ever before.  South Korea is one-third to one-half born again Christian; Brazil will be 50 percent born-again Christian by 2025; more Muslims have come to Christ in the last 15 years than in the previous 15 centuries; a million in Cuba have come to Christ in the last 10 years; as many as 100,000 come to Christ every day in Communist China.

Meanwhile, the evangelical movement in America continues to decline and dim.  We have more resources than the rest of the Christian world combined, but fewer spiritual fruit.  Why?

In my experience, everywhere the Great Awakening is advancing, the common denominator is that people love Jesus and serve him together in his Spirit.  Wherever we don’t, we miss what his Kingdom is doing in our day.

Will we see Awakening in our churches and culture?  The answer lies not with our God, but with ourselves.