Evangelicalism is Not Declining: A Response to John Dickerson’s NYT Essay

A young evangelical pastor named John Dickerson just released a head turner of an essay in the New York Times, with the Wall Street Journal America’s paper of record. Wielder of a sharp pen and possessor of a passionate heart, Dickerson is senior pastor of Cornerstone Church in Prescott, Arizona. He is a graduate of Bob Jones University and Phoenix Seminary.

Dickerson is soon releasing a book entitled The Great Evangelical Recession: Six Factors That Will Crash the American Church… and How to Prepare (Baker, 2013). In preparation for his book’s launch, Dickerson is making the rounds and selling his thesis. On the website devoted to the book, one can find an ominous video foretelling the fall of evangelicalism. The narration includes lines like this:

Dozens of existing studies prove beyond doubt that the church is declining.

In the next twenty years, we will witness an implosion and disintegration of the American church.

Dickerson clearly is not a wilting flower; his book clearly is not intended to be, either. In his New York Times piece, Dickerson substantiates the claim mentioned above:

First, evangelicals, while still perceived as a majority, have become a shrinking minority in the United States. In the 1980s heyday of the Rev. Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority, some estimates accounted evangelicals as a third or even close to half of the population, but research by the Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith recently found that Christians who call themselves evangelicals account for just 7 percent of Americans. (Other research has reported that some 25 percent of Americans belong to evangelical denominations, though they may not, in fact, consider themselves evangelicals.)

One can easily get into a War of the Polls. I’m not super interested in such a contest. However, I did find it interesting that in the December 2012 edition of Christianity Today (entitled “There and Back Again,” which this Tolkien nerd enjoyed), there is research presented that speaks to this very issue. Oddly enough, it offers a strong corrective to Dickerson’s bold contention.

According to CT, major cultural changes are indeed afoot. The “nones,” those who have no religious affiliation, have skyrocketed in recent years; they’re up almost 15% over the last 20 years. But the General Social Survey shows that during the last decade, those claiming affiliation with “evangelical” rose from 23% to about 26%.

Among adults under 30, nearly 24% claim to be evangelical, with that number rising several percentage points since 2007 alone. The percentage of “nones” has also risen among the younger crowd in the last decade, but even here the story is by no means fixed. Over the last few years the percentage of “nones” has actually decreased, not increased, according to the GSS. Furthermore, according to the survey, the percentage of people claiming to be evangelical in 1985 is virtually identical to the percentage claiming the same in 2010 (the last year for which we have data). There has of course been fluctuation in these statistics over the last three decades, but if the GSS is to be believed, then Dickerson’s central contention is on shaky ground at best.

As seen above, Dickerson attempts to anticipate this kind of response by noting that this 25% figure may not actually reflect those who are personally evangelical. But if this is true of one category, it is true of all the categories, and so I’m not sure that his counterpoint holds weight. (Update: I trust the General Social Survey. It’s conducted by the University of Chicago and is widely respected. Ed Stetzer of Lifeway, also a respected pollster and analyst, backed its findings up. The Pew Forum, interestingly, gives basically the same number of evangelicals in the population that the GSS does: 26%. See here: http://religions.pewforum.org/affiliations)

From a statistical lens, then, I’m skeptical at best toward Dickerson’s argument. I would not appoint myself a prophet, in part because I think that the future of Little League baseball teams—let alone a massive movement like evangelicalism–is hard to predict. But if I were to assume this lofty mantle, I would not read this data as suggesting that evangelicalism is gearing up for an “implosion” and a “disintegration.” Seems like more boring trends may be unfolding–like the idea that the movement is “holding firm” and “staying together.” That doesn’t send voice-over chills up one’s spine, I admit. But it does seem faithful to the data proffered by the GSS, at least.

I do think that Dickerson is right that evangelical political capital may have diminished a bit in recent years. It could be that our king-making days are over (though many African-American evangelicals, whose support helped elect and reelect Barack Obama, might justly differ with this point!). Or perhaps there is a different story at hand, one that is difficult to foresee. For example, as Rob Schwarzwalder pointed out recently, in 2011-2012, 131 pro-life measures were enacted and signed into law at the state level, the most victories in the history of the pro-life movement. That’s just one example that doesn’t mesh with Dickerson’s argument.

In addition, perhaps some churches are in decline, as Dickerson says they are. But I wonder if even this is a sign, ironically, of the growing health of evangelicalism and the waning power of nominal Christianity. If this is so, it is not clear to me—as it is for Dickerson—that this means that the movement is in “disarray.” Rather, it could mean that evangelicalism will actually grow stronger as a result of a more coherent identity and unified witness. Perhaps local churches and denominations that really do believe the gospel–that have purer church membership, in other words–will be able to better reach their communities. This is entirely possible, right?

Dickerson presents the classic dichotomy of those who bemoan the unpopularity of Christian views: we can either keep “angling for human power” or start winning souls. Well, I have little interest in power. My evangelical friends share my lack of interest in this pursuit. What we do care about, though, is human flourishing. On this point Dickerson shows well-established naïveté. The mainstream media wants us to read the evangelical promotion of life, marriage, and truth as repressive, unkind, and counter to the spirit of Jesus. If I may be so bold, it is a shame when fellow evangelicals pick up this tune, and especially so when they sing it in the pages of the New York Times.

In the Beatitudes of Matthew 5, Jesus told his disciples and by extension us that we will be hated if we stand up for righteous causes in this world. Jesus saw the risks. He knew the cost. Yet he did not encourage his church to muzzle its witness, but to unleash it in order that a sinful world might not die, but live. Evangelicals do not speak the biblical truth on homosexuality out of hate, but love. Evangelicals do not contend for the rights of the unborn out of a desire for power, but out of a concern for the least of these. Evangelicals do not decry a sexualized culture because we like to wring our hands, but because we want to spring Satan’s deadly trap.

If you call yourself an evangelical, and you’re not aware of these consuming concerns, you clearly don’t know the evangelicals I do. They’re not power-hungry; they’re not angry. They are full of love for God and his image, man, and it is from this love that they speak truth and life to a world lost in sin.

It is true as Dickerson says that whatever befalls the church in coming days, Christ will triumph. But eschatological promises should not blind us to earthly realities. A vibrant gospel witness is the church’s primary mission. But Christians from Justin Martyr to Augustine to Aquinas to Calvin to Edwards to Wilberforce to Colson have seen from the Bible that society benefits immeasurably from the church. And society benefits most when the church is strongest. I have made clear that Dickerson seems flatly wrong that the church is deteriorating. But whether it is or not, his cheer-leading of the loss of evangelical social influence chills my blood. If the church loses ground, who suffers most—the so-called powerbrokers? Most assuredly not. The babies in the womb, the homeless who have no shelters, the poor who have no jobs, the nations that have no missionaries—these are the people who will suffer most if the church falters.

Mainline Christianity is in tragic freefall, and no doubt many of its departed are becoming “Nones” (it would be very odd to be speaking this term–the Catholic Church is seeing a stunning rise in its womanly orders?), but evangelicalism is strong. I think it will continue to be. It may lose some influence; it may take some cultural hits. It is embattled, yes, but I see signs that indicate against all odds that it is thriving in many places. The so-called new Calvinism was the third biggest idea of 2009, for example. Mainstream media coverage in places like The Guardian has shown that this movement is spreading like wildfire in China. The number of American young people claiming to be evangelical is actually increasing according to the GSS, despite what many of us feel when the secularity of our culture parades itself before us.

Everybody take a deep breath. I find the New York Times profitable and stimulating reading. John Dickerson looks to have a bright future ahead. But I think a different, more complex narrative is afoot. We don’t know what’s ahead, but we do know this: the movement is not dead. It is healthy.

Like the Lord it worships, it is alive.

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  • Matthew R. Crawford

    Thanks for this post, Owen. Thoughtful as always. However, I have to confess that I find your argument lacking in at least two respects. The first is that you claim “I have made clear that Dickerson seems flatly wrong that the church is deteriorating.” In fact, all you have done is to give us another poll that presents evidence contrary to his. To really prove what you want to prove, you would have to present a case for why we should trust your numbers rather than his, which you do not do, since you do not want to engage in a “War of the Polls.” The very fact that his numbers are so different from yours is intriguing and merits further investigation to see what’s really lying behind the figures. The second issue has to do with Dickerson’s constructive proposal. After reading your piece first, I was surprised when I then went back and read Dickerson’s article, since you imply that he wants evangelicals to concede ground on a whole host of their traditional moral issues, whereas in fact he proposes no such thing. He is explicit that we should not change any of our positions, but simply our “posture” towards the world, comparing evangelicals with Catholics and Muslims who hold similar positions on some moral issues, but do not share the stigma associated with evangelicals. I haven’t read anything else from Dickerson, and I assume you have, so maybe you’re reading between the lines where I am not, but I don’t see him advocating the sort of retreat that you are trying to resist.

    • ostrachan

      Hi Matt. My comment on the polls wasn’t intended to deflect attention from the issues, just to note that there’s more at stake in these conversations than polls. However, I actually do trust the General Social Survey. It’s conducted by the University of Chicago and is widely respected. Ed Stetzer of Lifeway, also a respected pollster and analyst, backed its findings up. The Pew Forum, interestingly, gives basically the same number of evangelicals in the population that the GSS does: 26%. See here: http://religions.pewforum.org/affiliations

      That seems to me a pretty convincing picture that basically 25% of Americans claim to be evangelical. I frankly doubt that Christian Smith’s numbers are correct; they seem, anecdotally, quite low to me.

      Dickerson makes the case for what you could call a “declawed” evangelicalism. We’ve heard this argument many times. He wants a kinder, gentler public witness. Many have said this–Jonathan Merritt and Rachel Held Evans being the latest. I think, as I say pretty clearly in the piece, that this is a devil’s bargain. This line is often based directly in a response to the mainstream media’s depiction of evangelicals as “culture warriors.” In reality the vast majority of evangelicals are not mean and nasty but are simply doing what Christ said we must do–be salt and light, which will mean persecution for righteousness’ sake (Matthew 5).

      I think Dickerson’s analysis of evangelicals as compared to Catholics and Muslims is facile. It doesn’t take into account Jesus’ own words. Evangelicals are most hated because they are promoting the true gospel. Furthermore, they are the most populous group on many campuses. I don’t think our unpopularity has much to do with our posture; I think it has to do with our message.

      In terms of retreat, I don’t think I have anything new to say. I engaged directly with Dickerson’s words. He’s happy for us to fall into disarray. I’m not.

      • Matthew R. Crawford

        Thanks, Owen. That’s precisely the sort of clarification on the numbers that I thought would strengthen your piece. Not knowing much about either of these polling sources, I have little way to adjudicate between competing figures unless you provide a little more information like that. That extra info helps make your argument. On the second point, it still seems to me like you and Dickerson are, to some degree, talking past one another. He says (paraphrasing) ‘we don’t need to be angry’ and you say ‘we’re not angry.’ You say ‘we should not muzzle our witness’ and he says ‘we cannot whitewash unpopular doctrines.’ Is the difference between the two of you simply one of emphasis? I’ve not read anything from Merritt or Evans, so I’m not aware of the larger context of this debate, but simply from a reading of your post and Dickerson’s article, I’m trying to get a handle on what the nub of the difference between you is.

        • ostrachan

          I understand, Matt. I’ve updated the post to include that information. You made a helpful point–thank you.

          I’m not sure we are saying the same thing, though it might sound that way. I’m pretty familiar with this line of approach to our cultural witness; it argues that we should be known for love, not hate, which essentially means that we should speak positively, not negatively. The gospel IS our cultural witness, first of all. But we have to tell the truth on issues like SSM. That will mean, sadly, that we draw fire.

          Dickerson says this, for example: “Instead of offering hope, many evangelicals have claimed the role of moral gatekeeper, judge and jury.” Well, some evangelicals probably do fall in this category. But many do not. And if speaking the truth on, again, SSM for example means being called a “moral gatekeeper,” then that is an epithet we must own.

          Here’s what my response boils down to: speaking the truth, even doing so with grace and love in a way that shows that we will not lose our souls in cultural “battle,” STILL will mean anger, hostility, and even hatred from those who disagree with us. I’m trying to do my little part to put steel in the spine of my fellow evangelicals, and say that we must continue to speak the truth. In other words, I don’t think what Dickerson wants is really possible today; saying homosexuality is a sin, however carefully we speak (and we should speak with nuance and grace), is naturally going to be seen as offensive and hateful. This is playing out in Europe right now as pastors in various places face jail time for speaking the truth about homosexuality.

          By the way, one final point on Dickerson’s take on college campuses: from what I see of his background, he’s not earned a degree from a secular school. I have. I have four years of on-the-ground experience at a school hostile to Christianity. I’ve been on the front lines of this contest, and was one of at best thirty students out of 1600 who was publicly committed to the Christian witness of my Inter-Varsity group. I know now of numerous New England schools at which evangelicals are either under extreme pressure or are already banned on an organizational level. They are not facing this fate because they are sign-carrying, hate-chanting bigots; they’re often quite gentle, but are trying to do foundational things like appoint genuine Christians (who know the homosexual lifestyle is a sin) to leadership. For this organizations are losing funding and status.

          So while we can all think of some bad apples in the barrel, I’m just not sure that Dickerson’s characterization of many evangelicals and their cultural posture is accurate. I think it’s largely a straw man, and building an argument on such is not good. Furthermore, this kind of piece encourages us to soften our cultural witness, and that’s not good either.

  • Steve Sherwood

    Their prophets tickle their ears and say ‘peace, peace’ where there is no peace. Nobody much liked Jeremiah’s message either, back in the day.
    Evangelicalism may not utterly collapse in 20 years, but it is hardly healthy. I don’t think we do the church a service by not taking these voices of concerns seriously.

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  • Don Harryman

    As a homosexual American, I find myself mostly indifferent to the rise or fall of what passes for religion–I believe all religion is hateful, man made nonsense, which serves primarily to divide, judge and oppress–history is littered with the corpses of those killed because someone else’s God said to do it. However, as an American, I am obliged to accept your right to believe and to practice as you choose, as long as it doesn’t infringe upon my right not to believe, and as long as you don’t insist, as you do now, that your views be immune from criticism because they are founded in your religion. I do believe what Jesus said when He said by their fruits ye shall know them. Small wonder then that so many reject religion (you’ll notice I said religion–not God) when its fruits are smug, selective self righteous judgment, and outright obsession with things about which Jesus said nothing–like homosexuals–all the while paying little or no attention to human poverty, war and suffering. Evangelicals said nothing when thier candidate GWB lied this country into a war in Iraq, causing untold suffering and death to both Americans and Iraqis, but shriek when homosexuals want to be afforded equal protection in (civil) marriage. When the fruits of your religion is shown by the excellence and fullness of your love, your consistency in following Christ’s message, and your consistency in applying the Biblical principles you claim to follow–not just the ones you think apply to those people you don’t like, then I’ll listen. Until then, I will continue to see most religionists as self righteous hypocrites who strain at a gnat and swallow a camel. Your future battles will be with the younger generation, who simply see religion as intolerant, hypocrical judgmental nonsense and are fleeing it in droves.

  • Don Harryman

    BTW, since the term ‘homosexual lifestyle’ pops up here frequently, could someone explain precisely what that means? You seem to be the self appointed judges of other people’s ‘lifestyles’, so this seems like a logical place to find an authoratative answer. Were I to use the term ‘Christian lifestyle’, who exemplifies that life style…David Koresh, Jim Jones, Jim Bakker, Jimmy Swaggert, Creflo Dollar…I’m a bit confused here.

    • David Patton

      Good command of the English language, Don, but you haven’t described anything really new in your comment.
      Your issue is with God Almighty, not His followers. You, like all fallen human beings love self and despise the Sovereignty of God. No one can come to Jesus Christ unless the Father mercifully grants the grace to allow repentance. Jn. 6
      There is no great insight on your part to find fault with other people, especially with those that proclaim faith in Christ. Jesus said that He came for those that were really in dire straights, and not the folks that “had it all together”.
      When grace starts to manifest in your heart you will not be so quick to find excuses for your sin at the expense of sin damaged people, but you will find the need to look honestly at your own desperate need for Jesus Christ and His sin cleansing blood.
      BTW: Jesus certainly does address sexual immorality and God sanctioned marriage in His teachings. Paul the Apostle is even more blunt and to the point.

  • Steve

    Actually, I think that it would give a more accurate picture if Evangelicals were broken down by race and ethnicity (White non-Hispanics, Hispanics, African-Americans). The “white” portion, which I believe is mostly that to which Dickerson was referring may very well be declining as a percentage of the population, while African-American Evangelicals may be holding steady and Hispanics surging. The political aspect of Evangelicalism is mostly attributed to white Evangelicals, is it not?

  • http://ceruleansanctum.com DLE

    I’m 50. I’ve been a Christian since the mid-70s. I studied church growth and discipleship, have a degree in the field, and have written extensively on the subject.

    When I was younger, I would routinely encounter people who desired to lead me to Christ even though I was already a Christian. But over the years, that chance evangelistic encounter has dropped off to zero. It’s been at least a decade since anyone attempted to lead me to Christ because they did not know I was already a believer.

    One might argue that people are more spiritually aware of the presence of the Spirit in another believer, and this accounts for the drop in strangers attempting to share the Gospel with me.

    I would argue, though, that the drop accurately reflects that almost no one is doing evangelism anymore. And if Evangelicals are not evangelizing others, then Evangelicalism—by its very definition—is dead. We can talk about poll numbers all we want, but if heaven will be less populated because Evangelicals have abandoned the Great Commission and are more interested in image than in conversion, then the handwriting is already on the wall.

    One might argue that techniques of evangelism have changed. And from what I see, that may be true. But whatever Evangelicals are doing with regard to evangelism, it is not leading to the ultimate outcome: mature Christians. While there are many churches that talk about evangelism, very few are capable of discipling converts to maturity. This is the great unexamined issue in modern Evangelicalism, and nothing speaks to the decline of the “movement” more so than this.

  • http://ceruleansanctum.com DLE

    I’ll add one further piece of evidence of Evangelicalism’s decline.

    Apart from those churches with an entrenched “one family” leadership model that ensures that the son takes over from his (usually “celebrity”) pastor father, Evangelical churches seem incapable of developing their leadership from within the church over the course of a generation or two. In other words, the people who run the church must come from elsewhere.

    This is further commentary on the average Evangelical local church’s inability to effectively reproduce and grow up the next generation. History has shown repeatedly that movements that can’t develop their own local leaders and must perpetually shift them around nationally or train them elsewhere are doomed to fail.

    • ostrachan

      Thanks for chiming in, DLE.

      I’ve had people evangelize me of late, and I’ve seen churches make in-house transitions. It could be that there is less of both of this kind of thing. I’m open to that. I guess my major point was to look at the stats that are available. They simply do not speak to the kind of precipitous decline that Dickerson suggests is happening. Many of us see things that unnerve and even upset us in evangelicalism. But I’m not sure that evangelicalism as a movement is imploding.

      Sometimes even reformed types speak in this language. Surely the movement is undergoing change and feeling cultural pressure. But things seem to be a mix to me–both good and bad. I guess I see a future for evangelicalism, both in America and beyond. I’m hopeful, though I’m not blind to the challenges we face.

  • David Patton

    What is Dickerson doing other than pointing out that Jesus was correct when He said,
    “Enter ye at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, the leadeth to destruction, and many ther be which go in thereat: because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth to life, and few there be that find it.” Matt 7.13-14
    We get to “sow” the Word, and “water” the Word every hour of every day. Sometimes we get to harvest genuine converts for the Lord. The need is great, and there is much work to be done.
    Dickerson helps me not at all to continue to put my hand to the plow and move forward.
    He would do well to testify to all the wonderful efforts he and his flock are making to evangelize his city.
    In our church, we are knocking on doors during the week, city wide, and bringing them in by the hundreds, on school busses, every Sunday, to hear the uncompromised Gospel of Jesus Christ.
    Don’t look back, but rather press on for the Glory of God through Jesus Christ.


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