The Great Evangelical Recession

the-great-evangelical“First money drains, then power drains” said a commentator on the similarities of the United States and the British Empire.  Who would have thought standing outside Buckingham Palace during Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897 that in 50 years Great Briton’s money and power would be in mortal decline.   By 1997 one of her most iconic colonies, Hong Kong, would be returned to communist China.

John Dickerson’s book The Great Evangelical Recession, reminds us that “when money drains, power drains”.  Though the British Empire, or any empire for that matter, cannot really be compared to the Church of Jesus Christ, it certainly can be compared to the cultural expressions of the local church in the United States.  And in the United States the foremost model of ministry is based on money.

In his chapter entitled “Bankrupt” he makes a strong case for the sea-change in giving that will force a crisis in the evangelical church.  The good news is that it will not happen tomorrow.  The bad news is that it will be within the next 15-20 years.

Dickerson lists four major reasons why this financial crisis will happen: dependence on dollars in the American Evangelical church; the trend of overall decreased giving; the death of the biggest giving generation; and the unpredictabity and unreliability of the ensuing generations.

Dependence on Dollars in the American Evangelical Church

Though not many churches can tell you how many disciples they have produced, they can certainly tell you their budget numbers.  The American church is awash in money.  Unfortunately, that has led to models of ministry that are dollar-driven.  When the dollars dry up, the ministry will collapse.

The Trend of Overall Decreased Giving

Though the combined giving of the American Evangelical church is greater than the GDP of Iceland, recent problems in the US economy have only exacerbated a slow trend in decreased giving to support churches and ministry.  One of the alarming trends is the continued decline of those who actually tithe.  According to a Barna report, only 5% of evangelicals actually tithe a full 10% of income.

The Death of the Biggest Giving Generation

This decrease in giving is only going to accelerate with the death of the Greatest Generation and the greying of the Baby Boomers.  According to studies cited by Dickerson, donors aged 65 years old and older give 46% of total donations to ministries.[1]   That is a staggering number.  They are carrying a heavy burden and deserve huge respect from us.

The Unreliability and Unpredictability of the Ensuing Generations

Unfortunately, each year this generation is moving toward extinction.  Who will replace them?  According to Dickerson, no one.  If something does not change drastically, the next generation will not pick up the mantel.  Citing a study from Purdue University, Dickerson points out that the Baby Boomers are not giving the same about as their parents did at comparable ages.[2]  In other words, when the Baby Boomer reach (and many are now) in the 65 age group, they are not giving as much as the previous generation.

Looking at the overall giving patterns and trajectory of demographic paints a bleak future for the American church financially.  However, one must also understand that this outlook is focused on a model that is based on dollars.   In his chapter titled Solvent, Dickerson outlines several responses that the church can pursue to counter these trends.

Hybrid Ministry

These ministries are ones that require fewer dollars but produce more results.  As Dickerson says “Hybrid ministries don’t require as much money because they’ve been careful about output (building and other overhead costs), and they also have an alternate energy source (nonpaid staff).

Conservation

In this section Dickerson asks a great question:  “If you knew your salary would be cut in half in the next fifteen years, would you take out a thirty-year mortgage that you can barely afford?”  It is a question that all ministries need to ponder.  If giving is going to nosedive, then shouldn’t we begin to pull back on long range purchases?

Preparation

Preparing the next generation is a huge task to combat the falling giving rates.  But part of the problem is not that there is no money in evangelical hands, but that they are not giving it.  According to a financial report, US evangelicals represent less than 20 percent of global evangelicals yet hold around 80 percent of world-wide evangelical wealth.  The money is not being passed around to impact more people.  To change this situation, as well as the decline in giving, ministries will need to be preparing mature believers now for future giving.

Abandon

Lastly, Dickerson reminds us that tithing is at an all-time low.  To correct this problem, ministries will need to teach, promote, and highlight tithing as a biblical norm, not just an anomaly present in one generation.  Rather than try to recreate a generation that gave out of a cultural norm (and still fell way short of full-scale tithing), Dickerson states that ministries must raise radical disciples that are willing to tithe and produce other disciples that are willing to tithe.

Is Dickerson saying that dollars are not important?  No, he is not.  But he is saying that new models of ministry can be started that do not focus on dollars as the foundation of ministry.  Rather these new models will follow on discipleship.

So, what kind of adjustments does your ministry need to take?

How does your church or ministry feel about bivocational staff?

Would your ministry be willing to have self-funded staff that solicit funds from their social and family networks?

Would your church postpone building in order to create more cost effective small groups that meet in homes?

How are you going to reach the next generation with a model that focuses on discipleship rather than dollars?

First dollars drain, then power drains.  This may be true for earthly empires, but thankfully the Church of Jesus Christ, the greatest Empire ever, is based on discipleship.  On this Empire, the sun never sets.

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