There’s an old adage: With age, comes wisdom. However, there is certainly a case to be made that there are times in which youth is actually a beneficial attribute — one that can bring with it a different form of wisdom. Case-in-point: Pastor John S. Dickerson, a 30-year-old evangelical leader who is sounding the alarm to his fellow believers in an effort to help the movement adapt to changing societal paradigms.
Over the weekend, Dickerson penned a New York Times piece entitled, “The Decline of Evangelical America.” On the surface, the article isn’t an upper for Christians hoping to regain cultural traction.
And it’s certainly worth noting that many who read it will take offense or potentially deny the attributes and allegations made within it (and rightfully so, as each segment of Dickerson’s argument is up for interpretation and discussion).
As a young leader in the evangelical movement, the pastor outlines his views on current societal trends and what they could mean for the future of Christianity in America. Of 2012, he wrote, “It hasn’t been a good year for evangelicals. I should know. I’m one of them.” To understand what he means in making this statement, here’s a recap of how Dickerson views the current scenario:
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.
Much has been said about conservative Christians and their need to retool politically. But that is a smaller story, riding on the back of a larger reality: Evangelicalism as we knew it in the 20th century is disintegrating.
In 2011 the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life polled church leaders from around the world. Evangelical ministers from the United States reported a greater loss of influence than church leaders from any other country — with some 82 percent indicating that their movement was losing ground.
As for the reason for this decline, the preacher is able to narrow it down in a few simple words: “Structural supports of evangelicalism are quivering as a result of ground-shaking changes in American culture.”
Rather than failing as an institution based on its core tenets, evangelicalism has simply not adjusted to the quickly-shifting societal sands, Dickerson argues. And changes that Christians attempt to make only seem to further splinter the movement, threatening to eventually cause old school evangelicalism to “whimper and wane.”
Among the challenges facing evangelical churches, Dickerson notes five monumentally-important issues: declining church attendance, a donation crisis (older evangelicals who once gave large sums are aging), failure to adopt to social changes on issues like gay marriage, a dearth in the ability to use its power to achieve conversions and a youth that is decreasingly interested in faith and church (TheBlaze has told you before about the “nones,” many of whom are young).
Despite these issues, Dickerson also offers some prescriptions — although embracing them requires evangelicals to acknowledge that they will likely never regain the sociopolitical footing they once had. He writes:
How can evangelicalism right itself? I don’t believe it can — at least, not back to the politically muscular force it was as recently as 2004, when white evangelicals gave President George W. Bush his narrow re-election. Evangelicals can, however, use the economic, social and spiritual crises facing America to refashion themselves into a more sensitive, spiritual and humble movement.
We evangelicals must accept that our beliefs are now in conflict with the mainstream culture. We cannot change ancient doctrines to adapt to the currents of the day. But we can, and must, adapt the way we hold our beliefs — with grace and humility instead of superior hostility. The core evangelical belief is that love and forgiveness are freely available to all who trust in Jesus Christ. This is the “good news” from which the evangelical name originates (“euangelion” is a Greek word meaning “glad tidings” or “good news”). Instead of offering hope, many evangelicals have claimed the role of moral gatekeeper, judge and jury. If we continue in that posture, we will continue to invite opposition and obscure the “good news” we are called to proclaim.
While the preacher certainly doesn’t argue that the death of evangelical Christianity is imminent, he believes it is time to embrace the notion that conservative believers have lost some of their power — and that a new dynamic is essential.
Read the rest of Dickerson’s views on the state of evangelicals in America here.