Gabe Lyons begins his new book, Next Christians: The Good News About the End of Christian America (2010), with the startling confession that several years ago that he was “embarrassed to call myself Christian” (3). He and Dave Kinneman described the source of this embarrassment in their groundbreaking book UnChristian: What a New Generation Thinks About Christianity (2007). Next Christians is Lyons attempt to offer a compelling vision for how the church can reform itself as it learns from the next generations of Christians. This book seeks to answer three questions that Lyons has been chewing on in subsequent years: what does mission look like in America in the twenty-first century, how should the message of the Gospel go forward, and what does it mean to be a Christian in a world disenchanted with our movement (4)?
Interestingly, Lyons begins Next Christians with the death of Jerry Falwell. This marked for him the high-water mark of Christian influence, however polarizing, on what some described as a “Christian America.” This moment in history may have announced the end of Christian America, but my hunch is that its death was first announced when President Dwight Eisenhower quipped “this country is founded on a deeply held religious faith and I don’t care what it is.” Lyons then describes the ways that most Christians interact with the culture in contemporary America. The first three groups Lyons describes are separatists who “take seriously Jesus’ call to bring their light into the world, even if it means judging (insiders), confronting (culture warriors), and proselytizing (evangelizers) those outside conservative Christian religion” (37). Contrasted to the separatists are cultural Christians who “don’t obsess about the afterlife and generally believe that heaven is reserved for everyone except the awful folks” (42). The first group of cultural Christians are blenders who value the faith of their fathers and mothers and yet attempt to blend with the cultural mainstream. Another group, the philanthropists, do the good work of “serving the needs of their community” (42). Both blenders and philanthropists find it hard to state in a compelling way how following Jesus influences their words and deeds. In some ways these chapters are a fresh reworking of H. Richard Neibuhr’s classic book Christ and Culture (1956) with its typologies of Christ against, of, and above culture; Christ and culture in paradox; and finally, Christ transforming culture. Where Lyons differs with Neibuhr is the appeal of his book. Lyons is writing to beckon the church to abandon the attitudes described above and move into a practice of restoration already being practiced among the next generation.
Restorers think that “telling others about Jesus is important” and they see their mission as “infusing the world with beauty, grace, justice, and love” (46). In response to the brokenness of this world they envision the world that “ought” to be and work diligently to heal the earth’s brokenness until Christ returns. Lyons slows down his fast moving critique of Christian America at this point to describe the mindset of the restorers he finds in the coming generation. They are marked by being provoked but not offended, creators not critics, called not employed, grounded not distracted, in community and not alone, and finally countercultural and not relevant. In each of these chapters Lyons opens with a personal witness of someone who exemplifies one of the above statements, shows how their stance differs from the previous generational types, and then offers several hallmarks that serve as guidelines for reorienting our thinking in each of these arenas. The chapter that really invited me into the world of the restorers was on being “Called, Not Employed.” Lyons offers us seven channels of cultural influence (media, education, arts & entertainment, business, government, social sector, and the church) and suggests that we consciously begin to see ourselves living and working as practicing Christians in these places. One of the missing pieces in the spiritual formation of students in my tribe, the United Methodists, is discerning a sense of calling. Far too often we associate the word “call” exclusively to the life of ordained clergy. Lyons offers a helpful corrective that challenges each of us to see our life’s work as having kingdom consequences.
Lyons closes Next Christians with a call to “First Things.” The first thing we need to pay attention is “recovering the gospel” as the center of every thing we say and do. The second things of “outreach methods, good deeds, social justice, cultural engagement theory, church models, environment stewardship, career paths, and even the negative perceptions of Christianity” are predicated on paying attention to the first thing. To adjust these second things without centering on the good news of Jesus Christ will look more like the proverbial rearranging of deck chairs on the Titanic. When we pay attention Jesus and center our lives on the “power of the ought” to be in God’s world then something truly new will break out in our midst. Then we will be living in Lyons paraphrase of Jesus’ ministry announcement in Luke’s gospel: “enough of what is, I see things in terms of what ought to be, and I’m here to do something about it” (204). Now that is an adventure worth pursuing. Buy the book and join the journey of following Jesus with the Next Christians.
You can download the first chapter of Next Christians at scibd. I received a copy of Next Christians for free from WaterBrook Multnomah Publishing Group for this review.