Over the past few years, a number of reports have bemoaned the decreasing reputation and influence of evangelical Christians in US American culture. Recent statistics show that younger generations are leaving the church at alarming rates, and that their view of Christianity in general is horribly negative. Many have predicted the demise of the church, like Western Europe. But in The Next Christians: The Good News About the End of Christian America, (Doubleday, 2011), a follow-up to his decidedly pessimistic Unchristian, Gabe Lyons enthusiastically begs to differ.
Lyons, who has years of experience working deep in the Christian subculture and now leads Q (www.qideas.com ), has a unique perspective from which to analyze what has happened and now, from a broader perspective, to notice what is happening. Accordingly, The Next Christians is divided into two large sections; the first analyzes how the evangelical voice in the cultural conversation has been quieted and the second describes what Lyons sees as a new movement among younger evangelicals that is helping restore not only the Christian voice, but the gospel itself, to a vital place in that same culture.
In Part 1 Lyons asserts that The World is Changing – and that Christians have for the most part ignored or missed the change. “The Christian church is losing traction in Western culture, not only as a result of unchristian behavior, as significant as that is, but because we haven’t recognized our new reality and adjusted.” A pluralistic, postmodern and even post-Christian world continues to challenge our values, thinking and spirituality, and in the face if that challenge, Christianity has “become divided and incoherent to the average spiritual sojourner.”
Lyons helpfully identifies two primary strains of Christian interaction with the culture. Separatists include insiders (who build life around Christian items and activities) , culture warriors (who battle to maintain their defined values for the entire culture) and evangelizers (for whom the only legitimate Christian activity is convincing others to cross the line of faith in Jesus) On the other hand, Culturals include blenders (who create a culture of acceptance by finding common ground with the mainstream) and philanthropists ( who place a premium on doing good works for the needy) . According to Lyons, each has its strengths, but neither presents the fullness of the gospel of Jesus to the culture.
Into that gap, he sees a third way emerging among younger evangelicals: The Restorers, which he describes in Part 2. Lyons asserts that these Christians see their role as envisioning what God intended from creation and intends to restore. They purposefully engage the culture and see themselves partnering with God to mend earth’s brokenness so that people see Christ through them. Restorers work to make the divine “ought” come alive. Justice, mercy, beauty, and compassion are key values.
Lyons describes the heart and action of the restorers with a series of positive / negative pairs. The restorers are provoked, not offended; creators, not critics; called, not employed; grounded, not distracted; in community, not alone; and countercultural, not relevant. He helps each piece of the profile come alive with compelling stories that demonstrate that when faith is lived in concrete ways, lives change and are often drawn to Christ.
As he draws his work to a close, Lyons asserts that “the Christian movement is entering a time of transformation on par with the Protestant Reformation.” That is an interesting observation, because the entire book rests on very specific doctrinal views of the Gospel, creation, humanity, eschatology, Kingdom, evangelism and mission. While Lyons does an admirable job of touching on these foundations, a full understanding of this element is crucial and more dialogue is needed. (A brief discussion guide is included at the end of the book; a more extensive participant’s guide has been prepared for small groups and expanded resources are available at www.nextchristians.com/Q.) Why is such discussion of Lyons’ ideas as it intersects with the Bible so important? It is too easy for the defining vision of the “power of the ought” to become subjective, and to hear this view of the gospel as merely as a call for a deep commitment to social justice. The involvements with communities and human needs are necessary to Biblical faithfulness, but it must be made clear precisely how this moves beyond philanthropy to a full expression of Jesus’ gospel heart. The restorers have admirably tapped one aspect of living the gospel of God that has perhaps been in eclipse, but it is certainly not the totality of the gospel. Gospel restoration must include both actions like Jesus and proclamation of Jesus, which includes conversations that we initiate.
This book is probably most helpful as a tool to help ministry leaders process the cultural engagement of their ministries and members. It could be also be used for small groups in which the members already possess some mature understanding of the Bible’s narrative and the gospel.
With The Next Christians, Gabe Lyons spurs us to understand and engage a crucial piece of the puzzle that will help us make the gospel of Jesus come alive for the people in the culture in our day. It is a passionate call for us to engage the hearts of people in our day by demonstrating how their heart hungers for love, hope, justice and beauty are ultimately satisfied only in Jesus Christ.
[I received this book from Waterbrook Multnomah Books. The review represents is my independent assessment of the book.)