I tend to enjoy anything about the future. Whether it be in the form of science fiction books, post-apocalyptic movies, or prophetic dreams and visions, there is something tantalizing in the many potential scenarios of tomorrow. Part of the intrigue is that the future can be considered in several ways: the actual future (what will happen), the potential future (what could happen), the likely future (what will probably occur), and the prescribed future (what should happen). In his book The Next Christians: The Good News About the End of Christian America (TNC), Gabe Lyons doesn’t delve into the more fantastical aspects of futurism. But he does employ the latter two aspects. In his view, a new generation of Christian is showing some significant differences in how their faith is practiced, leading him to the conclusion that this positive change will continue into the foreseeable future.
In TNC Lyons lists six ways Christians engage the world: Insiders, Culture Warriors, Evangelizers, Blenders, Philanthropists, and Restorers. He makes some good observations and critiques here. Christians can try to Christianize everything (insiders), think that the means of pleasing God and changing hearts is through politics and putting God back in culture (Culture Warriors), consider in-your-face gospel witnessing the only true form of obedient Christianity (Evangelizers). He finds fault with all approaches. Insiders cluster together and only do “Christian” things, and are viewed by outsiders as “holier-than-thou.” Culture warriors like Jerry Falwell viewed America as a Christian nation that needed taken back. The concepts of “Christian” and “America” seem intertwined: “When the faithful saturate their schedules with Christian events at Christian venues with Christian people, the world has a hard time believing we hold the rest of the world in high esteem.” Evangelizers primarily just want to see people saved. It becomes an end-all, be-all agenda. Lyons writes that many of their tactics end up alienating many more than are brought into the fold. Blenders are those who have some Christian faith values, but overall, their lives reflect that of the culture. Some churches have responded by becoming relevant to accommodate this group. The problem is that Bible study, sacrements, etc., tend to be downplayed. Philanthropists emphasize good works in their lives, by serving and/or giving in various ways. More often than not, however, the gospel message is downplayed.
As a response to the flawed approaches most Christians take in interacting with culture, Lyons proposes a better approach – restoration. Restorers do want to share their faith, “but conversation isn’t their only motive. Their mission is to infuse the world with beauty, grace, justice, and love” (47). “They envision the world as it was meant to be and they work toward that vision. Restorers seek to mend earth’s brokenness” (ibid). In a key statement he writes: “Through sowing seeds of restoration, they believe others will see Christ through us and the Christian faith will reap a much larger harvest” (ibid).
A couple of sentences from Lyons summarize the book: “The next Christians believe that Christ’s death and Resurrection were not only meant to save people from something. He wanted to save Christians to something. God longs to restore his image in them, and let them loose, freeing them to pursue his original dreams for the entire world. Here, now, today, tomorrow. They no longer feel bound to wait for heaven or spend all of their time telling people what they should believe. Instead, they are participating with God in his restoration project for the whole world.” (53, italics in original)
Much of the book relates examples of people who function as Restorers. From ministries to porn stars, to popular websites like Paste Magazine, Christians are reaching out and changing culture in new and meaningful ways. In explaining Paste’s philosophy, “they have experienced the power of creating a cultural good and seeing the impact it can have on millions of God’s creations, Christian or not.” (92) And how does this help expand the kingdom of God? Or is that the intention at all? Lyons answers this way: “They believe that part of service to God is bringing signs that point to his Kingdom and tangibly expressing his love to those in need—even when the measurable result of conversion can never be tallied.” (93)
There is a lot of good insight in TNC. Much of modern western Christianity is beset with the issues Lyon’s cites. Change therefore is needed. His distinction between being “offended” by cultural vs. being “provoked” was perhaps the best insight for me. It’s easy to get into a mindset of defensiveness when our Christian values are attacked. Some even propose escaping culture as much as possible. Instead, Lyons helpfully elucidates how we should instead be provoked to positive action, using the opportunity for good, to show a dying world the love of Christ. Many of the examples he gives of people doing just that are quite inspiring, if not at times convicting. Would that more Christians (myself included) find such brave, creative, and Christ-honoring ways to shine our lights in this present darkness.
There are some criticisms, however. The first ‘red flag’ came early in the book with this statement: “You may be dumbfounded that there are 76 percent of ‘us’ and yet little unity in what we collectively represent.” (5) This statement might seem innocuous, but behind lies a theology that drives the remainder of the book, and one in which I have some serious reservations. The idea that over three-quarters of Americans are “us” – read: “Christians” – is seriously problematic. Is he talking about self-identified Christians? Based on many recent polls most Americans don’t believe even the bare minimum of Christian doctrine. If we understand the plain meaning of Jesus’ words in various passages, there is a rather small percentage of “us”, meaning faithful, Bible-believing Jesus followers. Why do I harp on this? Because much of what Lyons writes about in TNC is built upon this faulty assumption of a vast majority of Americans being true Christians. Yet if his cited statistic isn’t true, then the foundation for much of what he writes is flawed from the outset. This statement is more revealing than it would seem.
Regarding his categorization of the types of Christians, Lyon made some valid overall points, but his categories were a little reductionistic, almost more caricature than reality. Certainly many Christians can fall into these categories, but most are far more complex in their faith. For instance, many enthusiastically evangelistic churches (Evangelizers), and politically engaged churches (Culture Warriors) also spend a great deal of time and money running mercy ministries such as soup kitchens, homeless shelters, crisis pregnancy centers, as well as relief aid and workers in disaster areas. Lyons surely understands this, so it is puzzling he didn’t nuance his descriptions with any qualifications.
On pp. 54-55 Lyons explains the gospel story: creation, fall, redemption, and restoration. This is a good solid summary of the biblical gospel story, and it avoids inside language so it can be understood by anyone. However, there is one enormous omission. There is no message of how one appropriates this news; in other words, how is one to be saved? Why does Lyons not mention belief and repentance? The omission is troubling. He doesn’t elaborate on his theological influences, but this section, indeed the entire book, reminds me of how many today view salvation. Instead of proclaiming personal faith in Jesus and a turning away of sin (the message the dreaded “Evangelizers” preach), a new wave of scholars and their disciples have put forth being a kingdom saint. The task of the believer is to expand the kingdom, but not by evangelizing in the traditional Protestant sense; rather, by proclaiming the biblical message as Lyons has outlined, seeking to restore the creation to its intended state, and by emphasizing God’s rule and Christ’s kingdom. A solid message, but how does one appropriate this message of the kingdom and become a kingdom saint?
Lyons does add this: “I don’t mean to diminish the importance of telling others about God’s redemption accomplished on the cross, and we shouldn’t deny that salvation through faith in Jesus has eternal implications. But shouldn’t we be faithful to recount and live out the whole story?” (56-7) This is one of the few times he mentions the necessity of faith in the gospel message, and then he downplays it. Lyons doesn’t state we should preach this message, only that “we shouldn’t deny” it. This is a huge difference. People of all stripes need to hear information in black and white. And when it comes to being right with God, they want specifics about how they can know this. With some issues this cannot be done, but with the gospel and salvation it can. In response to Peter’s sermon is Acts 2, the people asked, “Brothers, what shall we do?” Peter responded: “Repent and be baptized … for the forgiveness of sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38). One might think that I’m spending too much time on this issue, being nitpicky. But central to the Christian message for millennia is not only the message of the gospel, but how one moves from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of light. The Bible is clear on this, and while the church has had many missteps through the centuries, the core understanding of how one is saved has been pretty consistent.
I have little doubt that Gabe Lyons is a faithful believer who can articulate his faith clearly in many settings. What he sets forth in TNC works for him. And it works for those whose stories he cites. There is some merit in being a Restorer. I just don’t find it to be our primary goal from a survey of the New Testament. Instead, there is a focus on holy living, understanding core teachings and identifying false ones, loving one another, and looking for the Day when Christ Himself would restore all things. By following the dictates of the NT prescriptions, Christians will certainly have a positive influence on the surrounding culture, much of which will mirror what’s related in TNC. But the difference is that restoration from a NT perspective is secondary to the more primary focuses listed above. My fear is that if these “Next Christians” get this backwards, what should be primary will fade, and eventually disappear. They might remain Christian themselves, but the following generation might well not be.
*I received this book as from Blogging For Books in exchange for an honest review. http://www.bloggingforbooks.com