Along with reviews for Thomas Nelson’s BookSneeze program, and regular reviews of Crossway Books releases, I just started a program from Waterbrook Multnomah publishing house. My first request was for a copy of The Next Christians by Gabe Lyons. It’s actually published by DoubleDay so I’m not sure the affiliation with Waterbrook Multnomah, but no matter!
I heard about Gabe Lyons when he released his previous book unChristian, a major research work on trends amongst younger Christians, their attitudes, opinions and practices. I was initially skeptical that this new release, subtitled the somewhat inflammatory ‘The Good News About the End of Christian America’, to the extent that even recommendations from Chuck Colson, Louie Giglio and Scot McKnight couldn’t undo my cynicism. Thank goodness for the compulsion of reviewing books. I signed up for the gig, I had to honor the agreement, and so I set to reading the work.
The opening chapter left me with more questions than certainties about Lyons’ position, but somewhere around the midpoint of chapter two I began to see that a lot of this was observational, not necessarily affirming the realities found, but reporting what is happening. By the end of chapter four, I felt like the book was holding up a mirror to my own longings, desires and practices. This is a book about restorers, integrating their devotion to Jesus with all of life, looking for ways to constantly speak, live and embody the good news to a world in desperate need.
I recently reviewed VanDrunnen’s excellent Living in God’s Two Kingdoms (Crossway Books) and pointed out that the only exception I would take to his work was the inference that all who press a restoration narrative as being essential to a whole Gospel are trying to either bring about utopia themselves, or that they are trying to retain things for the new creation. My argument was that the tension can be held wherein we know that all these things will pass, but that because God is the Restorer, and we are made in his image, it is right that when we are regenerated and being formed into Christ’s likeness, we too should be restorers.
Lyons has again done his homework with regard to study and observation and lays out what he considers to be key characteristics of the next Christians. These are as follows:
- Provoked, Not Offended
- Creators, Not Critics
- Called, Not Employed
- Grounded, Not Distracted
- In Community, Not Alone
- Countercultural, Not “Relevant”
What is most remarkable about this work is his ability to avoid antagonism for rebellious tones. There is no condemnation of particular church structures/models, because this is a work about the lives lived by these next Christians. And don’t let the term assigned put you off. It turns out that these next Christians are simply returning to the orthodox practice of the church that has sustained her for centuries.
To cap it all off, Lyons’ warns in the final chapter that we must be careful not to put second things first. The first thing is the Gospel, and the implications of that message should be wide reaching, deeply transformative and ultimately the sustaining life of all the rest of our existence. Social justice is set as a second thing, that is a response to the Gospel. Cultural engagement, good deeds, environmental responsibility – these are all great things, but only when put as a secondary thing to the Gospel. Without the good news, there can be no life in those things.
It is certainly a theology more in line with the dutch reformed tradition, expanding the themes of fall and redemption classically associated with the Gospel to now include creation and restoration. For more on that idea, read Nancy Pearcey’s Total Truth: Liberating Christianity from Its Cultural Captivity.
Whilst certainly not an exhaustive theology or a complete overview of the whole church in contemporary culture, this is a significant work for all wanting to understand the worldview, form and function of Christianity in America in the 21st century. The hope exhibited here in, the challenge and the call, could be a massive force to inspire and engage the church for the good of all people, the proclamation of truth, and the glory of God. This is how we can do the work of restoration, integrated with our lives without being either separatists or compromised.
This book is highly recommended for all in church leadership, and all those who are cynical about the life and future of the church in this nation. Even as our nations moral compass becomes fully secular, even as the church is no longer given a societal voice without question, we are seeing the call to be salt and light lived out to great impact. Integration leads to infiltration and where there was darkness comes light, where there was decay comes preservation. And that sounds like the church on mission to me!