The Next Christians

The Next Christians: The Good News About the End of Christian America (Gabe Lyons; ©2010 by Doubleday Religion) Gabe Lyons is among those who believes that the Christian church is in the midst of tremendous change. In particular, during the research that preceded his previous book (Unchristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity ... and Why It Matters; ©2007 by Baker Books), he noted there is an entire generation of Americans whose impression of the Christian Church is predominantly negative.

An overwhelming percentage of non-Christians sampled said they perceived Christians as judgmental, hypocritical, too political, and antihomosexual, among other things. In the truest sense, the research revealed what happens when Christians act unchristian. (p. 4).
He is convinced that unless the Christian church takes this seriously, it will have very little success connecting with and sharing faith with these people.
If we fail to offer a different way forward, we risk losing entire generations to apathy and cynicism. Our friends will continue to drift away, meeting their need for spiritual transcendence through other forms of worship and communities of faith that may be less true but more authentic and appealing. (p. 11)
Yet at the same time, Lyons identifies a group within Christianity that may hold some promise. He alternately refers to them as "Restorers" or "next Christians." At the heart of their faith lives seems to be the intent to live out in concrete ways what they profess about their faith and their God.
I’ve observed a new generation of Christians who feel empowered. Restorers exhibit the mind-set, humility, and commitment that seem destined to rejuvenate the momentum of the faith. They have a peculiar way of thinking, being, and doing that is radically different from previous generations. Telling others about Jesus is important, but conversion isn’t their only motive. Their mission is to infuse the world with beauty, grace, justice, and love. I call them restorers because they envision the world as it was meant to be and they work toward that vision. Restorers seek to mend earth’s brokenness. (p. 47)
Lyons contrasts these Restorers with Christians who believe that the primary responsibility of faithful believers is to convert non-believers. His contention is that such an attitude fails to take into consideration the entire story of what God is accomplishing in Christ. The rest of the story, including the goodness of God in creation, and God's deep desire to restore the whole world, gives Restorers an entirely different focus, as they explore what it means to live faithfully.
God’s story is made up of four key parts: creation, fall, redemption, restoration (and ultimately consumation). The truncated Gospel that is often recounted is faithful to the fall and redemption pieces of the story, but largely ignores the creation and restoration components. These missing elements are at the heart of what a new generation of Christians are relearning, and subsequently, retelling. (pp. 51-52).
The inclusion of creation and restoration leads to a faith that takes eternal life seriously, but that also insists on being involved in what is important to God in the here and now. This gives net Christians a sense of purpose, as they join their efforts to God's in seeking to transform the world.
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. (p. 53)
These next Christians (it is never entirely clear whether he is describing a group of Christians he knows, or commending this model of faithful living to them) appear to be a remarkably faithful, mature and healthy group. In contrasting them with today's typical Christian, Lyons notes six primary characteristics.
The six characteristics that set apart the next Christians are that they are Provoked, not offended Creators, not critics Called, not employed Grounded, not distracted In community, not alone Countercultural, not “relevant” (p. 67)

He describes each of these characteristics in detail — the first two are summarized in the following excerpt. Restorers are both provoked by their faith (his language here is reminiscent of Hebrews 10:24), and inspired to act on what their faith calls them to do. It is not a group that is content to sit idly by and talk about the faith (nor do they care for it when others do the same), but they feel compelled to do something that makes a difference.

While being provoked is an important characteristic of restorers, no one solves anything from merely showing up. That is why the next Christians are provoked to do something when they arrive on the cultural scene—namely to create culture that can inspire change. They create organizations, services, and goods—art, films, music, campaigns, projects, media, churches, and businesses—anything that incarnates Christ and communicates the restoration that’s possible. In this way, creating sits at the heart of restoration. (p. 93)
Involvement in these kinds of actions is not easy, nor does it come without cost. The motivation to get involved and stay involved comes from a sense of calling. They understand God as having directed them to this faithful work. No matter what their vocation might be, God calls them to work at restoring the world. Some do that through their occupation. Others do that through volunteer efforts.
The next Christians are desperately searching for their calling. It serves well not only them but also those whom God wants to reach and serve through them. And this doesn’t mean that their calling will always be a full-time job, as nice as that would be. For some, being a stay-at-home mother is the place where their talents and heart converge, and for others, their calling is found in service to their neighbors or local community or public school in a volunteer capacity. (p. 124)
This life calls for a significant engagement with the world. The danger, of course, is that Christians can become so much a part of the world, that they are indistinguishable from the world. (We Lutherans have been susceptible to this danger on a regular basis...) To counter this, Lyons calls for an intense grounding in Christian practice. Committing themselves to what we, at Saint Peter, call "Habits of Discipleship," next Christians stay deeply rooted in the promise of the Gospel. Among the habits, or discipline, that are important to next Christians are these. They are: immersed in Scripture, observing the Sabbath, fasting for simplicity, choosing embodiment and postured by prayer.
The next Christians must beware that operating in the center of the world requires a deep anchoring in Christ, a grounding that’s achieved only through means unbecoming to most. Otherwise, it hardly ever works. (p. 130)
This book is not a call for Christians to become more involved in their own congregations (although they might be inspired to do so...). Instead, Lyons sees God calling believers to be working in the world for the good of all God's creation. The efforts of next Christians are not invested in improving what is their own. Their efforts are invested sacrificially, in the hopes of making a difference for all people — believers and unbelievers alike.
THE NEXT CHRISTIANS try to create the most good for all people, regardless of race, class, or religion. Christians shouldn’t strive for what’s best only in their own community of believers, though that’s important. They should concentrate on the benefit of all people in God’s creation whether or not they share our values, ethnicity, or religion. (p. 184)
This attitude addresses the age-old question: do we serve the world in order to get them to listen to us about Jesus, or do we serve the world because that is what we are called to do? In the 80s I took part in some intense conversations about whether or not it was appropriate for Lutherans to provide disaster relief in international settings through local, non-Christian agencies. Some claimed that the only reason to provide aid was so that those aided would listen to our witness. Others were supportive of working through non-Christians, even if it meant that the name of Jesus was never named. (When the Spirit created an opportunity for a witness to our faith, that was "icing on the cake.") Lyons supports the latter belief, and is grateful for those times when one who is touched takes the initiative to ask why.
For the next Christians, this is predominantly how they are seeing the church spread in the West. They show up with a restoration view, create solutions to the problems their communities face, and gently respond when spiritual conversations arise among their friends. (pp. 194-195).
I have been looking forward to reading this book, and am impressed with Lyon's understanding of faith, and his sense of how to engage young people in Christian life. Far too often, the church is all talk and no action — young people see through that pretty quickly. As Lutherans, we are aware of how important it is to be grace-centered; we do not earn God's favor by being active in the world. Yet our tradition has too often concluded that God's grace is the end of the story. Lyons realizes that grace is only the beginning. How has grace inspired our lives? How might we share God's grace with others in ways that inspires them? What concrete difference are we making in the world as individuals, or as a congregation? These are the kinds of questions the give life to congregations.

Questions for Saint Peter Lutheran Church:

  1. What it is about our congregation that turns off young people? How might we reorder our life together to change this?
  2. Lyons describes a community of believers with a deep passion for Christ -- a passion rooted in their experience of the Gospel. Does the way we live out the Gospel together transform us? Inspire us? "Provoke" us?
  3.  If there is a generation of young believers in this country who are aching for concrete ways to become involved in God's work, are we providing opportunities for them to do that at Saint Peter? Do we have as deep of a commitment to affecting the world around us as we do to maintaining the organization of our own church?