Whenever I have an opportunity to talk about the Bible for the first time with a group of students, I often start with a too-easily overlooked question: When Jesus “finished” his incarnational task—his birth, life, death, and resurrection—and was preparing to ascend, why didn’t he take his followers with him? Why the delay? In many respects, his work on earth was done, and the distinction between the defeat of sin and its destruction did not need to be drawn. Why did he not take his followers with him and usher in eternity? The answer to this question is obvious, but is also essential to understanding our own purpose and calling. Jesus himself answers this question in the parable of the wedding banquet—more people need to be invited to the party! This is the “task” of the church: to be the hands, feet, and voice of Christ, extending Christ’s message and invitation to those who have not yet truly “heard.” Their response to Christ’s message has eternal consequences. And we know that God does not want any of his children in hell . . .
In unChristian (Baker Books, 2007), David Kinnaman and his co-author, Gabe Lyons, issue a clarion call for the Western church. If we are here to be the body of Christ and to share Christ’s message and invitation with those who don’t yet know him, we do not appear to be working all that successfully. Building on research from the Barna Group (www.barna.org), unChristian seeks to “hold up a mirror” to the North American church, allowing it to see itself through the eyes of the surrounding culture. The results are not pretty. According to the research, “anti-homosexual” (hating not only the sin, but also the sinner), “hypocritical,” “judgmental,” and “sheltered” are among the most prevalent descriptors of contemporary Christians, particularly in the eyes of young people and young adults, including those within the church. While the authors themselves conveyed a hopeful tone, the book’s message for those able to hear it was frightening, although perhaps not all that surprising.
This past October, The Next Christians: Six Ways to Restore the Faith was released. In this book, Gabe Lyons articulates a vision for faithful and authentic Christian living that serves as a powerful response to the challenges raised by unChristian. Lyons’s vision is not new, nor are the practices and patterns he identifies particularly original. However, his book stands out for its unique blend of readability, specific and “do-able” action plans, and authentic examples of “vision in action” in a variety of diverse cultural contexts. Lyons has suggested a standard for us to follow. Will we do so?
The heart of Lyons’s book is his challenge to Christians across the West to be “restorers.” Echoing other Christian authors such as Niebuhr and Oberbrunner, Lyons identifies a continuum of Christian responses to culture, ranging from “separatists,” who clearly seek to distance themselves from a sinful, evil culture, to “cultural Christians,” who integrate themselves seamlessly into culture and are therefore indistinguishable from it. Lyons calls Christians to be authentic restorers, living and working and being authentic within the culture at large in order to restore the world to “the way it is supposed to be.” Lyons identifies six primary characteristics of restorers:
- Provoked, Not Offended—The Next Christians are not offended by the sin and brokenness of the world, but are provoked and challenged to respond and engage in restoration.
- Creators, Not Critics—The Next Christians respond to brokenness with a vision to create and build culture, rather than criticizing, judging, and tearing down.
- Called, Not Employed—The Next Christians receive their vocations as callings, not simply as means of employment, and respond by ensuring that their “jobs” are part of their vision for restoration. One of Lyons’s key contributions is his identification of “The Seven Channels of Cultural Influence” (media, education, arts & entertainment, business, government, the social sector, and the church—for more details check out www.qideas.org/essays/influencing-culture.aspx). Lyons challenges Christians to seek callings in these areas, rather than our all-too-typical “flight” response to some of them.
- Grounded, Not Distracted – The Next Christians are firmly and intentionally grounded in their biblical faith and worldview, and therefore not easily distracted from their calling by their culture. They are immersed in scripture, observe the Sabbath faithfully, pray and fast regularly, and seek to be holistic rather adopting a false secular/sacred duality.
- In Community, Not Alone—The Next Christians do not restore alone, but are firmly grounded in a network of community and are supported and nourished by their local churches. More than that, however, the Next Christians seek to respond to our culture’s needs by forming and encouraging communities wherever they are called, establishing viable alternatives to the separation and isolation that surrounds them.
- Countercultural, Not “Relevant”—The Next Christians do not seek out opportunities to be noticed and relevant to their culture, but are authentically countercultural, shaped by a vision for an entirely different kingdom. The Next Christians serve a proactive, leavening role that seeks to authentically embody kingdom standards for all people, regardless of their beliefs, which “provides a picture to the world of what a loving, sacrificial, countercultural community really is” (186).
Lyons’s book is not without its shortcomings, of course. There is a danger that his label of “Next Christians” will be heard as an arrogant assumption of superiority and his having arrived at the final truth that others have missed out on completely. At times his sweeping generalizations criticize many different strands of Christianity without sufficient explanation and sensitivity. His book is also short on biblical support, specifically when it comes to “proof texts” that may be seen as required for many readers in various denominational camps. Lyons captures the full story of the Bible well, but does not sufficiently communicate the biblical building blocks from within scripture itself. Lyons also comes across as a bit idealistic, falling just short of implying that if we can all be true restorers, the world will love us because we are so nice and popular and generous and impactful. Here he seems to overlook the power of sin and the opposition that we should expect to face, particularly if true cultural change begins to take place. A final potential limitation needs to be named as well. Some people may suggest that Lyons is not specific enough in his suggested action plans. Indeed, Lyons is vague on detail. He challenges Christians to simply go out and show up. He provides just enough context-specific examples to compel us to seek out our own unique roles, and leaves it for us and our support networks to work with the Spirit to figure out the details.
What I appreciated most from the book was its resonance with a biblically consistent, Reformed worldview. But it is not just Reformed theory and vision. Lyons’s books calls Christians to commit to an authentic embodiment that may make many in the Reformed tradition uncomfortable, because they can’t stop at thinking good thoughts, but actually have to go and do good things in every area of their lives. Lyons rearticulates the sometimes too-familiar Reformed vocabulary into a compelling call to live and tell the biblical message and task in a way that is fresh and authentic.
This is an important book for Christian educators for a number of reasons. First and foremost, the book’s readability lends itself to effective use in discussion groups. The Next Christians should be read and discussed by staff teams, by educational leaders including administrators, school boards, and community leaders, by church leaders and youth workers, and, perhaps most importantly, by senior students in Christian schools. However, it should also be read by educators across the K–12 continuum because these teachers will be able to integrate the vision and language of The Next Christians into their own curriculum and instruction, creating opportunities to challenge their students to live out the biblical vision that undergirds Lyons’ work authentically. Our schools need to effectively challenge our students to articulate and embody Christ’s message in a way that truly is heard and seen in our culture, and this book could make an important contribution to the ongoing dialogue about how this might be achieved.
Kinnaman, David, and Gabe Lyons. unChristian: What a New Generation Thinks about Christianity . . . and Why It Matters. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2007.