The Next Christians, by Gabe Lyons, offers a provocative but ultimately encouraging vision for the flourishing of the Christian faith in 21st century America. Both big-picture vision and practical ideas come together in this intriguing book; as the subtitle indicates, The Next Christians offers “seven ways you can live the gospel and restore the world.”
Lyons’ book is divided into two major sections: first, an analysis of the rapid cultural change in the U.S., with the challenges this has created for the American church, and second, defining what he calls the “restorers” — the next Christians whose bold and faithful lives to Jesus and the gospel, exhibited in creative and loving connection to those around them, will strengthen and grow the church.
On the face of it, Lyons’ cultural analysis is not particularly encouraging. As he has previously written in UnChristian, and reinforces here, among adults 16-29, Christians are perceived to be “judgmental, hypocritical, too political, and antihomosexual, among other things” (p. 4). While the church is in decline, the New Atheists are featured in mainstream media. Scientific knowledge and various cultural institutions have displaced the Christian worldview as the primary locus of meaning.
From whatever direction you look, his conclusion is the same: America is now a fundamentally pluralistic, postmodern, post-Christian nation, with a marked downturn in religious participation among younger people in particular. From their vantage point, the failings of the Christian church are so glaring that “Christianity has become a parody of itself” (30).
With this largely negative picture in place, Lyons unpacks a typology of different types of Christians. There are “separatist” and “cultural” Christians. Separatists are further broken down into Insiders, Culture Warriors, and Evangelizers. Cultural Christians are further specified as Blenders and Philanthropists. Separatists generally opt-out of participation in mainstream events, looking to create alternative Christian institutions, ‘win souls’ from ‘the world,’ and return America to its Christian roots. Cultural Christians are more prone to focus on being relevant, looking like everyone around them, or alternatively, to care about justice and meeting social needs.
The greatest value of The Next Christians comes from Lyons’ exciting description of the restorers, who embody a hopeful, humble, and heartfelt love for God and others. “Their mission is to infuse the world with beauty, grace, justice, and love” (47). They are aware of the whole storyline of the Bible, from Creation to Restoration, and this makes them eager to ‘holistically participate’ in the world. As he summarizes,
The inconvenience [of following Jesus] is worth it to the next Christians because they desperately want the world to know the story of Jesus and the power of our faith. It starts with rediscovering the full story of the Gospel, which leads them to recalibrate their conscience to allow them to be in the world, which forces them to rethink their commitment to one another and their neighbors, which inspires them to reimagine a renaissance of creativity, beauty, and art that the world hasn’t seen in centuries, which culminates in redeploying the church where the world needs it most. You can see how embracing restoration as part of God’s story sets off a chain reaction that can revitalize our faith in the post-Christian century….
The seven 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
- Civil, not divisive
- Countercultural, not “relevant” (66-67).
The rest of The Next Christians unpacks each of these features in detailed ways, offering practical suggestions, telling inspiring stories, and giving large doses of hope and confidence in God’s plan to restore the world.
In story after story, the restorers are sacrificially caring for suicidal drug addicts, running business with distinctive kingdom values, offering free tutoring to fellow students, laboring to make healthy meals for their families, fighting sex trafficking, bringing salt and light to the porn industry, producing beautiful music, books, art, and other cultural goods, participating in the highest levels of academia, media institutions, and the government, turning around failing schools, studying the Bible, avoiding materialism, observing the Sabbath, utilizing fixed hour prayer, connecting Christians to one another, loving their enemies, rebuilding their cities, and more. As I read this section, I found myself both thrilled and broken-hearted, celebrating God’s goodness and repenting of my own selfishness, as my perspective was enlarged through this exposure to the lives of such outstanding disciples of Jesus.
Throughout these sections, Lyons skillfully mixes stories from the Bible, church history, and the present day to bring his points home. Time and time again I had the thought, “Oh, that’s a great idea!” or “I hadn’t realized that was possible!” or “I want to think about my life this way.” I was especially glad to see that Lyons is excited about the power of the local church, writing in no uncertain terms:
The church remains the epicenter of what is possible. It’s the most uniquely positioned channel of cultural influence when it’s operating on all cylinders. No other institution regularly convenes people who work within the other six channels of culture on a weekly basis. On any given Sunday in the church, leaders from all seven channels join together to pray, worship, learn, and socialize in one place. Then they are sent out, dispersed to support one another and to work within the sphere of society God has gifted and called them to in order to carry out his restoration work.
Imagine what is possible when Christians throughout the church recover this sense of vision for their work in the world. It could change everything about the movement of Jesus (121).
These chapters, on the distinctive spirit and lifestyle of the restorers, were simply excellent, and will be worthy of rereading again, as I mine them again and again for fresh ideas and new inspiration to live boldly and wisely for Christ and others.
At the same time, some corrective push back is in order. For instance, the picture of Christians in America is not so uniformly negative as Part One might suggest, and as Gabe Lyons’ own recognition and affirmation of the “restorers” (and other kinds of Christians) is evidence. Bradley Wright, a sociologist at the University of Connecticut, has unpacked considerable survey data in in support of the thesis that Christians are, for all their faults, still largely respected within American society (in his summary, he gives the American church a “B” grade). You can find this argument in his refreshing book Christians Are Hate-Filled Hypocrites … and Other Lies You’ve Been Told.
Furthermore, while Lyons’ typology of different Christians is illuminating and useful, and he has generous words of affirmation for people in each group, it remains too simplistic. If a Christian individual or group is largely doing good, they are considered to be “restorers,” whereas those who fit into the other five categories are each marked down as fundamentally flawed approaches to following Christ.
While most of his critiques are on point, the categorization doesn’t make sufficient room for those who cross categories: where do we place the zealously evangelistic Southern Baptists who homeschool their children and vote Republican, but also use the latest technology, are active on Twitter and social media, and spend their weekends running homeless ministries and their vacation time rebuilding neighborhoods in New Orleans? They are part Separatists, part Cultural Christians, and part Restorers. Indeed, for every person who reads Lyons’ book from a Separatist or Cultural Christian background, but decides to become an all-out restorer, there will be people in transition between these categories.
This oversimplification creates a useful clarity for Lyons’ project, but at the risk of occasionally downplaying the great and God-glorifying contributions from Christians in these various camps. It also might unnecessarily alienate precisely those whom he hopes to persuade to become restorers. Still, Lyons works hard throughout to give credit to Christians from all of these groups, he does compassionately bring up legitimate (if painful) critiques of these groups, and some level of oversimplification may simply be unavoidable as he introduces a wide audience to the distinctive vision of becoming ‘restorers.’
Overall, The Next Christians is a terrific read. If you are feeling at all discouraged about the reality of Christianity in America, frustrated with how it is currently practiced, disappointed with your brothers and sisters in Christ, but still yearning for a fully Christian, fully human, fully beautiful life for God, then this is your book. Read it and become hopeful, energized, and inspired to live as a restorer for the glory of God and the common good of your community.