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The Next Christians. Really?

Over the Christmas and New Year break, I read Gabe Lyon's next book, The Next Christians (DoubleDay, 2010). I heard Gabe at the Catalyst Conference back in October and was impressed with his impassioned presentation of his observations about "the good news about the end of Christian America." (I was mostly impressed with his own family's response to their son, Cade's, Down Syndrome as an example of what he was describing.)

I'm a bit of an existentialist when it comes to verifying the premise of others, so, what I had observed in larger venues like Catalyst and Right Now, I also saw in the younger generation of Christ followers at Legacy. Lyons seems to be on target: these "next Christians" want little to do with maintaining the institution of the church and following its programs, but they deeply desire to engage the bigger needs of humanity in the name of Jesus.

Lyons begins his assessment of Christians response to change in similar fashion to H. Richard Niebuhr's classic work, Christ and Culture. He couches his views in fresh language with stories to demonstrate his points.

His message of engagement in the "seven channels of cultural influence" (Media, Education, Arts & Entertainment, Business, Government, Social Sector and Church) is refreshing and reveals the potential the church has to impact culture through the involvement of Christians. He rightly heralds, "The church...[is] the most uniquely positioned channel of cultural influence...No other institution regularly convenes people who work within the other six channels on a weekly basis." (Kindle edition, locations 1661-67)

Lyons builds his message around six descriptors of the next Christians. The categories are valid, but as with any broad categories of a nebulous movement in its infancy, they lack little more than anecdotal evidence for their existence. However, they are excellent ways to characterize these next Christians.

Lyon's six categories are:
  • provoked, not offended
  • creators, not critics
  • called, not employed
  • grounded, not distracted
  • in community, not alone
  • counter cultural, not relevant
These describe those he names "restorers" for these next follower of Jesus. This role of Christian as restorer of creation in light of Christ's inaugural work on earth is reminiscent of N.T. Wright or C. H. Dodd's realized eschatology that is so popular today.

I appreciated Lyon's call to spiritual disciplines that ground restorers on mission. I especially liked his section titled, "Immersed in Scripture (Instead of Entertainment)"--although he echoes the prevalent mantra of Scripture as "a grand narrative that tells a story of a God who loves..." which sometimes tends to bias the reader against the gory details of the smaller stories within His-story.
I applaud his call to community, too. I believe this to be crucial to the thrivival (I made that word up) of the church in the decades ahead. "Community provides the critical support base the next Christians need to be on mission for God." (Kindle location, 2099-2103) This is a welcome shift in the purpose of small groups during the last three decades that was more about the individual than the mission of God. (See also, Scott Boren's Missional Small Groups.)

Lyons was hypercritical in his excursus on relevance, which was a mainstay of the church growth movement. I agree with him that counter cultural (as he defines it) has always been the position of the church in culture by its very nature as God's alternate reality to this fallen creation. Relevance was never the modus operandus of the ekklesia we read about in Scripture. We got off track when we moved relevance to our priority lists.

The Next Christians will play its role in the search for what's next for the church in America and will be a seminal work in the discussions around the topic, but like Lyon's first book it will have a relatively short shelf life that will be replaced by the next observer of Christian America. Given the rapidity of change in that arena, it could be very short-lived. Read it while its relevant. Wink.