Gabe Lyons’ book, The Next Christians, is an excellent read. It is provocative. Having consumed his co-authored book, unChristian, I read Lyons’ new literary offering with great anticipation. Lyons argues several points in describing what the next generation of Christians will look like in word and deed. First, Lyons argues that the old forms of Christianity in Western civilization, especially in ‘Christian America’, are passing away and are being replaced by what Lyons calls ‘next Christians’ with new modalities of cultural engagement. I agree.
Second, he argues that these ‘next Christians’ are guided by the goal of ‘restoration’ as they seek to restore all things as intended in God’s original creative purposes. Lyons views the ‘kingdom of God’ as the restoration of all things to their intended purposes.
Finally, Lyons argues that these same ‘next Christians’ are guided by a concept he calls the ‘power of the ought.’ That is, ‘next Christians’ focus on how things ‘ought’ to be rather than how things really are – they are more hopeful and positive than previous generations as they engage culture through restorative means. The driving force of the life of a ‘next Christian’ is pursuing how things ‘ought’ to be rather than focusing on the negatives of the present. In the end, Lyons states that when ‘next Christians’ begin to act in this restorative, ‘oughtness’ manner the embarrassment of wearing the Christian label will be removed, thus, paving the way for a new era of evangelism, missions, even conversions.
Lyons proposes that the means by which ‘next Christians’ engage the culture will be multifaceted: they will be provoked by what they see, but not offended; creatively involved, but not critical of culture; called, but not rigidly employed; grounded, yet not distracted; in community, not alone; and, countercultural, but not relevant. In other words, ‘next Christians’ will creatively engage the world in seeking the goal of kingdom restoration in every area of influence – among individuals as well as the media, politics, business, art, music, etc.
But after reading The Next Christians, and even re-reading parts of the book several times, I walked away asking myself, ‘Why do I sense there is something missing in this book? Who doesn’t want to restore things? What believer among us would openly say they don’t want to engage the culture, or help the poor, or help the sick?’ Again, I asked myself, ‘What’s missing from this otherwise excellent book?’ Let me answer my own questions with a set of questions that were provoked by Lyons’ book.
First, when did the goal of Christianity become removing the ‘embarrassment label?’ I understand Lyons’ concern over embarrassing Christians if he means the silly and cheesy attitudes and behaviors some Christians display in public and private. Yet, the ‘taint’ of being a Christian will never be completely removed because the gospel itself is both offensive and redemptive, cold-blooded truth and warm-hearted mercy, inconvenient precept and massive amounts of grace. If Lyons is referring to the embarrassment that comes from some non-Christian words and deeds offered up by Christians, then I concur. But if he is suggesting that the ‘embarrassment’ or ‘oddness’ of wearing the label of ‘Christian’ can be fully removed due to the nature of the subject itself, he is sadly mistaken and has forgotten what Jesus said (Jn. 15:18), “If the world hates you, know that it hated me before it hated you.”
It’s not that Christians should go looking for a fight (a.k.a. the idiot, Pastor Fred Phelps) or that we should be intentionally rude, prudish, and arrogant because we “have the truth!” We are to live in humble peace with all men if at all possible, doing good to all people, especially to fellow believers (Gal. 6:10). Yet, the offensiveness of the gospel cannot, must not, be removed. It is offensive to live the gospel because of the gospel itself, which tells us that we are sinners by birth and by choice; that left to our own devices we remain under the condemnation of God; and, that no amount of beauty, art, social engineering or cultural engagement can change my sinful heart. The gospel of Jesus Christ alone redeems, forgives, makes righteous.
The gospel is embarrassing because the gospel graciously and audaciously announces, if you will, the ‘Emperor has no clothes,’ that we are destitute sinners, uncovered before a holy God, albeit we are ‘abercrombie and fitch’ wearing rebels. If our goal is to make wearing the label ‘Christian’ ‘un-embarrassing’ then we have more problems than the biblically illiterate Christians who fill many of our churches. We may have a problem with the redeeming, offensive, gracious, stumbling block of the gospel itself (1 Cor. 1:18).
Second, is the goal of the kingdom of God restoration or regeneration? I’m not trying to split theological hairs here, but there is a difference between these two words. When using the word ‘restore’ Lyons seems to be arguing that the goal of the gospel is to put things as they were prior to the sin of our first parents. While an admirable goal, is this really the consummate, overarching goal of the kingdom of God and the gospel? Is this a burden we can bear? Does restoration have more to do with cultural and social renewal than personal regeneration? Is this kind of restoration even possible? The reason restoration may be a well-intended, but misguided goal is that until God makes all things new (Rev. 21:5) we remain locked in a world under the curse of sin. We will never be able to ‘restore’ things as they were. Restoration will lead to frustration because ‘Humpty Dumpty’ has fallen off the wall and cannot be put back together.
Yes, we feed the poor, visit the homeless, fight injustice, dig wells, and engage culture in positive ways. But if restoration is our goal then frustration will be the outcome because the needs of restoration will continue to increase exponentially. Maybe this is why Jesus said that the poor will always be with us (Mt. 26:11). It’s not that Jesus was applauding poverty, hunger, homelessness or trying to retard the need to meet these needs. Instead, he was simply recognizing the ‘chronic’ nature of things that are broken because we live in a broken world. The Christian does feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and ministers to the broken – all in the name of Jesus (Mt. 5:38-42). But, is our goal restoration?
Maybe our goal as believers should be regeneration. Regeneration is the making of a new person in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17), with a new nature, new desires, new purposes. It is the removal of the curse of sin through the power of Jesus Christ. Regeneration makes us new internally and prepares us for that which is eternal. It is the transformation of a person in Jesus Christ. Regeneration does not ignore the social or physical conditions of the individual, but is mindful that ‘real, eternal’ poverty is that of the heart and mind and is the direct result of the curse of sin. Maybe it’s just me, but the word ‘restoration’ leaves me frustrated. It reminds me of liberalism’s desire to do good, but without the gospel.
Having participated in helping feed the poor, clothe the naked, and assist in remedying human suffering, I am keenly aware that a new heart and mind is the ultimate goal of the gospel. How sad it would be to feed the hungry and not give them eternal bread. How sad it would be to clothe the naked only to miss being the conduit by which God clothes the sinner in his righteousness. How sad to dig fresh water wells, only to withhold the life-giving water of Jesus Christ.
Third, is the goal of Christianity the transformation of culture or the transformation of the individual? This is the ‘chicken or the egg’ dilemma. Which comes first? Who among us would not want to transform the community? Who would resist the opportunity to renew aspects of culture so that they comport with God’s purposes? In fact, wherever Christianity has been strong culture has reflected this gospel influence. But is culture our target or human transformation? I suppose one could argue that the two cannot be separated. Even the Reformers (Luther & Calvin) sought to remove the line between the sacred and the secular so that all work was God’s work. So, the cultural influence of the gospel is not to be ignored.
Maybe I can ask the ‘questions of my discomfort’ with Lyons’ argument this way – Did Paul go to Rome to change the culture or preach the gospel? Was his trip to the Areopagus an endeavor in cultural enlightenment or an occasion to preach the gospel? Did the early church set out to engage the culture or to preach the life-transforming gospel so that individuals could be changed who would then live out that new life in cultural engagement? Did Paul ever protest the injustice of abusive tax rates that affected all people, especially the poor (I wish he had)? Was Jesus, Paul, and/or Peter a cultural crusader or a preacher of the gospel of Jesus Christ?
Again, cultures have been and will be transformed and unjust systems will be altered as the gospel takes root deep in the human soul. But if we make the restoration of culture the first and primary goal – the main goal – then I fear that the church will end up frustrated with the outcomes and disconnected from the ‘essential’ nature and purpose of the gospel.
Fourth, why did Lyons’ book leave me with the sense that the gospel itself is missing. I’m not suggesting Lyons doesn’t believe the gospel. In fact, he pays homage to the gospel as the power of God in Jesus Christ to save. Yet, Next Christians reminds me of the contours of liberation theology where the gospel is ‘gutted’ of its righteousness, repentance and faith are downplayed, and the true gospel is replaced by a deed-based gospel that has as its goal the restoration of cultural means. The assumption is that as Christians engage culture sinners cannot help but be changed. It’s kind of like conversion through cultural osmosis. This is why Lyons discounts other Christian modalities, i.e. the Insiders, Culture Warriors, Evangelizers, Blenders or Philanthropists and replaces them with Restorers who will enact Christianity like no previous generation. Maybe this is why I felt that when I finished reading Lyons’ book I had just finished a Tony Robbins book dressed up in Christian garb? Good, practical suggestions for engaging culture – you bet, but with no or little gospel.
Which leads me to my fifth and final question – Does Lyons perpetuate the common sin of postmodernism that C.S. Lewis described as ‘chronological snobbery?’ In essence, is Lyons suggesting that our Christian predecessors got it all wrong and now, at last, our generation will finally get it right? Is Lyons writing with hubris when he intimates that we should completely throw off the shackles of our forefathers and foremothers and embrace a new brand of generous, orthodox Christianity that is less gospel-orientated and more focused on cultural restoration and personal self-help? Is Lyons arguing that previous generations of Christians did not take their faith with them to work, to play, into the arts, into media outlets, etc.? To quote Lyons, the goal of the restorers is “to infuse the world with beauty, grace, justice, and love” as if no previous believers ever attempted this before 1975.
Maybe what we need to restore is the gospel itself. Maybe we need a more clear presentation of the gospel, not less. Lyons suggests that the ‘Restorers’ are commensurate with the Reformers of the 16th century. Really? Calvin and Luther (and disciples) did radically transform many aspects of culture, i.e. education, politics, art, etc. Yet, what Lyons misses is that the cultural transformation brought about by the Reformation happened only after an aggressive and all-consuming recovery of the gospel of Jesus Christ. The Reformers discovered that it was not culture that was at risk of being lost, it was the gospel?
Maybe we have heard too little of the gospel? Maybe our problem is not cultural engagement (Christians have always engaged in cultural commerce for better or for worse). Maybe our problem is that we haven’t been gospel-centered enough. Is it possible that in our efforts to engage culture we have unraveled the gospel itself to accommodate our cultural engagement? Maybe we haven’t been embarrassing enough in our gospel convictions that transforms the soul, our ethics, and our goals and that then causes us to pay our taxes, feed the poor, clothe the naked, confront sex-trafficking, and other social sicknesses. This kind of thinking will keep us from having an appearance of godliness, yet not knowing the power of God (2 Tim. 3:5).
Lyons raises the prospect of William Wilberforce as an example of positive, Christian cultural engagement, a man who almost single-handily helped banish slavery in England. With this example I couldn’t agree more. However, what was the driving force of Wilberforce’s life? While he wrote many letters, Wilberforce wrote only one book, published in April 1797, “A Practical View of the Prevailing Religious System of Professed Christians in the Higher and Middle Classes of This Country Contrasted With Real Christianity.” And what was this book about? It was a commentary on the New Testament doctrines of grace as the sole basis for human renewal and cultural engagement. The basis of Wilberforce’s life and work was a strong, overt conviction in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Wilberforce’s source of cultural engagement was not first and foremost the abolition of slavery, but the liberation of sinful man through the power of the gospel. If Lyons is true to his own example, I’m all for being a part of the ‘next Christians.’ But if Lyons means by restoration the renewal of culture by downplaying the embarrassing gospel, then I fear he will get neither the cultural or individual restoration he’s looking for.