Book Review: The Next Christians by Gabe Lyons

TheNextChristiansBook

The Bottom Line

The Next Christians: Seven Ways You Can Live the Gospel and Restore the World is a collection of stories of people engaged in creatively exploring the space where Christianity meets culture. Although Gabe Lyons is sharing stories of the next Christians in action, he is also sharing his vision for who the next Christians really are.

I should note that I read this book on my iPad and, therefore, do not have page numbers for my quotes. I’ll designate them broadly with the chapters instead.

My Summary

Lyons begins by declaring the culture war has ended. Christianity is no longer the dominant ideology of the West.

Pluralism rather than Christianity now marks America’s public square.
Many Christians, especially those in the older generations, are visibly disconcerted, but the rest of the culture is noticeably content and comfortable with the new arrangement.
How are people reacting to the control Christianity has wielded over the thoughts and minds of society for so long? They are running as far away from it as possible.
Chapter Two – The New Normal

If you want an illustration of this change in our culture, consider the revelation Lyons had while driving through Europe. He noticed a church in every town square and thought of our sprawling suburbs that are no longer organized around a geographical center. You get the picture. Culture, and what is at the center of culture, has changed.

The reaction by the religious community to this change is the same today as it was in Jesus’s day. Some become separatists (Pharisees, Essenes), and others seek accommodation (Sadducees, Herodians). Jesus presented another option–the Kingdom of God engaged with the culture in active restoration. This is the path of the next Christian.

But every now and then throughout history, there are moments when we are given the opportunity to step back; to recognize that the irreducible minimum for all Christians is Jesus. In light of this realization, we reevaluate where we sit and consider what God may be doing.
Chapter Three – A Parody of Ourselves

Instead of engaging in a battle to return to something that is gone, we should seize this opportunity to rediscover our true identity as the church. Lyons has identified a seed of bad theology that has grown into our current predicament–a Gospel proclamation that is only about personal salvation and a ticket to heaven.

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.
They recognize that Christ’s redemptive work is not the end or even the goal of our stories; redemption is the beginning of our participation in God’s work of restoration in our lives and in the world. Understanding that one idea literally changes everything.
Chapter Four – Relearning Restoration

We must present the whole Gospel story. If we divorce personal salvation from the larger story of restoration, we are missing the fullness of God’s revelation through Jesus.

If you don’t understand restoration, you won’t understand the next Christians. They see themselves on a mission, partnering with God to breathe justice and mercy and peace and compassion and generosity into the world.
Chapter Four – Relearning Restoration

In an end note, Lyons fleshes this out:

In other words, this view of the Gospel message reduces the Bible’s grand story down to two primary “chapters”: Fall and Redemption. Indeed, these two chapters are central to the biblical narrative, but historic Christian orthodoxy has always held that there is a foundational chapter to the story before the Fall and a climactic chapter in the story after Redemption.

So what does it look like to add back these bookend chapters to the Biblical story? That is what the remainder of the book tries to answer. To do so, Lyons shares chapters of stories that paint a picture of the people of God engaged in restoration. These are the seven ways to live the Gospel that make up the subtitle of the book.

Chapter Five – Provoked, Not Offended
Stories of engagement with those who disagree; not boycotts, condemnation and running away.

Chapter Six – Creators, Not Critics
Stories of creating beauty that demonstrate God’s goodness and stories of Christians working for the common good.

Chapter Seven – Called, Not Employed
Stories of people moving into the spheres of cultural influence; not just building up the church, but building society to the glory of God.

Chapter Eight – Grounded, Not Distracted
Stories of people defining themselves by a Biblical worldview; not the consumerism and busyness of the culture.
Lyons makes these insightful contrasts:

  • Immersed in Scripture (Instead of Entertainment)
  • Observing the Sabbath (Instead of Being Productive)
  • Fasting for Simplicity (Instead of Consuming)
  • Choosing Embodiment (Instead of Being Divided)
  • Postured by Prayer (Instead of Power)

Chapter Nine – In Community, Not Alone
Stories of Christians joining and enriching already existing social networks; not creating their own places of separatist community. I particularly liked this point:

[these local churches where this is working] probably don’t have many programs because their lives are full with interactions throughout the community.

Chapter Ten – Civil, Not Divisive
Stories of rejecting the culture war of animosity towards outsiders for increased discussion, partnership and influence.

Chapter Eleven – Countercultural, Not “Relevant”
Stories of communities of faith standing as a Godly alternative; not copying the culture to appear relevant.

Lyons blasts relevance, with this cutting observation:

Yes, of course, we must contextualize our message, and this book is partly an attempt to call Christians to recognize and respond appropriately and faithfully to the cultural changes that are taking place. But the church should be offering an alternative way of living and being that stands out in a confused and broken world, not simply copying what it sees.

So, what does a true counter-cultural community look like?

Rather than fighting off culture to protect an insular Christian community, they are fighting for the world to redeem it. This is the essence of being countercultural for the common good.
Not simply a bunch of small lights in all the dark corners of the world, but a communal light that provides a picture to the world of what a loving, sacrificial, countercultural community really is.

In the final chapter, Lyons makes a strong appeal “to recover the Gospel—to relearn and fall in love again with that historic, beautiful, redemptive, faithful, demanding, reconciling, all-powerful, restorative, atoning, grace-abounding, soul-quenching, spiritually fulfilling good news of God’s love.”

Will we embrace the call to restoration? Will we be part of the next Christians?

Whatever it is that’s broken, whatever you see wrong, remember—God’s intention and method of restoration is to use you to bring his redeeming love to the world.
Chapter Twelve – The Next Big Shift

My Analysis

A People of the Future

Christianity is a future looking faith. We are people of a land and time that is still to be. We have tasted the Kingdom of God, which has dawned but not yet been fully realized. We’ve never been there, so we rely on the Spirit to empower us to act and think in a way befitting this new reality. The more we can encourage ourselves and others to embrace this truth, the more we look like Jesus. The church should literally be heaven on earth. We have a long way to go, but we need the prophetic voice to continue to remind us of the terms of our covenant.

A Restoration Mindset

How does one live in the future tense? Lyons answers, by adopting a restoration mindset. I believe he has struck a nerve. We (me) as a church need this jolt to get back to the life we were meant to live. I wonder, though, if this is the whole picture. I agree that we should be restorers, but I want to emphasize that it flow from our relationship with the Father. I have concerns for a Christianity that focuses so much on righting wrongs that we forget Who we are doing it for. Lyons is not guilty of leading us off track, but I think that can be an unfortunate side affect of focusing on cultural problems. It sure seems to be a temptation if church history is any guide. Certainly in heaven we will not still be restoring, so something about our life on earth should include that “other” which may be an unveiled, pure relationship with the Father. I agree that we must keep our hands in earthly soil, doing His work, but we must also keep our eyes firmly fixed on Him. Our focus should be more about being His people, than being His people who restore.

How far is too far?

One has to ask this question once we start talking about reaching out to the culture as restorers: What about truth? Where do we draw the line?
We are following our leader if we are eating with tax collectors and sinners. If we hear an objection, “Surely you aren’t going there? To be with them?” We are probably on the right path.

We must also remember that the conversation ended with Jesus challenging Zaccheaus to right living. And he responded! This is what restorers do–not just go to the place that others will not, but go with hope and a hand of fellowship that leads to right relationship with the Father. This is the full story Lyons is sharing.

Many stories in this book challenged me that I am not going far enough. I needed that. God’s grace reaches beyond my experience. We should not be afraid of loving too much, giving too much grace and working to make life better for everyone because we are protecting truth. Yikes! That’s scary.

Concluding Takeaways

I had a hard time reading this book and writing this review. For that reason, I almost chose not to do it. I decided that my difficulty with the book is part of my engagement with the material. I’ve ended up spending more time questioning my struggle than contemplating the ideas. This review became a plodding exercise of discipline more than a labor of love.

I’ve come to terms with the glaring fact that this book was not written for me. I think I know why. I am not a fan of inspiration. Inspiration, by definition, means to be mentally stimulated to do or feel something. I prefer to be convinced, not inspired. Perhaps this is hair-splitting, but attempts at inspiring me without first convincing me always seem manipulative (and I would have to activate my emotion chip to feel anything anyway, and I’m probably not willing to do that).

I’m not sure Lyons main goal with this book was to convince; although, he does lay some groundwork. You either accept the premise or you do not. His goal is to report on what he’s observed and encourage you to join in the work. He encourages engagement through restoration by telling inspirational stories.

Perhaps I am being unfair. Perhaps these stories are proof of how these ideas are working. But this is what I came up with to explain my grinding process through this material.

If inspirational stories of Christians engaging the culture through restoration sound great to you, have at it. It’s needed, it’s just not me.

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3 thoughts on “Book Review: The Next Christians by Gabe Lyons

  1. Mike, I find the Bible and the stories/accounts within it wholly inspirational. Who wouldn’t be moved by the story of Rahab or Mary for that matter? I believe what would be beneficial (since I am not a fan of theological rhetoric by nature) is that we try to engage in what is outside of our box for the sake of seeing God on a whole other level. Jesus, healed and taught. He rejoiced and mourned. He engaged and withdrew. What we can not accuse Him of being is one dimensional. Is it fair that He would ask us to broaden our perspective and see these messages as an opportunity to step outside of our conventional selves and just be…free? (For a lack of a better term.) If you are challenged by such messages than perhaps something within you would like to be enlisted in a method of experiencing Christ other than being convinced. The disciples walked and ate side by side with Jesus during His earthly ministry yet still where not convinced that He was the son of God until He appeared after His death. I would lovingly submit to you that demonstration over being convinced can at times be far more powerful.
    Just a thought from a friend…

    1. Thanks, Bonita.
      I am pretty left brained, although I do like exploring my creative side.
      My internal, idea space is very ordered and logical.
      I’m not saying it’s right, better, preferred or even good.

      Re: convinced vs inspired–it is a fine distinction, and maybe not even valid! We all bring that subjective bias to everything, I find it important to point at it every now and then.

      Great point that God has communicated His revelation through stories (as opposed to propositional truths).

      I can accept that not preferring this book is as much about my deficiencies as any weakness in how Gabe Lyons shares his truth.

      Thanks for taking the time to read and comment!
      -Mike

  2. Mike, Thanks for sharing these thoughts. Good, thorough, and lots to chew on here.

    For a more persuasion-oriented take on similar themes, you might check out Phillip Clayton’s Transforming Christian Theology. He argues that the world HAS changed, that we’re in a new post-modern moment, and that traditional church structures were developed for a “modern” world that’s largely disappearing. His push is for engagement with the world around activist strategies, and for “big tent” Christianity. You might find some ideas there that both persuade and fail to persuade, but he’s a theologian (i.e. a thinker) writing in a way that’s very accessible.

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