Thursday, February 24, 2011

Book Review: 'The Next Christians'

The book The Next Christians: How a New Generation Is Restoring the Faith by Gabe Lyons seeks to chart the course of how the Christians of this generation are faithfully living out their faith and carrying back into the world by engaging rather than retreating from the world. As such, the book is both descriptive and prescriptive. It is descriptive of the shift that has occurred and how this generation is operating in the world to live out its faith. The book is filled with illustration of those who have taken such steps. The book also contains elements of prescription as the author gives us guidelines for what this looks like at its best and challenges the readers to join those of these generation who seek to be “the Restorers.”

This book is divided into three sections: part 1 ‘the World is Changing’ which is a basic rundown of ‘where we are.’ Three important concepts are that the world is pluralistic, postmodern and post-Christian. In chapter two, we find the important paradigm for how Christians tend to engage in culture. They can either be ‘Separatist,’ ‘Cultural,’ or a ‘Restorer.’ After briefly outlining what the first two look like, the purpose of the book is to illustrate and champion the Restorer model.

Part 2 of the book outlines what Restores look like. These six chapters are the meat of the book. Restorers engage the world rather than withdrawing. Each chapter is devoted to one of six characteristics. Restorers are (1) provoked, not offended; (2) creators, not critics; (3) called, not employed; (4) grounded, not distracted; (5) in community, not alone; (6) countercultural, not ‘relevant.’

Part 3 of the book is the conclusion. Following Phyllis Tickle, it suggests that a big shift is underway. However, this shift must begins with getting first things first. The gospel is important and the shift begins with returning to is. It is “the main thing...the one and only first thing” (p. 193). When this is right, second order things fall into place. This has the potential to revitalize the church so that it can impact the world as salt and light.

1. This book seeks to recapture the Christian doctrine of vocation. Although by my count, this word is not used just over halfway through the book, it seems clear from the outset that this is the key to being a restorer. We read that the next Christians “desperately want the world to know the story of Jesus and the power of our faith.” He continues:
“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. (p.66, emphasis original)

The next Christians do not divide ‘ministry’ work from callings into the secular workplace. This is a welcome return to one of the principles of the reformation and historic evangelicalism. It’s goal is to enable Christians to truly be the salt and light amongst the world.

2. The ‘Next Christians’ are cast not as those inventing a new faith but recovering the ancient practices of the faith. It is almost too common to read that if Christianity is going to survive it must reinvent itself theologically. Thankfully, the book is not an attempt to reinvent the orthodox faith. In fact it states the new Christians are recovering it (p.50). Along the way one can find echoes of elements important to the Reformation, examples of historical Christians who have impacted their world (like William Wilberforce) and in the end using the work of Rodney Stark the point is made that just as the first Christians revitalized life in Greco-Roman cites so also today’s Christians can revitalize our world by engaging Western culture. In a day an age where young people an enthralled by newness, showing this continuity is both helpful and important.

3. The book contains powerful and moving accounts of people taking action. The book is more than just reason and logic. One cannot help but be moved by the accounts of how Christians are taking actions to love. One particularly powerful account comes in chapter five as Renee the drug addict is shown a display of Christ’s love by Jaime. The book contains many examples of the principles and actions that are important to the next Christians and these accounts crystalize the concepts.

4. The book recognizes that all are made in God’s image. This book rightly notes sometimes Christians jump right to a discussion of sin before acknowledge the image of God. When the culture is largely when cannot assume people remember God original design for creation was only subsequently thwarted by sin.  The book not only draws attention to this but also advocates that we should pay attention to this aspect of creation. No matter how marred by sin a person is they still have value as an image bearer or God. This becomes one of the motivations for reaching out to people and helping them find restoration from their sin. It is the motivation for the next Christians avoiding withdrawing from the culture.

5. Chapter 10: countercultural not ‘relevant. To often discussion of how Christians should act focus on seeking to win the approval of non-Christians in a manner that is relevant. Relevant can quickly become relativizing the faith. “Simply put, relating to the world by following the world can be a recipe for disappointment and disillusionment” (p.173). To often Christians have tried to be gimmicky and have sought to engage the world to become like the world and win the world’s approval. The focus in this book of engaging the world is clearly marked in distinction from marketing techniques or compromising with the world.

1. It is light on the content of the gospel. This is not to say the author does not give credence to the gospel but rather he takes for granted aspects of the gospel and overestimates the extent to which he describes it. The final chapter states, “The first thing for the Christian is to recover the Gospel--to relearn and fall in love again with the historic, beautiful, redemptive, faithful, demanding, reconciling, all-powerful, restorative, atoning, grace-abounding, soul-quenching, spiritually fulfilling good news of God’s love. As described throughout the earlier chapters of this book, it is critical that this come first.” (p.192, emphasis original). To which any committed Christian would give a hardy amen. However, he has hardly spent space describing this well or thoroughly in the early chapters of the book.

The discussion of the gospel begins of page 51 and ends on page 60. Only pages 54 and 55 really bring it into focus. It is hardly “throughout the earlier chapters.” We are told we need to rediscover the scope of redemptive history particularly creation and restoration in God’s pattern of ‘creation-fall-redemption-restoration.’ God’s should not be a half story that starts with the fall (agreed!). However, in this section attention is given largely to creation and restoration. Creation is an important backdrop to the gospel but not the gospel itself. Sin is not defined and explained with any clarity. We are told Christ’s death and resurrection were designed to save people “from something” and “to something.” The ‘from something’ is the stain of sin. The ‘to something’ is the focus of the book: the new way of living now.

Restoration is talked about in terms of the removal of sin, the curse, and death. Along the way there are brief nods to “dying on the cross, he [Jesus] begins to turn back the bad deeds done” and “paying for all the sins that had rippled from the garden to Golgotha” (p.55). There is one clear statement on p.53: “That’s why Christ came, to satisfy our sin debt so that we could experience a new way of living: restoration.” There is no mention of repentance and the necessity of receiving this salvation by faith. According to the Bible it is not just enough to recognize God’s story we must actually be redeemed and rescued and transferred into the kingdom of the Son (Col. 1:13-14). The evangelical could read this section and see allusions to all the right ideas likewise many who are more theologically liberal could easily find similar commonalities. Not every book must give specific clarity and depth on the gospel but when the author claims things are so grounded in the clarity and depth of gospel and that it is vital for the next Christians, does he not obligate himself to make clear what he means? However, there is a lack of clarity and the descriptions are largely cliche.

2. The book charts the course between opposing dangers but largely ignores one set of dangers. In chapter 2 “A Parody of Ourselves” the book outlines two ways Christians typical interact with culture and proposes a third way. There are the “Separatist” who withdraw and the “Cultural” who compromise. He illustrates three categories of Separatists “insiders,” “cultural warriors” and “evangelizers.” There are two kids of “Cultural” Christians: ‘blenders’ and ‘philanthropists’. The third category for interacting with culture is to be a “Restorer.” In and of itself this is not a bad taxonomy for a teaching tool.

The problem however is that in the rest of the book as he charts a course for restorers he constantly alludes to the ‘separatists’ as a foil. The book is gracious, cautious and much fairer than some who would critique this problem. It is largely not given to exaggeration although one might quibble over some details. The problem is that we are never sufficiently told how a “Restorer” avoids becoming a “Cultural” Christian. The description of the cultural Christian is weak when we are told philanthropists “seemingly attempt to prove their worth through acts of service and good deeds” (p. 43). This paradigm is rightly rejected when at the end we read “Good deeds will stop being done as an action that earns God’s favor” (p.196). But is that really the problem and extent of the effects of ‘Cultural Christians’? Throughout the book it is vivid and clear that ‘Restorers’ are not ‘Separatist’ and their activity is described as markedly different but that same attention is never given to the distinction between ‘Restorers’ and ‘Cultural.’

Another brief example of how the author lacks balance is when he writes “The next Christians are living within the tension of both [doing good and the need for conversion]. They recognize from Scripture that faithfulness is displayed in both word and deed--seen best by combining the Great Commission’s instruction to “make disciples” with the second greatest commandment to “love thy neighbor” (p.94, emphasis original). Again one gives a hearty “amen” to the principle set forth but the constant danger is the book is portrayed as a failure to do good. Indeed this is a great failure among Christians. However the great failure of the next generation of Christians will most likely not be a failure to do good, it will most likely be a failure to speak well and proclaim the word. In fact, the book gives no examples of what serious proclamation looks like. We are told they value personal salvation and discipleship (p.193) but what does that mean and what does it look like? Are the words filled with the same concepts that evangelicals hold to, or has their meaning and practice shifted? We are not told what they are for this generation or what they should be. Since the author himself draws such attention to the balance and the ‘third way,’ he should describe more thoroughly how both imbalances are avoided. The actual imbalance in the book is probably its greatest weakness.

3. The book so downplays the need for Christians to confront that Biblical confrontation is virtually eliminated. The best way to illustrate this is to note how the author handles Acts 17. We are told Paul is provoked in the chapter ‘provoked, not offended.’ It is certainly true that Paul “responds brilliantly” (p.86). Paul is cogent and engaging making “an intellectual connection” (p.87) whereas today Christians who take personal offense sometimes are not. However, it is false to say “he didn’t condemn them all to hell for practicing idolatry...they saw concern rather than judgment...he did not condemn them by preaching that they should tear down their idols.” Yes Paul did not rant as we sometimes do in our modern day, but in this passage Paul most certainly confronted. He won a bit of hearing by quoting the Greek poets in Acts 17:28. However standing in the Areopagus where in Aeschylus’ Eumenides, Apollo is said to have stated “once a man has died...there is no resurrection” Paul stated “there is a resurrection.” Nothing could be more controversial and confrontational. Not just that there was a resurrection but that this is proof that there is a day of judgment and God will not overlook their idolatry. Some sneer and some listen but Paul told them in no uncertain terms that they would be judged.

In this respect, a reader would be on far better footing following Mark Driscoll’s threefold response to culture where one can either: (1) receive it; (2) reject it or (3) redeem it. The Next Christians gives us examples of receiving culture and redeeming culture but it never draws any lines or gives any clear boundaries for where the 'next Christian' does or should reject culture. This is not to say the next Christians do not do this but rather the book never tells us. While it is true that Christians should be creators of culture, it is not fair to minimize the need for an appropriate use of criticism. Sometimes a repentant Christian must humbly state: this is wrong. The book shies away from this as judgmentalism and separatism. For example, is it really ‘good’ and ‘restorative’ when a porn director partners with a Christian for an awareness campaign about porn’s damaging effects (p.100) if he also never hears God's declaration of its wickedness and is invited to real Gospel salvation through repentance? I think not. Since the author himself uses William Wilberforce as a positive example of a Christian who did more than give speeches but also told the truth (p.101), we point out slavery would not have been overturned if William Wilberforce had not also in confrontation stated boldly and plainly that slavery was a moral evil.

While this book is helpful for discussing the change that is arising amongst the current generation of Christians, this book covers very little new material for one familiar with the discussion. While presentation and packaging may be unique to this author, those familiar with the discussion will probably not find this book necessary reading. Those interested in discussion of the ‘missional’ Christian will appreciate the illustrations and the guidelines in part 2. If one is new to the whole discussion of the changes amongst this generation, then one may find this a helpful place to start particularly if one does not intend to do exhaustive reading on the topic. In short, this book is not a bad place to start but is not necessarily an essential place to start. Given its weaknesses it is certainly not the place to end one’s reading on these issues.

My rating: 3 out of 5 stars [if 3 stars = fair/good]

I would like to thank Waterbrook Multnomah Publishers for providing me with a complimentary copy of this book for review purposes. 

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