American Christians live in a transitional age. Christian America is dead. American society is increasingly pluralistic, postmodern, and post-Christian. How should American Christians respond to this new cultural reality?
In The Next Christians, Gabe Lyons sets out to answer this question. He depicts two broad types of Christians interacting with culture: separatist Christians and cultural Christians. Then he proposes a better type: restorers. “I call them restorers,” he writes, “because they envision the world as it was meant to be and they work toward that vision.”
Lyons roots the work of restoration in the biblical narrative. “God’s story is made up of four key parts: creation, fall, redemption, restoration (and ultimately consummation).” Historically, in the 18th and 19th centuries, evangelicals kept these four parts together, emphasizing both social reform (creation, restoration) and evangelism (fall, redemption). In the 20th Century, however, their fundamentalist heirs separated evangelism and social reform, emphasizing only the former. This led to an imbalanced spirituality. “The truncated Gospel that is often recounted is faithful to the fall and redemption pieces of the story, but largely ignores the creation and restoration components.” The next Christians rejoin evangelism and social reform. “These missing elements [i.e., creation and restoration] are at the heart of what a new generation of Christians are relearning, and subsequently, retelling.”
The heart of The Next Christians outlines six characteristics of the way restorers interact with culture. They are:
- provoked, not offended
- creators, not critics
- called, not employed
- grounded, not distracted
- in community, not alone
- countercultural, not “relevant”
Lyons fleshes out these characteristics with biographical sketches of contemporary Christians working toward the restoration of all things. The vast majority of them work in secular professions, including non-profit charities. They work toward “the common good,” defined as “the most good for all people.” They seek to make a culture that “celebrates beauty,” “affirms goodness,” and “tells the truth.” Their work includes but is not limited to what traditionally falls under the rubric of evangelism and discipleship. Indeed, Lyons de-emphasizes the vocations of the clergy in order to focus attention on the vocations of the laity.
Evangelism and discipleship, traditionally conceived, do not disappear among the next Christians. Rather, they take place organically. Lyons writes, “The fact is, where Christians restore, people get saved.” In simple terms, good works create an environment in which people come to faith. And people who come to faith go on to good works. The gospel may begin with the salvation of the individual, but it doesn’t end there. It encompasses the whole of his or her life, not just the spiritual component.
Without citing it, The Next Christians recapitulates the typology of H. Richard Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture for evangelical readers. In place of “Christ against culture,” we have “separatist Christians.” In place of “Christ of culture,” we have “cultural Christians.” In place of “Christ transforming culture,” we have “restorers.” What is missing, of course, are “Christ above culture” and “Christ and culture in paradox.” I largely agree with the transformation/restoration position, but it is always helpful to keep in mind that even our best cultural achievements are ephemeral and tinged with sin. The restoration toward which Christians work in this age finds perfection only in the age to come.
Still, the inability to achieve perfection doesn’t mean we can’t make progress. The 18th– and 19th-Century evangelicals—such as Wesley, Wilberforce, and Finney—who led both religious revivals and social reform movements knew this. So did Jesus and the disciples, who left a better world—spiritually and materially—in their wake. Their 21st-Century descendents would do well to relearn this lesson, and Gabe Lyons’s book is a good place to start.