The Next America is not a book about how to contextualize the gospel in contemporary America. At least, that was not Paul Taylor’s intention in writing it. And yet, as I read his fascinating new study, I couldn’t help but notice its missiological significance.
Drawing on reams of research by the Pew Research Center, which he serves as executive vice president, Taylor describes “the demographic, economic, social, cultural, and technological changes that are remaking not just our politics but our families, livelihoods, relationships, and identities. These shifts have left no realm of society untouched.” He goes on to summarize the effects of those changes this way: “As a people, we’re growing older, more unequal, more diverse, more mixed race, more digitally linked, more tolerant, less married, less fertile, less religious, less mobile, and less confident” (p. 6). Throughout the book, he focuses specifically on the generational differences between “boomers” (Americans born from 1946 to 1964) and “millennials” (Americans born after 1980), the former often being parents of the latter.
After an introductory chapter, successive chapters delve into the specifics of generation gaps (chs. 2–4), economic differences (ch. 5), immigration (ch. 6), racial identity (ch. 7), marriage (ch. 8), religion (ch. 9), use of technology (ch. 10), aging (chs. 11–12), and the effect of these changes on America’s social welfare programs (ch. 13). Rather than summarizing the content of these chapters, let me briefly highlight the kinds of questions missionally minded Christians might ask after reading this book:
- Taylor writes, “Young and old in America are poles apart. Demographically, politically, economically, socially, and technologically, the generations are more different from each other now than at any time in living memory” (p. 29). That being the case, how can Christians show the gospel’s relevance to the hopes and fears of each generation without being captured by the prejudices and proclivities of any of them?
- “Millennials and Xers [Americans born 1965–1980] are not only in far worse financial shape than Boomers and Silents [Americans born 1928–1945] now, they are also in worse shape than these older generations were back when they were the age Millennials and Xers are now” (p. 60). Moreover, “The young today are paying taxes to support a level of benefits [such as Social Security and Medicare] for the old that they themselves have no prospect of receiving when they become old” (p. 184). That being the case, how can Christians disciple believers, both young and old, to become better stewards of the financial resources God has given them as well as advocates of what Taylor calls “generational equity” (p. 184)?
- “America is already one of the most racially and ethnically diverse nations in history, and the modern immigration wave is making our tapestry more intricate with each passing year” (p. 71). That being the case, how should Christians evangelize and disciple immigrant populations, welcome them into our churches, and utilize their networks in their lands of birth for missional ends?
- “Our culture has traded the melting pot for the mosaic. We glory in our distinctive hues. In this new milieu, being mixed race—a stigma not just in our society but in most societies for most of human history—carries cultural cachet” (pp. 95–96). That being the case, how do Christians promote greater racial and ethnic diversity at all levels of their congregations? How do we overcome the de facto segregation so characteristic of American churches?
- “Lots of particular marriages fail for lots of particular reasons. But nowadays it’s the institution itself that’s in big trouble. And the biggest problem isn’t that people who try marriage are failing at it. It’s that fewer are trying at all” (p. 107). That being the case, how should Christians minister to people among whom extramarital sex and cohabitation are routine, to parents who consider nonmarital childbirth nonproblematic (41 percent of all childbirths in America are now nonmarital), to older people who in increasing numbers divorce their spouses after decades of marriage, and to gay and lesbian persons who want their relationships recognized on par with traditional, opposite-sex marriages?
- Quoting Mark Chaves, Taylor writes, “there is much continuity [in American religion], and there is some decline, but no traditional religious belief or practice as increased in recent decades” (p. 129). That being the case, how can Christians best serve the growing ranks of “religious nones,” people who, while not necessarily secular or atheist, are nonetheless not interested in institutional churches and traditional dogma?
- Millennials’ “information ecosystem and social platforms are vastly different from those of her forebears. The ever-changing digital landscape is likely to keep those generation gaps quite wide for the foreseeable future. It may even change the very nature of what it means to be human and to grow old” (p. 156). That being the case, how do contemporary Christians make best use of digital technology? How do we leverage it for gospel ends, without becoming unwise users of it?
- “Between now and midcentury, even absent any breakthroughs in life extension, the graying of the world’s population [because of both better healthcare and fewer births] will put enormous stress on economics, families, and governments in the US and around the world” (p. 167). That being the case, how should Christians think about aging, generational equity, the importance of having children, and other issues that, while not being explicitly missional issues, nonetheless have implicit consequences for Christian mission in the modern world?
I recognize that my missiological reading of The Next America may not appeal to all readers. For example, I doubt that atheists, agnostics, or adherents of non-Christian religions and worldviews will purchase this book because of the slant of my review. If so, that’s a shame, for this book provides important information about social changes in America that raise questions all Americans—religious or irreligious—will need to answer in the coming years. If I’ve highlighted this book’s relevance for Christians, it’s only because the trends Taylor analyzes have such clear missiological import.
I highly encourage Christian pastors, educators, and lay leaders to readers this book. I also encourage readers to bookmark both http://www.pewresearch.org and http://www.pewforum.org in their web browsers. These websites, among many sites maintained by the Pew Research Center, provide timely studies that are always worth reading.
P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote yes in my Amazon.com review page.