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The Next Christians: The Good News About the End of Christian America

We've been on the road a lot these past few weeks, and even now am needing to rush---the over-packed book van is motoring through the night to Florida (thanks to our son's willingness to drive at odd hours and sleep in said book van) as it makes its way to a national Christian Legal Society (CLS) conference.  Yes, we are flying down to meet the books, and set up a huge display for this prestigious group of attorneys, judges, law school professors and over a hundred law students. CLS allows us to serve them and their participants--daunting as it is for us, talking about how our books might help them deepen their vocations.  Main speakers this year include some legal philosophers, an urban activist, and the popular brainy theological writer, Wayne Grudem. 

We love helping folks find books to help them with their discipleship and we've been a number of places lately---helping a UCC prayer retreat, working our regular gig at the Wee Kirk (Scottish for "small church") conference, and today some of our staff are with homiletics prof Tom Long.  Etc.

Yet, one of our most fulfilling events was last weekend, where I got to stand up in front of a hundred college students, professors, grad students and colleagues in campus ministry and talk about books that fit their topic, Faith 4 Thought.  We sold apologetics, C.S.Lewis, books on vocation and calling, resources to help in the practices of on-going, faithful living.  These folks were excited, and the workshop I did (drawing on some of the recent books on cultural engagement) reminded me of how important it is to help equip folks to be "in but not of" the world, as transformed followers of the true King.  There are serious hurdles to be a Christian in the modern university and having evangelical faculty and Christian books there for them was more helpful then you can imagine.
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One of the most popular books there was the brand spanking new The Next Christians: How a New Generation if Restoring Christianity by Gabe Lyons (Doubleday) $19.99 (see sale price below.)  Gabe is the popular author and speaker who you may know from the groundbreaking book UnChristian.  In that book, he and his co-author and researcher David Kinnaman, documented the disinterest and frustration and sometimes hostility among young adults to the Christian faith.  The book was a thrill to read, though, as they replied to the criticisms of the young adults with testimonies and stories of innovative, faithful folks who are---through God's grace---trying to "get it right."  That is, the standard assumptions "outsiders" have are largely wrong.

The Next Christians carries the "answers" and hope of that book and, as they say, "runs with it."  And is Gabe the right man for this job!  He has stories and more stories, used effectively as a clear and passionate and honest writer.  Through-out this inspiring and persuasive book, we hear about younger adults who are engaged in their world in creative ways, bringing helpful faith-based insights to bear on huge social problems (from racism, urban poverty, and the nuclear arms race) to ways in which young professionals can witness for Christ in low-key, effective, and natural ways, especially within their own spheres of influences.

It should come as no surprise that Mr. Lyons explains that the way to invite folks into a life of  discipleship is to make sure we live and tell the whole Biblical story in a coherent way.  That is, the most precise theological description of the gospel is not that we are sinners in need of salvation.  While it is surely true that we are rebels against God and for His own sake He loves us anyway, the whole drama makes sense when we see the narrative shape of the Bible itself: there are four chapters (at least!) to the history of redemption.  Say it with me, BookNotes readers: creation, fall, redemption, consummation.  Praise be to God, Christ is, as promised, "making all things new" healing his good but fallen world.  Lyon's helps us understand, live, and tell the story in ways that more than just "getting a ticket to heaven" and are old and yet fresh, faithful and interesting, wholistic and relevant.  He is convinced that this full-on, robust view of faith is what young adults long for, and he is right.  And, it is what the Bible demands.

Well.  Seeing the reign of God breaking into history--this good world gone bad being healed by a restoring King---allows us to make sense of things, and draw natural connections between ordinary faith, cultural renewal, social action, and a daily passion for work, career, and our non-work callings as well.   This new generation of followers of Christ get all this and are considerably less interested in "going to heaven" as they are being truthful and good in life, knowing they are made in God's image, deeply flawed, but being healed and transformed.

Knowing that I would agree with so much of The Next Christians made me eager to read it,lyonsg.jpg and I was confident I would enjoy it, learn a bit, and mostly be excited about trying to promote it.  That is how a bookseller like me, anyway, thinks about books: who needs it, how will it advance God's cause, can we with integrity get behind it, will it be useful?  Yeah, I'll like it, but I have so many books to sell, so many good ones these days about these very themes.  I like Gabe a lot, respect his amazing work with the Q conferences (we promoted his Q Society Room DVDs the day they came out a half year ago) and have many young adult friends who I want to tell about this book.

I was happily surprised just how much I learned, just how much I enjoyed, just how much I truly am impressed with this fine, important work.  It isn't just a good book, it is a great book.  He has important ideas, good documentation, tons of illustrative stories, and it moves logically from one section to the next. 

The first half of Lyon's Next Christians is how the world is changing, especially explaining how younger Christian related to the secularization process, whether the loss of a "Christian America" is a tragedy or opportunity.  The first chapter is "The New Normal" and he moves to how this new social context presents us with a way to see ourselves not as hand-wringers, but as those yearning for restoration---not of some nostalgic past (that may or may not have been a reality, in any case) but for the ways God intended our planet to work.  This is a large thesis  (and it is something to argue a bit about if you are so inclined) of the book, that the younger generations are emerging into their adulthood with a hope for being agents of transformation.  They want to build a new culture, contribute and serve.  I hope he is right.

The second large portion of the book explains who these "restorers" are.  He breaks his chapters down into a fascinating and hopeful way to relate to our distorted and idolatrous culture.  The new sorts of young adults can be described in these ways, and he offers great illustrations and examples.  They are:

Provoked, not offended.
Creators, not critics.
Called, not employed.
Grounded, not distracted.
In Community, not alone.
Countercultural, not "relevant."

I was going to lift inspiring quotes to share, and unpack a bit more about this next great shift he is seeing, announcing and helping to create.  But you know that plane I have to catch?  I've got to go.  And I'm a middle-fifty-something, off to fan the flames of enthusiasm for those in the legal profession to read widely, think deeply, in ways that are consistent with the description Gabe Lyons gives of the emerging generation.  And perhaps that one small beef I have with the book: I am not so sure his stats are right about the ways in which this "new generation" is restoring the faith.  Some are.  But I also know old guys and mature women who have been laboring in this grand way for years.  And I know some who are repenting of their silliness, dropping out of the culture wars, and getting busy loving locally, being involved, discovering new avenues of service and hope.  Yep, this full gospel of being God's "salt and light" in a decaying world, happy to be human, eager to be transforming, rejecting the old "liberal vs conservative" debates, is capturing the heart of many church folks.  Age is no limit.  And it certainly is the case that all ages can appreciate, enjoy, learn from, and take courage from the work of the young turks Gabe so nicely describes in The Next Christians.  Young or old, pick it up.  Read it, have good conversations, and get busy.  This is one of the books of the year.

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5 Comments

Sounds like a string of cliches to me. Roland Barthes says that most conversation and discourse is just that, to the tune of 95% of our verbiage.

To get to something beyond cliche is rare. I found the list of dualisms to be utterly unconvincing. I've encountered this kind of thinking eagerly at hand for most of my life. I'm 70 now, and I still look for a wave of newness, unfolding the promise of some tradition or other, or mixing them, but authentically creative in capacity to propose initiatives that meet the challenge of our oncoming age. Most recently i've been disappointed by the the flood of pomo overtaking former evangelicalism, shaping it. Pete Steen used to actually teach the Consequent Problem-Historical Method, to show how we recycle first one and then another yawning thread from the notions that overtook one generation, then another.

Your little list is a piece of binomial logic richly at work, really obnoxious to me personally. There are other logics and they are capable of popular kinds of expression, cliches and all. Why isn't anybody working on and publishing outside the box? There's a "reason" I'm sure, but what it is eludes me.

Albert

Thanks for writing. As I may have said before I read your book in the 70s and it was influential. Some found that "obnoxious" I suppose. Not sure why you disapprove of this discernment that there is a shift away from the shallowness of the Christian right (hand-wringing over hot button issues, being "offended" by secular culture) towards engagement, contribution, being rooted, in community and such. I'm not sure if naming a cultural trend is "binomial logic" or not. Sounds like an overly abstract way to pick a fight or something. I would suppose that Gabe would admit that for some, it is "both and" and that we needn't necessarily do away with, say, being offended at some things or being critical. Of course it isn't always "one or the other." But this shift is there, with some folks giving up on protesting bad movies or yelling about secular humanism, or wanting to return to a "Christian America." They are busy loving their neighbors in significant initiatives. Gab isn't a scholarly sociologist, but he is pointing us in a helpful way. I don't know where Steen would be, but my hunch is he'd approve, saying that this is what we've been hoping for all along. Or something close.

In the years I was doing civil disobedience against the idol of nuclear weapons (thanks somewhat to your interesting exegesis of Romans) Steen stood by me, even on the streets and in the courts, even as he critiqued the anarchism of the Catholic Workers and the ideologies of the simplistic left. He was able to affirm good signs of normative witness where-ever it popped up, and even as he'd critique the inadequacies of some movements for reform, he was joyfully appreciative.

So, anyway, sorry this seems binomial and cliched. I disagree. Have hope.

One of the great stories Gabe tells is how they were counseled to have an abortion when the child his wife was carrying was diagnosed with Downs Syndrome. The young couple didn't know much about Downs and they were devastated not only by the troubling news, but by the way in which the doctors overstated the matter in horrific terms, insisted upon abortion, and the ungodly assumption that a handicapped child doesn't deserve to live.

Did they capitulate and have an abortion? Did they wring their hands about bad doctors? Did they protest abortion mills, now that they were worked up about that? No!

Rather, (unlike the liberals or conservative culture warriors of previous generations) they gathered with other parents of Downs children, they made a beautiful video of the joyful lives of these kids and the up-side of parenting special needs children. That is, they creatively thought "outside the box" of accommodation or protest, and contributed. Here's the great part: they made a classy brochure about parenting Downs kids, explaining the realistic difficulties framed by the notions of human dignity and normative understanding of life as gift, and filled in some practical stuff (based on interviews with parents) that health care professional should know as to how to "break the news" to the soon-t-be-parents-of-a-special needs child. That is, they've undertaken this grass roots effort to educate (and reform) the medical establishment by teaching them how to do their job in more humane and appropriate ways. They got brochures and DVDs and such, in nearly every ob/gyn facility in greater Atlanta. They challenged these docs to stop scaring mothers and dads in the way in which this is discussed. And, they've networked parents of special kids to offer support and friendship and fun.

Well, the abortion rates have gone down in greater Atlanta! Because of Gabe and his wife and their energetic advocacy of this group that teaches ob/gyn docs how to present the "bad news" in ways that are good and true? Because in this one concrete area medical folks have adopted new practices, invited to do so by local activists, doing "pro-life" work in winsome and creative and helpful ways? Who knows?

If this is inadequate and cliched, call me shallow. If critics of this book can suggest better ways, come on. For now, I'm hoping the book sells widely, is taken seriously, leads to these kinds of good conversations about local efforts, and that God is pleased to raise up a "next generation" of evangelicals that are Biblically rooted, culturally active, socially savvy, all the while being winsome, spiritually mature, and kind.

http://markmcculley.wordpress.com/2010/10/29/the-ritual-christendom-captivity-of-the-churches/

Hauerwas sides with James Jordan and the theonomists
who defend Constantine (IVP, 2010)

Byron, I really dig this poetic description of the illuminating path he clearly highlights;

Provoked, not offended.
Creators, not critics.
Called, not employed.
Grounded, not distracted.
In Community, not alone.
Countercultural, not "relevant."

I've not been reading as much as I would like to. But maybe it's time I pick up this book and at the very least skim it...

Thanks as usual, Brother Byron. :)