Theology And Semantics: A Review of “The Next Christians” by Gabe Lyons

Christendom is dead! It died somewhat slowly, like Brittany’s career, but it had died just the same. Any illusions that the world had that our country was a Christian nation were dismissed with the ever-increasing removal of Christian “control” from the public sphere. We still have great influence, no doubt, but our domination of public policy, etc. is largely gone. Gabe Lyons traces some of that disappearance, and he believes it may be a good thing for the church (I do too).  In his book The Next Christians: How a New Generation Is Restoring the Faith Lyons discusses how younger Christians are living out their faith differently, and yet effectively. As one of the subtitles of his book suggests: the end of Christian America is good news.

The decline of Christian America produced three things: Pluralism, Postmodernism, and Post-Christian culture. These three cultural shifts have meant that the tactics and approaches to living as Christians in our world are no longer useful or effective. He takes particular focus at the “culture wars” of yesterday, pointing to their in effectiveness to bring about change. Instead of such approaches, and instead of the “separatist” approach to culture, Lyons points to the next generation of Christians who view themselves as “Restorers.” These young Christians do not believe the culture is inherently bad, going to hell, nor do they believe that their approach to engaging the culture is limited to evangelism.  So Lyons writes:

I call them restorers because they envision the world as it was meant to be and they work toward that vision. Restorers seek to mend the earth’s brokenness. They recognize that the world will not be completely healed until Christ’s return, but they believe that the process begins now as we partner with God. Through sowing seeds of restoration, they believe others will see Christ through us and the Christian faith will reap a much larger harvest. (47)

Restorers are working to bring the love of God, the vision of His new creation, and the redemptive power of Christ to bear on the world. So much of that resonates with me. So much of what Gabe Lyons describes about the next Christians is descriptive of my friends, my congregation, and my desires. And yet, there are moments in reading where I feel an uneasiness with his language. It’s a semantics issue, I understand that. But it’s the kind of semantics issue that has a bearing on your theology and therefore requires a careful and thoughtful discussion.

As Lyons discusses the restoration approach to cultural engagement he hits on many things. He discusses some things that I love (like recapturing the whole story of the gospel, which is bookended with creation and re-creation with the cross and resurrection in the center), but when he talks about the restorers as “participating with God in his recreation project for the whole world” (53) I am not sure how to feel. I hate the mentality of separatist culture that views boycott as the solution, instead of creating a better alternative. We work long and hard at our church to create, to rebuild, to reclaim for Christ through renewal and rediscovery. But what bothers me is the language of “participating with God in HIS recreation.” You see the Scriptures don’t seem to indicate that believers are helping God create the New Kingdom. That is a work that God does for His people as a gift. God gives us the Kingdom, we don’t build it. Greg Gilbert and Kevin DeYoung have written well on this issue, and while I disagree with many points in their book, I think on this one issue they are right and correct. We need humility to see that the Kingdom is God’s gift to us not our creation task. But this does not mean that we stop the “restoration” work, nor does it mean (contra Gilbert and DeYoung) that this kind of work is not part of the church’s mission. It means, however, that we need to relabel it.

In stead of saying that “the next Christians are partnering with God to restore every corner of the earth” (65), a more humble response seems appropriate. What’s interesting is that at times Lyons does see that and write that way. He writes that restorers possess the needed humility to rejuvenate the faith (47). He states that the next Christians know only Christ will completely restore the world (47). He writes that we are partnering with God to: breathe justice and mercy and peace and compassion and generosity into the world (59). Restorers are trying to give the world a “glimpse”  of what the world looked like before sin entered the picture. This is much more humble language. Restorers are giving a taste, a glimpse, we are not bringing the kingdom to earth, and we are not “the answer to restoring the soul of our world” (186).

I loved this book. So much of it needs to be said, discussed, and reiterated. And yet there is a sense of humility that needs to be infused into the “restoration movement.” We need that reminder that it is God who transforms the world, yes through us, but not to the degree that Lyons and others might speak of it. The New Heavens and the New Earth, the Kingdom of God, is a gift to us created and given by God himself. We have our part to play in giving people a glimpse of that now, of pointing them towards God, of making the world better in all the ways that we can. But we are not partnering with God to restore the world to Eden. That is a work that Scripture says He does Himself for us, on our behalf. Adam failed to cultivate the Garden, Jesus does not. So work, create, renew, rebuild, etc. but do so with humility friends. The Next Christians are important and powerful, but they must also be humble and Christ-centered. So maybe it is an issue of semantics that I am nitpicking at, but I think it has bearing on our theology, which has bearing on our lives.

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