Friday, March 11, 2011

The New Christians - same old story or new wine?

I am reviewing Gabe Lyons' *The Next Christians* that I received free from WaterBrook Multnomah Publishing Group in exchange for this review.

I wanted to read this book based on the title. What could the next generation of followers be like that would require this writing? I have watched the Postmodern flash and the emerging movement fade and wondered if this was the next passing claim.

The first thing that I noticed is that it is not original in the emotion behind the writing. This is a restoration ideology - "let's get back to how Jesus did it". And Lyons gives a couple of passing references to the earlier moves in church history. But he does not give a full nod to what he sees as an original shift. Church history is marked by a large number of efforts to get back to the original message of the Gospel,the marks of those efforts in the lives of followers, and the impact those followers have on the world.

The second thing that I noticed was the categories of churches that Lyons uses to divide the American (due to his focus on American believers)Christian experience. There are Separatist Christians that react to culture they don't agree with by retreating ideologically or physically. There are Cultural Christians that lose their identity in the process of trying to adapt to culture. Then there are the Restorers. These are Lyons focus for this book. What was obvious about the divisions was the direct critique of Separatist Christians throughout the book. The critique of Cultural Christians was more subtle and not as close to criticism as that of Separatists.

It is the Restorers defined in this book who stand out as the heroes of the church today. And by the time I reached the 1/3 point of the book, I was ready to disregard the rest. But as I began to work through the 6 qualities of Restorers, I began to read this differently. Lyons identifies the qualities of Restorers as Provoked, Creators, Called, Grounded, In community, and Countercultural. As I was reading those qualities I began to agree with the power of this contemporary restoration movement. And I agreed with what he was saying.

It is these qualities that make this movement a valid expression of restoring the message of Christ and God's kingdom. And it is the current reality that the modes that many believers operate in is insufficient to make significant connections with the direction that culture is moving. *The Next Christians* provides a starting block for believers and churches to begin examining their motives and actions as followers of the Gospel.

On the whole, I recommend this book. I don't agree with the generalizations of Christians experiences without substantiating the strengths that are mentioned only once. I don't feel that historical and powerful restoration movements within church history receive the credit that is due them. But this book is an important message for churches who desire to be a meaningful part of proclaiming the Kingdom's message.

There are some specific issues were raised in this book that I would like to see addressed to the church:

1.) We need to reclaim the entire proclamation of the Gospel. Lyons was a little too focused on stereotype and parody of churches. I would not disagree that simplified Gospel messages are presented often. The Gospel is not "are you going to make it to heaven" messages. The Gospel is the announcement that God created with world with purpose and ideals that reflect God's nature. Sin is a stumbling block in our individual lives but it is also a stumbling block in God's overall purpose and ideal for this world. Salvation, that is appropriated through Christ only, is not just salvation to a future perfect ideal. It is also salvation to the work of using our lives to make some of that ideal reality in our current surroundings (family, community, world). The Gospel isn't about making it to heaven, it's about capturing the idea of heaven and being inspired to shape the world we are now living in.

2.) The church needs to get past this victimized mindset. The world has changed. Perceptions of the church have changed. Accept that and do something about it. Lyons has a great mission statement for the church:

The church remains the epicenter of what is possible. It's the most uniquely positioned channel of cultural influence when it's operating on all cylinders. No other institution regularly convenes people who work within the other six channels of culture on a weekly basis. On any given Sunday in the church, leaders from all seven channels join together to pray, worship, learn, and socialize in one place. Then they are sent out, dispersed to support one another and to work within the sphere of society God has gifted and called them to in order to carry out his restoration work.
The Next Christians, Gabe Lyons, p.121.

That is the church in any generation, any location, made of up any group of people. That is who we are and what we are to be doing.

3.) The Next Christians, according to Lyons, require a grounding in what the traditional, orthodox church has called disciplines. It is odd that Lyons, who pays little homage to the influence of traditional church states that something intrinsically traditional is critical. But what is considered traditional in traditional churches is practiced with little discipline and even less passion. And Lyons chooses the classical practices that draw us closer to Christ.
Reading Scripture with a passion for the story god has unfolded in the lives of others
Observing a true, rest filled Sabbath to enrich our lives
Choosing to deny the extra indulgences that are freely available to us and fasting in the form of simplicity
Being completely present with those we interact with
Praying to put ourselves in the posture of humility and recognizing the true power player in the world

4.) Ever since I was in college, I have recognized the need of community in our lives. In college I found my first intentional community. It was a campus ministry at East Central University. In that place I found people from different backgrounds, belief systems, social position, and cultural status working together, playing together, and ministering to one another and the community together. In seminary, I found that experience once again. And ever since those two places of being a part of community, I have longed to find it again.

Being a pastor means being an outsider. We move into a house that is not ours. We take a job that was not created for us. We are a regularly interchanged part in a fixed machine. And community is not easy to find for pastors. Even in a place of welcome and friendship, community is still challenging. There are rules that prevent personal intimacy within the congregation. There are standards and expectations of the churches we serve that limit seeking community outside the congregation. So pastors have suffered isolation to many degrees. And have been denied a necessary experience in life.

But pastors are not alone. Churches have begun to take on the same traits as neighborhoods in regard to community. We don't take the time to get to know the neighbors. We have stopped inviting friends over because we are too busy, too tired, too gone. We get into each others' lives by reading their Facebook status or Tweets. Conversations happen with fingers and screens instead of eyes and facial expressions. The Body of Christ exists because we are parts of one another, not wired together.

To quote the Beatles, we need to "come together, right now". Jesus sat down with potential followers at parties. He feasted and fellowshipped quite regularly with friends and enemies. And he said that when two or more gathered together, he was present. Wouldn't a party with Jesus there, be an amazing grace-filled time? Wouldn't a meal with Jesus seated at the table be filled with the possibility of something extraordinary happening? And wouldn't the people of God, bound together by the Spirit of God, redeemed through the Son of God, be all the stronger and become more Christ-like if we came together more often, more intimately, more intentionally?

The Next Christians is not a new idea. There have been movements that re-emphasized these qualities when someone was brave enough to step out and change what is normal. And when people reacquired these qualities in their lives the church and the world have changed for the better.