While in Manhattan this week, Gabe Lyons invited me to breakfast and to spend some time getting to know one another. With my six-year-old in tow, we sat down and talked gospel, mission, church and kids. I asked him a few questions and he agreed to come by the blog and interact.
Gabe Lyons is the co-founder of Catalyst, and the co-author of UnChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity and Why It Matters. He has been featured by CNN, The New York Times, Newsweek, and USA Today on issues revolving around the state of the church and what’s next for the younger generation of Christians to follow. His newest book, The Next Christians: The Good News About the End of Christian America, is out tomorrow but I wanted to give you an early look here. This will be an important book in the conversation about the role of the church and Christians in society.
Gabe took time to answer a few of my questions and is here on the blog today to interact with all you as well. Check out the interview and hit Gabe up in the comments with your thoughts and queries.
Your subtitle suggests that “Christian America” is dead, what do you mean by that?
Not too long ago, belief in the Christian God was almost assumed. Judeo-Christian principles governed the public square and anyone who challenged them were marginalized. Christian leaders were considered forces with which to be reckoned, and politicians coveted the Christian vote. That is no longer true.
The world today is increasingly pluralistic and post-Christian. Christianity is no longer the dominant religion governing the public square. Many faiths have a seat at the table. As Al Mohler said it, “The most basic contours of American culture have been altered. Clearly, there is a new narrative, a post-Christian narrative, that is animating large portions of this society.” The world is also increasingly post-modern. Christian truth claims are questioned by a generation that is skeptical of statements of certainty. And, as my book UnChristian illustrated, negative perceptions about Christianity abound even as the faith’s influence is slipping away and churches face-declining attendance.
Taken together, it seems appropriate to say that by all objective indications and according to everything I have been observing, the ideas of a “Christian America” is over.
Even though you see “Christian America” as over, you argue we shouldn’t lament this development, but rather, see the opportunity for the Christian movement within it. How so?
I am incredibly encouraged by what I see transpiring around us. First, we have to remember that the Christian faith always thrives under these conditions. Post-Christendom is not unlike pre-Christendom. But tangibly, I am seeing a whole generation of believers who are recovering the gospel and living transformed lives. “The next Christians” are living out their faith in the workplace and the public square in new ways. They are provoked to engage the world and creating new organizations and projects to restore the world’s fallen state. These Christians are revitalizing old churches and planting new ones. If these next Christians are the future of the faith–and I believe they are–we just might be witnessing the beginning of the faith’s next great expansion.
You describe a missing element of the Christian faith that “the Next Christians” have discovered, what is that?
Instead of discovering something new, they’ve actually recovered a key understanding of the Gospel that has largely gone missing in many parts of Christian teaching and doctrine in the last century–the idea of “restoration.” They believe that part of their responsibility in following Jesus is to lead lives that are prioritized around restoring broken people, systems, schools, neighborhoods, marriages and a variety of other things to reflect God’s original intention for his creation. They emphasize seeing the image of God in every person they encounter, even if that person wouldn’t acknowledge it. They don’t only care about social good, but see that as part of a holistic faith that naturally opens the door to much deeper conversations with their friends about the meaning of life, who we are as human beings and what God’s best is for his creations.
One of the things that people get concerned about when you start talking about the metanarrative of creation, fall, redemption, restoration – is that we’re going to lose the gospel in some way. Can you unpack the gospel for our readers?
I think we have to be clear when we’re talking about the metanarrative to never lose sight of what the real good news is here: that Christ’s death on the cross, His payment for our sins, His resurrection – that’s the genesis of the Good News. The metanarrative is what helps make that story more coherent, though. When we only talk about the fact that somebody’s a sinner, that they’re fallen, and we start the story there, and that through Christ they can get redemption — and then oh, by the way, your role is to get as many people to make that decision so you can all spend the afterlife together — it’s not a very coherent story in a post-Christian setting where you have pretty intellectual people who are pretty thoughtful and well-read, and they’re just not buying into something that sounds a bit fantastical. And it’s not that none of that is true. It’s actually all true. But it becomes way more coherent when you start the story understanding that every human being is made in the image of God and that the fall corrupted that, and that once we’re redeemed through Christ we have the opportunity to help people understand that story and understand what restoration looks like in their relationship with God, their Creator, and also in relationship to the world and the work that God wants to do through the Holy Spirit’s power to constantly be reconciling all things to Him in this world.
Tell us about the Chuck Colson connection of your idea of restoration.
In 1999, I read Chuck Colson’s book How Now Shall We Live, and I came across a sentence that he and Nancy Pearcey had in there that basically said, “Christians are called to redeem entire cultures, not just individuals.” I had grown up in a Christian home and a Christian church, and never heard that sentence put together like that — that Christians actually have a responsibility in the world, that this is part of our calling, it’s part of our human job description, so to speak. And that it’s a both-and approach. It’s not just about conversion, it’s not just about good deeds. It’s about both, and if we could recover that in our generation, it would be amazing what was possible, if a younger generation understood how those two things should be held in tension, and what that might look like in a world that’s changing.
Throughout the book you give examples of Christians (or “the restorers”) you believe are changing the negative perceptions and describe several characteristics that set the Next Christians apart. Can you share a few?
A new generation of Christians aren’t offended by the sin and corruption they encounter in the world, but rather, they are provoked to engage it. And often when they do, they don’t critique the situation, they roll up their sleeves and get busy using their talent and treasure to solve it. These Christians aren’t manipulated by a governing thought in many American churches that the truest mission for Christ takes place in “full-time ministry” in a local church, para church or missions opportunities. Rather, they are enthusiastically applying the good news of Jesus Christ in the places and careers to which they feel called. They believe that true mission is to bring the truth and restoration power of the gospel into the places they are already showing up. This is transforming the way the church is viewing not only its mission, but how the collective mission of the body of Christ shows up in a neighborhood, community and society as a whole.
You seem to suggest that this shift in the way Christians are engaging the world could hold the most hope for the movement in five-hundred years? Can you explain what you mean by that?
This belief is inspired by the fact that the pattern of historic Christian expansion (and dramatic changes in how it expands) suggests that we are due for the next big moment. The ﬁrst shift began almost ﬁve hundred years after Christ’s death when the Roman empire fell and with it, Constantinian Christianity. Five hundred years later, the Great Schism of 1054 divided Roman Catholicism and the Orthodox Church. Finally, in 1517 the Reformation gave rise to Protestant Christianity. With history catching its stride, the movement seems primed for the next iteration of Christian practice.
The end of Christian America has pushed us into a new era of faith, one marked by believers possessing this restoration mindset and applying it maturely into every area of the world in which they show up. If the Great Reformation put scripture into the hands of Christians giving them direct access to Christ through his Word and their prayer life–this next shift is taking the themes of scripture beyond the pew and into every arena of public life. This new era will doubtlessly have both challenges and successes. So did the other great shifts. But the faith will survive, and I believe it will thrive so long as we keep the Gospel central in all we do.
You mentioned that as people, part of our job is to engage in restoration. When we talk about mission of the church – some are concerned about mission drift – what is the primary mission of the church and what flows out of that?
The mission of the church, I think, is clear that it’s to equip the saints. It’s to be a place where Christians come together in terms of the meetings and the assembly of the body to be trained up, to be discipled, to be equipped, to know how to go out and do mission all the time. So additionally, the church is the connected body of Christ, working together in unison to reveal to the world who God is through the life that they’re embodying. But ultimately I think the great shift is that pastoral leadership is going to have to get really good at knowing how to come alongside the people in their congregation and help them understand how the implications of the gospel play out in their vocation, in their setting – whether they’re a professor, a business leader, an entrepreneur. I think that is the next phase, and that’s what we’re trying to do with Q.
Tell us more about your work with Q. Many people have heard of it and many more are interested. FWIW, I thought Keller’s talk at Q was helpful and important (info here). What is Q?
Q is a learning community for Christians who want to think through their responsibility to promote the common good in the place they’ve been called. We think through issues pressing in on the church and issues shaping culture. We reflect on the Gospel and what good news means in a post-Christian, pluralistic setting.
There are several ways to become a part of the Q conversation. First, we offer an annual conference each year where we bring in the best and brightest thinkers–Christian and non-Christian–to deliver 18-minute talks on big ideas. Past speakers have included Tim Keller, Richard Florida, Bill McKibben, Scot McKnight, Francis Collins, Ambassador Max Kampelman, and Andy Crouch. We place the venue in cities we believe are cultural hubs, and April 27-29 we’ve chosen Portland, Oregon. We also produce printed materials and small group curriculum to empower Christians and the church. Additionally, we provide great content (including most of our Q talks) on our website.
How can pastors better encourage, affirm and shepherd these next Christians you describe?
For starters, they must be aware that this generation isn’t running from Jesus, they are running towards deeper meaning and connection between their faith and all of life. This should be one of the most exciting developments for a pastor to hear. However, it does mean a pastor’s priorities might have to change in how they interact with this generation. Instead of trying to pull them “into” the church–they need to discover how to work alongside them to empower them “outside” the church in how faith intersects with their passions and work. This next generation needs their pastor to live in the tension with them, to help them institute practices in their life that will keep them grounded and anchored to Christ in a world that is screaming for their time and attention in everything but a rooted faith.
Gabe is with us today on the blog, so jump into the comments and join the conversation. I expect the ideas here and in the book will generate some good conversation around this important issue.