Matt Lee Anderson has written a pretty good review of Gabe Lyons’ buzzed-about book, The Next Christians. I haven’t read it, so I can’t claim to have a sound opinion on it. But I want to concur with his slight criticism of the triumphalist tone of the “next Christians” narrative, which approaches an idolization of younger, hipper, more “enlightened” Christians as the saviors of the evangelical church’s reputation. I’m fairly skeptical of the church’s willingness to listen to these “next Christians,” and not sure if they stand for something coherent enough to be a major force. I’m not sure if they’re committed enough to staying in the evangelical church to make a difference, and not entirely sure they should be. Even if they were likely to make a huge change in one generation, this kind of hubris gets off-putting fast.
A worthwhile observation Matt makes in counterpoint to the Next Christians as the “ones we’ve been waiting for”:
My critique is not that Lyons steps outside of statistics. The numbers never tell the whole story, and Lyons acknowledges that the next Christians are “bubbling just underneath the surface.” But the narrative of the decline of “Christian America” and the rise of the next Christians begs for further analysis. For instance, given that so many young people leave the faith, where did most of these “next Christians” come from? Christian Smith points out in Soul Searching that parents are “hugely important” in the formation of faith among 18-23 year olds. This research suggests that the next Christians have been raised by some pretty solid parents. If we are on the cusp of Lyons’ revolution, we may have mom and dad to thank.
This as a humbling thing to think about, but it’s crucial. Even as many “next Christians” remain rightfully critical of the ways they were raised to think and believe, there’s the indisputable fact that many of us have gone on to live happy lives with relative intellectual stability and modest to wild success in whatever endeavors we choose. We may have been inculcated with science denialism or bigotry or more difficult emotional things like self-hatred and repression. But on the whole, the “next Christians” are not badly damaged, wounded souls whose parents and churches have left them for dead. In fact, quite the opposite: many are well-adjusted, upwardly mobile young professionals who owe what success and sanity they have to the values they were raised on. It’s important that every Christian who faces the inevitable bitterness that results from breaking out of a small-minded worldview remember that when they turn to critique the ones who came before. And though I clearly believe in opposing those who continue to articulate a reactionary political version of Christianity, I think a lot of the Next Christians can probably do more good persuading their parents than condescending to them.
That said, I won’t let Matt go without quibbling with one of his points:
Lyons later affirms John Stott’s suggestion that evangelism and social action are partners, and that neither takes precedence. But as faithful Christians, we must insist that restoring “the way things ought to be” is not the motivating impulse. To frame our witness to the world around our response to its brokenness misses the theocentric nature of the kingdom of God: “Let your light so shine before men,” Jesus tells us in Matthew, “that they may glorify your father in heaven.”
I’m not going to endorse Lyons’ theology without having read his books, but I balk at this tendency to over-theologize the Christian gospel, to make it about an abstract spiritual concept rather than one that can be touched and felt on the earth right now. What is grace if not a response to brokenness? To me, the pain of the world in front of us, the sense that this is not the way it ought to be, is perhaps the only context in which the gospel makes sense.
(P.S. Matt’s upcoming book is available for pre-order on Amazon. I promise it will be worth a read.)
David Sessions is the founding editor of Patrol. He covers religion for Newsweek and The Daily Beast, and is a graduate student in the Draper Program for Humanities and Social Thought at New York University. He can be reached at hdavidsessions at gmail dot com.
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