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The Next Christians: restoring the world by recovering the gospel

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There would be little debate in Christian circles that the United States continues to become more secularized. The failings of some Christians to respond to this secularization in a Christ-like manner and how a new generation of reformers are stepping out to live the gospel in every facet of American life serve as the main themes of Gabe Lyons’ book The Next Christians.

I believe, as Lyons apparently does, that once American Christians accept the fact that the United States is (and will remain) a pluralistic society, as the forefathers intended, we will be able to move forward with a refreshed and renewed mission to live the purpose Jesus commanded of our lives, the great commission.

Mr. Lyons states on page 22, “Our nation’s founders were influenced by Christian ideas, but they were also wise enough to structure America to allow for a pluralistic setting-a place where all faiths could be practiced and no faith would be given the upper hand.”

I believe Mr. Lyons’ assessment to be completely on-target. Some of today’s Christians with the loudest voices have become too enamored in the role of Christianity (religion) and politics. While America may very well have been founded on Christian principles, no religion (including Christianity) should be able to claim a stronghold on the personal lives of individuals or the government that oversees them. That’s not democracy; it’s fundamentalism and theocracy, elements of the very oppression we fight so hard against in the Middle East. Unfortunately, we know there are very few who will accept Christ as Savior. Our role on earth, however, is to love our neighbor and LIVE our faith – not force it. Nowhere in the gospels does Jesus force himself on any person or institution. He provides the truth and allows others to accept or reject it.

While we can certainly point fingers and place blame for the demoralization of America, Christians must take responsibility for the way we have reacted over the last several decades and the consequences that have arisen because of it. Our own, very un-Christlike, behavior has put a bad taste in people’s mouths and has done a great disservice to mission of the gospel.

As Lyons puts it, “Young people outside the faith perceived Christians as anti-homosexual, judgmental, hypocritical, and proselytizing…Turned off largely by their own experiences with the church and inauthentic Christians they’ve known, many are rejecting organized religion altogether. To many onlookers, Christianity has become a parody of itself.”

He goes on to state, “The entire movement has been characterized by an oppositionalist mentality. Fundamentalism is ‘a countercultural movement that uses [doctrine] as a means of defining cultural boundaries…intended as much to alienate secular culture as to give fundamentalists a sense of identity and purpose.’ This clarifies how the Separatist expression of Christianity has become so vocal and dominant. As the culture grows more ‘godless,’ the Christians have a reason to circle the wagons. Caring little about any broader purpose in the world (other than seeking conversions), they shout their views at the world and huddle safely with each other-far away from a world they believe is literally going to hell.”

Despite our failings, though, Lyons is convinced that a new strand of Christians is rising up to combat the separatist persona of Christianity that seems to pervade the airwaves and many of the attitudes of our fellow believers. He calls them “restorers,” and their presence and effectiveness can already be seen nationally and even in our local churches.

“Restorers,” Lyons says, “exhibit the mind-set, humility, and commitment that seem destined to rejuvenate the momentum of the faith. They have a peculiar way of thinking, being, and doing that is radically different from previous generations. Telling others about Jesus is important, but conversion isn’t their only motive. Their mission is to infuse the world with beauty, grace, justice, and love….They are purposeful about their careers and generous with their time and possessions. They don’t separate from the world or blend in; rather, they thoughtfully engage. Fully aware of the sea change under way, they are optimistic that God is on the move-doing something unique in our time.”

Engaging the world, its culture, and its people is central to the great commission of sharing the gospel. Jesus never intended us to withdraw from society and separate from non-believers, and we would do well to always remember the central tenet of Christianity that we are saved by grace, not works, lest any of us should boast. The same grace that saved us is available to all, and it is our responsibility-our life purpose-to share and be examples of this awesome truth.

One common phrase we hear and say often in church circles is that “we are in this world, but not of it.” This saying is based on the words of Jesus in the Gospel of John, Chapter 17, verses 14-19. Jesus is praying for his disciples on the eve of his crucifixion saying, “I have given them your word. And the world hates them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. I’m not asking you to take them out of the world, but to keep them safe from the evil one. They do not belong to this world any more than I do.  Make them holy by your truth; teach them your word, which is truth. Just as you sent me into the world, I am sending them into the world. And I give myself as a holy sacrifice for them so they can be made holy by your truth.” (NLT)

In light of Jesus’ actual words, Pastor David Mathis of Cities Church in Minneapolis says we should probably reconsider the way we’ve come to apply the “in this world, but not of it” sentiment, and I concur with his assessment.

Pastor Mathis states, “Maybe it would serve us better — at least in light of John 17 — to revise the popular phrase “in, but not of” in this way: “not of, but sent into.” The beginning place is being “not of the world,” and the movement is toward being “sent into” the world. The accent falls on being sent, with a mission, to the world — not being mainly on a mission to disassociate from this world.”

With this in mind, Mr. Lyons details seven characteristics of the restorers in The Next Christians that encompass the way they live and share the gospel in today’s world. They are:

Provoked, Not Offended
Creators, Not Critics
Called, Not Employed
Grounded, Not Distracted
In Community, Not Alone
Civil, Not Divisive
Countercultural, Not “Relevant”

This new way of thinking is not really new at all, but a radical awakening to the kind of ministry and life intended by Jesus. All too often it has seemed to me that modern Christianity has failed humanity by mimicking the same types of worldly attitudes and behaviors we claim to despise and admonish. We’ve tried to influence through fear and aggression rather than love, grace, and mercy.

“The fact is, where Christians restore, people get saved,” Lyons says on page 209. “When someone’s introduction to Christ comes through an encounter with real grace, love, and an invitation to a better way, it’s likely to reproduce in the same result. The Holy Spirit works in the hearts of men and women when they encounter the Gospel lived out in real ways. This isn’t some new strategy-it’s the way Christianity has flourished ever since it began.”

I couldn’t agree more.

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