Are Gabe Lyons’ The Next Christians Really What’s Next? Part 3

Thus far, in evaluating Mr. Lyons’ ‘Next Christian’ vision (part 1, part 2) we have seen how his vision fails to include the Church that Christ established.  His vision precludes the Mystical Body of Christ, and supplants it with ecclesiastical amateurism: a weakly-structured, free-floating Christianity that lives and dies on spontaneity.  His low-churchmanship does not place his ‘next Christians’ on the ground, but it places them in the basement.  In the basement, Mr. Lyons’ ‘next Christians’ fail to see the Summit of Christian life, for the dim light that they do have is missing the oil by which Christians’ lanterns burn: the sacraments.    

Remove Christ’s Church and you remove His sacraments.  The Church recognizes seven sacraments: Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist, Penance, Holy Matrimony, Holy Orders, and Anointing of the Sick.  Contrary to the Protestant sensibility, the sacraments are not mere symbols; rather they are signs, which, as all signs do, point to something beyond themselves.  The sacraments do two things as signs: they teach and they sanctify (CCC 1123).  Just as a stop sign instructs us to stop, so too does a sacrament: it teaches us to stop and let God in.  The sacraments instruct us in holiness, and they teach us how to revere the sacred. More importantly, the sacraments confer grace, and it is by grace that we share in the very life of God.  In the sacraments, we ‘participate in God’s own life and work’ (Catholic Christianity, 297).  The sacraments are gifts from God, and they are indispensible to a true Christian vision: one cannot envision the Church without the sacraments, apart from which the sharing in divine life is impossible, and the sanctification of its members becomes a purely subjective enterprise. 

For a man who attempts to reengineer a Christian faith based on the message of Christ, it would be an egregious error to omit the most precious gift that God has for us: Himself. But without the sacraments, one fails to meet Christ as intimately as Christ intended us to meet Him.

Even assuming Mr. Lyons’ endeavor is virtuous, in order for it to be sustaining, it needs assistance; namely, it needs the help from God.  The sacraments offer such help.  They renew our souls, cleanse us of our iniquities, and realign our eyes to view the world and everything in it as a gift; they shift our gaze from looking down to looking up.  A sacramental vision of the world is a complete vision of the world, for everything in the world is sacramental — everything is a gift. 

This worldview is essential for a Christian, for without it one becomes resigned to condemning the darkness or being consumed by it.  Instead, a sacramental worldview allows one to embrace what is true, good, and beautiful in the world, while maintaining one’s focus on the Kingdom.  Mr. Lyons dedicates an entire chapter on the creation and cultivation of culture for the ‘next Christians.’  In it, he describes how the ‘next Christians’ are creating culture that celebrates beauty, affirms goodness, and tells the truth (97-102).  For example, in his description of how the ‘next Christians’ create culture that celebrates beauty, he recalls a story in which a group of people created a cultural group, called Fringe, that engaged in dance, music, and other cultural expressions (98).  What distinguished this from any other ‘concert’ was that it was held in a church, and thus participants caught a ‘glimpse of the beauty of God’ (99); what distinguished this from any other church service was that it involved no promulgation of the Gospel. The way Mr. Lyons describes it in his book almost implies that other Christians simply are not doing this (whatever it is) as well.

I would hate to chastise Mr. Lyons for his spiritual chicanery if no such intent existed, but I will chastise his implicit assertion of ‘uniqueness.’  Franciscans have been witnessing without words for years.  But I don’t want to digress too far from my point of including this example, which is to show that a culture that affirms goodness will dissolve unless there is a renewing force behind it.  That renewing force, of course, is the sanctifying grace we receive from the sacraments. A Christian culture will die without the sacraments.  The sacraments provide spiritual growth, nourishment, and spiritual healing.

Mr. Lyons is calling for Christians who are not afraid to dive into the cultural milieu, its degradation notwithstanding.  That need could not be greater. Nevertheless, by separating Christians from the Church and sacraments, sanctification is made very difficult, if not impossible. We cannot sanctify culture unless we are sanctifying ourselves. Mr. Lyons makes no mention of the pursuit of sainthood and we will look at that, his last failure, in the last segment of this series.

Mark Gonnella is a Masters student studying theology at Aquinas Institute of Theology in St. Louis.