Are Gabe Lyons’ The Next Christians Really What’s Next? Part 1

There is much merit in Gabe Lyons’ book, The Next Christians: The Good News About the End of Christian America.  In fact, in the second chapter of this book, Mr. Lyons offers his readers a lucid and accessible account of the cultural state wherein Christians find themselves today (23).  Although he attributes the beginning of this ‘Christian culture’ demise to the death of Jerry Falwell, Mr. Lyons is correct in his assessment that traditional Christianity is on the fringe of conventional culture (15).  In addition to his eloquent diagnosis of our present cultural state, Mr. Lyons offers his readers a clear vision of a solution to the cultural and spiritual malaise, a vision that manifests itself in what he calls the ‘Next Christians’ (47), people committed to one cause: restoration.

With this appellation, the book ventures onward, with a fecundity of anecdotal reports to illustrate this vision’s reality, and paint a picture of the next generation of Christians — Christians that are devoted to restoring the brokenness of the world.  He characterizes these ‘next Christians’ in six ways: 1) they are provoked, not offended; 2) creators, not critics; 3) called, not employed; 4) grounded, not distracted; 5) in community, not alone; and 6) countercultural, not ‘relevant’ (67). Thus, the new summum bonum for Christians is to engage the world and its inhabitants with a restorative mindset, determined to transform a splintered world and make it anew; they are to transform filth into faith.  It is a movement predicated upon principles of compassion, nonjudgmentalism, and courage — all of which are noble and virtuous in and of themselves.  As I mentioned above, this book has much merit; certainly more than a glimmer of truth gleams from the pages of this book.  There is no doubt that Mr. Lyons is no charlatan; he is, as far as I can tell, a committed Christian from whom much can be learned.  His insight revealed in this book should not be stifled or occluded.  However, though the book is not a complete failure, it does fail.

Mr. Lyons book fails not because it is dishonest, nor does it fail on stylistic grounds: the book is utterly sincere — there is no cant to Mr. Lyons’ prose — and it is written quite lucidly and intelligibly.  The book fails because it only conveys a partial truth.  The book relies on a few virtues (e.g. compassion) to provide its essence; however, the inflation of those virtues, which are justified within the entire Christian context, results in a heresy.  As Newman has taught us, all heresies are partial truths — truths that are isolated and inflated to make them almost dangerous.  It extracts a portion of a portrait and attempts to advertise it as a new masterpiece.  It takes virtues from the whole Christian tradition and pawns it as the tradition itself.  Any attempt at doing this will inevitably fail inasmuch as removing a part of any whole will always undermine the whole as well as the part.  As Peter Kreeft remarked, “to isolate a part of a living whole is not only to miss out on the other parts but also pervert the isolated part” (Back to Virtue 33).

 The Christian tradition is a living, breathing tradition; it is not malleable inasmuch as a human is not malleable.  It can only grow from within just as person can only grow from within.  When one tries to alter the very fabric of something, the entire thing becomes undone.  What Mr. Lyons does is remove venerable principles within the Christian tradition, virtues that should be endorsed and practiced, and illuminates them insofar as he eclipses the parts that he leaves behind.  Essentially, what is done by this is that important truths are made into primary and sufficient truths, and consequently they become at best virtuous whispers, at worst falsehoods.  J.I. Packer succinctly put it when he said, “A half-truth masquerading as the whole truth becomes a complete untruth.” How Mr. Lyons commits this fallacy is what I will address in this series.

Mr. Lyons’ book reverberates with the significance of a manifesto, a call to arms. Does Mr. Lyons’ really intend to present his position as the whole position?  Apparently so, since he makes the plain assertion that God’s restorative initiative in our lives is the whole story (55).   It outlines a new movement, a new missionary purpose by which, according to him, many Christians are beginning to live.  Therefore, if this is the new Christian Weltanschauung, I will evaluate it as such: as a Christian movement that fails in three regards: it is unecclesiastical, unsacramental, and it circumvents sainthood.  Mr. Lyons claims that this movement is a sign of the ‘next Christians,’ and through it, Christianity is restored.  However, by removing oneself from the historical narrative of the Christian tradition, which includes, but is not confined to, the providential mission of Christians, one does not become a restored Christian but a derelict one.

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