How do we do more than protest against our adversaries? How do we find a vocation that really found us first?
It can be tempting for any organization to define itself by what it is not.
Some mission communities like mine, Word Made Flesh, used to juxtapose our emerging identity against what we perceived to be worn out models of mission and community. It took us a few years to figure out what we actually are.
We were helped by the arrival of Gabe Lyons' first book, “ unChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity and Why it Matters ,” to expose our image problem as North American evangelicals. Lyons’ research with Dave Kinnaman showed that young Americans view Christians as anti-gay, overly political, judgmental, and out of touch with reality. Facing such a scathing review by non-religious people, we felt we had to be proactive in trying to embody our faith in a more positive way.
Lyons’ new book, “ The Next Christians: The Good News About the End of Christian America ,” goes beyond pointing out problems and moves to hope-filled alternatives. Lyons argues that Christians should not just strive to “impact” or “transform” culture, but should actually be restoring culture -- celebrating creative and thoughtful expressions of faith in communities that resemble Jesus.
“The Next Christians” rejects the separatist mentality of condemning culture or retreating from it, and the syncretistic approach that dilutes core theological celebrations. Christians, he says, should be “Provoked, not offended. Creators, not critics. Called, not employed. Grounded, not distracted. In community, not alone. Countercultural, not ‘relevant’.”
This approach is refreshing. Often I find myself apologizing to non-religious friends for the unflattering caricature that Christianity has become. I grew up in a religious environment where to be Christian required casting your votes for Republican candidates, showing up for protests outside abortion clinics, and boycotting companies that had apparent ties to “the gay agenda.” Somehow issues like war, the environment, poverty, and AIDS didn't connect with the faith.
In 2010 things are different. Christians are now prioritizing progressive issues and causes. Tackling these things is not simply hip, trendy, or politically correct, but an attempt to affirm the divine imprint of God in humanity, and subsequently to help restore a culture in desperate need of hope.
Lyons believes that it’s for Christians to restore culture. “Cultures are like clouds. They materialize as byproducts of the prevailing conditions. They reveal the world’s influential currents as they move across the landscape. And when you’re inside them, it’s hard to see what’s really going on around you.”
This call to restorative vocation is an urgent plea. Affluence and abundance can dull us into a tragic state. Typical North American evangelicals are often over-educated but under-employed; deeply in debt yet continuing to live beyond our means. We still wait to discover vocation while squandering expensive degrees by pouring coffee at a café. Lyons suggests actual alternatives, with powerful examples of people who have allowed vocation to find them, leading them to lives that bear witness to restoration.
Gabe concludes his reflections by noting that authors like Scott Bessenecker (‘ The New Friars ’) and Phyllis Tickle (‘ The Great Emergence ’) have suggested that we are on the cusp of another historic transition in Christian identity. There seem to be 400 or 500-year cycles that bring our religious distinctiveness into focus. Today we have the opportunity to restore who we are in Christ, and to do that as a church whose access to resources is unprecedented in history. Will we allow the lull of the status quo to entice us with building our own personal Christian brands that critique, withdraw, or merge with the newest and hippest causes? Or will we find the courage to live into vocations of hope that lead to real Christ-centered restoration?
Christopher L. Heuertz is International Executive Director of Word Made Flesh. He is based in Omaha, Nebraska. His most recent book, co-written with Christine Pohl, is “Friendship at the Margins: Discovering Mutuality in Service and Mission” (InterVarsity). Follow him on Twitter @chrisheuertz).