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Monday, January 31, 2011

John the Baptist

John the Baptist is as important as anyone in the New Testament, other than Jesus. Yet he gets little mention today.

Why is the Baptizer so overlooked? Probably because he pushed the spotlight off himself and onto Jesus. "He [Jesus] must increase, but I must decrease" John said (John 3:30). The fourth Gospel succinctly declares the baptizer's purpose. "There was a man sent from God whose name was John. He came to testify to the Light" (John 1:6-7a).


We will spend a bit of time early in 2011 looking at this important man. Read each of the gospels. As you read about John, ask God to speak to you. John the Baptist had a unique role that no one else ever will. There won't be another John the Baptist, but, we are all called to be witnesses (Acts 1:8) who proclaim what Christ has done. Reflect on what we can learn from John the Baptist that helps us in our witness.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Review of "The Next Christians" By Gabe Lyons

The way Lyons identifies Christian interactions with culture is extremely helpful: he says that in interactions with the non-Christian world the next generation of Christians are people who are provoked, are creators, feel called, are grounded, engage in the community, and act in way that is countercultural (verses in a way that attempts to make Christianity relevant to the culture). What Lyons sets up is an ideal for Christian teens and young adults to shoot for in the early 21st century. Whether this ideal will become a reality in the next 20-50 years remains to be seen. But whether it does or it doesn’t, it sets a lofty, worthy goal. These categories are proactive, not reactive. They are positive, not negative. That’s especially important if Christians truly want to break down the “dividing walls” (Ephesians 2:14).

Too often religion serves as a catalyst for hate. In recent times this has been seen in the group from the American Midwest that protests at military funerals United States servicemen and women, perversely tying America’s overseas military conflicts with God’s condemnation of homosexuality. The connection is illogical, the judgment is hate-filled, the theology is bad (not reflective of responsible Biblical interpretation), and the attitude is antithetical to what Jesus taught, modeled, and commanded. Yet, this group operates under the rubric of “church.”

Similarly was hate stirred up by the group in Florida, claiming the title “church.” They threatened to burn Korans. Nothing Jesus ever said suggests that the way of his followers includes a heart that acts towards others with violence. Lyons’ proposed approach is a spiritually healthy polemic against evil that masquerades as Christian. Furthermore, he offers a vision that is be cooperative and committed. Christians be partners with non-Christians in the world, can learn from non-Christians, and at the same time can be committed to Biblical Christianity. Lyons’ vision is of a Christianity that is at the same time open-minded and gospel-centered.

In offering a new approach to living Christianly, Lyons articulates an appropriate critique of the methods churches have resorted to increase membership overall and especially in youth ministry and in ministry to young families. He is right to reject the notion that big means better. Lyons opposes a consumer Christianity where churches are supposed to provide their attendees with everything needed for a happy life.

One poignant example is “Kristi.” He says, “No longer content with pizza parties and lock-ins, she longed for a faith with credibility that matched her real-world longings” (p.172). Kristi found the depth she was looking for in the commitment expected of her Mormon boyfriend. She was done with the gimmicks her evangelical congregation resorted to in an attempt to have fun and boost attendance. What her boyfriend had in his faith seemed much more important than the pettiness of her high school church experiences (which weren’t different enough from secular youth gatherings), so “she began to pursue Mormonism” (p. 173).

The example shows the holes in the approach of many evangelical churches, and Lyons has many other equally impressive anecdotes that support his critique. However, I am not sure that his research reveals that deep longing that is widespread in young people (aged 15-30). Kristi, from his example, yearned from something more, something that mattered, something that demanded a lot from her in the way of commitment and devotion. But, I am not sure that there are many people like her. In my own experience, I see more people who are spiritually shallow, in search of an immediate satisfaction, and not in search of the deeper things of faith.

I think the future will see as many Christians who interact in unhealthy ways with culture as there have been in the past. Lyons’ categories here are also helpful. He sees the following interactions with the world as less than ideal: Separatist Christians (Insiders, Culture Warriors, and Evangelizers), and Cultural Christians (Blenders, and Philanthropists) (p.31). Christians who would fall into each description definitely have their strengths, but overall their approach is either ineffective in evangelism, or it waters down the faith.

I find these categories accurate. His explanation of how Christian groups have related to, fought against, and succumbed to culture is adroit and instructive. I do not think Christians in these groupings are going away. In the future, many, maybe even most Christians will fall into these less than ideal categories. There will also be a group that Lyons would call the “Next Christians” who are provoked, creators, called, grounded, in community, and countercultural. But they will be a minority alongside the old guard who continue to fight culture, escape culture, or submit to culture. Sadly, the old guard usually are more affective in denominational politics. And the new trend of mega churches, bible churches, and independent, unaffiliated evangelical churches will suffer from the same petty politics, even if those politics take on different guises.

The high point of Lyons’ book is chapter 10, “Countercultural, not ‘Relevant’ (p.165-186). His base scripture for his argument, that Christians strive for the common good (p.174), is Matthew 5:13. There, Jesus instructs his followers, “You are the salt of the earth.” Lyons effectively picks up on the restorative powers of salt and uses that image to illustrate the call believers have to be restorers. I find that Lyons’ vision of what Christians are called to be is solidly based on the New Testament. The counterculturalism he proposes is what is seen in the early church. Fortunately Lyons doesn’t prod 21st century Christians to try to “be like the early church,” as writers so often do. When authors do that, they turn a blind to the 2000 years of cultural and technological evolutions that have taken place to make the world so different 2011 than it was in 40AD. Lyons rightly discerns what Jesus valued and urges today’s church to value that.

Lyons begins his final chapter, “The Next Big Shift” (p.189-208) by stating his view that Christian faith “is on the cusp of a massive shift.” His statement is extremely narrow in perspective. Christian faith in the United States and maybe in affluent places like Western Europe, Canada, and Australia is shifting toward secularism. That shift is pronounced and should be analyzed and Lyons does a great job of analysis, diagnosis and prescription. But the analysis must also acknowledge that Americans, Europeans, Canadians, and Australians are not the only people on the earth. In fact, they are a minority.

Even as Christianity experiences different shades of decline in the (majority White) regions just described, a different story is playing out in Korea, in Africa, in Brazil, and in China. Among Christians there, another shift is happening, one Lyons doesn’t address. Millions each day are coming to discover the Christian faith. Countries like South Korea and the Philippines are sending missionaries around the world. If Lyons is going to talk about the “Next Christians” he needs to mention where revival is happening. He needs to mention those places where baptisms are the norm and a worldview dominated by the Gospel is taking hold. He doesn’t address this cultural shift at all.

Furthermore, he doesn’t address the rise of evangelical Latin Christianity in the United States. In all likelihood, in the next 50-100 years, over 50% of the people in the United States will be of Hispanic origin. Yet Lyons does not talk about the unique nature of the Latin Christianity. The Caucasian Church could shrink exponentially and yet Christianity could grow in the United States. Both could happen simultaneously by the end of this century. Maybe a more apt title for the book would be The Next White Upper Middle Class Christians. That is really who Lyons is addressing and analyzing in his book. He does a great work of writing with regards to the white community. But, he leaves a lot of people. And yet presents his ideas as if they were the norm for everyone.

The strength of his book is his understanding of what Jesus expects of the community that is the Body of Christ. As a futurist, Lyons leaves out too many people, people who will be the majority. However, if readers of all stripes strive to be the “Next Christians” he describes, those who are provoked, creators, called, grounded, in community, and countercultural, then maybe a massive shift will happen after all.