One of the foundational questions asked by Christians throughout history has been, "Can people experience life after death?" But with the faith's declining numbers, waning political influence, and marred image among the general public, the question has now been turned back on believers themselves: "Can Christians experience life after the death of "Christian America?"
Though it is never phrased in those exact words, that question forms the basis of a provocative new book by Gabe Lyons entitled, The Next Christians: The Good News About the End of Christian America (Doubleday).
Seven years ago, Lyons was a rising star in the evangelical Christian community. Having been raised in a Christian home, he went on to graduate from Jerry Falwell's Liberty University, serve as a vice-president in an influential Christian organization, and co-found the Catalyst Conference, the largest annual gathering of young Christian leaders in America. There was only one problem: he was embarrassed to call himself "Christian."
Lyons recognized that the once noble label had tarnished in America, and the research he commissioned for his bestselling book Unchristian confirmed it. A majority of young people now see Christians as anti-gay, judgmental, hypocritical, and too political, the book demonstrated. Combine such perceptions with the aforementioned trends and you've got what Jon Meacham of Newsweek calls "The End of Christian America."
It's an idea that frustrates or downright frightens many Christians. You might envision the bristled silence in the offices of the Family Research Council or Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission as employees read that Newsweek headline. A world in which Christians aren't kingmakers, they believe, is a world destined for downfall.
Lyons, on the other hand, is optimistic. He thinks the end of Christian America is good news--not just for unbelievers, but for Christians as well. In The Next Christians, Lyons says that young Christians aren't separatists like old guard fundamentalists or fully enmeshed in culture like some liberal Christians. Instead, the next Christians straddle the two approaches through expressing six characteristics.
"When Christians incorporate these [six] characteristics throughout the fabric of their lives, a fresh yet orthodox way of being Christian springs forth," Lyons writes. "The death of yesterday becomes the birth of a great tomorrow. The end of an era becomes a beautiful new beginning. In this way, the end of Christian America becomes good news for Christians."
For example, he says the next Christians are "provoked" to restore the world rather than "offended" by it's brokenness. And they feel "called" to carry out their life's mission in the workplace rather than simply "employed" to complete a task from nine to five. If the number of Christians embodying these characteristics continues to rise, he argues, they might restore the faith in America.
At first glance, one might be tempted to dismiss such a perspective as wishful thinking. But Lyons' is more than a blind optimist. The Next Christians carefully weaves together relevant research, compelling stories illustrating his assertions, and insight from hundreds of focus groups he has conducted over the last three years.
The end product is a convincing, if ambitious, attempt to map out the next iteration of America's most influential religious group. If you are interested in the future of faith in America and are looking for an accessible, insightful book to keep you company this winter, Lyons' book won't disappoint. A timely, much needed perspective, The Next Christians is good news for us all.
Jonathan Merritt is a faith and culture writer and author of Green Like God: Unlocking the Divine Plan for Our Planet (2010), which Publishers Weekly called, "a must read for churchgoers."