Discipleship for “Next Christians” 1

Gabe Lyons labels contemporary Christians the “next Christians” in his new book (The Next Christians: The Good News About the End of Christian America). He calls these next Christians “restorers” and finds the following six characteristics:

Gabe provides six characteristics of the Restorers:

1. They are Provoked, not offended.
2. They are Creators, not critics.
3. They are Called, not employed.
4. They are Grounded, not distracted.
5. They are in Community, not alone.
6. They are Countercultural, not relevant.

The other day my mind wandered into what the six characteristics were of my generation or the generation that precedes these “restorers.” That led me to wandering into how the pre-Restorers understand the Christian life. And that means how they understand “discipleship.”

I am convinced the Next Christians not only understand the Christian life in different terms but it will require a new vision for discipleship. So let me sketch a few ways the previous generations have been understanding the Christian life:

First, the Christian life was about going to church and discipleship then was essentially getting people on board and into the program and supporting the church. There is no explicit or implicit criticism of this approach: people were exhorted through their church to read the Bible and to pray and to give and to evangelize and to go into “full-time service.”

Second, for many — if not most — this framing of the Christian life and discipleship were about being a part of a denomination. From the time one came of age one was part of a denomination and when that person moved to another part of the country, that denomination was a default.

Third, this church-attendance in the context of a denomination (theory of the Christian life) broke down with the rise of non-denominational and independent churches.

Fourth, alongside this development was the rise of the spiritual formation movement which was a massive help to many in the denomination/non-denomination mode of Christian life. While this movement clearly fostered individual growth, it’s focus was on personal intimacy with God and met a need in program-shaped churches that focused on what the church was accomplishing. So people were all reading Foster and Willard … and then…

Something happened. We could list a number of things, but one central element was the disintegration of denominations, the vitality of parachurch ministries and — which I think is the most important element — the re-discovery, in almost Josiah-like fashion or Reformation-like fashion, of the kingdom vision of Jesus.

I find the Next Christians are not satisfied with the individual-shaped spiritual formation understanding of the Christian life. While they are not at all tempted to go back to the old denominational model, they are more than keen on finding a deeper “social” or “kingdom” context for how the Christian life (and “Christian life” is not the framing language) is to be framed. A bundle of words point us in the direction of the Next Christians, like missional or kingdom, but I want to stop here for today in this series to see if you agree with this overall assessment. Namely:

Have things changed? What do you see as the yearning focus for the “Next Christians”? What will this mean for “discipleship” for Next Christians?

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  • Bob

    Just thinking out loud here: “The kingdom shaped vision” you speak of seems to undermine or at least weaken the church-program-centered approach. People yearn to get out of the program-shaped box, for sure, but meanwhile the churches are trying hard to use the keywords of this new trend and kind of plaster them onto the old programs. The thing is, you can’t co-opt the organic, you can only mimic it. That’s what I find a lot of churches doing, and a lot of church people getting in line because they long for something more, yet have not learned to think outside the programmatic.

  • Susan N.

    I’m not sure the implicitly positive perspective of the 6 characteristics of “Next Christians”, or the title “restorers” is an accurate interpretation of the situation. (There I go being a critic again!)

    The non-denominational / independent churches also have issues of identity, growth (spiritual and numerical), and polity. Bob makes a good point about the way churches will attempt to capitalize on trends to gain numbers (growth) and formulate an appealing “brand” (identity). Flashy programs that are geared to pop culture are designed, let’s face it, to draw people in.

    Then what? If there isn’t something deeper to offer — namely authentic fellowship and meaningful, missional service to engage in, a person will just keep moving from church to church in search of bigger and better programs.

    I mean no disrespect to Gabe (I haven’t read the entire book), or to you, Scot. I’m just not convinced that American Christianity should be given so much credit for having cleared some major hurdles in coming to a “pure” kingdom vision. I agree that change continues, and am hopeful that it will ultimately be for the better.

    I would also agree that many of the shifts and trends that have happened over the past few decades haven’t all been bad. The spiritual formation movement, rise of para-church ministries… As individuals grow spiritually in a working knowledge of their faith, a collective impact is bound to be expressed and observed, I would think. And yet, the existence of “nominal” Christians in a non-denominational / independent church is as likely as in an orthodox or mainstream church, I would suppose. Do we really need to throw the baby out with the bathwater and abandon the possibilities for growth and change within traditional denominations? Some, at least, are capable of positive growth and change.

    I wonder how societal pressures (say, economic) play into a realization and renewed commitment to actively engage in missional work? The “pre-restorers” were simply more able to become complacent in their responsibilities. Maintaining the status quo was far easier. That approach is less of an option nowadays, imho.

    Last, as I thought about the 6 characteristics, it occurred to me that it is possible to construe just about any position as meeting those criteria. I was asking questions on a few in particular: Provoked to what? Assuming action, what means are justified? Creators of what? In Community, if taken to mean one’s small group or missional group of 20-50, can simply become a “sub-culture” of retreat. I’m thinking of how homeschool groups can do this. Countercultural can be taken to extremes of separateness, just as overcompensating to be “relevant” can diminish a Christian’s witness. I hope I have said this clearly and in an unoffensive manner…

  • rjs

    I am not of the younger generation – thus not next in this sense. My approach to life and occupation and faith, however, is much closer to what Lyons describes as restorer than his separatist and cultural Christians. The same is true of my parents and grandparents for that matter – perhaps why I have not struggled as much as some.

    So let me think out loud too. The push away from the “church-program-centered” approach has left me in a situation that seems more and more groundless, standing alone in the wind of a secular environment. Without “church-program” there is no community, no chance for interaction and communication, and thus no grounding. Churches need to have “programs,” not to separate and isolate, but to equip and empower – and this includes the “stupid” little social gatherings, not just high power big group events. We need to know and be known, in moderate size groups, 50-200 or so, not just small groups. This empowers.

  • I see in my own context there is a significant difference in how scripture is interacted with and digested. For the Next Christians “Narrative Theology” seems to connect with them, compel them into the world and create a picture of what God looks like. Their eyes light up when they here the “story of God.” It gives them something they look forward to communicating to their circle of friendship.

    For the previous generation of Christians “Systematic Theology” is what often resonates with them. Finding isolated verses that support a view of God or verses that give them confidence God said something on a specific matter, really connects with them. I’ve tried teaching Narrative theology to older saints and in most cases it is a real struggle for them to embrace it. If anything it makes them nervous.

  • Pat Pope

    To me, the next Christians have a focus on the kingdom and they will often verbalize it as such. Whereas, the previous generations would probably admit to being about the kingdom, but that language was seldom used. There was, and still is in some circles, an emphasis on the local church and its own growth and vitality, not its outreach. Many of these churches had outreaches, but often it was understood that the people being reached out to were lost and needed a Savior. Seldom would a church accept a person where they were without them conforming to the church’s dogma or cultural practices. If you didn’t tow the line so to speak, you weren’t accepted. Now, I’m not an advocate of anything goes, but I think there’s room for a whole lot more grace than the Church has given in the past and this can allow whole lot more people to come to the table for discipleship. I think the next Christians by and large are intent on really following Jesus’ example, whereas previous generations sometimes acknowledge what Jesus did and said but usually rationalize it away as not being practical. Oftentimes, the previous generation has supplanted Jesus’ teaching with their own in an effort to be faithful to what they understood of the Gospel.

  • interesting post and fascinating comments. This is one example where all the comments were as good or even more interesting than the original post. I especially agree with Bob and Susan. A new pure “kingdom” focus is one step in the right direction but it is not the silver bullet …

    Most of these new books coming out trying to describe the “new” this or the “next” that remind me of the blind men feeling around on the elephant trying to describe its various parts. I don’t think we have come close yet to an accurate description of “next” Christianity or “post” evangelicalism. Keep on feeling the elephant!

  • Randy Gabrielse

    I think something is left out here. My parents’ generation and even some of my older peers relied on some of the same FORMS Of community as the Restorers, but their purpose and GOALS were socialization, usually within the congregation. There was no VISION that they gathered in order to serve those beyond the group. I see many churches today that have re-created these kinds of groups, whether as age-defined groups or small groups. The restorers are those with imagination and vision to go beyond the existent group in service, fellowship, discipleship, etc.

    Randy Gabrielse

  • lhmh

    I’m excited by the changes I see, and the energy of “Next Christians,” “emerging,” and “missional” “movements.

    What seems missing, to me, however, is a recognition that many of these concerns and perspectives have existed in the Church and American Christianity for some time. They’ve been a part of my own upbringing and spirituality for as long as I can remember. (I’m in my 40s)

    Some examples: Christians involved in the Civil Rights movement, Koinonia Farms in Georgia, The Jesus movement of the 60s and 70s. One can go even further back to Methodist classes, settlement houses, and the like.

    I think this disconnect/lack of recognition happens because those threads have previously been more common (or at least more recognized) in “liberal” traditions, and much of the new movement is coming out of “evangelical” traditions.

    The changes coming resonate with me in great part because they seem consistent with the kingdom vision I grew up with, but which is indeed lacking in much of the institutional church. (And I say this as one who is very involved in and shaped by the institutional church!).

  • T

    I think along with the above, the next Christians are even less responsive to the titles of leaders and more willing to follow character & charisma. That’s related to several of the factors noted above, including the continued decline of denoms.

  • Watchman

    I agree with all the premises here, with exception to community. I think when we are forced to do community, things can get all garbled up. When we let community form on it’s own naturally, then I believe it can become a healthy and vibrant community. Too often, I am finding within Christian circles a forced community that easily becomes stale and eventually breaks apart. Personally, I think community is a tad bit overrated. Nonetheless, in some situations it is very much needed.

  • johnfouadhanna

    I’m in agreement with the tenor of the comments.

    I don’t think there’s a substitute for discipleship that includes Bible reading, prayer, giving, evangelizing and serving in and with the local church. Without these “basics,” I think self-identified Christians will simply tend towards increasing self (and cultural) absorption, without an ability to make wise judgments between “kingdom” and “cool.”

    Is there lots to criticize and also to learn from those who are critical? Sure. And I think certain developments are for the better, especially as those who are in their 20s and 30s simply have a better sense of how to engage and live with their peers. But the church, from its first days, has been and is a deeply imperfect institution that never moves away from being utterly dependent on mercy and grace. The church will always be a frustrating institution for those who care about her in any way. She is after all made up of frustrating people, of whom I am the most frustrating.

    As for Gabe Lyons, having heard him at a conference a couple of years ago, I think he is earnest and well-meaning. I also think the fact that he’s tall, good-looking, fashionable, articulate and charismatic contributes to him getting a hearing. There’s nothing wrong with those things of course, and even pointing out those personal attributes out can seem unfair and even pointless. What’s he supposed to do anyway? As embodied beings, our physical presence and characteristics matter for all of us. It’s also almost definitely the case that if I found what Lyons says to be insightful and resonant, I would not be “attacking” him in this way. Maybe it’s just the case that I find the idea that young Christians in the last 10 to 15 years are the first to discover or care for the poor or to think about culture is, quite frankly, really wrong, lacking in perspective and dishonoring to those who’ve come before us.

    A lot of this, I think, continues to have to do with temperment and personality. And I wish we’d give each other more space to be different, so we don’t always think that whatever captures our imagination needs to be the “new” way everyone needs to do it.

    At the end of the day, in spite of my critique, I am united with Lyons and all of you in purpose and mission. And I pray with him, and all of you, thy kingdom come, they will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

  • johnfouadhanna

    I agree with Randy Gabrielse that an excellent recent development is taking small group communities and instilling a sense of outward vision and service within them.

  • A wise man once said “There is nothing new under the sun.”

    Another one said “Those who do not study history are bound to repeat it.”

    I resonate personally with the six trait … and it is important to flesh them out with perceptions, because they will be different for different people — who are looking at the church from different experiences. Scot’s book on Praying with the Church is helpful in this way. Alan Hirsch’s book The Forgotten Ways is another helpful perspective. It is about discerning what God is actively doing in our world, today … and it is easier if we can discern a pattern from what God has been about in the past.

    I love what Wayne Jacobsen says: Community is a gift — it cannot be organized or scheduled or mandated. It comes about spontaneously among those who bond together in service and love for God and one another … in true religion, which cares for the widows and orphans.

    The vision that is sharpening of the Kingdom of God is one that needs to see the present through the lenses of the past in order to look out with God’s perception, not man’s.

    And even more important that all that is realizing that the Holy Spirit is not building a box that is one-size-fits-all, but inspiring believers to see what God is doing in their midst as that they might join in that Kingdom work. Which, I believe, means less programs and more of what Scot talks about in One.Life.

  • Okay, so we stop calling them programs…isn’t there still a need for environments within which connection with God and others is processed, discussed, facilitated, debated, prayed over, cried over, laughed over, etc…?

    I suspect this is more about semantics and phase of life. We are all seeking community and connection. These occur through varying degrees of planning times / places to gather for such community building.

    The unscheduled and unorganized suggestion was a great one when I was unmarried, had no kids, few responsibilities, and nothing but time on my hands. Now community flourishes for me, but it is scheduled,organized, regular…and wonderful!

    Are we really talking about whether or not to have programs, or are we talking about how some experience community based on the amount of time / responsibility they have in life and how others in a different phase/place experience community? Does it really have to be either/or?

    You may not want to call it a program…but you still have to plan when, where, and how often to meet. I think it’s a false dichotomy.

  • rjs


    My original comment took a direction far different than you intended, although still somewhat in the direction of “discipleship.”

    I do think there is a shift away from an individual focused spiritual formation and spiritual practices. It isn’t that these are wrong, but they aren’t enough. Discipleship is much more than this – an invitation into a kingdom vision.

    But – and this is where I have a problem with much of the response – it seems to be taken to imply that “the church” should focus on outreach (and I don’t mean evangelism per se), that anything else is a inward focused waste of resource. It seems to me that discipleship still requires an “inward focused” church to equip and empower outward focused Christians. Anything else leaves Christians who are not sufficiently grounded to be restorers.

    So the challenge for the church is how to equip and ground the next (and current) Christians to be restorers.

  • rjs

    It seems to me that the biggest change is not in the yearning focus of people. This is largely unchanged. About the same percentage have big dreams and broad callings … or are parochial and myopic.

    What is changed, sometimes quite dramatically, is the cultural context in which this yearning focus has to play out. At work here are both the cultural context of our church and the cultural context of our broader environment (both the US and the interconnectedness with the whole world).

  • Susan N.

    A wonderful and beautiful aspect of discipleship would be “intergenerational connection”. Each generation has much to offer the other. A church that doesn’t turn its back on the past/history, but can look at it honestly–the good, the bad, and the ugly, and also can look forward with hope to the future, will hold onto what is good from the past while having the ability to change and grow to incorporate the next generation of the church. It takes humility and genuine affection on both parts–the “has beens” and the “Next Christians”. That is more than a community…that is an authentic Christian fellowship. I agree with most of what Peggy said, also. We need worship, service/mission, and fellowship/community from the local church. We need spiritual formation and active, missional service. We need opportunity to question and learn and grow (vs. dogma and systematic theology). We need the space to allow our faith to interact with the culture. I want that for myself — a Baby Boomer; and I want that for my children who will be the future of the Church. Maybe when we truly want what’s best for the other, we all win? Especially Christ and the mission of the gospel.