The Next Christians: The Good News About the End of Christian America

Keeping Outreach in Its Proper Place

Too often we confuse first and second things. If I want my children to have beautiful imaginations (a second thing), I must first turn off the television, read them descriptive, fantastical books, and give them experiences that let their minds wander and dream (a first thing). I can’t tell them to practice “imagination.” I have to create an environment that first encourages it.

Consider best-selling books. Authors don’t set out to create a best-seller (a second thing), and in most cases if they did, they’d never get the result. Instead, they set out to write an honest account of their view of the world (a first thing) in hopes that others will appreciate it and benefit from it. If the readers tell their friends and more people read it, the book could become a best-seller. But you hardly ever achieve the second things without first focusing on first things. As C.S. Lewis wrote in his brilliant essay First and Second Things, “You can’t get second things by putting them first; you can get second things only by putting first things first.”

So what is the first thing for Christians? The apostle Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 15:2-3:
“By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain. For what I received, I passed on to you as of first importance … ” (TNIV, emphasis added).

The first thing for the Christian is to recover the Gospel— to relearn and fall in love again with that historic, beautiful, redemptive, faithful, demanding, reconciling, all-powerful, restorative, atoning, grace-abounding, soul-quenching, spiritually fulfilling story of God’s love for humanity.

At first glance, this may sound too simple for some. But then we remember that first things produce second things. It’s likely that the greatest results will come from returning to the tried, true, and foundational truths of the faith. Things are changing all around us, and a new movement within the body of Christ is underfoot. But the biggest challenge that lies ahead will be Christians’ ability to hold tightly to their first thing as we sit back and watch the many second things blossom.

I’ve seen many Christians get the order correct. When they do, and when we do, consider a few of the second thing possibilities.

Trying to keep up with how to be “relevant” or debating what church model is most “effective” will subside. Pastors will begin to see more and more the power of the Gospel to change local communities, not just individual lives. Church leaders will disciple their people to become more like Christ, do mission in the place God has called them, and find the best way for the church structure to support those two activities. The churches that recover the Gospel instead of being too focused on finding the “right” worship style, programming winsome services, or measuring church growth statistics become a light in their communities.

The focus on savvy outreach methods and persuasive skills goes away. Outsiders aren’t seen as commodities to be recruited, reached, or proselytized. They are treated as valued creations of God, possessing his image and seeing their goodness affirmed wherever it shines through. By recovering the Gospel, the next Christians are befriending people through authentic relationships where love is the only agenda. They trust God to work in outsiders’ lives when he’s ready, using their unconditional love, grace, and acceptance as the basis.

Finally, Christians won’t be consumed with trying to change the negative perceptions so prevalent within the younger generations. Instead, they’ll recognize that perceptions change one person at a time—one experience at a time. Some may think that Christianity’s problem is “branding.” But that’s a second thing. The first thing is the Gospel. When Christians recover the effect of the Gospel in their own lives to shift their inclinations from judgment to grace, hypocrisy to authenticity, and rejection to acceptance, then outsiders will give them another chance.

A new generation is rising up who are ordering this correctly and seeing many great fruits burst forth. “The next Christians,” as I call them, are breathing new life into a movement that, in some ways, was sputtering out at the close of the last century. They are working to restore the brokenness of our fallen world, and as they do, they are restoring confidence in the faith.

Used with permission from Doubleday Religion. Copyright © 2010 by Gabe Lyons.

The co-founder of Catalyst, a convergence of next-generation leaders, and the founder of Q, which explores how Christian leaders can and should recover a vision for their responsibility to restore and renew culture, Gabe Lyons has become a sought-after voice for a new generation of Christians. He has been featured on CNN and in the New York Times, Newsweek and USA Today. He co-authored unChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity … and Why It Matters and is the author of The Next Christians: The Good News About the End of Christian America.

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