By Gabe Lyons
Seven years ago, I quit my job as vice-president of a prominent Christian organization. I began to notice that perceptions my friends and neighbors had about Christians were incredibly negative, and I developed a creeping intuition that this was true of others as well. I was deeply burdened by these sentiments as well as the loss of Christian influence in our culture.
With only a few months of savings in the bank, my wife, Rebekah, and I decided I should quit my job and launch a new nonprofit. Our first project was to commission research to better understand the perceptions that 16-to-29 year olds have about Christians.
The study confirmed my fears, illustrating that young people overwhelmingly view Christians as hypocritical, judgmental, too political, and anti-homosexual, among other things. It demonstrated that not much had changed since Mahatma Ghandi said, “Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” A lot has changed since that study was released in a book ironically titled unChristian, but I’ve continued to observe people’s perceptions and how a new generation of Christians is responding.
Turns out, most Christians are equally fed up with the way their faith has come to be represented and doubtful that the trends are going to self-correct naturally. While 66% say “social action is an extremely important part of their lives,” only 28% believe they will see a significant contribution from current Christian leaders in resolving these concerns (LifeWay Research).
In response, a new generation of Christians is rising to the challenge. While rebranding Christianity is not their goal, they are turning back the negative perceptions as they rediscover the roots of their faith. They are purposeful with their careers and generous with their time and possessions. They don’t separate from the world (like the fundamentalists of the 20th century) or simply blend in (like some liberal Christians), but rather they thoughtfully engage the world’s brokenness and work to restore it. And notably, they are optimistic about what God is doing in this age despite the waning influence of Christianity in the public square.
If you ask me what they look like, I’d point you to a surfer in Florida who designed a simple T-shirt that spawned a national organization that leads the way in curbing teen suicide. Or a girl in Washington D.C. who has devoted her life to fighting sex trafficking worldwide. I would refer you to a young mom I met in Georgia mobilizing her church to serve the needs of the immigrant poor in a nearby trailer park and give you a tour of a social entrepreneur’s headquarters in southern California who has energized the business world with his innovative approach that combines designer shoes with fighting disease in the developing world. Through focus groups, interviews, and one-on-one conversations, I’ve encountered endless stories just like these.
I’ve dubbed this new generation of Christians “restorers” because they envision the world as it was meant to be and work toward that vision. In the spirit of great Christians like William Wilberforce, they seek to mend earth’s brokenness by focusing on issues ranging from war to genocide, earth care to adoption, scientific discovery to education reform. They don’t believe that good works bring personal salvation, rather they believe that these works are the outflow of salvation. Through sowing seeds of restoration, they believe the faith can reap a much larger harvest and engage millions who would otherwise never give the people of Jesus a second look.
Every generation has its blindspots, pitfalls, failures, and foibles. I am certain that these contemporaries will be no exception. Historians and theologians will doubtlessly look back and pass judgments on this generation as they now do on the generations that have come before. The question is not whether they will fail, but how.
Yet, in this generation I find great reason for hope and encouragement. Only seven years ago, I was a part of the many Christians who, in many ways, had lost confidence in the faith. Today, thanks to these restoring “next Christians,” I feel confident that our faith is finding new life in this century.
Gabe Lyons is author of The Next Christians: The Good News About the End of Christian America (Doubleday) and founder of the Q learning community.