Are Gabe Lyons’ The Next Christians Really What’s Next? Part 2


Gabe Lyons has constructed a new vision for Christians, a vision that is sustained by the desire to restore God’s Kingdom on earth.  However, as we have seen, his vision is not a complete vision, but rather it is a half-vision inflated and masquerading as a whole one.  It is as if a man took a bottle of wine with a third of wine left and filled the rest with grape juice to give the illusion of a full bottle.  His vision fails because it is unecclesiastical, unsacramental, and it circumvents sainthood. In this part, we will look at Lyon’s vision of the Church

This Christian movement is unecclesiastical because it lacks the foundational understanding that Christ came to establish the Church.  Presumably, Mr. Lyons is Protestant, and this anti-ecclesiasticism is indicative of most Protestants today.  For most Protestants, church is an opportunity for fellowship; it is when Christians gather and socialize, often in the context of a church “service” or a Bible study.  Acting on the consolatory assertion made by Christ in Matthew 18:20, many Protestants consider any time in which more than one Christian is present is “church.”  This is likely why church services are being held in coffee shops, living rooms, and parks.  The simple act of gathering together warrants the belief that they are presently “attending church.”  This digression from centuries of Christian thought is also present in Mr. Lyons’ book.  There is no mention, whether in his instructional prose or in his recalling of confirmative anecdotes, of any ecclesiastical component to his new movement.

This is exemplified by the poignant relating  of how a man, Jamie, along with his friends, aided a  woman who was an addict. Mr. Lyons recalls the saying of one the persons involved, who asserted that they “were the church, the body of Christ” for the suffering woman (72).  Mr. Lyons seemed to encourage the description.  Now, my dispute with this is not because I disagree with what Jamie and his friends did for that poor woman; there is no question that their actions are praiseworthy and should be imitated.  My concern is with the language used to describe the action, and how it is reflective of a pervasive denigration of an “institutionalized Church.”  In fact, to assuage any doubts of my captiousness, Mr. Lyons actually explicitly asserts the description I consider erroneous.  In the chapter on community, Mr. Lyons contrasts the “restrictive” notion of the Church with the revised and expanded understanding that is epitomized by the “new Christians”:

Despite what most people think, the “church” is more than just bricks and mortar.  It’s always been, and always will be, a fellowship of people that goes far beyond the walls of any building, denomination, or meeting place.  It’s a community of people who have found healthy patterns of human relating and new standards for how to treat one another, serve one another, and even forgive one another that run counter to the world (161). 

This is his understanding of what the Church is, and this understanding is what is espoused in his “new Christian” mantra.  However, this is not the Church Christ established.  Although no rational Christian would rebuke such attempts at fellowship, a rational Christian would have to repudiate the attempt to claim that the Bible study at the local coffee shop is what Christ came to institute.  

According to the Catholic Church, the Church is both “human and divine” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 771).  Though Christ established it on earth, the Church came into being through the Trinity— the Father called the Church into existence, the Son established the Church, and the Holy Spirit invigorated the Church with power and wisdom at Pentecost. The Church was engendered by the Trinity and it is sustained by the Trinity.  The Church is not merely a name conferred upon Christians gathered in one place, nor is it a meeting of Christians to share and express their love and adoration of God.  Though each of those is important to Christian living, they do not comprise the purpose and function of the Church.  Rather, the Church’s function and purpose is to be the Sacrament of Salvation (United State Catholic Catechism for Adults 112).  Since the beginning of human history, God has had a covenantal plan for humanity; since the historic times of the Old Testament, God has been active in sharing His divine life with us.  The Church is the conduit through which divine life is conferred upon us.  Since its establishment by Christ, and its revelation through the Holy Spirit, the Church is a “continuing manifestation of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (USCCA 115). 

Moreover, contrary to the common castigation addressed to Catholics by Protestants, and a view similarly endorsed by Mr. Lyons in his book, the Church has a visible, as well as an invisible, reality.  The visibility of the Church includes its institutional, as well as its social, gatherings.   Mr. Lyons is correct in empasizing the need of having a fellowship of believers, but he is mistaken in presuming that fellowship is sufficient.  The Church is much more than spontaneous orchestrations of gregariousness; its components exceed in quantity and in significance a mere social composition.  It has structure, order, and duties.  The Church is not a deciduous entity whose centrality can be shifted, for even though it is comprised of fallible human beings, the Church herself is infallible.  It has a function and structure that cannot be changed, for her Author is immutable, and the members of the Church have no authority to change it.  In this sense, the Church lacks that democratic acquiescence that a strictly human engineered convention has, such as convening together to worship God in a friend’s basement. It is not a democracy.

The Church, explains Kreeft, was not made by man for man; the Church is “not something man makes after he is saved, but something God makes to save man” (Catholic Christianity, 105).  We are the beneficiaries, not the Benefactor.  Thus, the Church has a hierarchical structure just as the Persons who made it.  The Church is comprised of three categories of people: priestly people, prophetic people, and royal people (USCCA 117-118).

The priestly people of the Church are separated into two categories: the common and the ordained.  The common priesthood represents all who are baptized, for they “share in Christ’s priesthood” (USCCA 117).  When we participate in the divine life of Christ, we are participating in His Divine Priesthood.  The ordained priesthood refers to the individuals who received the Sacrament of Holy Orders.  This priesthood differs from the common priesthood in that they are marked with an indelible character in which the bishop, priest, or deacon is called to holiness and sanctification of the Church.  They are shepherds who have now adopted a flock.

The prophetic people of the Church are all those engaged in her mission: to save and sanctify souls.  Therefore, it is all the faithful who “collaborate in the Church’s missionary and evangelization activity, catechetical ministry, the teaching of theology…” (USCCA 118).  As members of the Church, we are all evangelizers.  We are all called to participate in the Church’s mission and we must be aware of every opportunity to share our faith.

The royal people of the Church refers to those fervent for preaching the “silent Gospel,” namely, through loving service to others.  Mr.  Lyons book succeeds in illustrating this aspect of Christianity.  His entire position rests on the importance of serving others, of restoring a broken world.  However, a distinction missing in his position is that between service within the Church and service to the outside world which depends on the apostolic authority of the Church : the Church, to whom Christ gave authority, teaches and upholds the Truth that was given to her.  With Mr.  Lyons’ structural tenuousness, he fails, along with most Protestants, to understand the importance of Church infallibility, for without such authority, from whom does he derive his mission?  He claims it has a scriptural foundation, but who gave us the Holy Writ?  The Bible is not self-attesting.  Most of Christian dogma rests on the shoulders of Tradition and Scripture.  Mr.  Lyons, along with many Protestants, commits the reversal of the modernists’ error: instead of rejecting dogma and accepting religion, they have rejected religion and accepted dogma.  By rejecting the Church and her authority, Christianity is uprooted.  Away is the hard structure of Tradition, and what is left is the profound silence of Scripture, for Scripture does not fully speak of the Church’s mission.

Christianity is thus no longer built upon a rock but on paper.  Without such structure, his “next Christians” may be engaging in conflicting restorative missions.  Without a standard by which to evaluate and judge one’s restorative initiative, then how does one know if he or she is really being restorative?  Restoration may mean the abolishing of legalized abortion to one, or it may mean to sterilize and provide safer abortions to another.

Scripture is silent on abortion, so to whom would Mr.  Lyons turn to decide which one is truly restorative?  Peter Kreeft wisely discerns that without infallibility, “uncertainties and schisms are inevitable” (Catholic Christianity 101).  Soon within his “restorative Christianity,” there will be subdivisions, each one revealing less and less of his original plan.

Moreover, one last distinction must be made between Mr.  Lyons’ church and the Church established by Christ, for it seems that there is considerable distinction between community, the type of church Mr.  Lyons contends is “next”, and communion.  The Church is not predominately about fellowship or teaching — though they are important activities within the Church — but rather the Church is predominately about worship.  That is not to say that outside of the Church worship is excluded; the point is say, however, that Church is a place primarily for worship.  Worship is the very thing for which we were created — to love God and thereby know Him.  To worship God is to “ascribe worth to him” (Howard, “Recognizing the Church: a personal pilgrimage & discovery of the five marks of the Church“).  Worship is not merely singing songs of praise, though that is part of it; it is not a time in which one becomes engrossed in expression of feelings and emotions.  As Thomas Howard notes, worship is “an act, not an experience” (ibid).  We worship God to do something, not to feel something.  Actual worship unites the congregation to God; fellowship unites individuals.  True worship involves facing the altar; true fellowship involves facing each other.  To view the Church as communion is to believe that the Church is more than just fellowship; it is meeting God, encountering Christ at the altar.  God created the Church to enable us to share in His divine life; God wishes to share “the communion of Trinitarian life with us” (USCCA 119).  The Catholic Catechism explains communion as, “our loving fellowship with Jesus and other baptized Christians in the Church, the Body of Christ, which has its source and summit in the celebration of the Eucharist by which we are joined in divine love to the communion of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” (qtd USCCA 119). 

This is the crux of the matter.  Mr. Lyons’ failure to include the orthodox understanding of the Church in his new Christian vision causes a failure of the movement, for by rejecting the only purpose and function of the Church, one removes the sacramental vision inherent in life.  One removes God, for if you remove His Church, then you remove His sacraments.  The folly of his movement is intrinsic to this “spiritual decapitation”:  by removing Christ from His Church, you have removed the very life that sustains us (Kreeft, “Women and the Priesthood”).


About Author

Mark Gonnella is a Masters student at Aquinas Institute of Theology in St. Louis. As a recent convert to the faith, he writes with a 'schoolboy' affinity for the Catholic faith. He is grateful to C.S. Lewis for showing him that high-churchmenship is 'rad,' and to Chesterton for reminding him that there are two ways to get home.