Evangelicals lacking strategy for a “negative world”?

While evangelicals have moved into an era where society views them negatively, they haven’t found a strategy to deal with their more marginal status, writes Aaron M. Renn in the magazine First Things (February). Renn writes that the increasing fragmentation of evangelicals is largely due to the different ways they have sought to extend their influence in a society undergoing secularization. He sees these different strategies as playing out over three periods of society’s changing view of Christianity: a “positive world,” (pre-1994), a “neutral world” (1994–2014), and a “negative world” (2014–present). In the positive world, Christianity was seen as a status enhancer, where basic Christian norms lined up with those of society. In this era, evangelicals (and fundamentalists) sought to shore up their influence, either through the new Christian right (Moral Majority) in response to the sexual revolution, or through building seeker-sensitive congregations and megachurches to appeal to Christian-friendly, if unchurched, Americans. In the neutral world, Christianity lost much of its privileged status as religious and cultural pluralism accelerated, and evangelicals took up the strategy of engaging the culture. “They believed that Christianity could still be articulated in a compelling way…In this quest they wanted to be present in the secular elite media and forums, not just on Christian media or their own platforms,” Renn observes.

Source: The American Historian.

Major examples of the cultural engagement model were the urban church movement represented by Tim Keller of Redeemer Presbyterian Church and Hillsong Church, Veritas Forum in the Ivy League universities, and even the George W. Bush administration. Renn argues that the same-sex marriage decision of 2014 inaugurated the negative world, where Christianity, especially evangelicalism, has taken on a negative status and Christian morality is seen as a “threat to the public good and the new public moral order.” This stigma only intensified during the Trump years, with the strong support evangelicals gave the populist and controversial president. At the same time, the evangelical elite was largely composed of “never-Trumpers,” while another segment of evangelicals has veered to the left on issues of race and gender. All this makes for a divided evangelical scene, with no agreed-upon strategies to address the negative world. Renn argues that challenges like the sharp increase of non-affiliated Americans and the secularization of public life will necessitate forms of the “Benedict Option,” a strategy of building strong communities to withstand outside secular pressure, even as they avoid that strategy’s pessimistic outlook. He points to his own organization, American Reformer, and the new East River Church congregation in Ohio, as responding explicitly to the negative world.

(First Things, https://www.firstthings.com/article/2022/02/the-three-worlds-of-evangelicalism)