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Reorienting Evangelicalism to Christian Life Distinct from the World

Reorienting Evangelicalism to Christian Life Distinct from the World

Rick Plasterer
June 3, 2024

Aaron Renn, whose new book Life in the Negative World was reviewed in an earlier article discussed the need for a re-orientation of the Evangelical world from a strategy of relevance and transformation of society "to being a counterculture" at the Philadelphia Conference on Reformed Theology on Apr. 27. He proposed to do this using Tim Keller's revision of H. Richard Niebuhr's "Christ and Culture" model (1950), which Keller provided in his 2012 book Center Church (which concerned church planting). Keller's revision suggested four approaches of relating the church to the world: "relevance," "transformation," "counterculture," and "two kingdoms." The two kingdoms approach, distinguishing between a Christian's duty to the church and to the state, is most identified with Lutheranism, and did not characterize Evangelicalism to a great degree in the twentieth century. It is relevance and transformation that have been the principal Evangelical approaches to American society in the contemporary world.

Relating the Gospel to the Wider World

Relevance, Renn said, "seeks to bring the Kingdom of God, the message of the church, to the affairs of men in their daily life." Keller found mainline Protestantism to be a relevance strategy, but the seeker sensitive movement also focused on relevance. A megachurch sermon might be concerned with social media use, taking a passage of Scripture or a Biblical principle and applying it to social media. Renn believes that the strategy of cultural engagement (noted in the earlier article on Renn's book and developed in fair measure by Keller himself) is also basically a relevance strategy. Transformationalism on the other hand seeks to expand the Kingdom of God in the world and thereby transform it into a godly civilization. Renn calls it a "de-facto postmillennial sensibility." Keller considered the "culture war" or "Religious Right" strategy to be transformationalist. Involvement in politics would be used "to transform the laws and the culture of society to align with God's law." He conceded, however, that the cultural engagement strategy sometimes "had some transformationalist aspirations." These strategies have characterized Evangelicalism in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.

In contrast to these outwardly focused strategies, the Christian counterculture strategy focuses on separation from the world. This strategy is characteristic of Anabaptists, with the Amish as the most extreme example. But monastic life is another example. This writer would add that early twentieth century Protestant fundamentalism had countercultural aspects, especially in its doctrines of separatism. The fundamentalist rejection of vice is another separatist characteristic, discussed by Renn below.

While Renn said he does not believe Evangelicalism should become a "strict counterculture," it nevertheless needs to "adjust the balance" in the direction of counterculture. This is the reasonable move for a religious group that has become a "moral minority." He observed that minorities "always have to self-consciously steward the strength and identity of their own community," and gave early twentieth century Catholicism as an example. Roman Catholicism faced much hostility before the middle of the twentieth century, and public institutions, including especially public schools, where the King James Bible was read, were pervaded by Protestantism. Parish schools, Catholic universities, fraternal societies, and other "infrastructure" was established to sustain Catholic life. While to some extent Protestant fundamentalists created a subculture at the same time, the overculture of elite universities, government, and business remained "basically Protestant." Liberals and conservatives might disagree on particular Christian doctrines, such as the virgin birth of Christ, but they were agreed on Christian morality.

The Alienation of Mainstream Culture

In this regard, Renn observed that a patriarch of contemporary conservatism, William F. Buckley, caused a scandal in 1950 with his publication of God and Man at Yale, which criticized the university for having abandoning Christianity without acknowledging this. He was attacked as a Catholic who didn't understand the Protestant institution that he had attended.

At this point in the twenty-first century however, Protestants, and certainly Evangelicals, have lost the nation's cultural institutions, and are left with "big gap." On the other hand, Catholics have maintained their institutions (although dissent from Catholic teaching varies since Vatican II), and Catholic intellectual life is maintained in fair measure by lay intellectuals. Evangelical Protestants by contrast take their leading ideas in response to the wider society from pastors and theologians, and today in some measure from Catholic thinkers. But Renn believes that the Evangelical mind continues to be a scandal, without the nourishment that institutions in a strong counterculture would give it.

Now that Evangelicals Christians are a minority, when people turn to Christ, "we have to have something to invite them into, that is meaningfully distinct from the world." He cited early twentieth century Catholicism, and twentieth century Mormonism as two examples of well-demarcated religious communities. People could see the difference between those groups and the wider world, and entering such a group marked a significant change in one's life.

Thus, Evangelicals need to strengthen the inner life of their communities, with social practice that is different from the world. To some extent this is happening in education, with classical Christian education and homeschooling.

Creating a Christian Counterculture in the Negative World

Renn emphasized that he was not offering dogmatic advice as a pastor or theologian might. His objective was to offer suggestions as a social analyst and social commentator.

He sees "two big points" in creating an Evangelical counterculture. First, "we should be a people who reject vice." Many churches in the past had a long list of "no's." He mentioned drinking and dancing. But "we don't really do that anymore." Preaching emphasizes "the indicative of what Christ has done for us." There is far less teaching on how Christians should "live in response" to Christ's work. Any commands are strongly proof-texted. But this does not adequately address the world in which we live, Renn believes.

He pointed out that many vices which had been illegal and often the domain of organized crime are now legal and fully accepted. Sports betting, marijuana, loan sharking and pornography were given as examples. One no longer needs to go to Las Vegas to gamble; sports betting is legal on one's phone. Marijuana is available from pot dispensaries, usurious loans are available at thousands of percent interest, etc. Use of pornography can easily be shown to be contrary to Scripture, as can profanity (Eph. 4:29), but not necessarily other vices. Yet Renn appealed to Paul's admonition that all things are lawful, but not necessarily beneficial (I Cor. 10:23) to say that the destructive consequences of the vices he mentioned (pornography, pot, gambling, and profanity) which are now legal reasonably shows that they should be taboo among Christians.

The second major item in Renn's agenda for a Christian counterculture is the repair of what he called the "sexual economy," the socially approved system of sexual activity. The Bible prescribes that this should be some system of coupling and marriage. In our society, it has been a regime of dating. But the accepted sexual practices of the wider society, such as the use of pornography and divorce are also present to a significant degree in the Evangelical church. In fact, Renn believes, Evangelicals "tacitly accept" divorce.

These vices, which also existed in the past, should not be acceptable among Christians. But Renn also pointed to a new challenge to Evangelicals, which is the rise of what he called "post-familialism," a situation in which a large part of the population never marries. He said that in the wider society about "a quarter of forty-year-olds have never been married." This means that many more forty-year-olds are not now married (being divorced, or perhaps widowed). Similarly, about a quarter of women will not have children. Renn observed that research by demographer Lyman Stone shows that women in America are having fewer children than they want (on average they have one child less than they desire). Birth rates continue to decline. This has many consequences for society at large (he mentioned sociologist Brad Wilcox's research showing marriage promotes happiness and wealth), but one of the most important consequences is that many people will be alone as they move into middle age and old age.

The church's response to this has commonly been acceptance. Renn said that in researching on the Internet the term "idolatry of the family," he found 3.4 million hits, while "the gift of singleness" generated 628,000 hits. Singleness is being normalized. Renn acknowledged that "it is a serious challenge to get married and stay married today" (especially if one is an older single). Dealing with this is also a serious pastoral challenge, since 90 percent of pastors are married with children. But Renn said it is clearly possible to have a flourishing sexual economy in the early twenty-first century. He pointed to the success of Mormons and Orthodox Jews in this regard.

A principal means of dating today is online dating. This enables the study of dating habits. Women generally find men about their own age most attractive, while men invariably found women in their early twenties most attractive. It was further found that men found most women to be average, while women found most men (81 percent) below average. Renn suggested that "the vast majority of people on these online dating sites really don't have any clue about how they actually work." Renn said he was introduced to his own wife at church and believes there are other methods of finding a spouse which are superior to online dating.

It is also important not to conflate attractiveness with desirability. An attractive person may not be desirable to marry, and someone good to marry may not be attractive. He believes that the Evangelical church needs correction in its doctrine of "servant leadership" as a characteristic that men should foster in presenting themselves to women. In fact, Renn maintains that Jordan Peterson is more correct in claiming that females are attracted to males who win status contests with other males. The Christian community must incorporate both ideals and reality into its counsel.

In conclusion, Renn said that Evangelicals live in a world in which much of the accepted pattern of life is "directly contrary to the Word of God," and much that is now considered legitimate is "incredibly unhealthy and self-destructive." Courtship and marriage are much harder than they used to be. The question is "how is the church going to be a society that is meaningfully distinct from the world." He noted that the early church was radically different from the pagan world around it. Having a community which is strong and markedly distinct from the world he believes will be "attractive to people in a world where there's so much darkness and pain and suffering."


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