Four Themes for the Church in the Negative World
In a world where they are a minority, evangelicals need to rethink their own communities
It’s hard to believe, but after more than a year and a half of work, my new book Life in the Negative World: Confronting Challenges in an Anti-Christian Culture, is finally out today.
Thanks to all of you for your support over the years, whether that be sending encouragement, sharing my work with others, financially supporting me, pre-ordering the book, or anything else. You can feel good about your important role in making this book happen.
I don’t ever want to forget the people who helped me get where I am today, and you all are among them.
If you haven’t yet, please do buy a copy of the book. It’s the most important thing you can do to support me this year. Tell others to buy it as well. And be sure to leave a rating on Amazon on wherever you bought it.
About a quarter of the book is an updated and expanded version of my diagnosis of what’s happening in evangelicalism and its relationship with society at large. But three quarters of it is about how evangelicals should start living in this new era I’ve called the “Negative World.”
I want to highlight four themes that you can use a guide in thinking through the ideas I share in the book.
Theme One: A Posture of Exploration
In the world at large, not just the church, we are in a time of rapid change and uncertainty. In the last few years we’ve seen so many things that would have seemed impossible not long before they happened: Donald Trump’s election, the pandemic, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, renewed Middle East unrest. I’m sure more will continue to come. Who knows what AI will bring, for example.
This calls for us adopting a posture of exploration, not business planning. That’s not to say we shouldn’t make plans. But this world is different from that of 1970s suburban Chicago, when someone like Bill Hybels could do market research (door to door surveys) and design a church to cater to the desires of an underserved market segment.
Today’s world is much more like a “zero to one” startup. We are in the unknown territory and have to get more comfortable walking by faith rather than sight. It’s similar to the Israelites crossing the Jordan River into the promised land. They had known only the wilderness, which was their comfort zone. Now they had to venture into the unknown, following the ark because they “had not been this way before.”
My friend Dwight Gibson has been touting exploration for years. I did an interview with him a couple of years ago you might be interested in.
Theme Two: Increased Focus on Being a Counterculture
In his book Center Church, Tim Keller took H. Richard Niebuhr’s Christ and culture model and turned it into four main patterns of doing church that he labeled transformation, relevance, counterculture, and two kingdoms.
The bulk of evangelicalism is either transformation oriented (culture war) or relevance oriented (seeker sensitivity, cultural engagement). My argument is that there needs to be a rebalancing away from transformation and relevance towards being a counterculture.
That is, the evangelical church needs to spend much more time self-consciously and intentionally stewarding the strength and health of its own community.
Evangelicalism is very internally weak in my view. Churches are often shallow, etc. This augurs for an increase in internal focus vs. external focus. The last two themes are related to this.
Theme Three: Minority Mindset
One way you focus on community strength is by adopting a minority mindset. Evangelicals have too often liked to pretend that they are the “moral majority” that represents the cultural mainstream of America. That’s certainly very implausible to say today.
This means that evangelicals need to learn to act like other minorities have always acted. We have to create our own institutions and practices that demarcate and sustain community life and be less reliant on the mainstream institutions of society.
This also means that evangelicals do not need to take responsibility for or invest in those mainstream institutions. They are the responsibility of the people who are running them - and that’s not evangelicals.
I suspect this might be an unpopular point and that there will be immense effort and gaslighting of evangelicals to keep them bought into institutions that they no longer have much say over and which operate in ways contrary to their values.
Public schools and the military come to mind here. I would suggest considering the adoption of a more transactional mindset.
Theme Four: Raising the Bar on Church
While it has its downsides to be sure, the decline of Christianity in America also offers opportunities to rethink how evangelical churches operate.
When I read Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, one of his points that stuck with me was what he called the “dilemma of renunciation.”
On the one hand, you can make very high demands on how Christians are expected to live. But since few people can live up to them, this means you have to accept a two speed or two tier Christianity in which there are people like monks who live by one standard, while everyone else is relegated to second class status.
On the other hand, you can create a set of demands that the average person can be expected to meet, but that requires a low bar that most people can clear.
When Christianity was the de facto national religion of America, and most people were sort of expected to attend church or give some kind of asset to it, then almost of necessity this required a least common denominator approach. There had to be a place in the pews for pretty much everyone who wanted one.
Evangelicalism, especially in its seeker sensitivity variety, has continued this tradition. While there were certainly good motives in wanting to eliminate artificial barriers to belief, this is also a faith that doesn’t demand much.
As evangelicalism becomes more of a minority faith that requires an unpopular choice to embrace, this gives evangelical churches the opportunity to raise the bar for what they expect out of their members. Raising this bar will be crucial to having stronger churches as well.
Again, I’m excited about the book and hope you are as well. I’m confident there’s material in there to make people think and get them talking.
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