Aaron M. Renn

Why Cities Are Important to the Church’s Mission

Written by Aaron M. Renn |
Friday, August 12, 2022
Churches in cities are exposed to cultural change early. For this reason, they often pioneer ways of responding to these changes. Even if urban churches fail to reach the culture (or capitulate in inappropriate ways) they can show the broader church what not to do. It may be easy to cast stones at urban church leaders from the comfort of a red-state suburb or small town. But it would be wiser to pay attention to the pressures they’re operating under, because those same forces will soon be everywhere.

Cities are important for the church’s mission because, increasingly, that’s where the people are. Until very recently, humanity lived almost exclusively in villages or rural environments. As recently as 1910, only 10 percent of the world’s population lived in cities. Today it’s over 50 percent urban, and that number may rise to 75 percent by midcentury. Paul Romer describes this radical change as human beings going from living in packs like wolves to living more like ants or termites.
The shift is primarily happening in the developing world. Africa is now urbanizing faster than any other continent. According to the UN, half of global population growth by 2050, about 1.2 billion people, will be in Africa. By 2050, 21 percent of the world’s population will live in African cities. China and India have also been urbanizing. Over 1 billion people around the world now live in urban slums, more than the combined population of the United States and Europe. As missiologist Ray Bakke said, “It’s no longer a grass thatch roof from a jungle. [Cities are] the new mission field of the future on all six continents.” 
The Great Commission pushes us to reach every people group and location on the planet, but the sheer weight of demographics argues for a more urban mission field today. For every 100 million new urban residents, we need to launch 10,000 new urban churches just to hit a ratio of one church for every 10,000 people. This means we’ll need to start tens of thousands of new urban churches in the coming decades.
But What About America?
Urbanization looks different when we’re studying the United States. If you follow the Census Bureau’s classification, our country has long been filled with city dwellers—reaching 50 percent urban in 1920 and sitting at around 80 percent urban today. But the “80 percent urban” figure is misleading as the bureau says that any place with 2,500 or more residents is urban. Someone living in John Mellencamp’s “small town” home of Seymour, Indiana, is now technically a city dweller.
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The SBC’s “Title IX” Recommendations on Handling Abuse

Written by Aaron M. Renn |
Tuesday, June 21, 2022
The recommendations in the report essentially represent a progressive takeover of the SBC, utilizing the same pattern of of Title IX style administrative control used by progressives in higher education (and elsewhere). As in secular society, accusations of wrongdoing are being leveraged for the purposes of seizing control of an institution.

In newsletter #49 I discussed the importance of defending institutional integrity. The first plank of this was “trusthworthiness,” that is, operating with baseline morals and ethics. As I put it, “You would think this would be a simple baseline element of institutional leadership, but alas apparently not. The number of churches and other Christian institutions with a variety of moral, ethical, operational, and even criminal problems is absurdly high.”
Unfortunately, one of the areas with severe failings has been in responding to abuse. The Catholic abuse scandals get the most press, but there’s a ton of Protestant ones too. At the same time, I pointed out that in the Protestant world, outrage over abuse is curiously selective and often associated with political attempts by activists to insert themselves as the leaders of the institution being accused. I said with regards to this:
This is why, although even accusations by enemies that are true need to be strongly addressed, you should never give any sort of position of authority or oversight of your organization to people making accusations against it. You’ll note that they frequently agitate for this such as by demanding that some allied organization be retained for an investigation, calling for the board members to be replaced (naturally by people of which they approve), etc. But just because I point out that an organization has some conflict of interest, for example, that doesn’t mean I or my buddies should be assigned any role in running or overseeing its finances.
I want to examine the recent Southern Baptist Convention abuse report through this lens. I didn’t go into any detail on the investigation itself and the findings. Sadly, I have no doubt that there are many cases of abuse, and many cases in which incidents of abuse were poorly handled.
The SBC is a huge denomination with nearly 14 million members. Clearly, any group this large will have lot of bad things happen within it. Demographer Lyman Stone suggested that the report shows the SBC has lower levels of abuse than we would expect. Even if that’s true, it certainly doesn’t excuse the evildoers or those who failed to correctly act in positions of authority. Judgment begins with the household of God. The Protestant house has not been in order on abuse.
Rather than the allegations themselves, I want to look at the report’s recommendations for action. There are about 30 pages worth of them, including 17 executive committee recommendations (along with two alternatives) and 16 credentials commmittee recommendations. So even in the recommendations, I cannot do a detailed analysis here. But I will give a big picture look.
Creating a Title IX Style Adjudication System in the SBC
Before getting into the recommendations, it’s important to note that in baptist church polity, each congregation is completely autonomous. Unlike other denominations like the Episcopal Church or the Presbyterian Church, where the denomination provides a lot of oversight and control over congregations, baptist denominations do not have authority over their churches. Basically, the only membership requirements are very low baselines, such as giving assent to the broadly evangelical Baptist Faith and Message statement. The SBC is more of a cooperative association than a denomination per se.
The abuse report recommendations start to change that in two key ways:

It proposes creating an “administrative entity” that will be similar to a Title IX style tribunal in investigating allegations of abuse.
It proposes turning the credentialing committee (which basically determines whether or not a church is affiliated with the SBC) into a more expansive accrediting committee that can kick out any churches that don’t comply with the Title IX style entity, or who are otherwise not perceived as following the party line from the report recommendations on abuse.

Given that this report is about some of the some heinous felonies on the books —sexual assault and sexual abuse —it’s remarkable how few references to the criminal or civil legal system there are in the recommendations. Apart from references to mandated reporting —cases where churches are legally obligated to report suspected abuse to the police —I only saw one reference to criminal justice in the recommendations, a note that the Title IX style entity might hire people from law enforcement backgrounds.
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Even Unfair Criticism Can Be Right

Written by Aaron M. Renn |
Tuesday, June 7, 2022
There’s nothing wrong with being a conservative or a Republican. But churches shouldn’t be in the politics business. Some things you can’t avoid. Churches had to choose whether or not to shut down during Covid, whether or not to require masks, etc. Abortion is a political matter, but there is a legitimate theological angle to it as well. But political questions are ones generally outside the expertise and authority of a pastor.

A recent article by Tim Alberta in the Atlantic about “How Politics Poisoned the Evangelical Church” has been making the rounds.
There are a lot of criticisms that could be leveled at this. For example, it ignores the even greater levels of political involvement in the black church and the Christian left movement.
We might also disagree with Alberta’s decisions about what to classify as political or whether he has given a fair portrait of the politicization. Clearly, a sharp turn into obsession over race has also hit a large number of churches, but that doesn’t factor much into his piece.
We could also argue that he relies on less than a handful of anecdotal and unrepresentative examples to make his case (although that’s common in journalism). He might just have easily written a long piece about three of the craziest examples posted by Woke Preacher Clips on twitter, for example.
We could also question whether Alberta would equally apply his claim that a focus on earthly concerns “runs directly counter to the commands of scripture” to matters such as racial justice, feeding the hungry, etc.
We could also note that his quoting of Russell Moore, who has publicly trashed Trump voting evangelicals in venues such in the New York Times using language that calls into question their salvation, as an authority without any counter-balancing authority discredits Alberta as a partisan in the dispute.
We could also question his description of postmillennial theology (which was commonly held among liberal Protestants in the past, and does not require “amassing political power”).
There’s probably a lot more that could be critiqued.
But let’s be honest: there’s a lot that’s true in there. Churches are being ripped apart by politics, as part of the turmoil and realignment I highlighted as resulting from the negative world.
It’s also true that what I labeled the “culture war” strand of evangelicalism has overly merged faith with politics in inappropriate ways, and also too often has become captive to conspiracy theories like Q-Anon. And it’s not just that the leaders are manipulating the flock, though there’s doubtlessly some of that. A lot of the people in the pews want this stuff. As they say, you can’t cheat an honest man.
A lot of conservatives want to overlook this because they view themselves as distinct from some of these wackier churches such as those profiled in the article.
But there are a ton of wacky churches out there. There prosperity gospel movement is not small, for example. Nor is support for Q-Anon a niche movement. Lots of Christians listen to Alex Jones and read a lot of these strange web site.
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The Three Worlds of Evangelicalism Debate

Written by Aaron M. Renn |
Monday, May 23, 2022
Is it really the case that the culture’s view of Christianity and its moral systems are still basically the same as they were three decades ago, and that there was no major cultural break around 2014? I would argue No. There is very strong evidence for such a cultural break.

My First Things article on the three worlds of evangelicalism featured as a part of the context for a recent debate over the legacy of Tim Keller (see here, here, here, and here among others). In that dispute, some people critiqued my framework. One of their points of dispute is about the dating of what I labeled the “negative world.” I want to explain why their critique of my framework fails to persuade and lacks explanatory power.
To refresh, my framework posits that during the period of secularization post-1965, America has passed through three distinct phases or worlds in terms of how secular culture views Christianity.

Positive World (Pre-1994). Christianity was viewed positively by society and Christian morality was still normative. To be seen as a religious person and one who exemplifies traditional Christian norms was a social positive. Christianity was a status enhancer. In some cases, failure to embrace Christian norms hurt you.
Neutral World (1994-2014). Christianity is seen as a socially neutral attribute. It no longer had dominant status in society, but to be seen as a religious person was not a knock either. It was more like a personal affectation or hobby. Christian moral norms retained residual force.
Negative World (2014-). In this world, being a Christian is now a social negative, especially in high status positions. Christianity in many ways is seen as undermining the social good. Christian morality is expressly repudiated.

Like all frameworks of this type – such as the division of history into ancient, medieval, and modern – my three worlds model is a simplification of very complex phenomena, and designed primarily for utilitarian purposes. Unlike with theological or scientific models, which are claims to objective truth, frameworks like these are tools to help us make sense of and navigate the world. There may be many frameworks to explain the same phenomenon, each of which is useful to some people but not others, or each of which illuminates different dimensions of the situation. I always encourage people to try out different frameworks or lenses on a problem to look at it from multiple angles. Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option is a related but different lens, for example.
So I wouldn’t expect my framework to be the last or only word about how to interpret today’s world when it comes to the relationship of the church and secular society. Indeed, robust critique and the development of alternative points of view are key to understanding and adapting to our age.
Unfortunately, the current round of critiques was not especially useful. The main critique leveled at my framework is that there’s nothing new about the negative world, and that American Christians have lived in a negative world for some time. Thus, what I labeled the neutral world either never existed, or happened much earlier than in my accounting. We see this view best expressed by David French:
There are so many things to say in response to this argument, but let’s begin with the premise that we’ve transitioned from a “neutral world” to a “negative world.” As someone who attended law school in the early 1990s and lived in deep blue America for most of this alleged “neutral” period, the premise seems flawed. The world didn’t feel “neutral” to me when I was shouted down in class, or when I was told by classmates to “die” for my pro-life views.
It is objectively true that there was once a positive world in the United States. This world was, specifically, positive towards Protestant Christianity. Up through the 1950s, the United States had a well-documented Protestant establishment. Even Catholics could be excluded from certain institutions on account of their religion, and the election of John F. Kennedy in 1960 as the first Catholic president was controversial at the time. The establishment’s religion was predominantly liberal Protestantism, but it was Protestantism to be sure. The divisions of this era were not Christian vs. non- or anti-Christian, but primarily sectarian and ethnic.
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What Caused the Negative World?

Written by Aaron M. Renn |
Sunday, March 27, 2022
Changes have produced a society without key cultural bulwarks supporting Christianity (Cold War, WASPs), and which created a much more two-tier, top down society with power concentrated at the top. In this environment, it was much easier for religiously skeptical elites to impose their vision on society than it would have been not that long ago. These changes in effect helped pave the way for the negative world.

As I laid out back in 2017 and refined for my recent article in First Things, I divide the period from the 1960s to today into three phases distinguished by the way official American culture viewed Christianity: the positive, neutral, and negative worlds.
In the negative world, which we live in now and in which came into existence around 2014, official culture now views Christianity negatively. To be known as a Christian is a social negative in the elite domains of society, and Christian morality is expressly repudiated and treated as a threat to the new moral order of society.

One of the questions I was asked was, what factors brought about the negative world? I want to elaborate on that a bit.
First, we can see the negative world as a simple outworking of the very long story arc of secularization in the West, as recounted by people like Charles Taylor.
But what are the proximate causes?
The highest reaches of intellectual and cultural life have probably long been very religiously skeptical, particularly towards traditional beliefs. But a number of changes since 1960 enabled cultural elites to impose their culture in a top down manner in ways that were not possible before, especially when it came to its view of Christianity.
1. The end of the Cold War. Because communism was an atheist system, Christianity became part of America’s fight against the Soviet Empire. The phrase “under God” was added to the Pledge of Allegiance in the 1950s, for example. Christianity was part of the regime of freedom in the West and our moral propaganda against the Soviets. Hence it would have been hard to turn negative on Christianity while the Cold War was still ongoing. In fact, I could have dated the end of the positive world and the start of the neutral world to 1989 (the fall of the Berlin Wall) rather than 1994 – and maybe I should have.
2. The collapse of the WASP establishment. Until the 1960s, American was run by a hegemonic upper class White Anglo-Saxon Protestant establishment. Not for nothing was there a Protestant in their name. Protestantism was a key part of their identity.
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The Three Worlds of Evangelicalism

Written by Aaron M. Renn |
Tuesday, January 25, 2022
Evangelicalism has successfully adapted to new media, with various groups creating huge online and social media followings. It has adapted to the rise and fall of evangelistic strategies such as revivals and street preaching. Christians may indeed be a declining and unpopular moral minority, but that is no reason to assume that evangelicalism’s day is done. 

American evangelicalism is deeply divided. Some evangelicals have embraced the secular turn toward social justice activism, particularly around race and immigration, accusing others of failing to reckon with the church’s racist past. Others charge evangelical elites with going “woke” and having failed their flocks. Some elites are denounced for abandoning historic Christian teachings on sexuality. Others face claims of hypocrisy for supporting the serial adulterer Donald Trump. Old alliances are dissolving. Former Southern Baptist agency head Russell Moore has left his denomination. Political pundit David French has become a fearsome critic of ­many religious conservatives who would once have been his allies. Baptist professor Owen Strachan left an establishment seminary to take a leadership position in a startup one. Some people are deconstructing their faith and leaving evangelicalism, or even Christianity, behind. Where once there was a culture war between Christianity and secular society, today there is a culture war within evangelicalism itself.
These divisions do not only represent theological differences. They also result from particular strategies of public engagement that developed over the last few decades, as the standing of Christianity has gradually eroded.
Within the story of American secularization, there have been three distinct stages:

Positive World (Pre-1994): Society at large retains a mostly positive view of Christianity. To be known as a good, churchgoing man remains part of being an upstanding citizen. Publicly being a Christian is a status-enhancer. Christian moral norms are the basic moral norms of society and violating them can bring negative consequences.
Neutral World (1994–2014): Society takes a neutral stance toward Christianity. Christianity no longer has privileged status but is not disfavored. Being publicly known as a Christian has neither a positive nor a negative impact on one’s social status. Christianity is a valid option within a pluralistic public square. Christian moral norms retain some residual effect.
Negative World (2014–Present): Society has come to have a negative view of Christianity. Being known as a Christian is a social negative, particularly in the elite domains of ­society. Christian morality is expressly repudiated and seen as a threat to the public good and the new public moral order. Subscribing to Christian moral views or violating the secular moral order brings negative consequences.

The dating of these transitions is, of necessity, impressionistic. The transition from neutral to negative is dated 2014 to place it just before the Supreme Court’s Obergefell decision, which institutionalized Christianity’s new low status. The transition from positive to neutral is less precise, though the collapse of the Soviet Union and end of the Cold War in 1989 was clearly a point of major change. I selected 1994 for two key reasons. It represents the high-water mark of early 1990s populism, with the Republican takeover of the U.S. House of Representatives (and, arguably, the peak of evangelical influence within U.S. conservatism). And it was the year Rudolph Giuliani became mayor of New York City, signaling the urban resurgence that would have a significant impact on evangelicalism.
For the most part, evangelicals responded to the positive and neutral worlds with identifiable ministry strategies. In the positive world, these strategies were the culture war and seeker sensitivity. In the neutral world, the strategy was cultural engagement.
The culture war strategy, also known as the “­religious right,” is the best-known movement of the positive-world era. The very name of its leading organization, Moral Majority, speaks to a world in which it was at least plausible to claim that Christians still represented the majority of the country. The religious right arose during the so-called New Right movement in the 1970s, in part as a response to the sexual revolution and the moral deterioration of the country.
Up to and through the 1970s, evangelicals and fundamentalists had voted predominantly for the Democratic party. Jimmy Carter, a former Southern Baptist Sunday school teacher, was the first evangelical president. He won the Southern Baptist vote, 56 to 43 percent. Newsweek magazine proclaimed 1976, the year of his election, the “Year of the Evangelical.” As late as 1983, sociologist James Davison ­Hunter found that a plurality of evangelicals continued to identify as Democrats. But under the leadership of people like Jerry Falwell, this group realigned as Republican during the 1980s and became the religious right. Evangelicals remain one of the Republican party’s most loyal voting blocs, with 80 percent supporting Donald Trump in 2016.
The religious right culture warriors took a highly combative stance toward the emerging secular culture. By and large, the people we associate with the religious right today were those far away from the citadels of culture. Many were in backwater locations. They tended to use their own platforms, such as direct mail and paid-for UHF television shows. They were initially funded mostly by donations from the flock, a fact that imparted an attention-grabbing, marketing-driven style. Later, groups such as the Christian Coalition began to raise money from bigger donors, having become more explicitly aligned with the GOP.
Major culture war figures include Jerry ­Falwell of Moral Majority (Lynchburg, Virginia), Pat ­Robertson of the Christian Broadcasting ­Network (Virginia Beach), James Dobson of Focus on the Family (Colorado Springs), Ralph Reed of the Christian Coalition (Atlanta), and televangelists Jimmy Swaggart (Baton Rouge) and Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker (Portsmouth, Virginia).
A second strategy of the positive-world movement was seeker sensitivity, likewise pioneered in the 1970s at suburban ­megachurches such as Bill Hybels’s Willow Creek (Barrington, IL) and Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church (Orange County). This strategy was in a sense a prototype of the neutral-world movement to come. But the very term “seeker sensitive” shows that it was predicated on an underlying friendliness to Christianity; it’s a model that assumes that large numbers of people are actively seeking. Bill Hybels walked door to door in suburban Chicago, surveying the unchurched about why they didn’t attend. By designing a church that appealed to them stylistically, he was able to get large numbers to come through the doors.
Seeker-sensitive churches downplayed or eliminated denominational affiliations, distinctives, and traditions. They adopted informal liturgies and contemporary music. Seeker sensitivity operated in a therapeutic register, sometimes explicitly—the Christian psychologist Henry Cloud has become a familiar speaker at Willow Creek. They were approachable and non-threatening. Today, there are many large suburban megachurches of this general type in the United States, which to some extent represent the evangelical mainstream.
In the neutral world, by contrast, the characteristic evangelical strategy was cultural engagement. The neutral-world cultural engagers were in many ways the opposite of the culture warriors: Rather than fighting against the culture, they were explicitly positive toward it. They did not denounce secular culture, but confidently engaged that culture on its own terms in a pluralistic public square. They believed that Christianity could still be articulated in a compelling way and had something to offer in that environment. In this quest they wanted to be present in the secular elite media and forums, not just on Christian media or their own platforms.
The leading lights of the cultural engagement strategy were much more urban, frequently based in major global cities or college towns. The neutral world emerged concurrently with the resurgence of America’s urban centers under the leadership of people like Giuliani. The flow of college-­educated Christians into these urban centers created a different kind of evangelical social base, one shaped by urban cultural sensibilities rather than rural or suburban ones. These evangelicals tended to downplay flashpoint social issues such as abortion or ­homosexuality. Instead, they emphasized the gospel, often in a therapeutic register, and ­priorities like helping the poor and select forms of social activism. They were also much less political than the positive-world Christians—though this distinction broke down in 2016, when many in this group vociferously opposed Donald Tru­mp. In essence, the cultural-engagement strategy is an evangelicalism that takes its cues from the secular elite consensus. Sometimes they have attracted secular elites or celebrities to their churches.
The political manifestation of the cultural-­engagement approach is seen in politicians like George W. Bush, who touted “compassionate conservatism” and an evangelicalism less threatening to secular society. The vitriol directed at Bush by the left should not obscure the differences in Bush’s own approach. For example, less than a week after 9/11, he made the first-ever presidential visit to a mosque to reassure Muslims that he did not blame them or their religion for that attack. He opposed gay marriage but supported civil unions and pointedly said he would not engage in anti-­gay rhetoric. It is important to stress, however, that pastors and other cultural-engagement leaders within the evangelical religious world were typically studiously apolitical. They consciously did not want to be like the religious right.
Most of the urban church world and many parachurch organizations embraced the cultural engagement strategy, and some suburban megachurches have shifted in that direction. Major figures and groups include Tim Keller of Redeemer ­Presbyterian Church (New York City), Hillsong Church (New York City, Los Angeles, and other global cities), ­Christianity Today magazine (suburban Chicago), Veritas Forum (Boston), Sen. Ben Sasse (Washington, D.C.), contemporary artist Makoto Fujimura (New York City), and author Andy Crouch (Philadelphia).
These different movements represented different responses to the three worlds. But they also reflected other theological, sociological, and cultural differences among the various camps. The culture warriors had a fundamentalist sensibility, and often came from that tradition. Jerry Falwell and Francis Schaeffer both had fundamentalist backgrounds, for example. The seeker sensitives and cultural engagers had a more evangelical sensibility.
Fundamentalism prioritized doctrinal purity and was frequently separatist and hostile to outsiders or those who would compromise on biblical fidelity. Evangelicalism developed, beginning in the 1940s, as an attempt to create a kinder, gentler fundamentalism that could reach the mainstream. Its priorities have been more missional than doctrinal. If we view it in terms of sensibilities, we will find that this split—between doctrinal or confessional purity and missional focus or revivalism—has manifested itself persistently throughout American religious history.
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