The Lost World and the Return of Christian Excellence

Upon first encountering Aaron Renn’s “three worlds of evangelicalism” thesis around 2017 in his email newsletter, I immediately put it to use in my own thinking about everything from Christian parenting, to evangelism, to institutional leadership. His main idea, if you’re not familiar with it, is that American culture has made major shifts away from Christianity, which have turned being a Christian in America from a social benefit into a social liability, especially in educated and elite circles. These shifts, from the “positive” to the “neutral” and now the “negative” world, have implications for all sorts of Christian activities. Renn’s thesis made it into a mainstream publication in 2022 with an essay published in First Things which in turn grew into his new book Life in the Negative World. Over the course of these years there have been a number of arguments about whether conditions have actually changed as much as he claims, how his framework might impact the church’s work of evangelization, and whether his work is sufficiently theological for our needs.[1] These are useful conversations and I encourage readers to seek out both Renn’s work and the many conversations surrounding it. My own contribution will be less a review and more reflections upon finishing Renn’s book. I intend to side-step those specific questions, which rightly concern institutional leaders in evangelicalism, and try to focus on the implications that his book might have for an audience interested in the mission of The Davenant Institute and as well as Protestant education more broadly. I also think doing so addresses the work as it is, rather than as some readers would prefer it to be.

Renn’s book forces readers to think historically and socio-politically, not just religiously or theologically. That means it is a fair question to ask whether his historical and social framing is correct. We have to think about American history. Looking therefore at Wilfred McClay’s Land of Hope, his masterful history of the United States, it is clear that early America was not just a mere Christian community; it was decidedly Protestant. And even as we grew and developed enthusiasms, rationalisms, and cultish offshoots, the fundamental trunk of the tree from which our nation grew remained Protestant for hundreds of years. This is a helpful pre-history to keep in mind for anyone approaching Life in the Negative World.

While Renn’s framework positions the positive world as “pre-1994,” if we consider the framework as three sets of twenty year blocks, the pre-1994 positive world is not a monolith. Twenty years beforehand, in 1974, the USA had not yet had a self-avowed “evangelical” as President.[2] In other words the modern evangelical movement had only just barely come into existence. It surprises us now, but remember that it had been a source of national controversy when just over a decade before that, the first ever Roman Catholic won the presidency in 1960. Before Kennedy, every President had either been a Protestant or a member of a Protestant offshoot (like the Unitarians).[3] The overwhelming majority of these were from what we now consider mainline church backgrounds.[4] At Davenant we call these Magisterial Protestants, and the reason it was controversial for a Roman Catholic to become the President is precisely because there was still a tacit understanding that the Roman Catholic position on the Church’s relationship to the magistrate (that is, the political leader of a nation) was radically different than the Protestant one.

If Renn is correct and we currently live in the “negative world” where being a traditional Christian of any sort generally counts against you, then it is worth remembering that even in his pre-1994 “positive world”, another “world” of American Christianity had already largely come and gone. And that world is the one that gave us America as we know it. It was the world of mainline Protestant hegemony, which had already been lost for the most part well before 1994. I’ll call that the “lost world.” The late 1970s saw the birth of the modern evangelical movement which Renn traces, but it is fair to say that by the early 1970s the Protestant mainline which had sustained our nation for over two centuries was basically over. It can be hard to appreciate, but the transformations in American culture from 1924-1974 were at least as profound as those from 1974-2024, if not more so.

It is worth considering what initial steps could be taken to help us recover whatever goods disappeared with the lost world, while also being careful to avoid the mistakes of that era. In this regard Renn’s book can be quite helpful.[5] The lost world of mainline hegemony was one which saw Christians not only writing popular level books, studying theology, and hosting bible studies, but also making art, studying politics and law, and training statesmen.

Life in the Negative World fits well as a recovery of that sort of project. It should be read as a work of applied social theory, which Renn is quick to point out. It is not theology, and it is not a popular work of life advice. Both of those genres have lots to offer contemporary Christians, but this book should be considered much closer to contemporary works like Tim Keller’s How to Reach the West Again or Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option. Those works both draw deeply on fundamental social theory from figures like Charles Taylor in A Secular Age and Alister Macintyre in After Virtue, and Renn does likewise. These social theorists are worth reading in their own right, not just in the popular distillations offered by Keller, Dreher, Renn etc. and anyone who is reading this in Ad Fontes really should go tackle those texts. Our journal is literally telling you to go back to the sources. But popular engagements and applications of these thinkers all have a place in interpreting and applying fundamental social theory for contemporary Christian leaders. These works of applied social theory constitute an essential component of what Onsi Kamel, in this same journal, has called an “intellectual ecosystem.” Kamel was writing about the Catholic intellectual ecosystem as viewed by a Protestant. And if we are to build the Protestant intellectual ecosystem Kamel says we lack, this sort of analysis is an integral species in such an ecosystem.

Roman Catholics built their intellectual ecosystem in an era when they were clearly a minority, and a politically disfavored one. Yet their ecosystem did not stop at the merely intellectual. As they arrived in the USA they did build their own school systems, universities, presses, and popular level publications. But they also built up athletic associations like the CYO, civic organizations like the Knights of Columbus, “labor schools” which helped organize their working-class members and deliver control of large and powerful American labor unions to Roman Catholics; they created soup kitchens, mutual aid societies, and small family businesses which helped their churches survive hard times.

If we Protestants want to get back to our position of being taken seriously as leaders in this country, we need to be modeling ourselves after groups like that, building up our own community so that we can practice our faith and raise up our young people from within into positions of leadership. We need faithful Protestant publishing houses that understand themselves as existing to support this ecosystem and we need Protestant scholars who are researching and writing books while Protestant journalists, podcasters, and influencers platform such thinkers for a popular audience. But think bigger. Renn, like Keller and many before him, comments on Mark Noll’s landmark 1995 book The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, and he rightly takes it a step further.[6] What about the scandal of the evangelical net worth? What about the scandal of the evangelical physique? These are all legitimate places for us to pursue excellence. We need to have Protestant trade schools and Protestant unions. We need Protestant fitness clubs. We should aim to be taken seriously, and that begins by taking stock of ourselves and becoming serious people individually and as a whole.

We will not recover the mantle of leadership we abandoned at the end of the lost world until we become worthy of physical, cultural, political, and economic leadership. The first step is to create a community of people who are built to weather stormy social waters. At Davenant we talk a lot about “Christian wisdom” and that’s part of it, but so too is being healthy and wealthy. Aim at excellence and do so unto the Lord.

As Renn points out, evangelicals have been good in the recent past at building institutions to exert “culture war” style democratic pressure at a national level and at developing seeker sensitivity in their congregations for the sake of conversion (with an expectation that catechesis will take care of itself).[7] But these models are not as effective now that we are in the minority since the legal and cultural pressures are a persistent and ever present counter catechesis.[8] We simply don’t have the same level of influence over national politics that we did in the lost or positive world where all candidates were likely from one of three reasonably orthodox Protestant denominations. For another, the mass-national culture created by consolidated media has broken down in the wake of the internet. There was a time when Americans all listened to the same music, read the same newspaper and watched the same TV shows. This made it easier to market to large groups of people. They shared lots of cultural touchstones, even outside of religion or politics. This gave rise to the evangelicalism of the 1960s-90s as ideas like Donald McGavran’s “homogenous unit principle” drove seeker sensitive church planting.[9] The average American was more like the average American and that made tailored sermons, and church activities easier to design. But that world is gone and that strategy won’t work. The internet gives lots of space for people to become autodidactic, going very deeply into their niche. It also allows for fragmented market segmentation, and that means our world requires micro-consumer profiling. The desires of the average 2020s internet user radically differ from those of the average 1980s TV viewer. This makes it less likely that mass-consumer evangelicalism will be able to maintain market dominance. What you have to do when you are in the minority nationally and when you are living in the digital age is radically different and we need to accept the conditions we are in. Cultivating our niche successfully is probably more likely than a mass revival and we should steward our core people and core institutions much more carefully, even while we pray for revival to come. And when you are, perhaps, in a disadvantaged position, you should organize your people while aiming for excellence, stability, and community strength. You need to think like a minority community.[10]

Thinking like a minority community will require radical shifts in how we organize our institutions and frame our goals. It will not change the core goal of evangelism which will be to win as many people as we can to saving faith in Jesus and to teach them to be faithful disciples in his church. But as representatives of a minority community we have to reframe our approach to the world beyond the church.

Here is one suggestion that will sound controversial, but could actually reduce the intensity of intra-evangelical conflict as well as evangelical conflict with the broader American public, all while saving our strength for more productive activities: our institutional leaders need to hold themselves less responsible for the common good.[11] That is not to say they should not talk about the common good, or seek the common good. However in the negative world the achievement of the common good is far outside their scope of influence. They should still hold out a vision for such a good for the rest of society. But social, material, and political capital will need to be deployed more strategically to accomplish limited goals that have clearly defined benefits for core constituents.

For example Protestant leaders might spend less time working to elect a President or pass a national law on marriage, since those things will require national coalitions of which we will be only a small part, and instead focus on a state politician or local law that allows for school vouchers as Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders has in Arkansas.[12] This specific shift of political capital allows for minority communities to educate their children in ways they see fit, and all minority communities have the same opportunity. But the deliverable for Protestants is that they would be able to have their tax dollars go to schools which teach their children the Bible, and it also allows some teachers who are likely members of your church to earn their income from the tax dollars of other parishioners while caring for the young of the church. This is a beautiful vision of subsidiarity in practice and we should embrace it and advocate for it in every state we can get it on the ballot. And importantly it is accomplishable by a relatively small number of voters and on a local level.

Looking after the people of God and their needs is not antithetical to the Christian tradition–in fact it has scriptural precedent. In Acts 6 we see a real problem arise because some of the widows in the church are not being well cared for; meanwhile, the pastors in the early church understood such care to be beyond their specific calling, and in fact it would inhibit them from the essential work of preaching the gospel. So the diaconate was created, to distribute food to widows within the church. If pastors see a problem with the local public schools then perhaps appointing some deacons to work on legally redistributing community resources towards the education of the children of the church could be understood analogously. These kinds of things are possible and should become the local and limited aims of Christian political engagement in the negative world. As we proceed deeper into the negative world our community life might look more like the Amish or the Mormons with higher expectations of in-group solidarity. Perhaps like American Jews we will develop parallel credentialing, Protestant yeshivas for rigorous religious schooling, while selectively using secular credentialing as a straightforward economic exchange which enables marketplace legibility. None of this will take us back to the lost world immediately, but it will help us endure and remain and build our strength and, over time, develop positions of influence.

Even in a negative world the Roman Catholics and Jews have managed to exert outsized influence on the academic legal field. Even in a very negative world the Mormons (about 1% of America) wield significant local political influence in several states, and have put forward one major party presidential nominee. We can, and should, also look at religious minorities abroad. While Roman Catholics were never a minority per se in Poland they did represent a politically disfavored community under Soviet Communism, and their history of success in throwing off the yoke of Marxist overlords should be studied in much greater detail. But such success is never guaranteed and minorities who survived against great odds should be looked at too. Surely we have much to learn about the survival of the Copts in Egypt or the Eastern Orthodox Christians of Lebanon through centuries of living under Muslim rule, and in each of those places there are Protestant minorities who are even smaller still.[13] What writings have they produced that could teach us about how to survive periods of hardened social conditions? Beyond living Protestant minority communities, the history of Protestant minorities in other countries can also be instructive. The history of the Huguenots in France from roughly the 1570s-1680s should be looked at closely. They produced some of the finest minds the world has ever seen, greatest of which being John Calvin, but how did they live? What strategies did they deploy to thrive as a tight knit minority community under a hostile Catholic monarch? When and why did they leave and what happened to them as they left France? These stories must be well understood by the American Church. Work should be done to think about how Protestantism went from being an academic dispute in Europe to being the dominant cultural and religious force for centuries in countries as diverse as Germany and Kenya. There is every reason to be hopeful at our prospects for developing personal and institutional excellence so that in a very short time we can mirror that success. But to do that we must know who we are as Protestants, and we must organize our shared life in ways that are distinctive, and ensure those distinctives are passed on to our children. We have to accept where we are in our social and political history and decide how to move by drawing from the best of what our community has produced. Much work is to be done and it is precisely this kind of work that The Davenant Institute exists to accomplish, as Tim Keller himself acknowledged in one of his final classes.

In remembrance of Tim Keller’s passing one of his last students, Stiven Peter, wrote that as a professor Tim Keller

advocated the importance of investing in high-quality Christian scholarship. During one of the last classes I had with Tim, sometime in April, I lamented that being a devout Roman Catholic means being pro-life, while no such conscious congruence between belief and social teaching existed in Evangelicalism. In response, he then lit up and took the time to share about the Davenant Institute’s recent Protestant Social Teaching and recommend everyone to read it. He remarked that these scholars are doing the necessary work of developing a robust social teaching that churches should consider as part of their catechesis.

At Davenant we are growing deep roots to help the church stand tall in a tumultuous age, as Paul advised in Ephesians. We are also taking social and philosophical theory seriously as a way of understanding the world we are in. We seek to connect these insights to the Protestant tradition for the sake of the church and the good of the nations in which we are planted. Aaron Renn’s insightful application of social theory encourages me that the work we are doing is in fact is, as Keller observed, both necessary and timely. But we are just one institution in what will need to be a vast ecosystem of organizations who are loosely connected but share a common understanding of how, together, they relate to the social surround in which we exist. The future of American Christianity must adopt the best of the attitudes and social practices of the lost mainline and blend those with the many strategies of survival and success deployed throughout the global and historical church. Evangelicalism has to continue preaching the gospel of grace, but it will also have to learn to spread the news of nature.[14] Renn’s book is not about purifying our understanding of the atonement, or the doctrine of God, but it is very helpful for thinking through the material, social, and political conditions in which contemporary Christians find themselves. As Renn says, we must pursue excellence, “excellence in intellectual endeavors, the arts, sciences, medicine, law, and institutional leadership…if for no other reason than to carry the Great Commission into every part of society. Evangelicals will also need to find a way to extend the culture of excellence as it develops within the evangelical church from the true geniuses to the average person in the pews… When times are tough, everyone needs to elevate their game.”[15] I recommend Life in the Negative World to all Ad Fontes readers.

Colin Redemer is Executive Director of The Davenant Institute.

  1. These links are merely representative. The list is definitely non-exhaustive.

  2. Southern Baptist Jimmy Carter was elected in 1976. He is widely considered the first evangelical President, in the modern meaning of the term.

  3. Some of our Presidents were famously hard to pin down in terms of religious affiliation, but even Thomas Jefferson of the infamous mutilated Bible was active in the established Church of England in colonial Virginia. Even after post-Revolutionary disestablishment there is testimony that he still regularly attended an Episcopal Church, and even donated money to establish churches. He was not an orthodox Christian, but he was swimming in the Protestant mainline, broadly construed. The same argument holds for Lincoln.

  4. Renn touches on this pre-history, but far more work needs to be done to broaden the frame of reference in which his advice sits. Life in the Negative World (Zondervan), 4-6, 21-23, 75-76.

  5. I will note here that there is at least a plausible thesis proposed by Josh Mitchell and others that the contemporary successor ideology or “wokeness” is itself the vestigial tail of mainline Protestantism, just with immanentized theological categories. If so then certain aspects of the “lost world” are perhaps still in existence albeit in a transformed way. This parallel thesis is a bit beyond the scope of my current reflection, but I commend all readers to read Mitchell’s work.

  6. Aaron Renn, Life in the Negative World, 63-67

  7. Aaron Renn, Life in the Negative World, 23-28

  8. Aaron Renn, Life in the Negative World, 46-49

  9. Donald McGavran, Understanding Church Growth (1970)

  10. Aaron Renn, Life in the Negative World, 112-119

  11. Aaron Renn, Life in the Negative World, 120-122

  12. We should note how effective the strategy of micro-targeting has been when deployed by George Soros in his work to influence America by funding candidates for District Attorneys who will align with his understanding of a good society.

  13. Aaron Renn, Life in the Negative World, 202

  14. “Natural Law” having a rightful place in the education of Protestants is a core aspect of Davenant’s mission. But beyond that this sentence should be read as related to other observations about how any natural law thinking will naturally clash with contemporary secular thinking. For some fuller thoughts on this, see this piece from my colleague Rhys Laverty:
  15. Aaron Renn, Life in the Negative World, 77-78


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10 Years

Colin Redemer reflects on The Davenant Institute's 10 years of building a future for the digital era.

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