Pro-Tips for the Protestants

REVIEW: 'Life in the Negative World: Confronting Challenges in an Anti-Christian Culture' by Aaron M. Renn

(PhotoAlto/Jerome Gorin via Grabien)
March 31, 2024

When I first moved to Washington, I lived in a townhouse on Capitol Hill with 10 other Christian men. We frequently hosted guests for dinner and, one night, Aaron Renn was kind enough to join us. Several of my friends and I had been reading his newsletter for years. Our conversation focused on the challenges facing America's evangelical churches, the main theme of Renn's new book Life in the Negative World: Confronting Challenges in Anti-Christian Culture.

Since then, I have left the church that Renn is trying to save. I am now a Catholic and, admittedly, that means I am not the target audience for Life in the Negative World—the introduction makes clear the book is "primarily written with evangelicals in mind." That said, the restoration of America's Protestant churches is deeply connected to the renewal of American civic life, and, in that respect, Renn's work is incredibly important.

Renn is uniquely situated for such a task for two reasons. First, unlike many evangelicals—who come from the American heartland and live in largely conservative communities—Renn has lived most of his adult life in Manhattan and Chicago, working as a management consultant. This experience is central to Renn's book, which not only features the sort of practical, if at times dry, advice typical of a consultant, but more importantly makes no bones about the fact that holding "historic Christian beliefs … is not acceptable in many elite domains of society, like the corporate world, academia, and the majority of the nonprofit sector."

Second, Renn's experience has not led him to resent his fellow evangelicals. Though it is an increasingly popular genre, Life in the Negative World is not a book by an evangelical leader fear-mongering about the dangers of "Christian nationalism." Renn is not one of David Brooks's "dissenters trying to save evangelicalism from itself."

Instead, Life in the Negative World is an attempt to help save evangelicals from a culture that has turned against them. Renn believes that, even in the negative world, it is possible "to create churches that can thrive" and that "new opportunities for evangelism will … present themselves because of the world's abandonment of truth." To take advantage of these opportunities, Renn spends the bulk of his book urging evangelicals to consider new ways of "living personally," "leading institutionally," and "engaging missionally."

These stodgy subheadings aside, Renn does offer some ideas that most readers—including many of the Protestant pastors his book seems to be intended for—will find novel and interesting. In his "living personally" section, for instance, Renn argues that a hostile culture means that Christians need to become "antifragile" and should "consider their vocation and location to a greater extent than was necessary" in the past.

In his "engaging missionally" section, Renn observes that "evangelicals have little influence or status in movement conservatism … and they are all but absent from the senior-most leadership positions at its think tanks and publications." To amend this, he encourages evangelicals to renegotiate "the current deal, in which evangelicals vote Republican but get nothing beyond pro-life judges."

These thoughtful recommendations, however, are accompanied by more poorly written sections, such as "become obedient" and "be a source of truth." Both sections suffer from Renn's greatest weakness as a Christian writer, which is his inability to integrate his genuine love for Scripture and his excellent social-science skills. For example, "become obedient" relies too heavily on Scripture, in a way that sometimes feels awkward or forced. "Be a source of truth," which primarily focuses on how evangelicals should approach gender and dating, does the opposite and puts too much of an emphasis on "data and statistics" and providing people "fundamental information about men and women and how they behave in today's relationship markets."

This struggle to integrate the ecclesial and the cultural limits Renn's analysis in ways that should not be overlooked. For example, Renn writes that "the ability to successful(ly) adapt to a state of decline is, in many ways, built into evangelicalism and might be considered its greatest strength." He's right. But rather than pausing to consider how a church built for decline might be contributing to our cultural predicament, Renn moves on quickly to how "evangelicals can successfully adapt to this next phase."

This is the fundamental problem with Life in the Negative World. In his rush to offer practical solutions, Renn tends to overlook first things—not a terrible indictment, but somewhat ironic considering that his book began as an essay at a publication bearing that name.

Renn and his readers would benefit from revisiting the work of the Catholic cultural critic Joseph Bottum, specifically his 2014 book An Anxious Age. Self-consciously combating the tendency of "contemporary sociology" to overlook "spiritual anxiety," Bottum also examines the crisis of the Protestant church in modern America. He arrives, however, at a slightly different conclusion: America today isn't so much anti-Christian as it is post-Protestant.

What that means for the evangelical church remains an open question. But thinkers like Renn are the ones who will be at the center of working that question out.

Life in the Negative World: Confronting Challenges in an Anti-Christian Culture
by Aaron M. Renn
Zondervan, 272 pp., $26.99

Evan Myers is a writer and editor living in Washington, D.C.