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The most popular and influential piece I’ve published to date was newsletter #13 on the “lost worlds” of American evangelicalism, which has only continued to grow in influence as I hear of more people adopting my framework for understanding our world.
I’m delighted to report that a significantly updated and revised version of that is now online with the new February issue of First Things magazine under the title “The Three Worlds of Evangelicalism.”
This article helps explain the recent conflict and realignment roiling the evangelical world. More importantly, it provides key frameworks for making sense of the world we live in today.
I first give an overview of my three worlds model. The period of secularization since the 1950s peak level of church attendance can be divided into three distinct phases or worlds: the positive, neutral, and negative worlds. These refer to the way secular society, particular elite secular society, views Christianity. As I write:
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.
After detailing this model, I then describe the three distinct evangelical strategies developed in response to the positive and the neutral world. In the positive world these were the culture war and seeker sensitivity strategy. In the neutral world this was the cultural engagement strategy.
However, as we entered the negative world in 2014, evangelicals have failed to adapt with new approaches. We see this in the evangelical rejection of Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option, the one serious proposal for negative world engagement that has been put forward for the church. Instead, evangelicals have doubled down on their existing approaches.
As the pressures of the negative world have borne down on these evangelical groups, they have started deforming under the pressure, leading to conflict, fracturing and realignment.
I argue that one part of the solution is for evangelicals to wrestle with what it means to truly live in the negative world as a moral minority that secular society that views Christianity skeptically at a minimum.
Please click over to read the whole thing at First Things.
I have an ask of you my readers. Please forward this First Things article far and wide. I’d really like to see this get as wide a distribution as possible.
Thanks so much.
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