Why the Church Can’t Just React to Culture: Aaron Renn’s Three Worlds and Lesslie Newbigin’s Missionary Encounter

The church’s calling must be shaped by the gospel and not by its reaction to the surrounding culture.

The church of Jesus will always exist amid cultures that exhibit both divinely-ordained common good and the distorting effects of sin.

As such, the church will always wrestle with questions of how it is to relate to the surrounding context.

At the same time, though the church is unavoidably situated within cultures, the church is also called to be a contrast people shaped by the gospel and the Word. Wherever it is and however it is perceived, the true church will always present a vision of reality that confronts the cultural currents of the world around it. The church always prophetically challenges both those who would destroy and those who would domesticate it.

Therefore, the church’s calling is static, shaped by the gospel and not by reaction to the surrounding culture.

This way of articulating the church’s steady calling came to mind a few months ago as I read an article in First Things by Aaron Renn. In the article, Renn described three phases of the relationship between the evangelical church and American society. Renn labeled the pre-1994 US as a “positive world” that transitioned to a “neutral world,” followed by the “negative world” of contemporary North America. Whereas the “positive world” viewed those associated with the church as upstanding citizens, in today’s world, to be an evangelical is to be considered a detriment to society.

In the article and in a recent interview discussing his article, Renn also helpfully described various evangelical responses to this cultural shift, from the Religious Right and culture warriors to the seeker-sensitive and cultural engagement movements.

However, in my view, two issues arise as Renn turns from description to giving an assessment of his perception of each model’s viability in the contemporary “negative world.”

Aaron Renn’s Three Worlds: From Description to Assessment

First, Renn does not define what he understands success to be for the church. Thus, determining whether a particular model will work or not remains a nebulous task.

Second, Renn gives his assessment of each model as an answer to the question, “What do we do today in order to adjust to changing times?”1 This question, however, implies that to “be successful,” the church must find an appropriate reaction to the culture and its current attitude toward the church.

However, Scripture calls us to a more consistent posture towards culture that measures success not by our reception but by our faithfulness.

Newbigin and a Missionary Encounter With Every Culture

In the interview mentioned above, Renn appeals to Lesslie Newbigin as a model of responding well to the negative world he saw coming on the horizon. Newbigin, however, did not write as a prophet who saw a negative world coming. Instead, Newbigin taught that the biblical story to which the church aims to conform its life will always require Christians to stand out in contrast to the stories imbibed by the world—whether that is a positive world or a negative one.2

Newbigin spent decades serving as a missionary in South Asia before returning to his home in the United Kingdom. While his return home did reveal that his home culture had changed in his absence, Newbigin was no reactionary strategist.

In his book The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, Newbigin shows how cultural opinions and aspirations are far too fickle a thing to guide a missionary encounter. Instead, he writes:

Authentic Christian thought and action begin not by attending to the aspirations of the people, not by answering the questions they are asking in their terms, not by offering solutions to the problems as the world sees them. It must begin and continue by attending to what God has done in the story of Israel and supremely in the story of Jesus Christ. It must continue by indwelling that story so that it is our story, the way we understand the real story. And then, and this is the vital point, to attend with open hearts and minds to the real needs of people in the way that Jesus attended to them, knowing that the real need is that which can only be satisfied by everything that comes from the mouth of God (Matthew 4:4).3

Newbigin saw a missionary encounter as the inevitable result of any community of believers trying to learn and live into the biblical story amid all cultural currents around them.4

In fact, some of Newbigin’s most critical work addresses the church of a relatively “positive world” post-Enlightenment environment. He states this starkly in his short book The Other Side of 1984:

I do plead that the Church recognize with fresh clarity that it is the community entrusted with a ‘fiduciary framework’ which offers a new starting point for understanding and coping with experience. As such a community it is necessarily a political and social fact, but it must never again aspire to the political and social power that the Constantinian establishment gave it.5

In other words, the church makes claims that cannot be subsumed beneath other frameworks without resulting in syncretism.

If the gospel calls believers to live as citizens of a contrasting kingdom, we must resist the temptation to chart our course according to the winds of culture. Newbigin believed that the church living out the biblical story will conflict with the false narratives of the world—whether the world impinges on the church’s comfort or freedoms in practicing their faith or whether it is accommodating of them.6

Being Proactive, Not Reactive

What does this mean for Renn’s article? It means that whether the Christian church finds itself in a positive, neutral, or negative world, it is consistently called to a missionary encounter with competing worldviews, living out its kingdom calling as a challenge to all rival kingdoms. Success is measured by the church’s faithfulness to this calling no matter its context.

Success is not measured by how much freedom, ease, or honor society affords a person associated with the church. Success is also not merely measured by how willing people are to enter into the church’s life. Success must be measured by the church’s progress in becoming a community conforming its life to the biblical story in the power of the Spirit, by the gospel of Christ, and to the glory of God.

While I appreciate much of Renn’s analysis, we cannot judge the various approaches to culture—from culture warrior to cultural engagement—based solely on the society’s overall favorability towards the church. We must be proactive, not reactive. Newbigin reminds us that the church is never at home in the world. We play a prophetic role in every culture—corporately and individually, publicly and privately. As members of gospel-shaped churches, we are to challenge each other to both live in and in contrast with the world. Thus, we should not ask despairingly, “What do we do now that people despise us?” Instead, we must ask confidently, “How shall we continue to faithfully live and proclaim Christ’s contrast-kingdom today?”

1. This quote begins at 10:33 in the interview.

2. In fact, if one were to consider Newbigin’s interaction with the present “neutral world” he encountered upon his return, as well as the prior “positive world” of Europe, he would describe it as having been born more of the Church’s syncretistic acceptance of Modern, Enlightenment generated “fiduciary frameworks” to which it had allowed itself to be succumbed and relegated to the private sphere. He writes of this in his well-known book, The Open Secret (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1995).

3. Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1989), 151.

4. In another place, Newbigin famously stated it this way: “The secular society is not a neutral area into which we can project the Christian message. It is an area already occupied with other gods. We have a battle on our hands. We are dealing with principalities and powers.” Lesslie Newbigin, “Evangelism in the Context of Secularization,” pp. 148–157 in A Word in Season (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1994), 150.

5. Lesslie Newbigin, The Other Side of 1984 (Geneva: World Council of Churches, 1983), 31. By “fiduciary framework,” Newbigin refers to what he elsewhere calls a “plausibility structure,” or what one might more commonly refer to as a worldview.

6. While Newbigin writes things to this point in multiple places, consider this quote, from A Word in Season: “Evangelism is not the effort of Christians to increase the size and importance of the Church. It is sharing the Good News and God reigns—good news for those who believe, bad news for those who reject. Evangelism must be rescued from a Pelagian anxiety, as though we were responsible for converting the world. God reigns and his reign is revealed and effective in the incarnation, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus. As we grow in a deeper understanding of this fact, as we learn more and more to live by the other story, we become more confident in sharing this reality with those who have not yet seen it.” Lesslie Newbigin, “Evangelism in the Context of Secularization,” 155.