It didn’t take long, but we can now say that Aaron Renn and James Wood have been vindicated. Their recent analyses of our cultural moment and strategies for Christian cultural engagement have been proven right by recent events in Australia. I refer, here, to Andrew Thorburn and his rapid departure from a high-profile role at one of Australia’s most prestigious professional sporting clubs.
This incident is a harbinger of the times and illustrates the wisdom of Wood’s and Renn’s claims about the church’s relationship to the culture. Renn argues that we are in “Negative World,” a cultural climate where Christianity is on-the-nose and increasingly marginal. Conservative Christianity has a particularly bad brand in a world where traditional social mores are passé.
Wood, by interacting with the example of Presbyterian minister Tim Keller, asserted that the age of “winsome” evangelical cultural engagement is over. Whether or not Wood has properly framed Keller’s ministry style, his wider point remains prescient. Many churches, especially the “seeker-sensitive” and those who aim for cultural relevance, have tended to avoid conflict whilst maintaining a stance of relevance and cultural politeness.
Perhaps “winsome” is not the right word in this instance. But there is a mode of cultural engagement, which Wood has put his finger on, that political theologian Jonathan Cole has called the “apologetic” approach. This apologetic approach, or what I am calling the “conciliatory” approach, to cultural engagement shapes up with a defensive stance and concedes ground wherever possible. It does so with the laudable aim of maintaining relationship and credibility with a secular audience. This conciliatory approach could sustain Christianity’s credibility in a neutral-world culture, but it cannot do so in a hostile one.
In case anyone was unconvinced about either Wood’s or Renn’s analysis, one of Australia’s biggest football clubs, the Melbourne-based Essendon Bombers, has served up a lesson in Negative World cultural dynamics. One day, they were announcing the appointment of a new Chief Executive Officer, Andrew Thorburn. The appointment was a high-profile one, with Thorburn having led one of Australia’s biggest banks for many years. He was an accomplished and credible appointment.
The very next day, Thorburn resigned. Why? He was found guilty of involvement in a church whose minister preached a sermon in 2013 arguing that abortion is evil and, in a further sermon, homosexuality is a sin. The Essendon board were made aware of these unsavory utterances, and one thing rapidly led to another.
The Essendon Board Chairman said that once they found out about this apparently sordid connection between Thorburn and a bible-believing church, they “acted.” The train of events, as it was made public, suggests that Thorburn was asked to choose between his new job or his church affiliation. Thorburn chose his church and resigned.
This was a watershed cultural moment for Australia, and possibly for the West. A man with outstanding credentials was told that, because of some sermons preached by someone else from almost a decade ago, he needed to reconsider his fit for the role he had just been appointed to. For all we know, Thorburn may disagree with these sermons. He may never have been aware of them or listened to them.
The bottom line here was guilt-by-association. In Australia, things have reached a point where someone can be pressured to leave their job because of their association with a group that is out of step with the moral orthodoxy of the day. Conservative Christians are evidently no longer welcome in positions of public prominence.
The question remains as to why the Essendon board felt it necessary to confront Thorburn and force a decision on his role at the Club. Do the board truly believe that the values of inclusiveness and tolerance require no dissent on the question of sexual morality? This is possible. But it seems likely that other dynamics were at play.
Christianity, particularly the conservative variety which resists the politically correct regime, was deemed damaging for the Essendon Bombers’ brand and bottom line. Professional sport is big business. Just as supporting the LGBT cause is good for profits, so dissent from this adversely affects revenue. The Thorburn Saga shows that Negative World dynamics are not only driven by purely moral motives. Political correctness is profitable.
The media frenzy that surrounded Thorburn’s appointment and exit from the Bombers turned the spotlight on Thorburn’s church, City on a Hill. Led by Guy Mason, and located in the inner suburbs of Australia’s most progressive city, City on a Hill could be described as a culturally hip Acts 29 church combined with the inner-city cultural sensitivity of Tim Keller’s Redeemer Presbyterian.
Mason has been a leading Antipodean example of the style of ministry and cultural engagement that Wood recently criticized in First Things. It is perhaps fitting that he suddenly became the avant-garde example of why Wood is dead right. In an interview on national television with one of Australia’s leading media personalities, Mason and his interlocutor produced a performance that proved the age of the conciliatory method of cultural engagement is over.
Mason’s interviewer was David Koch, who proceeded to barrage Mason with straightforward questions about his church’s teachings about sexuality and abortion. Nothing was surprising about Koch’s line of questioning, which could be summed up as seeking an explanation as to why City on a Hill is a haven for bigotry.
The troubling thing about the interview, particularly for the culturally engaged, “gospel-centered,” missional, evangelical church, was Mason’s inability to cut through with his message of “life and love.” It made no difference how carefully he explained that his church is welcoming to differing perspectives on these issues. It made no difference how non-abrasive his approach to the interview was.
Mason, who has a public relations background and is a talented communicator, came across as bewildered and toothless. The culturally hip pastor never got to show the national audience he was addressing why his church is loving and life-giving. He never found a way to defend his friend, Andrew Thorburn. Mason served up gentle and concessional public Christianity. Koch, the secular interlocutor, was having none of it.
Is Mason at fault, here? It may depend on what he was aiming to do. If Mason was primarily intending to talk to “his people,” his congregations and those they are trying to reach in the inner suburbs of Melbourne, then he could be excused. Perhaps he was not aiming to win public points for the faith but rather wanted to present a pastoral face for City on a Hill.
Nevertheless, the reality is that Mason was acting as a “Public Christian,” whether he intended to or not. He was representing Christianity on national television. That being the case, the interview was a tactical error. National television is not a pastoral space anymore. In aiming to be pastoral, Mason possibly made things harder for himself, for Thorburn, and for his congregations.
What Mason and others need to realize is that in this Negative World public Christianity will by definition be abrasive and possibly combative. It can still be “winsome,” whilst simultaneously being ready to stand firm. If Mason and others aren’t prepared for that, it may be better to not do the interview because the message of “life and love” won’t be heard.
Thorburn’s resignation and Mason’s interview demonstrate that the church needs to face this hard truth: the world has shifted and therefore the age of conciliatory cultural engagement is over. No longer will being nice and relevant cut it. No amount of “life and love” will change the fact that, in Australia at least, we’ve entered Negative World proper.