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What Happened When My Church Encountered Negative World

February 7th, 2024 | 16 min read

By Patrick Miller

In the introduction to Aaron Renn’s new book, Life in the Negative World, he cites my church, The Crossing, as the quintessential illustration of his three worlds framework. He tells a painful, decade-long story I participated in firsthand. In a way, our story does support his thesis.

Unless you know our full story, that is.

Renn’s telling highlights both what is so helpful about his framework—namely, the way it narrowly describes the intense pressure produced by a pervasive LGTBQ and progressive politics—and also what is so unhelpful about it (more on that later).

But first, our story.

The Church and the Festival

In 2008 one of our lead pastors, Dave Cover, forged a relationship with a local, progressive documentary film festival, called True/False. The partnership ran deep: We sponsored the festival’s yearly charitable cause, church members volunteered at the festival, and many supported it by buying passes and attending. Renn writes that we hoped to “build bridges to those who were not Christian” and believed “the films featured were asking the right questions about the human condition and what was wrong with the world.”[1] 

Exactly.

The partnership eventually drew national attention. In 2014 and 2016, the New York Times and Christianity Today wrote positive pieces about our friendship, “which highlighted how the two groups were able to work together while disagreeing on some matters.”[2] For Renn, our collaboration was a shining example of what Christians could do in the neutral world: act as faithful, non-threatening presences without fear of retribution for our regressive views on LGB (T and Q weren’t on the list in 2008) issues. Indeed, the “T” was precisely where our partnership with True/False took a turn.

In 2019, Keith Simon preached a sermon affirming that there are only two genders. Renn details the fallout,

This sermon caused a major controversy in the Columbia community. As the Crossing stood by their position, institutions in town came under pressure to drop partnerships with the church. The True/False Film Fest decided to do so, cutting ties. An art gallery in town did likewise. A church that had worked hard never to offer gratuitous offense suddenly found itself a pariah in parts of the local community it had been trying to reach.[3]

By 2019 we’d entered Renn’s negative world, and unwittingly stepped on a landmine that made us untouchables in circles that once welcomed us. Renn summarizes the lesson we supposedly learned,

Regardless of their approach, the world wasn’t willing to accept their beliefs. The fact that Christians like these are at risk of being ostracized for their beliefs reveals that we’ve now entered a new and unprecedented era in America, one I call the “negative world.” That is, for the first time in the history of our country, orthodox Christianity is viewed negatively by secular society, especially by its elite domains. This shift to the negative world poses a profound challenge to American evangelicals and their churches and institutions.[4]

At first glance, our story is the perfect encapsulation for Renn’s thesis: Progressives are systematically shoving Christians out of public life at great cost to their reputations and livelihoods.

But let’s take more than a glance.

What Renn Gets Right: The Three Worlds of Sex, Sexuality, and Gender Ideology

Things have changed for Christians, especially in regards to LGBT issues. Just 15 years ago, views of gender and sexuality now considered retrograde, were thoroughly mainstream. As a result, those who held to traditional views of marriage and gender, were not considered beyond the moral pale in most college-educated, non-coastal circles. If you preached the sermon that got us attacked in 2019 in 2010 instead, it would’ve been considered weird, not immoral. Weird, because hardly anyone in mainstream culture was discussing trans issues. Not immoral, because most midwestern democrats would’ve had no problem with the statement, “There are only two genders.”

But nine years later, that same sermon generated death threats, indiewire articles, and the explosion of a decade-long partnership. It was painful. Renn is right: We felt like pariahs. When different evangelicals scoff at the idea that the world is negative—“You think it’s hard now? What if you lived in…?”—they simply prove that they’re out of touch with how local institutions are weathering the changing winds of the sexual revolution.

Indeed, when you apply Renn’s three worlds framework to public discourse on sex, sexuality and gender, his timeline makes rough sense.

From 1964 to 1994 American ideas about sex outside of marriage underwent dramatic changes, especially in elite, urban, coastal cities. But most Americans believed that sex belonged in marriage. Schools taught abstinence. It was a changing world, but on the whole a positive one for the Christian sex ethic.

Between 1994 and 2014 America began to undergo yet another major transformation. After the more radical gay liberation movement, launched during the 1969 Stonewall riots, failed to move the dial on the average American’s conception of homosexuality, the much more palitable gay marriage movement, led by people like Andrew Sullivan, normalized same-sex relationships. Shows like Will and Grace began to normalize gay relationships in the mainstream, but as late as 2010 not even Barack Obama—a private supporter of gay marriage—could publicly endorse it. But by the end of the era, most Americans had changed their position. They supported gay marriage, and this ultimately culminated in Obergefell v. Hodges in 2015. In this period, Christians were “neutral,” considered prudish for their commitment to abstinence, but not regressive, because most Americans agreed with them on LGB issues.

The post-2014 world, or what Renn calls the negative world, marks the moment when Christians stood outside the mainstream on both sex and sexuality. It’s also the point at which transgenderism entered rapidly into the cultural mainstream. Vanity Fair’s Bruce turned Katelyn Jenner cover was a sea change, pointing toward the moment when—especially in the widespread protests of 2019 and 2020—anyone (not just Christians) holding views out of step with the most progressive ideologies risked exclusion from elite circles: Fortune 500 companies, Hollywood, journalism, and eventually the Biden White House.

If we consider the three worlds as a narrow lens for describing the experiences of anyone out of step with the developing sexual ideology of each era, it makes tremendous sense. (Perhaps this is why Renn’s book is focused primarily on the risks people take for remaining faithful in this one era—there is a bit on CRT, but little on far right politics, and nothing on greed, materialism, or consumerism.) In truth, it’s not just a negative world for evangelicals. It’s a negative world for anyone who will not affirm far left ideologies—whether you’re Al Mohler or Andrew Sullivan, Rosaria Butterfield or Bari Weiss.

That said, the negativity of the post-2015 negative world is most keenly felt by those who, in the pre-2014 world, had easier access to power and influence: middle class, college-educated, non-coastal evangelicals. I’m not doing identity politics, I’m just observing that if you lived on the coasts as an evangelical before 2014, you didn’t feel like you lived in a “neutral world.” You were an outsider who spent the last few decades with divergent views on sex/sexuality. But middle class, midwestern and southern evangelicals enjoyed a sense of being normal. Many were insiders who had access to power denied to those of lower social strata, and (often) different skin color.

For example, it’s hard to imagine black or white Christians teaching orthodox views of race in Selma, Alabama in 1964 calling it a “positive world.” So-called “Christian” segregation academies, like Bob Jones University, didn’t desegregate until 1971, and didn’t lift their ban on interracial dating until 2000. They were reflective of the negative world of the south throughout the so-called “positive world” era.

Back to the main topic: Just as changing sexual mores galvanized the evangelical purity movement of the 90s (would they have described their world as positive or neutral toward Chrisitanity?), changing views of sexuality and gender became the issue for non-coastal evangelicals like me in the mid-2010s, because for the first time they were dictating the terms of my participation in certain parts of mainstream culture. We experience today as a particularly negative world—as compared to 10 years ago—for the same reasons non-evangelicals like Andrew Sullivan and J.K. Rowling do.

This is why former enemies of evangelicalism, like the new atheists, have become co-belligerents. Sam Harris, James Lindsay, and Peter Boghossian all live in a negative world, too. Likewise, non-evangelical free speech advocates who once coded left, like Johnathan Haidt, Bari Weiss, and Greg Lukianoff, also find themselves in a negative world.

Evangelicals experience the negativity as resistance to their faith, the New Atheists as resistance to reason, and the free speech advocates as resistance to the First Amendment. In many ways it’s all of these things and none of them in particular. The negative world that Renn describes results from the recent ascension of an imperialistic ideology—the successor ideology, the identity synthesis, wokeism—that has taken control of major American institutions, and is unafraid to forcefully remove and shame anyone and everyone who resists assimilation.

So let me be clear: We do live in a negative world and we are not alone.

The primary cause of this significant negative is not primarily our faith—after all, we stand aside those who deny Christ—but the ideological takeover of higher education, and coastal and urban businesses, publications, and institutions by the latest and most fashionable ideas about sex, sexuality, and gender.

As such, our church’s story really is the platonic ideal of a more narrow thesis: middle-class, non-coastal, college-educated evangelical churches are viewed less positively in their communities than they were 10 years ago. This is undeniably true. So I write that with no smugness. These are my people. I love them, and I’ve experienced the pain of this negative world firsthand. Contrary to those evangelicals who seem obsessed with minimizing or denying the problem, I believe it is both significant and important.

But just because I believe something is important, doesn’t mean it’s the only thing I believe is important or that it’s the only story which needs to be told. The problem with Renn’s framework is that he overplays his hand. He broadens what should have been narrow.

While our story, certainly fits with that narrow thesis, it also shows what his framework ignores: 1) The negativity non-coastal evangelicals experience today does not come exclusively from progressives, but just as forcefully from far-right idealogues. 2) The pre-2014 era wasn’t neutral. It, too, was a negative world. Put differently, Renn’s framework doesn’t actually make sense of the church that, in his introduction, epitomized it.

So let’s tell the rest of our story.

The MAGA-Powered Negative World

If you spoke to The Crossing’s pastors in 2019 and 2020, in the aftermath of the trans sermon, you would quickly discover that wasn’t the only (or even the most intense) source of negativity we were experiencing. Inside and outside our church there were conservatives who were publicly critical of us for a long list of reasons: We weren’t pro-Trump enough, we weren’t patriotic enough, we preached about race, we (here’s an ironic one) weren’t anti-trans enough, and later weren’t anti-vax enough.

During this time, pastors (not just us, but most I know in the midwest) took intense heat from both sides. This created many strange experiences. In a single day, someone publicly called me a CRT cultural marxist and someone else called me a white supremacist. In a single week, one family left the church because we weren’t pro-BLM and a different family life because they said we supported CRT. We took hard hits publicly for critiquing the January 6 rioters and critiquing our school district for bringing children to a drag performance without parental permission. These experiences led Keith Simon and I to write Truth Over Tribe—a pastoral book challenging Christians to overcome partisan division on both sides with love and forgiveness.

On a pastoral level, the public attacks from the right were challenging, but the personal conversations were the most painful. I had people whom I counseled through marital distress, catastrophic loss, and awful sickness who turned against me because I wouldn’t affirm a right-wing conspiracy theory or stop teaching about ethnic reconciliation (which is hard to do if you teach through Ephesians, Galatians, Romans, Luke, Revelation, etc.).

When you strip away all the globalizing abstractions—like journalism, Hollywood, government, and big business—and focus instead on the on-the-ground experience of local institutional leaders, you will discover that their “negative world” is caused both by a left-wing progressive movement and a right-wing populist movement.

You can tell our church’s story in a way that makes us the victims of the progressives, but that’s not our full story. Nor is it the story of most non-coastal churches that refused to go pro-Trump or pro-Biden in 2020. Pastors at such churches will tell you the same story: The negative world bows before golden donkeys and elephants.

Thus, when Renn recommended that Christians mitigate the risk of the negative world by moving to conservative states or counties, I found myself chuckling. Good luck. You’ll find the negative world in Macon, Missouri and Miami, Florida.

Perhaps that’s because the “negative world” isn’t actually anything new?

The Negative World Has Always Been Around

The main problem with Renn’s description of our story—and to be clear, all his details are correct!—isn’t that he calls our modern moment negative. Again, it is. The main problem is that he describes our church’s experience in the 2014 era as neutral.

If you found yourself wondering why the New York Times and Christianity Today would cover the story of a partnership between a low-profile evangelical church and a low-profile documentary film festival in a town of 125,000 people, then you were asking the right question.

Here’s the answer: Our partnership was extraordinarily uncommon. So far as we know, there were no other major partnerships between an evangelical church and a progressive film festival. When I spent time with film festival attendees from outside the city, they were always perplexed by our friendship.

What Renn doesn’t know is that it took years of slow trust building between one of our pastors and one of the festival directors for them both to get to the point where they not only felt good about partnering with one another, but would share about it publicly. If we lived in the heyday of mid-2000’s neutrality, one would not expect this. One would expect that trust and respect would be simple, and that there would be dozens, if not hundreds of churches deploying this obvious “neutral world strategy.”

What we did wouldn’t have been strange or novel. But it was. So much so that national papers picked it up. What made the story remarkable is obvious: we overcame the 2008 negative world, because the negative world was alive and well in 2008.

Even a cursory reading of evangelical writing about American culture from the 90s, 80s, 70s, or 60s reveals that most evangelicals did not experience the world around them as “positive” or “neutral” toward their faith. You’ll find jeremiads against the sexual revolution, permissive parenting, liberal school textbooks, liberal schools, feminism, homosexuality, and the like.

The Crossing’s founding pastors, Dave Cover and Keith Simon, understood that they lived in a negative world when they planted the church in 2000. If you read their founding theological vision, it’s clear that they intentionally sought to lead a church that engaged with a culture that mistrusted Christians, to break negative stereotypes, and show the beauty of the gospel to a skeptical community by cultivating the good, resisting the evil, and working for the welfare of the city. They named the church “The Crossing,” because they wanted our people to live at the intersection of the gospel, local culture, and local community. They wanted to be the kind of church that made such a positive impact on the local community that if it ever disappeared even non-Christians would miss its absence.

That’s how we responded to the negative world then. It’s how we respond to the negative world now. We follow the wisdom of Jeremiah 29, we work for the welfare of our community. So if you’re an immigrant, single mom, foster child, or a former prisoner in Columbia, the first person you’ll get help from will likely be from The Crossing. After we got “canceled” by the local arts community, we canceled $43 million of dollars of local medical debt in our county and state. We ensured that no one’s electricity would be shut off during COVID by paying off our city’s utility disconnect list. We’ve forged partnerships with charities, local schools, local business, university athletic departments, and much more besides.

That is who we are in the negative world. And despite all those “out-dated” strategies, our church has grown, our people have deepened, and we’re seeing a small-scale revival amongst our college students.

Yes, some people on the left and right hate us. Yes, sometimes we experience pain for our fidelity to the scriptures. But in the end Jesus’s ethics still work today: Love your enemies, bless those who persecute you, walk the extra mile and live like you believe God wants to answer your prayers for his kingdom on Earth through your life.

The Cost of Negative World Framing

If we come to believe that we live in a uniquely negative era for Christianity that outstrips the hardship of previous eras, it has a tendency to justify extreme measures in the present that ignore Jesus’s plain teachings in the sermon on the mount. I don’t think Renn falls into this trap—most of his advice is standard transformationalist fare which I agree with!—but I suspect many of his admirers will continue to use the negative world framing to buttress bad ethics.

The idea of a uniquely negative world puts Christians on the defensive. The problem with defenses is that they know what they’re against, not what they’re for. When you believe that you live in an especially dark dispensation, you will be more prone to buy into negative visions, and take on a negative identity (i.e. an identity centered on what you’re opposed to). Again, Renn himself warns about this problem. But it is pervasive: Christians on both sides unite around what they want to burn down, not what they want to build up.

When you realize that Jesus expected his followers to be joyful outsiders in every era—sojourners, pilgrims, exiles—you become much less reactive to the negative world around you. Christians have always lived in negative worlds. Yes, each negative world is different, and it is worth exploring those differences.

But Babylon is always Babylon.

Thankfully, Jesus gave us everything we need to respond wisely. There’s one last piece of our story that doesn’t make it into The Negative World: what happened immediately after our partnership broke down. Keith Simon and I tell the rest of the story in Truth Over Tribe,

After the festival ended our partnership, we knew we had a decision to make. News organizations were calling for our response. Should we fire back in kind? Critique them publicly? Tell our church to boycott the festival? Ask business owners to withdraw their support?

Of course not. Jesus taught us a different way, “You have heard the law that says, ‘Love your neighbor’ and hate your enemy. But I say, love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you!” (Matt. 5:43-44).

It wasn’t easy, but it was simple. Jesus told us what to do: love.

So we took to the internet to thank the festival for our past partnership. I (and others) wrote long social media posts sincerely expressing why we love the festival and encouraging fellow church members to continue attending in the future.

In a private conversation with one of the festival’s leaders, he said to me, “It was a master class on grace.” I wanted to take credit. But I couldn’t. I replied that we’re merely students of the master.

I’ve never regretted that response, though I’m sure plenty of people would call it a lame “neutral world” strategy. I disagree. It wasn’t a strategy. It was obedience. Enemy love is the wise response in every negative world because, in the final analysis, the way we respond to the negative world will either proclaim the love and mercy of Jesus or it will not. When we follow the master’s teachings by loving our enemies, we proclaim his true wisdom, love and beauty.

Sometimes the negative world is attracted by this behavior. Other times it simply yells, “Crucify them!” But it is not our part to guess the response and act accordingly. It is simply ours to trust and obey that a cross-shaped life in the negative world is the path to resurrection.

Footnotes

[1] Renn, Aaron M.. Life in the Negative World: Confronting Challenges in an Anti-Christian Culture (p. xiv).

[2] Renn, Aaron M.. Life in the Negative World: Confronting Challenges in an Anti-Christian Culture (p. xiv).

[3] Renn, Aaron M.. Life in the Negative World: Confronting Challenges in an Anti-Christian Culture (p. xiv).
[4] Renn, Aaron M.. Life in the Negative World: Confronting Challenges in an Anti-Christian Culture (p. xv).

Patrick Miller

Patrick Miller (MDiv, Covenant Theological Seminary) is a pastor at The Crossing. He offers cultural commentary and interviews with leading Christian thinkers on the podcast Truth Over Tribe, and is the coauthor of the forthcoming book Truth Over Tribe: Pledging Allegiance to the Lamb, Not the Donkey or the Elephant. He is married to Emily and they have two kids.