The macroscopic dynamics of large populations of neurons can be mathematically analyzed using low-dimensional firing-rate or neural-mass models. However, these models fail to capture spike synchronization effects and nonstationary responses of the population activity to rapidly changing stimuli. Here we derive low-dimensional firing-rate models for homogeneous populations of neurons modeled as time-dependent renewal processes. The class of renewal neurons includes integrate-and-fire models driven by white noise and has been frequently used to model neuronal refractoriness and spike synchronization dynamics. The derivation is based on an eigenmode expansion of the associated refractory density equation, which generalizes previous spectral methods for Fokker-Planck equations to arbitrary renewal models. We find a simple relation between the eigenvalues characterizing the timescales of the firing rate dynamics and the Laplace transform of the interspike interval density, for which explicit expressions are available for many renewal models. Retaining only the first eigenmode already yields a reliable low-dimensional approximation of the firing-rate dynamics that captures spike synchronization effects and fast transient dynamics at stimulus onset. We explicitly demonstrate the validity of our model for a large homogeneous population of Poisson neurons with absolute refractoriness and other renewal models that admit an explicit analytical calculation of the eigenvalues. The eigenmode expansion presented here provides a systematic framework for alternative firing-rate models in computational neuroscience based on spiking neuron dynamics with refractoriness.