Pragmatism. It’s a complex word that I first became acquainted with during my collegiate studies in education. In simplicity, most working dictionaries define pragmatism as the use of end results to verify the truth of something. In an educational classroom, I can see the benefits this philosophy brings. And in the American church I can see the stain that it is leaving. Before you begin to roll your eyes and jump back to Facebook allow me to say: I’m all for growing the church. I’m all for reaching our communities. I’m all in for striving towards excellence at how we do ministry. I’m no close-minded fool, I sense the excitement that the masses bring. I remember the frustration I would sense when the “old-timers” would downplay the mega-church movement as nothing more than an extrapolation of the club down the street. As if having a rockin’ praise team and discarding the red back hymnals was the equivalent of willfully purchasing a ticket into eternal doom, man come on. I’m all about crucifying some man-made tradition in the name of reaching Generation Z, The Millennials, or the million other cohorts of “unchurched” people. I’m all about growing the church, but I’m just not convinced that pragmatism is the biblical approach.
Because it’s the pragmatic—business marketing CEO model outreach strategies evaluating their success on how many professions of faith they can rack up on Easter morning that scares me. It’s the faux converts that have slipped into many baptisteries that concern me. It’s the cultural haphazard treatment of membership into the local community of faith that frustrates me. Stop trying to be a Protestant pope who confirms and baptizes people prior to them showing any evidence of genuine conversion. Stop welcoming faux converts—who are just numbers to some people—unhindered and untested, into the membership of your faith family. Pragmatism however will not allow for this because the “end results” would not be numerically favorable and according to pragmatism that means it must not be true. According to pragmatism you should continue confirming unsaved people in their sins, you should continue in baptizing faux converts; because that will in the initial foreseeable “end” (maybe the end of the year vision) most likely expand your membership role. Yet, while this would accomplish that pragmatic goal I can think of three ugly stains this is leaving on the American church that will cause some issues in the future beyond the numerical growth goal for 2019…
- Pragmatism damages the ability of the church to effectively govern itself. I’m not going to have the discussion here, for lack of space, that argues for the autonomy of the local church. As Wayne Grudem points out, “No New Testament pattern for church government is explicitly laid out in Scripture.” However, as I align with Baptist ecclesiology (church doctrine) I affirm the ability of the local church to govern itself. This has multiple benefits (protection from a dictator style of leadership, uniqueness among local churches, spiritual growth of the congregation in maturity and unity) but it is founded on the idea of the priesthood of all believers. That’s a good Southern Baptist term that teaches that all born-again believers have the ability to discern God’s will through the Bible and prayer. While “local church autonomy” may not be explicitly defined biblically, I do think the priesthood of all believers is…
- Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So, glorify God in your body. –1 Corinthians 6:19-20
- You yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. –1 Peter 2:5
I think the warning against a pragmatic approach to the church is implicit. If you grow slack in practicing believers’ only baptism and have a congregation half-full of faux converts then this will damage the ability of the congregation to discern God’s will. It will impede their ability to genuinely govern themselves. This is interesting because while a pragmatic approach may increase your “numbers” initially, a day of reckoning will come for this method. Perhaps it is an issue within leadership that splits the congregation. Perhaps it is a decision that the “unconverted section” of the congregation makes that damages itself. We could go on, but I think the point is clear. Pragmatism may be attractive initially but the ending of it could be disastrous. Therefore, pragmatism biblically and by it’s own definition “the valuing of something by the end result” disqualifies it as a “good” method for church growth.
- Pragmatism will give a terrible testimony to the community around your church. It might startle you that I could say that with such confidence. However, unbelievers typically do not leave a strong Christian testimony in their lives. This is because unbelievers are dead to the things of God (spiritually dead) and even hostile to things of God (Romans 8:7 –For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God). As I posted last week (see the blog titled-Mixed Signals) when people who profess to be a Christian live inconsistently with the Gospel, it sends mixed signals to those around you. As Rick Warren (Pastor of Saddleback church in California) has said, “People want to go where people’s lives are being changed.” I completely concur, 100%. That doesn’t mean that everyone in your church is perfect, we are still fallen beings. Yet we have all heard people say that hypocrisy is what deters them from coming to the church. In days gone by I would be greatly angered by such a statement, but now I think there is some truth to this. It just seems to me (and I believe the New Testament authors point out the importance of living holy lives) that the greatest testimony for a Christian is to really live like one. If pragmatism is your method and it’s all about numbers then you can expect faux converts to slip in. When false converts slip in a good testimony slips out (Recall Romans 8:7). Thus pragmatism, while it may initially grow your church, could impede the ability of your church to reach others in the near future. Therefore, pragmatism biblically and by it’s own definition “the valuing of something by the end result” disqualifies it as a “good” method for church growth.
- Pragmatism will open the door for consumer-priority membership. We all know that person who treats the church like a Burger King instead of the spiritual family they commit to in covenant relationship. Point being—if you don’t give me what I want my way, then I will hit the highway and go to the McDonald’s down the street. This is quite the opposite of how church membership has historically been viewed. There is actually an account in early Baptist history where a person was denied the right to “swap churches” because the other location was of more convenience to them. I don’t know what I think about that but it certainly proves my point! Yet if pragmatism is your church growth model then you better account for consumerism because not only do you have to win them, but you have to also keep them. This causes all types of issues but the most disastrous effect of working endlessly to provide for consumers is the fracturing of fellowship that it will cause. I love what a recent author wrote about this, “Church membership is like a marriage. When you join the church, you marry that church.” The issue with pragmatism is that it drifts the church away from this type of meaningful fellowship and places an unnecessary stress on leadership and members to compete with other organizations—and that’s not just limited to other churches. So, what if you don’t like the music. So, what if you don’t like the new preacher’s style. So, what if you don’t like the way your complimentary cup of coffee taste. You need to realize that the church is not a product you consume, it’s a family you serve. Pragmatism however will not allow for this. If pragmatism is your method then you must compete, because not competing in this consumer culture will exclude you from reaching the numerical goal for the upcoming year. Yet it is my conviction that a strong fellowship composed of people of diversity that are united the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit will in the end be much more attractive than a faux fellowship that bickers over a menu. Just check out Acts 2:42-47. Therefore, pragmatism biblically and by its own definition “the valuing of something by the end result” disqualifies it as a “good” method for church growth.
I’m not suggesting I have all the answers for “how to grow your church.” I am suggesting that the Bible does and I am convinced that the more we return to a biblical model of church growth the greater and more genuine our growth will be. Will that call for reform? You bet it will. Will it be tough? You bet it will. Will you lose some of the “consumers?” I am sure you will. Reformation is never easy nor is it convenient. Reformation is never cheap, but it is my conviction that it is well worth the cost. Who knows, if the American church returns to an Acts two model for church then perhaps God will bless us by awakening the millions of lost souls who are sitting in our churches. Perhaps through a reformation God will work and begin to add to our number day by day those who are being saved (Acts 2:47). May the fires of Reformation be kindled once again.
Blessings in Christ,
Some excellent sources that have challenged, informed and shaped my thinking are listed below:
John S. Hammett, Biblical Foundations for Baptist Churches: A Contemporary Ecclesiology. (Kregel Publishing Co., 2005)
Brett McCracken. Uncomfortable: The Awkward and Essential Challenge of Christian Community. (Crossway, 2017)
Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994)
Gregg Allison, Historical Theology: An Introduction to Christian Doctrine. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011)