The Problem with the Pragmatic Church
The ‘come one, come all’ approach to ministry that is so common in the 21st Century Western church has given many people the opportunity to hear the gospel of our Lord Jesus. This is something that we celebrate as a church, but also lament because of what it has done to the purity of the church itself.
To use an illustration, it’s as if the church were a life-boat sailing the seas, looking to pick up struggling swimmers out of the waters before they drown. In an effort to save souls, it’s as if the modern church has pulled itself apart, plank by plank, to use in their efforts to pull people aboard, leaving the boat in such a horrible condition that it no longer resembles what it was first designed for. In time, these modern practices will leave the boat in such an unhealthy condition that it will require saving itself!
At the heart of the problem is pragmatism. God designed the church, it belongs to him, he bought it with his blood, and he has the right to tell us how to manage this divinely inspired body. Like all questions related to theology, if we want to know how to be a faithful church, we have to go to scripture to find out what God’s will is for the church. Instead, pragmatism (or theological pragmatism as it’s often called), asks, ‘what works?’ And looking outside of scripture, uses human reason and secular business principles to create a philosophy for church growth that they believe will be more effective in achieving the purposes of God than the Apostolic model we see in the Bible.
As a result, when we consider how the church should understand who belongs to it, we very rarely see ‘membership’ in the body as clearly defined as it is in scripture. When we consider how the church should be governed, we very rarely see pastors look to the model of leadership given to us in the New Testament to understand their role and responsibilities. Jesus clearly had a church in mind that would be responsible for the keys of the Kingdom (Matthew 16:18–19 and 18:17–18), but most ‘church go-ers’ these days have never considered their role in who is bound or loosened from the life of the church, because as one pastor said to me, “That all makes me nervous!” And we could go on and on…
As we consider the distance between the New Testament church and what we commonly see in our day, we have to stop and ask, ‘Is this pleasing to God?’ Far too often the question is, ‘Does this work?’ Which leads us to analyse data for an answer, often affirming our pragmatic tools at the expense of faithfulness to God’s word. And the deception in all this is that man-made ways of achieving God’s purposes will always seem impressive, but in the long run will prove to be utter foolishness, as God proves the wisdom of his word by leaving the philosophies of the world in ruins.
By way of another example, in our day we like things big, bright and juicy, and that includes our fruit and vegetables. And so scientists have worked together with farmers to come up with genetically modified produce, growing crops faster, feeding more people, and looking more like the kind of fruit we would have expected to see in the Garden of Eden. The problem with this produce is that although it looks impressive, genetically modified fruit and vegetables are low in nutrients because of the artificial way they’ve been grown. Their big and bright exterior is actually a deception, because deep inside the produce it lacks the very substance they were designed to provide for us as fuel.
Churches that head down the pragmatic road are often like this. They look clean and polished from the outside, but on the inside there is a lack of depth in the very substance of true religion. Compared with attendance, their generosity is dismal. Compared with the number of all who call the church ‘home’, their service statistics are embarrassing. There will always be genuine Christians giving more of themselves than required in every gospel preaching church, but in pragmatic churches these believers are surrounded by a sea of consumers who have been lured in to the church by something other than the gospel of Jesus Christ, and are held there by competing consumeristic methods. This creates a problem, because what we win people with, is what we win them to. And whether it’s the life of the community itself, the music, the manner of the sermons, the helpful life-skills caught and taught, the comfortable chairs, the events or whatever else it is, that is often what keeps the members of these churches engaged and in attendance, not the gospel itself or their commitment to each other, for Christ’s sake.
Compare this pragmatic method with the Apostle Paul’s;
17For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.
1 Corinthians 1:17
22 For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles…
1 Corinthians 1:22–23
1 And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. 2 For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. 3 And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, 4 and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, 5 so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.
1 Corinthians 2:1–5
Consider that last verse, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God… that is to say, nothing but the cross of Christ so that those who come, come only because of the power of the Spirit as they respond to the gospel of Jesus. Nothing but the cross of Christ so that those who stay away, do so on account of Christ. Resulting in a church body that is made up of those who are Spirit-filled believers. A far cry from the modern pragmatic church that is filled with people who are there for all kinds of reasons, thinking they’re in when in truth they’re out; making up the numbers to give the impression the church is full of health, when in reality, the substance of the church is sorely lacking. A genetically modified church that appeals to the statistics of human reason, but is a long way off the kind of church Jesus planted and promoted through his Apostles.
This pragmatic approach to ministry has no limits because it affects every area of the church. And our concern should be that its apparent ‘success’ in the last 50 years is simply the result of the self-centred culture we’ve enjoyed in this part of the world. We live in a society that has become a community of consumers, and the pragmatic church has leveraged off this consumerism by selling Jesus as a product that can be marked via felt-needs. ‘Bait and switch!’ as they say, or ‘Get them through the doors any way you can and then tell them the gospel!’ Without realising that what you win consumers with, is what you win them to. And sadly, this is how you’re forced to keep them.
But worst of all, is the effect on the church itself. No longer will people see a body of Christ made up of those who belong to Christ, shining bright for Jesus as they display the kind of love and service that characterised their Lord. Instead the church will become a body of people undistinguishable from each other. A sea of people with no clear line between those who are born again and those who are not. A flock of sheep and goats mixed in together, led by shepherds who are teaching methods derived from the world in the one hand, and the pure teachings of Christ in the other, calling for sacrificial service while being served as consumers. The line between the church and world rubbed out as both are present within the life of the community, dismantling the very vessel that Jesus created to save those who are lost.
This approach to ministry might go on for some time, but the cracks will become wider as our culture becomes more secular. As the cost of discipleship becomes more apparent, those who are not genuinely born again but have found themselves ‘at home’ in a pragmatic church will no longer be as committed. The church body will look as though it’s fragmenting, leaving the impression that Christ is not enough for these ‘believers’, having a horrific effect on those who are watching on, and worst of all, making Jesus out to look like he’s not with dying for.
If we have learnt anything from the construction of one of the church’s clearest Old Testament antecedents – the temple of the Lord – then surely we can see the faithfulness of Moses in the way ‘Moses did everything just as the LORD commanded him’ – Exodus 40:16, 19, 21, 23, 25, 27, 29 and 32. Since the church now ‘rises to become a holy temple in the Lord’ (Ephesians 2:21) as the fulfilment of the Old Covenant temple, should we assume we can build it however we choose? Did the New Covenant also come with permission to add to the word of God? Were the Old Testament scriptures more sufficient than the New? Hasn’t God given us enough instruction through the teaching of our Lord Jesus and his Apostles to know how to manage the church and its mission?
Pragmatism has no clear answer to these questions because it’s driven by whatever works in each cultural moment. The faithful church has clear answers to these questions because it goes to the scriptures for answers.
In the end, Jesus will test the quality of each church’s work, and it seems obvious that whatever is of human origin will not last. By God’s grace, pragmatism doesn’t even last the test of time, as one generation hands the church over to the next, from one pragmatist to another, in order to reach one generation to the next. Our culture is shifting, and has been doing so since sin came into the world. Should the church shift with it? Does God’s word? Or should the church be a consistent embodiment of the truth and wisdom found in scripture, standing firm across time? Surely this is the answer. And by God’s grace, the whole evangelical Christian community will work together to build healthy, biblical churches to the glory of God.
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