Pragmatism and Church Growth: Why It is Bad
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a new school of philosophy emerged called ‘pragmatism’. This school of philosophy taught that the truthfulness of any idea or concept is based on its utility rather than on objective truth. Pragmatism often asks ‘What works?’ rather than ‘What is right to do?’ In other words, whatever is useful and beneficial to achieve one’s goal is justified. This way of thinking is often expressed in the mantra ‘the end justifies the means’.
Unfortunately, pragmatism is not only prevalent in the secular world, but has also infiltrated the church. The emergence of the church-growth movement has not helped. Churches buy into pragmatism when they think that any method not explicitly prohibited by Scripture can be used to bring people into the church. If the church grows in attendance and increases its offerings, then the methodology is to be accepted and promoted. Churches that have embraced a pragmatic approach to ministry often suggest ‘the package is different, but the message is the same’. On the surface, pragmatism commends itself to church leadership (which pastor doesn’t want his church to grow, anyway?). However, in the end a pragmatic approach to ministry does more harm than good.
Of course, we must be careful not to lump all kinds of pragmatism together as unhelpful for the church. There are times when we’re confronted with options that are not morally or theologically wrong. Within that realm, it is always wise to choose what is most helpful, edifying and best serves the advance of the gospel.
Nevertheless, often times a pragmatic approach to ministry will tend to disregard what is morally and theologically right in favour of what brings ‘results’.
Thus, here are three reasons why a purely pragmatic approach to ministry is unbiblical and therefore bad for the church:
1. Pragmatism elevates human wisdom over God’s
Pragmatic churches often ask ‘what works?’ instead of ‘what is biblical?’. Thus, what brings the best results becomes the primary factor in decision-making. Instead of seeking God’s revealed will in his word, such churches pursue human wisdom, judging an activities usefulness by their own finite mind. Any method, programme or activity that does not contribute to the goal is scrapped. If modern music works, then traditional hymns will be abandoned. If music or video works, then the time for preaching is limited. If guilt-tripping makes people come to church, then pastors will seek to induce guilt on their members. In other words, pragmatism trusts more in human wisdom and methods to grow the church rather than God. This is a form of idolatry. Pragmatism trusts more in the planting and watering rather in the God who causes the growth (1 Corinthians 3:6). The usefulness of any idea, programme or activity in promoting church growth becomes the basis for decision making, rather than God’s word.
2. Pragmatism fills the church with false converts
Paul the apostle confidently says that the gospel is the power of God for salvation for everyone who believes (Romans 1:16). The means in which God draws people to Himself is by the preaching of the gospel. Gospel preaching is therefore the only means to grow the church in a faithful and enduring way. Pragmatism, on the other hand, uses other means to draw people to the church.
Bringing people into a church gathering does not necessarily mean that they have been converted. In the mostly Iban context where I currently serve, it is frustratingly common for churches to attract new converts by telling them that when they die they will get Christian funeral rites and a burial lot. This results in people coming to Christ because of the earthly benefits they are offered, rather than in true faith turning to Christ as their Saviour and Lord. Consequently, churches are full of false converts who have no idea what the gospel is or what it means to carry their own cross. Such ‘converts’ continue to live their old, unregenerate lives, except with a new religion on paper. Some justify this by saying that as long as people are coming to church, they will eventually learn the gospel. But this is not necessarily the case. In general, what we win people with is what we will win people to. If we win people through music, we should not be surprised when these same people leave the church when the music is no longer to their taste. Pragmatism looks good statistically in the short term, but it does not bring lasting fruit in the long term.
3. Pragmatism hijacks the gospel
When pragmatism takes over, what really matters is ‘what works’. If any idea, programme or activity is ‘working’ in bringing people to gather in church building, then why preach the gospel? If other things can draw more people to church, then why preach the offensive gospel that tells people of their sinfulness and the need for a Saviour? The church may be filled with people who call themselves “Christians”, but who do not know Christ. The gospel is side-lined and takes on a supporting role, rather than being the main ‘actor’. In the long term, there is a danger that gospel preaching will be abandoned entirely, or even opposed.
A Better Way
If pragmatism is unbiblical and therefore bad for the church, what should we do instead? The better way is to strive for faithfulness. Faithfulness means being committed to the God-ordained means of growing the church: faithful preaching of the gospel and God’s word. Faithfulness means that that we trust firmly in God to grow the church – not our methods. That does not mean that methods and strategies are wrong in and of themselves. But as ministry workers we need to recognise that ultimately it is God who grows his church. This may be a challenge to us in the performance and result-driven world in which we live in, where numbers and statistics matter to so many. But we must remember that we are entrusted with the preaching of the gospel, not its result.
In conclusion, while we should always pursue what is most helpful, edifying and best serves the advance of the gospel, we must beware of setting aside God’s word in the search for results. Next time you’re tempted to ask ‘what works’, take a moment to stop, pray and consider, ‘what does the Bible say?’. This will ensure that we remain faithful to God’s word and keep our trust in the gospel as we pray for God to grow his church.
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Wilston Trin is an Assistant Minister at St. Peter’s Anglican Church Saratok, a church under the Anglican Diocese of Kuching. He graduated with a B. Div. from Seminari Theoloji Malaysia and currently in a transition to do his MA (Theol.) at Moore Theological College, Sydney. His passion is to help people to understand and believe the gospel, as well as helping God’s people to grow in their knowledge and love of God.
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