When Methodist missionary J. Waskom Pickett published Christian Mass Movements in India in 1933, it would’ve been impossible to predict its impact on American evangelicalism. His observations about rates of conversion and church growth among Indian castes may have seemed innocuous at the time, but his interest in outcomes betrayed assumptions rooted in pragmatism.
Pickett’s book resonated strongly with young Donald McGavran, who carried the baton forward, lighting his “candle at Pickett’s fire.” Using Pickett’s observations, McGavran developed the “homogeneous growth unit principle,” that people prefer “to become Christians without crossing racial, linguistic, or class barriers.” Keeping people as comfortable as possible was the key to higher conversion and growth rates. That’s pragmatism, unvarnished and unapologetic—practical outcomes, measured value, and determined conduct.
McGavran returned from the mission field to plant pragmatic growth strategies in the fertile, Arminian soil of American evangelicalism. It was like pouring Miracle-Gro on weeds. Churches that incorporated McGavran’s seekerfriendly church-growth strategies were booming. The come-as-you-are gospel was more appealing—and therefore more numerically successful—than the gospel of self-sacrifice.
Though today there’s widespread disillusionment with the fields of weeds, many continue to engage in pragmatism. It’s distorting the gospel as it’s contextualized to other cultures and subcultures. And it’s turning the Sunday worship service into a staged event, with all the requisite accoutrements—rock band, “attractional” preaching, and support groups.
Pragmatism is so deeply rooted in evangelical soil that many pastors enter ministry embracing its assumptions. In fact, it’s so native to evangelical thinking that some pastors fail to see the incongruity in teaching the doctrines of grace while practicing Arminian-style evangelism and church-growth strategies.
It’s time to weed the garden. Let’s eradicate every noxious, thorny strategy rooted in pragmatism. Not only does pragmatism undermine the consistency of our theology and practice, but it’s choking out the good fruit of a principle-driven, convictional ministry grounded in God’s Word. So, here are four reasons to don the gardening gloves and grab the trowel:
First, pragmatism clouds the church’s vision. Pragmatism requires us to examine practical results, that is, to walk by sight, not by faith. Yet our judgment is limited and fallible at best; if we are the arbiter of what works, we reinforce prideful self-reliance, which is blindness. God calls us to live by faith. We are to fear Him, trust His Word, and leave the results—and our judgment about what works—to Him. Walking by faith clears the church’s vision.
Second, pragmatism diminishes the church’s glory. Pragmatism fosters man-centeredness, glorying in man’s ability, ingenuity, and innovation—which is no glory at all. The church is an assembly of sinners, redeemed by faith, who glory in the God of sovereign grace. William Gurnall wrote,
God is more jealous of having the glory of his grace ravished by the pride and self-glorying of the creature, than ever any prince was of having his queen deflowered … to secure it from any such horrid abuse, he hath chosen faith … whose very nature, being a self-emptying grace, renders it incapable of entering into any such design against the glory of God’s grace.
God is the church’s glory, not man. His power is manifest when the church trusts His Word to accomplish His will.
Third, pragmatism supplants the church’s true authority. Pragmatism puts man—his judgments, innovations, and strategies—in the seat of authority. But the church belongs to Christ (Matt. 16:18). As head of the church, what He says is exclusively authoritative (Eph. 4:15; 5:23).
Fourth, pragmatism diverts the church’s purpose. Like waterless clouds, pragmatism finally fails to deliver on its promises. Christ’s Great Commission is to make disciples, which involves baptizing (evangelism) and teaching (edification). We’re to do that without anxiously counting numbers. How many disciples depends on God’s sovereign election, not our methods.
Christ designed the church to be “the pillar and buttress of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15) by proclaiming the gospel to the lost and teaching the redeemed to practice the truth. That’s Ephesians 4:11-16: Apostles and prophets laid the church’s foundation with the truth; evangelists plant new believers in the truth; pastors and teachers anchor saints by teaching and equipping them according to the truth.
So, pastors should spend their time and energy on studying and thinking deeply about truth. Feeding Christ’s sheep should be their consuming preoccupation (John 21:15-17). They are shepherds, not entrepreneurs. They guide the flock by the “pattern of sound words” (2 Tim. 1:13) and entrust those words to faithful teachers who will teach the next generation (2:2). The church desperately needs men who will “hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that [they] may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it” (Titus 1:9).
Pragmatism is poison to the church. Church ministry is about trusting the sovereign will of God and being faithful to plant and water the good seed of the gospel (1 Cor. 3:6-8). Growth, increase, fruit—that’s entirely up to Him.
This article first appeared in the December 2014 issue of Tabletalk magazine.