The Planter #2: Pragmatism or Theological Vision

“Well you’re not what we usually look for in a church planting candidate in terms of your DiSC profile.”

“With all due respect, when was the last time you successfully planted a church with one of those guys in Santa Cruz?”

“That might be a fair point…”

That is a tidbit from an actual conversation I had recently and it reminded me of the three common engines that drive church ministry philosophy. My apologies, I really shouldn’t use strange seminary phrases without explanation.

What is church ministry philosophy or ministry philosophy for short?

Have you ever gone to visit a church? Maybe you are on a business trip or a vacation and think ‘I know I am away from my home church but it is still good to go to church and spend time in the congregation of believers, hear the word preached, and praise God through sung worship. Or maybe you moved to a new town and tried to find a church. What did you do? Well, if you are like me you googled “churches in ______ area” and ruled out as many as you could based on the church name and then the handful left you clicked on their websites and found the tab at the top of the page labeled beliefs. Ministry philosophy is the thing that connects what is written on that link and what is happening when you show up that Sunday. Generally speaking a healthy church derives its weekly practices and functions from it ministry philosophy, which is pulled out of its theology, which is grounded in the Word of God in the Bible.

Practice < Ministry Philosophy < Theology < Biblical Interpretation

Or if you are in the leadership of the church then you see it the other way round

Biblical Interpretation > Theology > Ministry Philosophy > Practice

Notice the arrows always flow from the Bible to the practice. If your church functions this way then it is fair to say that the church’s driving vision is theological or biblical. There are two, to my knowledge, competing visions however.

The Pragmatist Vision

Broadly speaking pragmatism is a philosophy that defines right and wrong by the results. Again, broadly speaking it can be summed up in the phrase ‘the ends justify the means’. For the most part pragmatism has been rejected in the discipline of academic philosophy and ethics, but it is alive and well in politics and (frustratingly enough) the conversation surrounding evangelical ministry techniques. In a pragmatist church the flow usually looks something akin to this:

Biblical Interpretation > Theology | Metric of Success > Ministry Philosophy > Practice

Notice that a pragmatist pastor and a pastor with theological vision may have the same thoughts on biblical interpretation and the same stated theological beliefs but there is a wall constructed for the pragmatist between that and ministry. Here is what that might look like functionally:

  • Imagine a standard Evangelical church, the pastor has a seminary degree from a reputable Evangelical institution, he has a theological library and commentary collection that covers all four walls of his office. The church has a standard doctrine statement with all the essentials. The church has a slogan that declares “We exist to praise God, love people, and reach the lost.” Thus the church declares itself to be a “missional church”. When new people or visitors ask about the term missional, members simply point to the slogan on the wall and say “we exist to…reach the lost!” And here is the crucial question—the visitor then asks “how do you ‘reach the lost’?” There is no concrete answer. Their pastor reads the Bible, gets to the Great Commission and develops a theology of the church that includes ‘doing missions’, so in the peace and quiet of the study he writes that into the church slogan/vision statement, but when it comes to how the people of the church should engage in ministry over the 168 hours of the week, he returns his theology to its tidy compartment in the back of his mind and considers his ministry philosophy which is guided by a metric of success.

There are four primary issues I take with a pragmatist vision and this is one of them:

  1. The pragmatist must assume a metric of success – Now assuming a metric of success is not itself a problem. In order to know whether I am improving at anything I need a metric of success. In order to know if I am reaching my goals I need a metric of success. However, the spiritual life of any given individual—let alone an entire church body—is hard to track. It isn’t linear, it doesn’t have many external signs, and it can be involve lots of almost unconscious work in the heart before it reveals itself. As such most pragmatists take things like attendance, a very easy to track metric, as their sign of success.
  2. The pragmatist doesn’t answer theological questions theologically – This is my biggest issue with pragmatism because it seems so obvious to me, you answer math questions with math, you answer philosophical questions with reason and logic, you answer scientific questions with observation and testing, and you answer theological questions with theology. Yet it is completely ignored that questions about video preaching, multi-site ministry, the structure of the elder board, the way we spend church funds, or the appropriate size of a church (if there is one) might have biblical or theological answers considering they are all related to how an institution that is primarily theological should function. Rather, if our metric of success gives the thumbs up then theology is ignored.
  3. The pragmatist is not creative – In an article Tim Keller wrote about revival he noted that revival requires creative articulations of the gospel and creative ministry because it has to catch people off guard so they are roused out of their stupor to truly hear the gospel. You can think of it in terms of inoculation. Many in our culture are inoculated to our methods and manners, even many in the church. As such the preaching of the gospel (because we use the same lingo) and our church gatherings (because we do irrelevant or internally focused ministries) fail to penetrate to the heart. The pragmatist is usually too quick to pull the plug on novel styles of ministry and often finds outdated terms and phrases comfortable because they are tried and true, they get results. But do they? What we want is not more people in our church, but more people joining the Kingdom and confessing Jesus Christ as Lord. That is our result, the only legitimate metric of success—do more people know Jesus and live lives in submission to his will because of our ministry? When we embrace pragmatism, we usually reject creative and untested forms of ministry and that limits our ability to participate in revival.
  4. The pragmatist is often inauthentic – Building off the last point, if you are doing only what is tested and proven to grow a church, you will limit yourself to a set of practices that may be effective (in in terms of the Kingdom), but they might not be you. The pragmatist usually has no understanding that we are each wired differently and we need to pursue the ministry God is creating and calling us to. I have many friends who faithfully minister the gospel with success in Santa Cruz, but to attempt to replicate them could be a violation of who God has called me to be as a minister. I need to be faithful to the scriptures and authentic to who the Holy Spirit is shaping me to be.

There is much I could rag on pragmatists for, but it is also important to point out that pragmatism is different that being pragmatic or practical. There are some decisions, changes, or developments that can be made for practical reasons, but being practical on occasion is different than being driven by pragmatism.

Thanks for reading,

tdh

 

 

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