Pragmatism in the church reflects the spirit of our age. Books with titles like Marketing Your Ministry, Marketing the Church, and The Development of Effective Marketing and Communication Strategies for Churches have made the church what it is today. The Christian publishing industry endlessly produces advice for church leaders drawn from secular fields of study—psychology, marketing, politics, entertainment, and business—while commentaries, Bible study helps, and books on biblical issues are sidelined.
The role model for contemporary pastors is not the prophet or the shepherd—it is the corporate executive, the TED Talk maven, or worst of all, the self-help guru. The church’s passion for purity and truth feels like a distant memory. No one seems to care, as long as the response is enthusiastic.
Tozer noticed that pragmatism had crept into the church of his day, too. He wrote, “I say without hesitation that a part, a very large part, of the activities carried on today in evangelical circles are not only influenced by pragmatism but almost completely controlled by it.”A. W. Tozer, God Tells the Man Who Cares (Harrisburg, PA: Christian Publications, 1970), 71. Tozer described the danger posed to the church by even so-called “consecrated” pragmatism:
The pragmatic philosophy . . . asks no embarrassing questions about the wisdom of what we are doing or even about the morality of it. It accepts our chosen ends as right and good and casts about for efficient means and ways to get them accomplished. When it discovers something that works it soon finds a text to justify it, “consecrates” it to the Lord and plunges ahead. Next a magazine article is written about it, then a book, and finally the inventor is granted an honorary degree. After that any question about the scripturalness of things or even the moral validity of them is completely swept away. You cannot argue with success. The method works; ergo, it must be good.Ibid., 70.
A Banrupt Philosophy
Do you see how the new philosophy necessarily undermines sound doctrine? It discards Jesus’ own methods—preaching and teaching—as the primary means of ministry. It replaces them with methodologies devoid of substance. It exists independently of any creed or canon. In fact, it avoids dogma or strong convictions as divisive, unbecoming, or inappropriate. It dismisses doctrine as academic, abstract, sterile, threatening, or simply impractical. Rather than teaching error or denying truth, it does something far more subtle, but just as effective from the enemy’s point of view. It jettisons content altogether. Instead of attacking orthodoxy head on, it gives lip service to the truth while quietly undermining the foundations of doctrine. Instead of exalting God, it denigrates the things that are precious to Him. In that regard, pragmatism poses dangers more subtle than the liberalism that threatened the church in the first half of the twentieth century.
Liberalism attacked biblical preaching. One of its leading figures in early twentieth-century America was Harry Emerson Fosdick, who wrote, “Preachers who pick out texts from the Bible and then proceed to give their historic settings, their logical meaning in the context, their place in the theology of the writer, with a few practical reflections appended, are grossly misusing the Bible.”Harry Emerson Fosdick, “What Is the Matter with Preaching?” Harpers Magazine (July 1928), 135.
Fosdick was driven to his hatred of biblical exposition by the same pragmatic concern that has invaded evangelicalism today:
Could any procedure be more surely predestined to dullness and futility? Who seriously supposes that, as a matter of fact, one in a hundred of the congregation cares, to start with, what Moses, Isaiah, Paul, or John meant in those special verses, or came to church deeply concerned about it? Nobody who talks to the public so assumes that the vital interests of the people are located in the meaning of words spoken two thousand years ago.Ibid.
Fosdick suggested that preachers “not end but start with thinking of the auditors’ vital needs, and then let the whole sermon be organized around their constructive endeavor to meet those needs.”Ibid. “All this is good sense and good psychology,” he wrote, appealing to pragmatism as his justification. “Everybody else is using it from first-class teachers to first-class advertisers. Why should so many preachers continue in such belated fashion to neglect it?”Ibid., 136.
That is exactly the conventional wisdom of the user-friendly, market-driven philosophy. It starts with felt needs and addresses them with topical messages. If Scripture is used at all, it is only for illustrative purposes—precisely as Fosdick advocated. It is sheer accommodation to a society addicted to self-esteem and entertainment. Only now that advice comes from within evangelicalism. It follows what is fashionable but reveals little concern for what is true. It was well-suited for the liberalism from whence it came. But it is totally out of place among Christians who profess to believe that Scripture is the inspired Word of God.
One best-selling evangelical book warns readers to be on guard against preachers whose emphasis is on interpreting Scripture rather than applying it. Is that wise counsel? No, it is not. There is no danger of irrelevant doctrine; the real threat is an undoctrinal attempt at relevance. The nucleus of all that is truly practical is found in the teaching of Scripture. We don’t make the Bible relevant; it is inherently so, simply because it is God’s Word. And after all, how can anything God says be irrelevant (2 Timothy 3:16–17)?
The Church as a Pub?
Such radical pragmatism robs the church of its prophetic role. It makes the church a populist organization, recruiting members by providing them a warm and friendly atmosphere in which to eat, drink, and be entertained. The church functions more like a saloon than a house of worship.
But the church is the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:27), and church meetings are for corporate worship and instruction. The church’s goal is “the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ” (Ephesians 4:12)—vital growth, not mere numerical expansion.
The notion that church meetings should be used to tantalize or attract non-Christians is a relatively recent development. Nothing like it is found in Scripture; in fact, the apostle Paul spoke of unbelievers’ entering the assembly as an exceptional event (1 Corinthians 14:23). Hebrews 10:24–25 indicates that church services are for the benefit of believers, not unbelievers: “Let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together.”
Acts 2:42 shows us the pattern the early church followed when they met: “They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.” Note that the early church’s priorities clearly were to worship God and uplift the brethren. The church came together for worship and edification; it scattered to evangelize the world.
Our Lord commissioned His disciples for evangelism in this way: “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations” (Matthew 28:19). Christ makes it clear that the church is not to wait for or invite the world to come to its meetings, but to go to the world. That is every believer’s responsibility. I fear that an approach emphasizing a palatable gospel presentation within the walls of the church absolves the individual believer from his personal obligation to be a light in the world (Matthew 5:16).
Again we emphasize that the proclamation of God’s Word is to be central in the church (1 Corinthians 1:23; 1 Corinthians 9:16; 2 Corinthians 4:5; 1 Timothy 6:2). “In season and out of season,” it is the task of God’s ministers to “reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction” (2 Timothy 4:2). The pastor who sets entertainment above forceful biblical preaching abdicates the primary responsibility of an elder: “holding fast the faithful word which is in accordance with the teaching, that he may be able both to exhort in sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict” (Titus 1:9).
Good Technique? No, Bad Theology.
The philosophy that marries marketing technique with church growth theory is the result of bad theology. It assumes that if you package the gospel right, people will get saved. It is rooted in Arminianism, which makes the human will, not a sovereign God, the decisive factor in salvation and equates conversion with a “decision for Christ.” Such language and such doctrine have come to color modern ministry. The goal of market-driven ministry is an instantaneous human decision, rather than a radical transformation of the heart wrought by Almighty God through the Holy Spirit’s convicting work and the truth of His Word. An honest belief in the sovereignty of God in salvation would bring an end to a lot of the nonsense that is going on in the church.
Moreover, this whole ad-agency approach to the church corrupts Christianity and caters to the fleshly lusts that are woven into the very fabric of this world’s system (1 John 2:16). We have a society filled with people who want what they want when they want it. They are into their own lifestyle, recreation, and entertainment. They want comfort, happiness, and success. When churches appeal to those selfish desires, they only fuel fires that hinder true godliness.
The church has accommodated our culture by devising a brand of Christianity where taking up one’s cross is optional—or even unseemly. Indeed, many members of the church in the Western world suppose they can best serve God by being as non-confrontive to their world as possible.
The gospel usually proclaimed today is so convoluted that it offers believing in Christ as nothing more than a means to contentment and prosperity. The offense of the cross (cf. Galatians 5:11) has been systematically removed so that the message might be made more acceptable to unbelievers. The church somehow got the idea it could declare peace with the enemies of God.
We must always ensure that our methods harmonize with the profound spiritual truth we are trying to convey. It is too easy to trivialize the sacred message. And we must make the message, not the medium, the heart of what we want to convey to the audience.
We who know and love the truth must be the prophetic voice of our God and affirm the holiness of His Name. We must demand that any effort in the name of our Lord manifest the integrity of His nature. He is “Holy, Holy, Holy” (Isaiah 6:3) and must be so represented. Anything less is not worthy of our Lord’s majesty, awesomeness, and holiness.
Don’t be quick to embrace the trends of the high-tech megachurches. And don’t sneer at conventional worship and preaching. We don’t need clever approaches to get people saved (1 Corinthians 1:21). We simply need to get back to preaching the truth and planting the seed. If we’re faithful in that, the soil God has prepared will bear fruit.
The Breaking Forth of a Leprosy
Spurgeon saw this same tendency to import amusements into the church at the end of the nineteenth century. As the Down-Grade Controversy was raging in 1889, Spurgeon’s health was waning badly, and he missed many Sundays in the pulpit. But on a Thursday evening in April, he gave a message to his home congregation in which he said,
I trust I am not given to finding fault where fault there is not; but I cannot open my eyes without seeing things done in our churches which, thirty years ago, were not so much as dreamed of. In the matter of amusements, professors have gone far in the way of laxity. What is worse, the churches have now conceived the idea that it is their duty to amuse the people. Dissenters who used to protest against going to the theatre, now cause the theatre to come to them. Ought not many [church buildings] to be licensed for stage-plays? If some one were to see to the rigid carrying out of the law, would they not be required to take out a license for theatricals?
I dare not touch upon what has been done at bazaars and fancy fairs. If these had been arranged by decent worldly people, could they have gone further? What folly has been left untried? What absurdity has been too great for the consciences of those who profess to be the children of God, who are not of the world, but called to walk with God in a separated life?
The world regards the high pretensions of such men as hypocrisy; and truly I do not know another name for them. Think of those who enjoy communion with God playing the fool in costume! They talk of wrestling with the Lord in secret prayer, but they juggle with the world in unconcealed gambling. Can this be right? Have right and wrong shifted places? Surely there is a sobriety of behaviour which is consistent with a work of grace in the heart, and there is a levity which betokens that the spirit of evil is supreme.
Ah, sirs! there may have been a time when Christians were too precise, but it has not been in my day. There may have been such a dreadful thing as Puritanic rigidity, but I have never seen it. We are quite free from that evil now, if it ever existed. We have gone from liberty to libertinism. We have passed beyond the dubious into the dangerous, and none can prophesy where we shall stop. Where is the holiness of the church of God to-day? . . . Now she is dim as smoking flax, and rather the object of ridicule than of reverence.
May not the measure of the influence of a church be estimated by its holiness? If the great host of professing Christians were, in domestic life and in business life, sanctified by the Spirit, the church would become a great power in the world. God’s saints may well mourn with Jerusalem when they see spirituality and holiness at so low an ebb! Others may regard this as a matter of no consequence; but we view it as the breaking forth of a leprosy.“A Dirge for the Down-Grade, and a Song for Faith,” The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, vol. 35 (London: Passmore and Alabaster, 1889), 267–68.
The challenge for Christ’s church is this: “Let us cleanse ourselves from all defilement of flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God” (2 Corinthians 7:1). It isn’t the cleverness of our methods, the techniques of our ministry, or the wit of our sermons that puts power in our testimony. It is obedience to a holy God and faithfulness to His righteous standard in our daily lives.
We must wake up. The down-grade is a dangerous place to be. We cannot afford to be indifferent. We cannot continue our mad pursuit of pleasure and self-gratification. We are called to fight a spiritual battle, and we cannot win by appeasing the enemy. A weak church must be made strong, and a needy world must be confronted with the message of salvation, and there may be little time left. As Paul wrote to the church at Rome, “It is already the hour for you to awaken from sleep; for now salvation is nearer to us than when we believed. The night is almost gone, and the day is near. Let us therefore lay aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light” (Romans 13:11–12).
(Adapted from Ashamed of the Gospel.)