Through the years, I’ve talked to more than one desperate church search team who is looking for a leader who will come in and lead the church to success. It’s so apparent, it might as well be written upon their faces with a large neon glow. During those conversations, it becomes apparent that they want to know what my vision is and what my methods are for leading the church to this perceived utopia. Far too often such conversations center upon what a leader can do rather than what the leader believes.
Pragmatism is one of the most deceptive dangers lurking in the shadows just waiting to entice and offer success, happiness, and joy to whoever will engage with the temptation. What exactly is this monster hiding in the shadows?
Pragmatism is the philosophy of operations that causes people to make decisions based on whatever will give them positive results. If the results are negative, avoid it. If the results are positive, do it. Pragmatism originated in 1870s and continues to be a popular means of evaluation and assessment. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:
Pragmatism is a philosophical tradition that – very broadly – understands knowing the world as inseparable from agency within it. This general idea has attracted a remarkably rich and at times contrary range of interpretations, including: that all philosophical concepts should be tested via scientific experimentation, that a claim is true if and only if it is useful. 
What are some ways that pragmatism impacts the Christian community? Below are three important things to consider regarding the ministry philosophy of pragmatism.
Pragmatism and Worship
One critical question to ask ourselves is centered on the purpose of worship. Is worship about me and how I feel or is it about God? Is worship about pleasing unbelievers or is it about pleasing God? Is worship about receiving the ordinary means of grace or is it about making people feel good and happy?
During the days that preceded the Reformation, the Roman Catholic Church had removed the Bible as central to Christian worship. They had turned the worship into a dark, lifeless, and superstitious religion. It was the Reformation that sought to bring the Bible back to the central place within Christian worship. Protestants, to this very day, protest the doctrine and methods of the Roman Catholic Church.
Flowing out of the Reformation were two streams or approaches to Christian worship. One was known as the Normative Principle of worship. That ministry philosophy basically states that whatever we have freedom to organize our worship services in whatever way we desire so long as it’s not condemned in Scripture. A second philosophy emerged that is known as the Regulative Principle of worship. The Regulative Principle states that we should only approach God in worship based on the ways that God prescribes for us to worship him in the pages of holy Scripture.
Through the years, various methods and ministry philosophies have emerged. One such method is the ministry philosophy of pragmatism. It is been labeled, “The Inventive Principle” of worship because it basically says, “Whatever works, do it.” In many ways, the ministry philosophy of pragmatism encourages churches to order and design their worship based on what makes people feel good and what makes people happy, and then they offer that up to God as worship.
The problem with this ministry philosophy is that it has no anchor. It’s like a ship drifting on the high seas. Wherever the winds of culture blow and whatever makes the culture happy, that’s what the church offers up to God as worship. Keep in mind, the winds of culture always blow people away from God.
Have you ever paused and thought about how we have moved from the dark lifeless Roman Catholic cathedral to pastors riding a zipline to the pulpit on Sunday morning? When we hear stories of churches with large American flags draping their walls and indoor fireworks on the Sunday that precedes July 4th—we must ask ourselves how such ministry philosophies have emerged. The source is pragmatism.
Pragmatism, like a cancer eats away the life of biblical truth within the church. The ministry philosophy of pragmatism, like a wicked slave master, demands success at the sacrifice of biblical theology. Pragmatism invades the fabric of the entire church. It impacts the style of music, the philosophy of discipleship, and the methods of evangelism. In many ways, modern pragmatism serves the same goal of ancient Roman Catholicism—it leads people away from the Word of God.
Like anabolic steroids offers instant muscular growth to body builders, pragmatism offers church growth success at a much faster rate than a model that is centered upon the Bible alone. Once leaders taste this instant success, they become slaves to it. Rather than focusing on the Scriptures, they begin looking to arrange their worship services in ways that will attract people in the front doors of their local church—regardless of what the Bible says.
Pragmatism begins with the question of how a church can attract more people. But, rather than opening the Bible for solutions, the solutions are often centered on evangelical tricks and gimmicks. Because pragmatism has the wrong starting point, it will always lead to the wrong solution.
Scripture is replete with examples of God rejecting worship that includes elements that he has not prescribed, even if the worshipers have good motives. We see examples of improper worship with the golden calf (Deut 9:16), Nadab and Abihu (Lev 10:1-3), or the Pharisees (Matt 15:8-9), God does not approve of worship practices that He has not prescribed in Scripture.
Pragmatism and the Gospel
Why did you leave your local church and join another one down the road? Perhaps you moved out of state on a job transfer and you couldn’t make the drive 6 hours across state lines. In many cases, people move around from church to church within their community, and it would be good to evaluate the source of such decisions. What influenced your decision? Was it biblical truth or some pragmatic offering that lured you away?
When you hear people talking about their church and why it is that they joined their church, it’s almost certain to begin with what the church can offer them or their children rather than the robust foundation of biblical preaching and teaching that flows from the pulpit week-by-week. How many stories could be told of families who claimed to be in unity with the doctrinal convictions of a church, but they leave for another church with subpar theology on the basis that the new church has some enticing children’s ministry or a really cool band with exciting and relevant music? That’s pragmatism 101.
If you join a church looking for the bells and whistles that are attractive to your family—when your children are tempted to rebel and reject the bells and whistles, where do you turn at that point? Could it be that your family needed the robust preaching and teaching of God’s Word far more than the bells and whistles? The reality is, such additives are capable of entertaining your family, but they are incapable of saving your family.
If pastors grow their church through pragmatism rather than the gospel of Jesus, they will be forced to keep the people happy by continuing to provide them with a constant array of pragmatic offerings or they will simply go to another church that will offer what they want. You can never expect people who have been lured into the front doors of the church through a ministry philosophy of pragmatism to have a high view of church membership. That’s like a man expecting his wife that he stole away from another man through adultery to remain faithful to him and to embrace a high view of marriage.
Pragmatism is self-centered rather than Scripture-centered. It would serve your family well to make a firm commitment to refuse to sacrifice your theology upon the altar of pragmatism. The church belongs to God, and he has prescribed to us the way we should approach him in worship.
2 Timothy 3:16-17 – All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.
- Pragmatism, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.