The Counterintuitive Church (pt.5, What’s Wrong With Pragmatism?)

PREVIOUSLY:  Let’s Be Clear

Some might read my commentary about widespread pragmatism in the American church today and ask, “So what?” Others might share my concern, but see few alternatives. I have never wanted to be merely a critic, so here I’d like to draw some conclusions. Next, I’ll try to share some ideas for what a counterintuitive church might look like.

As missionary church planters, we were constantly faced with the challenge of thinking through the eventual outcomes of our strategies and approaches to ministry. This was due, in large part, to the fact that our efforts to cooperate with the few evangelicals we found in Europe were often frustrated by their adherence to what their churches learned from the American missionaries who planted them a generation ago. European evangelicalism today looks a lot like American evangelicalism from the 1960s. Why? Because there are consequences to the decisions church leaders make.

Everyone’s traditional. Some of us just start new ones rather than following someone else’s. There are consequences to the tradition of pragmatism. You might be seeing “results” with the way you’re doing things but consider this:

  • If people come to faith through confrontational, guilt-trip evangelism, they’re coming to a confrontational, guilt-trip faith.
  • If your church’s myopic focus on Biblical knowledge makes it more lecture hall than place of worship, you’re likely going to get a bunch of armchair Reformation theologians and wanna-be ancient Greek scholars who are more concerned with being right than anything else.
  • If you allow your church to get so large that it’s a challenge to really know everyone (anyone) else in that local body, (versus starting smaller, more local gatherings,) you are discipling your people into a less personal expression of Christianity and, therefore, a less personal view of Jesus. [Pragmatic argument:] Of course, relational church can happen in your megachurch (through small groups, cliques, informal social circles, etc.), but as you add programs and square-footage, it begins to happen in spite of how you do church, not because of how you do church.
  • If your church mired in legalism, it won’t last. Legalistic religious people eventually can’t keep up with their legalisms. To them, God is only pleased with an impossibly demanding cycle of performance. They usually end up abandoning their “faith” or isolating themselves for fear of secular contamination.
  • If your church worships worship, your people might not learn to worship God. At the very least, they could be left unable to worship without a worship band and Mediashout® video backgrounds. Believers need to learn to worship, learn, serve, and share without the help of the professionals who make their livings by (intentionally or otherwise) perpetuating dependence.
  • If your church sits in grandstands with the lights dimmed, staring at a jumbo-tron, don’t be surprised if they act like spectators.

Nobody has a perfect church. I certainly don’t have all (any?) of the answers. And if we wait until we’ve got it right to do ministry, we’ll never start. Nevertheless, we must always be open to changing the way we do things- especially as we begin to see the potential detrimental results of  the way we do things. We must be sure that we know the costs before we say that we can do “whatever it takes.”

What’s wrong with practicing pragmatism? It tells people that we serve a pragmatic God. But we don’t. Ours is a God who time and time again shows Himself to do the opposite of what we would do.

NEXT: Impractical Worship

The Counterintuitive Church (pt.4, Let’s Be Clear)

PREVIOUSLY: Distribution

So far, three parts into my multi-part series on the counterintuitive nature of life in Christ, and I’ve yet to receive any comments accusing me of being too negative or of harboring jealousy over the megachurch’s success. Clearly, I’ve either offended (or bored) away everyone who disagrees with me, or I’ve not been clear. Let’s be sure it’s not the latter.

Megachurches are based in extreme pragmatism. Consider the rationale behind them:

  • “They allow the church to have resources that smaller churches just can’t have.”
  • “We didn’t set out to build an impersonal empire of seeker-friendliness, but its what the people wanted.”
  •  “Hey, God’s blessing it.” or, “As long as people are coming to faith…”
  • “The Bible doesn’t say we shouldn’t have a multi-million dollar building with a coffee shop and a parking structure.”

Video Venues are an exercise in pragmatism. Supporters will be quick to claim:

  • “The video sites allow our pastor to increase his influence.”
  • “This way, I can spend more time with my family.”
  • “People don’t even seem to notice that the preacher isn’t physically there.”
  • “Whether we like it or not, people come to hear (our pastor) speak.”
  • “Paul wrote letters and sent them around. We use DVDs and streaming live video.”

Professional parachurch missions are a pragmatic response to the Great Commission. Churches outsource missions to them because:

  • “Our people are better trained for missions than most people in the local church.”
  •  “People are dying and going to hell.”
  • “A small church with limited resources can’t do as much as we can.”
  • “We’ve organized the work into strategic priorities.”
  • “We have a great insurance program.”

I am not saying any of these things are necessarily bad. I am saying that they are sensible solutions to perceived problems that may not be God’s best for His church. We should not default to these sorts of pragmatic approaches to ministry, mission, and church just because they “work” or “make sense.” Why not?

How we do ministry has profound and long-lasting detrimental consequences on the churches we serve. If we elevate practicality, effectiveness, and sensibility as church values, we risk changing the very message we preach. So much of who Jesus is and what Jesus does is counterintuitive. Why is it that so much of what the church does just makes sense?

My question is this: how can someone like me (missionary, practitioner) gently and lovingly point out the pervasive pragmatism in the American church without coming across as a negative, overly critical, know-it-all jerk? 

NEXT: What’s Wrong With Pragmatism?

The Counterintuitive Church (pt.2, The Gaps)

PREVIOUSLY: The Counterintuitive Church

Despite the Church’s current tendency toward extreme pragmatism, much of the life that Jesus calls us to is counter-intuitive.

But that doesn’t seem to stop us from depending (almost entirely!) on our human logic when it comes to our missiology. Why is that? Why would we assume that a counterintuitive God would leave us to do things in ways that make sense to our rational process?

As a church planter begins to think about where (geographically) to begin, he almost always looks at where there isn’t a church. The thinking, I suppose, is that you don’t want two churches side by side (except, I suppose, in the Bible Belt, where neighboring churches often fight over parking space). So the planter looks as a map of the city, and decides to focus on the next largest area that doesn’t have a church. It just makes sense to do it that way.

Same thing with missionaries; they look at unengaged people, unreached groups. They assign people to villages that have no (known) evangelical work. It makes the work manageable to look for the gaps and fill them.

Churches are obsessed with the gaps. We want to know what we’re not doing, and then do that. No program for recovering cross-dressers? We feel like we need one. No church for the tattooed-and-pierced crowd? Light some candles and call it good. It just makes sense to start with need and then come up with a solution to meet that need.

But that’s not how God did things in the scriptures. I’m not convinced it’s the way He does things today, either. It didn’t make sense to Peter that God would tell him (in a dream) to focus his ministry on the unclean (and undeserving) Gentiles. It didn’t make sense to Paul that the Spirit would prevent him from going to Asia.

What if God is calling you to plant a church in a neighborhood that already has several? Rather than compete, you might see your work as a demonstration of Christian unity. What if God wants your church planting team to focus on a people group that is, statistically, “reached?” He, in His wisdom, might use your ministry to send members of that “reached” group to take the gospel to the unreached.

My point is this- the gaps aren’t the best place to start. God is the best place to start.

NEXT: Distribution

The Counterintuitive Church (pt.1)

The first will be last,” Jesus said. “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.” A quick perusal of Jesus’ words will turn up all sorts of instructions that don’t seem to line up with what we’d consider “common sense.” He told his followers to “Turn the other cheek” (didn’t He know about terrorism?) and to “Walk a second mile” when forced (by the government!) to walk just one.

As He sent them out on a short-term mission trip, why did Jesus tell His disciples not to carry any extra clothes and not to greet anyone along the way? That doesn’t seem very practical, does it? What if they had a great opportunity to witness to the guy sitting next to them on a red-eye out of Denver? So much of what Jesus told His followers to do (and not to do) just doesn’t make sense in our world. It almost always runs counter to our understanding of what might be the best way to get things done.

Yet most of what we do as believers tends to be determined by our pragmatism. We justify nearly all that we do with, “Hey, it’s working.” We consider efficiency and volume to be stewardship issues. From video-venue churches to mass marketing campaigns to building programs, churches are constantly searching for ways to make the biggest impact, to reach the greatest number of people, and to get the most bang for the buck. I believe that these are human values, not Kingdom ones. What if doing what seems to “work” in the short run is hurting us in the long run? What if giving away iPods and paying people to come to church has long-term negative effects for the church? What if our methods actually change our message?

In the next few posts, I’m going to explore some of the ways that the (particularly Western) Church has traded in God’s best for “what works.” Specifically, I want to look at the way we practice being the church, our efforts at church planting, and our theology of mission.

NEXT: The Gaps

Call It What You Will…

Recently, there’s been some discussion regarding the use of the term “missional.” Some claim that its a useful way to distinguish incarnational ministries from those which are more attractional. Others point out that unlike the “come see” approaches to church, so-called “missional” ministries aren’t especially productive.

I’ve written about the dangers of pragmatism before. Evaluating a missiological concept (or its resulting ministry) by its “effectiveness” or “efficiency” is the worst thing we could do.  In fact, I believe this is the greatest factor in our disqualification from full participation in God’s redemptive work around the world today. Our rush to do more and do it better stands in direct opposition to our complete obedience to the step-by-step guidance of God’s Spirit.

In other words, it doesn’t matter what you call it, “missional/incarnational,” ministry is about doing what God leads you to do (and has commanded in scripture) regardless of the outcome. When we start with “what works,” we’re getting ahead of God by making a human-centered assumption about what He wants us to do. As I wrote previously, why would we value something that God never does?

Note to my colleagues on the mission field: Please don’t allow your desperation for results to influence your strategy. Broad seed-sowing will never be better than obedient seed-sowing. Rapid reproduction will never be better than God’s timing. You, your team, and your ministry will never be so cool, innovative, or attractive as to attract people to Jesus; Jesus attracts people to Himself. Be sure your desperation is for God, and that your strategy is born of your pursuit of Him.

What Works vs. What’s Best

I’m convinced that ministry these days is far too pragmatic. Missionaries desperate to see tangible results busy themselves searching for “what works.” Missions strategies and approaches to ministry are almost always based on whether or not they seem likely to produce results.

On a pretty regular basis, I receive advice from colleagues and supporters on how we should proceed in ministry. They usually begin with “I think I have an idea that would work in your context…” They’re probably right. I’m sure that there are many things that would “work” here. But I’m not only looking for what works.

I’m looking for God’s guidance. If something I do results in bad fruit, it’s obviously not of God. But in order for me to participate in  the production of fruit (fruit that will last), I must be obedient. Sometimes obedience makes for some effective ministry. Sometimes, the fruit is not so obvious, and the allure of measurable results is a temptation away from doing what God leads us to do.

So when I read about believers who justify all sorts of nonsense by saying, “Hey, it works.” I get frustrated. When missionaries develop their strategies based on what might “reach more people,” they have gotten ahead of God.

Rarely does God do what would, by our standards, be the most efficient, effective, or wise. Seriously. Look at the scriptures. Rather than writing them out himself and giving humans magic decoder sunglasses, He chose to use regular people.  Time and again, He limited Himself, He held His tongue, He left things vague. Jesus let people believe He was a fake when He could easily have proved His might. If God never values “effectiveness” or “efficiency”, why do we?