Confessions of a Recovering Pragmatic Pastor
Hi, I’m Jeramie.
And I’m a recovering pragmatic pastor. I graduated from seminary seventeen years ago and became the senior pastor of South Shore Baptist Church in Hingham, Massachusetts about two years later. Seminary gave me a solid theological foundation, sharp exegetical tools, and a firm grasp of the Bible’s storyline. That education fuels my ministry to this day.
But despite my schooling, I launched into pastoral work lacking something critical: a biblical approach to local church ministry. I didn’t have what Tim Keller calls a theological vision: that philosophy of ministry that connects one’s doctrinal beliefs to one’s practical day-to-day ministry.
Well, that’s not exactly true. I actually did have a theological vision, albeit unconsciously. It was the same ministry philosophy that serves as the default setting for so many pastors. I was a pragmatist.
PRAGMATISM IN PRACTICE
Let me define what I mean by “pragmatist.” It’s the approach that says a church can use any effective means to win people to Jesus, make disciples, grow the church, or build the kingdom. A church may adopt any structure, program, or strategy that “works” to reach people for Christ as long as the initiative isn’t obviously sinful.
So that means no men’s ministry kegger and no Ponzi scheme for funding the youth mission trip. But besides dubious programming like that, a church’s ministry is only limited by its creativity. As long as you agree on a short list of core doctrines, or a handful of biblical purposes, the actual shape of evangelical ministry is up to you.
Pragmatism has proverbs like, “The church’s methods change but its message stays the same” and “There’s no one right way to do church.” Like most proverbs, those sayings contain a kernel of truth. But for the pragmatist, these are the rallying cries for an entrepreneurial, results-oriented, whatever-it-takes way of “doing church.”
Pragmatism served as the operating system for the first seven years of my ministry. I played around with lots of different ministry apps on that platform: drama, a third worship service, coffee houses, and of course lots and lots of programs. If someone had a ministry idea and energy to lead it, I tended to back it because, hey, it might just work! I’m not suggesting all of those ministry initiatives were bad, or that churches should squash new ideas, or that we shouldn’t be passionate about reaching people. But the programmatic hodgepodge that formed in the church was indicative of a pragmatic theological vision.
During that first seven years of ministry, the church grew steadily in numbers. People came to faith and got involved. Whatever we were doing seemed to succeed. And that’s what matters, right? But even as the church grew, something else was growing in my heart: a nagging discontent and disillusionment with how we did church.
FULL CHURCH, EMPTY PASTOR
Despite our church’s apparent success, my pragmatism left me empty and disoriented. This model for church ministry felt increasingly hollow. In retrospect, there seemed to be several reasons for my response, stemming from pragmatism’s inherent weaknesses:
Pragmatism Is Exhausting
First, pragmatism is exhausting. It takes a lot of work to be a pragmatist. You have to keep abreast of the latest ministry trends, read the newest how-to books, and attend the conferences of the most successful churches.
You must also keep your finger on the pulse of people inside and outside the church to discern what will reach them. And let’s not even talk about how draining it is to shift church paradigms every couple years. The pragmatic pastor must be part organizational change guru, part cultural analyst and futurist, part salesman, and part start-up specialist. It all left me very soul-weary.
Pragmatism Is Man-Centered
Further, pragmatism is man-centered. I found this to be true in at least two ways. First, focusing on results inevitably means focusing on people’s in-the-moment status. Are they coming, staying, converting, giving, participating, or serving? If so, then keep doing what you’re doing because something is working.
Of course good pastoral leadership involves humbly listening to the congregation. But pragmatism propelled me beyond pastoral sensitivity into the fear of man. Conversely, it didn’t lead me into theological thinking or the fear of God.
Second, pragmatic ministry tends to be man-centered in the way it celebrates successful practitioners. Those pastors who have cracked the code to reaching baby boomers or millennials or post-moderns or urbanites draw throngs of pastors searching for help. Even at a local level, when regular pastors get together they inevitably want to know: one, who in the group has the thriving ministries, and two, what those pastors are doing that works so well.
Pragmatism Is Subjective & Arbitrary
Finally, pragmatism is subjective. Pragmatism rests on a disturbingly relativistic, arbitrary foundation. Why should the church follow my ideas instead of someone else’s? Just because I am the senior pastor? Why implement this best-selling church model instead of that best-selling model? And how do we define “success” or know when something “works?” Who sets those metrics and on what basis? I sometimes had the sinking feeling that I was making ministry up as I went along.
RIGHT UNDER MY NOSE
At the end of that first seven years, my church generously granted me a three-month sabbatical. I told the elders I planned to spend the time hunting for the “right model” for our growing church. My plan was to visit over a dozen churches all over the country to find the best ministry template. It was the ultimate pragmatist pilgrimage.
But instead of finding the right church to imitate, I found something else on my sabbatical: the Bible.
To my surprise I discovered that the Bible actually had a lot to say about how to do church, far more than pragmatists want to admit. The Bible gives us more than just core doctrines or a few overarching ministry principles. It lays out a robust theological vision for local church ministry, centered on the gospel, with very practical implications.
And so began a slow process of learning not to ask, “Will it work?” and instead asking questions like, “Does Scripture speak to this?” and “How should the gospel shape this decision?” For the last seven years I’ve been reprogramming myself to think theologically about local church ministry.
What has a biblical and theological vision looked like in practice for us? It looks like the primacy of expository preaching so that God’s Word sets our agenda. It means our elders transitioning from a board of directors model to a shepherding mentality. It has looked like two worship services adopting a single blended style to reflect the unity we see stressed in the Bible. It has meant (for us, at least) morphing our building project from a gym to a sanctuary.
As I write this, our elders and pastoral staff are wrestling through whether to continue conducting two Sunday morning services or combine them into one. Rather than simply being pragmatic and listing pros and cons for one service vs. multiple services, we’re also looking at what the Bible says about the very nature of a congregation. Can we be a body that doesn’t assemble, a church family that doesn’t gather as one, or a people in communion who don’t take the Lord’s Supper together? What does it mean, biblically, to be a local church?
MY COPERNICAN REVOLUTION
This rediscovery of a biblical vision has profoundly changed my ministry. I no longer feel adrift in the sea of pragmatism, but can chart a course using Scripture as my sextant. People’s reactions don’t throw me for a loop because I see how ministry decisions flow from a theological basis, enabling me to trust God even when people aren’t happy. But most satisfying of all, God and his Word have returned to the center of my ministry and our church’s life. It is so worshipful to open the Bible and ask, “What does God have to say about his church?”
To my fellow struggling pastors trying to figure out ministry: Take heart because there is wisdom to be had. And it begins with the fear of the Lord and his Word.
 Tim Keller, Center Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012), 17-19.