Pragmatism, Pragmatism Everywhere!
A friend and I were riding in his car after lunch vigorously discussing a controversial topic in missiology, and with good reason. We served together on the board of trustees for a mission sending organization, and a number of board members had become concerned about a particular book on evangelizing Muslims. The book was popular, but it seemed to undervalue the Bible and be misleading in its treatment of the Qur’an.
These board members, myself included, worried that the book discouraged missionaries from plainly presenting the gospel from the Bible and making clear distinctions between Scripture and the Qur’an. I pointed my friend to a number of biblical passages like 2 Corinthians 4:1-2:
Therefore, since through God’s mercy we have this ministry, we do not lose heart. Rather, we have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God.
My friend seemed genuinely conflicted. He affirmed the authority and sufficiency of Scripture. And he actually agreed that the method advocated by the book seemed at odds with the passages we discussed. But then he said something that made my stomach sink: “Still, look at all the decisions they’re reporting. Look at the numbers. How can you finally argue with that kind of success?”
It was one of those moments when you feel like someone has kicked your legs out from under you. I wondered what it meant for him to say Scripture was authoritative and sufficient, but that the Word of God couldn’t compete with “that kind of success.” Welcome to the world of evangelical missionary pragmatism.
A NEW BIBLICAL CRISIS?
I wish this conversation was a singularity, but I’ve been bumping into this line of thought among missionaries for more than a decade now. I’m not a vocational missionary myself. I’ve never lived overseas for more than six months. But even a regular guy like me can sometimes detect a trend.
I’ve begun to wonder if this story of my friend’s confusion might not be emblematic of a much larger root issue behind many of the more obvious issues in missiology. Certainly the specific methodological questions are easier to get one’s mind around:
- deep contextualization vs. cultural confrontation;
- Qur’anic bridges vs. Bible-based evangelism;
- rapid multiplication vs. careful training;
- orality strategies vs. biblical literacy.
All these sound like disagreements about methods, but are they really? Could there be an underlying theological disagreement about which authority actually shapes and informs these methodological discussions? Could it be that, despite our formal commitment to the Bible’s inerrancy, authority, and sufficiency, many in the work of evangelical missions have, like my friend, actually become evangelical pragmatists? Could it be that we who call ourselves conservative evangelicals have a new biblical crisis springing up in our midst?
Here’s how Wayne Grudem defines the authority of Scripture in his Systematic Theology: “All the words in Scripture are God’s words in such a way that to disbelieve or disobey any word of Scripture is to disbelieve or disobey God.” And here’s how he defines the sufficiency of Scripture: “Scripture contained all the words of God he intended his people to have at each stage of redemptive history, and that it now contains all the words of God we need for salvation, for trusting him perfectly, and for obeying him perfectly.”
Let me contrast Grudem’s definitions with my own definition for “evangelical pragmatism”: an approach to gospel work that values results more than faithful obedience to the Word, especially when the Word’s teaching may not be attended by immediate, visible fruit.
Now, I am not suggesting that everything we do which is pragmatic is ill-advised (taking airplanes overseas instead of boats, for instance). Rather, I’m talking about a willingness to overlook or even contradict what the Bible says for the sake of what appears to work visibly and immediately.
Furthermore, I’m not suggesting that most people in evangelical missions would deny Grudem’s two definitions. No, our problem is much more subtle and insidious. I’m talking about how many of us live and operate, not what we say, sign, or affirm. In this conversation, I feel kind of like Supreme Court Justice Stewart Potter who famously said of obscenity, “I know it when I see it.”
Here are a few worrisome signs that we’ve become man-centered and wrongly pragmatic in our approach to missions and the Bible, so that we can know it when we see it
THREE WORRISOME SIGNS
Arguing From Results, Not Exegesis
First, I’ve noticed the exceeding popularity of books on missions that seem to argue their method based primarily on their results rather than on biblical exegesis. With some hesitation, I’ll mention a couple of examples of this pragmatic approach to missions, starting with a book written by a person with whom I’m somewhat acquainted and who evidences a great love for Jesus and the lost: David Garrison, Church Planting Movements (WIGTake Resources, 2003) [see the review in this eJournal]. Garrison uses the image of “reverse engineering” to describe with candor how he developed his CPM methods, not from Scripture, but by analyzing a movement that was producing the results he wanted. Or, for an example of this trend in a popular missionary journal see the April 2009 edition of the Evangelical Missionary Quarterly: John Tanner,“A Story of Phenomenal Success: indigenous mission training centers and Myanmar” EMQ 45(2), 152-157. Both works are written by self-professed evangelicals, but both base their arguments mainly on results, rather than on the biblical faithfulness of their approach.
Sadly, I could list dozens, maybe hundreds, of similar books and articles, especially on the topics of contextualizing the gospel, evangelizing Muslims, and planting house churches. The Bible isn’t rejected by these books; it’s merely regarded as if it doesn’t have much to say about the “how” of global evangelism.
Evaluating Numbers, Not Faithfulness.
Also, I’ve noticed a trend for mission organizations to focus on numbers of “responses” rather than the biblical faithfulness of their workers as their primary evaluative metric. Again, it’s not that these organizations are wholly unconcerned about theological integrity. They likely have their workers sign a doctrinal statement, and they might be quick to address open heresy. But at the functional level, they seem to assume their workers are faithful and then actually test them by measurable, immediate, visible results—“numbers.”
I don’t know of any organizations who say that numbers are their sole metric. But their published reports focus entirely on the number of Bible study groups formed, decisions made, baptisms performed, and churches planted. So you start to wonder.
Now, I trust that all true Christians would rejoice in numbers insofar as we know that they represent true converts and true churches. But we must also remember from Jesus’ parable of the sower (Matt. 13:1-23) that the number of immediate, visible responses can prove hugely deceptive over time. I often get the feeling that most evangelicals haven’t internalized this warning and tend to think that the faithful ministry or method is the one that “works.” It’s as if we think numbers, not biblical faithfulness, vindicates methodology.
Assuming the Bible Is Silent About “How”
Finally, it seems to me that many assume the Bible is silent on practice—the “how” of evangelism and church planting. Books and leaders don’t say this up front. But the fact that they do not carefully interact with Scripture to find, understand, and test missionary methods suggest as much. For example, if you never consult your Bible when changing the oil in your car it suggests that you don’t believe Scripture addresses the topic. And you’re right. Likewise, based on what’s been written and spoken about missions, or not, I take it that many missiologists and missionaries assume that Scripture is largely silent on that topic of the “how.”
Prior generations have made similar mistakes. We’re not the first people to affirm the authority and sufficiency of the Bible yet deny them in our methods. In his classic work of 1954, An Introduction to the Science of Missions the Dutch theologian and veteran missionary to Indonesia, J. H. Bavinck wrote, “The conclusion might easily be reached that the content of preaching is given in Scripture but that the manner of preaching, and the question of missionary approach, is a matter of personal tact and of applying oneself to the given circumstances.” He continues, “According to such a solution, the Bible provides the content, the ‘what’ of preaching, but the manner, the ‘how’ of preaching must be discovered otherwise.”
But Bavink calls such a solution “too simple” and suggests that “theoretical problems concerning principles, which can be answered by Scripture alone, lurk behind the countless practical problems which beset the church.”
When we deal with issues that touch on the heart of the biblical message (evangelism and the church) and yet act as though Scripture has little to say that’s practical, haven’t we fallen into the same error?
Of course, all three impressions are merely that—my impressions. They can’t be proven in any objective sense, at least not by someone with abilities as limited as mine.
I considered specifically citing passages from popular books or organizational policies that I deem to be pragmatically driven, in the bad sense of the term. But I realized that even if I were to cite specific examples, another person could point to all the Scripture passages a book cites or the off-handed sentence which strongly affirms a desire to be Bible-based. My thesis here is hard to argue on the macro-level because when we address evangelical pragmatism we are not dealing with an overt agenda but with a collection of unchallenged assumptions, with a culture, a disposition, and an unspoken worldview.
So is it even possible to discern these pragmatic idolatries in missiology books, in workers, in our churches and mission sending organizations? Or is this just one writer’s unfounded opinion? Well, I certainly think there is ample evidence, but it’s better that we first go looking for our pragmatic idolatry in the place we probably least want to look: in our own hearts.
Before looking elsewhere, we do well to examine our own unspoken assumptions about the authority and sufficiency of God’s Word, whether we are vocational missionaries, church planters, pastors, or church members. Three key areas that shed light on our functional authority may be helpful to consider: our attractions, our definitions and our sources. Let’s take each in turn.
LET’S EVALUATE OUR FUNCTIONAL AUTHORITY
First, it may help to ask some serious questions about what attracts us to our own favored methodologies:
- What is it that attracts you, personally, to the methods for evangelism, contextualization, church planting, or missions strategy that you favor?
- Do you find yourself attracted to a method because you honestly think the idea looks like a scripturally faithful way to approach missions, or did you first hear about something that “worked” and you found yourself drawn to the prospect of better and faster results?
This is important: what attracts us says a lot about the functional authority we are valuing.
- Are you drawn to a vision of biblical faithfulness that brings glory to God through your obedience, or to a vision of rapid, spectacular results flowing from some “key” methodology?
Not that we don’t want to see people converted, but ultimately, at the bottom of your motivational structure, what is it that has had the most impact on your choices: faithfulness or results? If you answer “results,” then it could be that your real authority is just human reason, your own analysis of “what will work,” rather than the pattern and teaching of the Bible.
Or consider your definitions, particularly your definition of “success.”
- How would you define success in missions, evangelism, or church planting? Certainly we should all want to see people converted and rescued from hell. But is it finally just about numbers, more converts, more decisions, more new churches, and increasing baptisms?
- Or, while you pray and work for conversions, is your ultimate aim to see God glorified through faithful proclamation of his message?
This is a hard distinction for any lover of souls to parse out. But it’s critical. You might have heard the truism, “What you measure is what you get.” If we measure success in numbers, we’ll get numbers. And whatever will get us numbers may end up as our rule and measure of faithfulness.
This is no small matter. J.I. Packer in his classic work Fundamentalism and the Word of God observes that “The problem of authority is the most fundamental problem that the Christian church ever faces.” The New Testament writers were very concerned that churches would begin to reject Scripture and turn to a pragmatic focus on visible success, which would then prove disastrous to Christian obedience. The book of Hebrews seems to have been written in part to guard against pragmatism regarding avoiding persecution and to correct the tendency of some Christians to avoid making themselves distinct from the surrounding culture in pursuit of better results (see Hebrews 10:19-39).
Likewise, Paul wrote 1 Corinthians in part to warn the Corinthians against reshaping the gospel in order to make Christianity more palatable and successful among wisdom- and rhetoric-obsessed Corinthian Greeks.
Later, Paul writes of this seductive danger in 2 Timothy 4:3 where he implies that a desire to gather a crowd by telling people what they want to hear will seduce many preachers in these last days.
In Matthew 15:11-13, Jesus’ disciples urge Jesus to care more about how his message was being received, saying it was offensive to the Pharisees. It goes without saying that Christ’s response to this proposal was not very “pragmatic.”
3. The Source of Our Methods
This brings us to our final consideration: the source for our methods.
- Where do you turn first and foremost to find your own missionary practice, evangelistic methods, and practices for the church? It’s fine to look to the experience of other mortals and to glean from their observations and ideas, but where do you turn first? The latest popular book? Some colleague who is reporting results?
- When you do consult the Scripture, are you looking for direction or for permission? Not because you don’t believe the Bible is God’s Word, but maybe just because you don’t think it has much to say about evangelism, missions and church planting. But wouldn’t it be odd if the Bible didn’t have anything to say about such things? Granted, the Bible doesn’t say everything about everything. But aren’t missions, planting churches, evangelism, and the gospel at the very center of what the Bible claims to be about? If it doesn’t tell us what we need to know regarding its central aim, it’s not really sufficient at all, is it?
These are just three simple ways to examine our own hearts. Once that’s done, we should be willing to ask these questions about the culture of our own missionary organizations, books, partners, and even teams. What are they attracted to? How do they really define success? Where do they seem to look for the authority for their methods, good intentions not withstanding?
The alternative is to stay uncritically on the treadmill of the search for the next “key” method to unlock the world to the gospel. We try something that at least seems biblically permissible (to those who bother to check), and then we look for quick results. No immediate, visible fruit? Must be a dud. On to the next “best practice.” This may seem different than the simple, often slow, biblical focus on proclaiming the plain gospel, but that’s okay . . . because we are doing this to win the lost. We even tell ourselves that the frenetic nature of our rotating search for the latest method proves our passion for evangelism. Surely the fact that we are motivated by a sense of evangelistic urgency will cover over any biblical missteps along the way. Surely God will be pleased with our evangelistic passion even if our method is largely of our own making. Or will he?
EVANGELICAL PRAGMATISM: AN OLD PATH TO LIBERALISM
It should never be forgotten that a passion for evangelism, and a seemingly genuine desire for a relevant Christianity that “worked,” is what motivated Friedrich Schleiermacher, the father of liberal Protestant theology. As best we can tell Schleiermacher did not labor away in some dark den of intrigue, intentionally plotting to ruin the faith of German Christians. No, his initial, 1799 publication was an evangelistic/apologetic book entitled, “On Religion: Speeches to its Cultured Despisers.”
In the introduction to the 1926 edition of that work, Rudolf Otto writes, “The intention of the work is crystal clear. It aimed to recapture the position that religion had lost in the intellectual world where it was threatened with total oblivion.”
But in Scheiermacher’s desperate efforts to rescue the work of the church and make the Christian religion relevant to modern intellectuals, he devised a system that placed the locus of authority in “experience” or “piety” rather than in God’s Word. He wanted an approach that would produce results among Enlightenment intellectuals. And it did work! His book was an instant sensation and many in his target people group responded visibly to his method. And the damage done to true biblical faith by this successful error has continued to cascade onward, wrecking souls and churches for more than two centuries now.
Would it not be ironic and deeply sad were we to discover years from now that many conservative evangelicals have, in regard to missions, unwittingly gotten onto a similar downgrade? So absolutizing the goal of immediate, visible results that our locus of authority is shifting?
I am not saying that this kind of pragmatic thinking means that these brothers have lost the gospel. No. But I am saying that their pragmatic focus will almost certainly result in the eventual loss of the gospel among their progeny.
I call to witness . . . pretty much all of church history from Christ to today. A passion for evangelism, divorced from a passion for biblical faithfulness, almost always results in the loss of the gospel. The gospel is just too “prickly.” It has too much to confront and irritate people in every culture. The Bible is too unpopular and has too much historical baggage. Maybe our pragmatism doesn’t lead to heterodoxy right away, but if visible results are our goal, the orthodox gospel eventually has to give. As theologian David Wells has warned, “It is less that the truths of this orthodoxy are assailed than that they are seen to be irrelevant to the building of the church. They are, it is believed, an impediment to its success.”
But, even with all these musings, it is not my intention to write a fundamentally negative piece, though you might be forgiven for thinking I have thus far. I do think the times are dangerous—all the more so because well-intentioned Christians seem oblivious to their own peril. But I also think there is hope and—praise God—that hope is not rooted in my ability to figure out the next great evangelistic method. My hope is found in the great Shepherd who knows his sheep, who will send out a witness to all the earth, and whose true sheep will listen to him. Missions will succeed because it’s the work of God!
Jesus will call his bride from every tribe, language, people and nation, and he will even have a useful place for us in this great plan. Even now I see plenty of hope, but it starts with a hard road.
A NEW CONVERSATION
If we want to rescue Western Christian missions from the corrosive effect of pragmatism, then we need to begin by talking about the elephant in our evangelical living room. Conversations about methods have their place, but at present that seems to be the only conversation we’re having, at least on the popular level where folks like me operate. Far too many of our books, articles, training, and conversations seem to operate at the level of “what works” rather than “what is most faithful to Scripture.”
I would suggest that we need to begin to have more conversations (verbally and in print) about the assumptions behind various methods and strategies. This will almost certainly seem rude. I suppose that’s one of the reasons we aren’t having them right now. To debate whether a method works is offensive enough, but to question the fundamental approach to Scripture that informs the method is often intolerable. But we need to get over that reaction. We need to ask the deeper, more uncomfortable questions politely, lovingly, and directly. It seems to me that we can no longer assume that formal affirmations regarding the Bible and the gospel translate into a God-centered, Bible-saturated approach to strategies. We need to be willing to ask questions like:
- What does this method imply about the state of mankind (dead in sins or needing education)?
- What does it assume about Scripture’s teaching on the topic (irrelevant, insufficient, or controlling)?
- What does this organization assume about biblical teaching on the church (minimal or robust)?
- Where does this worker imply that power for conversion lies (psychological / anthropological method or God’s Word)?
- What view of the Bible’s authority is implied (culturally located or universal and self-validating)?
These are just a few examples of the kinds of questions we should be asking about missions movements, methods, and organizations. I trust a discerning reader could think of many more. We need more careful, biblical critiques and more books and articles extolling faithful methods deduced from the pages of Scripture. We need to be thinking about ways to evaluate our workers’ performance more on their biblical faithfulness and much less on reported numbers of immediate, visible responses. We need to be more diligent in encouraging thoughtful, faithful workers even if fruit is slow in coming to their ministry. Ultimately, we need to openly reexamine our actual commitment to the authority and sufficiency of the word of God.
This is a difficult analysis for me to articulate. I would be delighted if I were proved wrong in my assessment. My confidence comes not in the least because so many others have seen these trends in evangelicalism as a whole. But I also feel the weight of seeing the problems and yet knowing that I am so ill-equipped to address them.
I’d like to end with a plea to any qualified missionaries and theologians (of which I’m neither) who agree with my concerns to step more forcefully into this discussion. It often feels to me that in large part the missions journals, books, and resources have been abandoned to the pragmatists. Granted, new ideas sell, and it may be harder to write about exciting methods that essentially say, “Go carefully read your Bible.”
But this conversation matters because God cares about both the “what” and the “how” of missions. So should we—passionately, urgently, faithfully, biblically. To quote J.H. Bavinck, “Answers can be given solely on the basis of Scripture. For the work of missions is the work of God; it is not lawful for us to improvise.”
1. For an excellent consideration of many of these specific contemporary conflicts in missiology, see David Hesselgrave, Paradigms in Conflict: 10 Key Questions in Christian Missions Today (Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic, 2006). Despite a slightly odd discussion in the first chapter that conflates Hyper-Calvinism and biblical Calvinism, overall the book gives a balanced and admirably biblical treatment of specific issues in missions and is well worth reading. And, to his credit and distinction, Dr. Hesselgrave doesn’t hide behind academic neutrality but actually has the courage to come right out and tell us which side of most issues he thinks is most biblically faithful. Bravo!
2. Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007), 73.
3. Ibid, 127.
4.From Judith Silver,“Movie Day at the Supreme Court or “I Know It When I See It”: A History of the Definition of Obscenity.” Findlaw.com Online Legal Library, 2009.
5. J.H. Bavinck,An Introduction to the Science of Missions (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1960), xv and 80.
6. J.I. Packer, Fundamentalism and the Word of God (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1958), 42.
7.From Rudolf Otto’s introduction toFriedrich Schleiermacher,On Religion: Speeches to its Cultured Despisers (Harper Collins, 1958),ix.
8. David Wells, The Courage to be Protestant (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008), 14.
9. Bavinck,Science of Missions, 5.