Religious Pragmatism. That was a new word to me until recently, however, I can see it is something that is alive and kicking in our churches around the world today.

So, what is Religious Pragmatism?

Well, Pragmatism is the notion or idea that what determines the worth of something is whether it produces results or not. To a pragmatist, if a technique or course of action gets the desired results, then the action taken is good.

So how do we see this in our churches today?

A major Christian magazine recently published an article by a well-known charismatic speaker. He mused for a full page about the futility of both preaching and listening to sermons that go beyond mere entertainment. His conclusion? “People don’t remember what you say anyway, so most preaching is a waste of time. I’m going to try to do better next year,” he writes; “that means wasting less time preparing long sermons and spending much more time preparing short ones. People, I’ve discovered, will forgive even poor theology as long as they get out before noon”.

To a pragmatist, if a theory is tried and is successful, then it must be good…but is that really true?

Pragmatism is inherently relativistic (interpreted as saying that all points of view are equally valid, in contrast to an absolutism which argues there is but one true and correct view), to a pragmatist, there is no absolute right or wrong, good or evil, truth or error – instead, everything is relative and depends either on the circumstance of the time or who you are speaking to or your own opinion of things.

Pragmatism implies that  nobody should be too dogmatic or black & white about anything. Truth is defined as anything meaningful, useful and helpful; if it works, it must be good.

Pragmatism is evident in many churches; both in mega-churches in America as well as in our own  towns and city’s, this can be seen in many different forms. Either by how the quote above determines how important it is to preach the scripture, or whether a church leans more towards entertaining a congregation. When a church believes it is more important to appeal to the world than it is to preach the word, then you can be sure you are witnessing pragmatism at work.

Pragmatism in the church can be likened to a child sat at the dinner table. The toddler doesn’t want their healthy meal because it doesn’t taste as nice, they want CHOCOLATE and they want it NOW!!! The child is given chocolate and the child is now happy. So, as far as a pragmatist is concerned, they achieved the desired result, so giving the chocolate must have been the correct method.

Now anyone reading this, knows that giving the child chocolate is not the best method, however, it is the same type of methods being used today by many churches.

Many churches believe that in order to appeal to the world or to even keep people in their church, they have to submit to what they believe people want. Some churches have swapped scripture for sandwiches and Sundays – Gods holy day –  for Fridays because then Sunday is left free for people to do what they want, Church on Sunday is basically an inconvenience! But… if it works and people come on Friday instead, then it must be right, right? Well, no, they are NOT right.

It is not biblical to try and attract a fleshly, worldly, carnal person by using more and more methods that appeal to their fleshly, worldly, carnal desires. How can a church justify itself for using worldly methods to appeal to worldly desires when Christ tells us that we must crucify the flesh and the lusts of this world? It is however a pragmatic view to use worldly methods because they get people into church, so as far as some churches go, it is a method that works. The problem is, Jesus didn’t come to save people to get them into church, but get them into the Kingdom!

Jesus never tried to appeal to the flesh of a man, instead  He made it clear that your flesh must die, so why would Jesus appeal to what needs to die? If Jesus didn’t appeal to the flesh, why is the church trying to appeal to the flesh?

There seems no limit to what modern church leaders will do to entice people who aren’t interested in worship and preaching. One noted pastor of a very large church, for example, boast about the time his staff staged a pie fight during a Sunday morning church service. 

Paul himself learnt a lesson from when he was in Athens. He had all the knowledge and know-how when it came to appealing to mans intellect, but he learnt that appealing to mans desires is not what draws a man into the true knowledge of Christ, it is only God Himself that can do that 1 Corinthians 3:6. He learnt, that his job was to preach the gospel and God would do the rest. He had to let go of what he knew and how he could appeal to mans fleshly desires, and resolved to know nothing but Christ crucified 1 Cor 2:2

To give an example of how subtle pragmatism is; I went to visit my old church in a different town to where I am now, and a friend of mine excitedly told me that the worship team had been playing secular music in church. She told me there were a couple of lads in the congregation who were not Christians, and when asked what was the best thing about the meeting, they responded by saying that they didn’t expect to hear secular music in church and it would be one of the reasons they would go again.

As I listened to her, my heart sank. I knew it wasn’t right to play secular music in church just as I knew it wasn’t right to appeal to the flesh of those who were non-Christians. Not only that, this was church, this was where the people of God come to be built up in Gods word, it wasn’t the place for playing secular music to non-Christians.

In the next Sunday meeting, we had just heard the sermon and it was time to get before the Lord. I entered in to praise and worship and was just standing in the presence of the Lord when I heard a familiar tune. I recognised it straight away and when I realised, it was as though someone had just grabbed me and yanked me right out of Gods presence. I knew the tune and who wrote it and knew it was not a tune which was created to glorify God, how could I worship God with a tune that was not made for Him? I just couldn’t. I remembered the story my friend had told me the previous day about the secular music being played where the non-Christians really liked it and knew that was probably why it was being played, but as for me? I couldn’t make that compromise.

That is just a very small example of how pragmatism can subtlety introduce itself into the church. The problem is when it goes un-noticed and starts to take root and grows into bigger things, such as sacrificing a sermon for poor doctrine so that people can get home in time for dinner, or telling people what they want to hear about their lives and how God loves them regardless of how they live because it makes for a bigger church.

The bible does not preach pragmatism or promote it. Spiritual and biblical truth is not determined by testing what works and what doesn’t work. Biblical truth is tested by only one criterion; does it match with what the bible says or not?

A. W. Tozer wrote these words in 1955:

For centuries the Church stood solidly against every form of worldly entertainment, recognizing it for what it was—a device for wasting time, a refuge from the disturbing voice of conscience, a scheme to divert attention from moral accountability. For this she got herself abused roundly by the sons of this world. But of late she has become tired of the abuse and has given over the struggle. She appears to have decided that if she cannot conquer the great god Entertainment she may as well join forces with him and make what use she can of his powers. So today we have the astonishing spectacle of millions of dollars being poured into the unholy job of providing earthly entertainment for the so-called sons of heaven. Religious entertainment is in many places rapidly crowding out the serious things of God. Many churches these days have become little more than poor theaters where fifth-rate “producers” peddle their shoddy wares with the full approval of evangelical leaders who can even quote a holy text in defense of their delinquency. And hardly a man dares raise his voice against it.

Photo by Joshua Earle