Tuesday, June 4, 2013

A recovering pragmatist

Jeramie Rinne, a Baptist pastor in Massachusetts, admits that "[He] Was a Pragmatist" and why he felt the need to go into recovery:
Hi, I’m Jeramie. And I’m a recovering pragmatic pastor. ....

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. ....

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." ....

Despite our church’s apparent success, the 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

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. ....

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.... [more]