What’s Wrong with Pragmatism?

by Mike Ratliff

1 I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom:2 preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. 3 For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, 4 and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. 5 As for you, always be sober- minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry. (2 Timothy 4:1-5 ESV)

The proponents of the seeker-sensitive church growth model may very well have had good intentions when through it was spawned the rise of contemporary mega-churches such as Willow Creek and Saddleback Valley Baptist and their clones. The focus was outreach to the unchurched. While that appears to be a proper function of the New Testament Church one of the model’s fundamental components is actually an antithesis of the clear instruction to Church leaders found in God’s Word. That component is pragmatism. 

Pragmatism is deadly to New Testament Christianity because it is based on human reasoning and human ingenuity in solving problems or issues. It utilizes expediency in dealing with issues rather than prayer and obedience to what is clearly taught in scripture. The reason expediency is wrong is that its solutions will always be short term in focus while neglecting the long term. Here is a secular example. Think of the United States Social Security system. It was designed during the Great Depression of the 1930’s. It was based on the number of workers and on the cost of goods and services at that time. However, that was more than seven decades ago and with the ravages of inflation plus the number of Baby Boomers nearing retirement age, we have a system that is upside down and completely irrational in scope and function. That is a product of the expedient approach to problem solving.

The seeker-sensitive church growth model is pragmatically based. It seeks to restructure “church” so that it appeals to the unchurched. Rick Warren formulated his version of it by doing a survey of the unchurched in his area about what form of church they would attend. He then came up with the Purpose Driven Church model and implemented it over time at his church. The model stresses the form of worship and preaching to be ‘done’ in a way that does not offend the lost. It seeks to keep them interested. Therefore, doctrine is never mentioned nor is hell or sin or why Jesus went to the cross. Sermons are pragmatic and ‘light.’ They are full of self-help and are geared to increase the crowd’s self-esteem. This structure is totally expedient because it neglects the more mature Christian. In fact, when a church is being transformed into a Purpose Driven Church, those who resist the changes because of the lack of spiritual depth and theological focus are systematically driven off. Hence, they lose the saved and actually save very few. This process creates a “church” full of tares.

In these churches, hymns are replaced with entertainment. Sermons are not biblical in nature, but instead are motivational with no spiritual depth or theological foundation. With all expediency, however, the bill eventually comes due. A good example of this is at Willow Creek when a survey revealed that the more mature believers in that church were hungry. They wanted to be fed spiritual food. They were starving spiritually. Sadly, the “solution” the leadership at Willow Creek came up with was nothing more than another example of expediency. It was decided to not change the level of Bible teaching to feed the sheep there, but to insist that those who want to be fed learn to feed themselves.

Let me say right here my brethren that I believe that the take over of so many churches by the seeker-sensitive paradigm was very easily accomplished because the root present in those churches was in many cases rotten. Evangelicalism now is not what it once was. It has been decaying for quite some time as the leadership within them made compromise after compromise in order to not offend their members so that they would not split their membership. Those who caved in to this had been compromised by existentialism and/or humanism. When the seeker-sensitive package became apparent to these leaders they jumped at it. It looked like a quick fix for their ailing churches. Again, this is expedient thinking.

Many Christians are simply quitting church in our time because their only alternatives where they live are dumbed-down mega-churches or spiritually dead liberal churches. A survey of the age group that comprises the teens in our time showed something very striking. Most were not interested in the dumbed-down seeker-sensitive churches nor were they interested in the doctrinally light and ceremonially focused churches (these are the ones not yet picked off by the seeker-sensitive paradigm). No, they wanted a church that actually taught and discussed doctrine and had Biblically based worship. What does the Bible tell us about this?

1 I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom:2 preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. 3 For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, 4 and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. 5 As for you, always be sober- minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry. (2 Timothy 4:1-5 ESV)

American Evangelicalism actually did meet this criterion when I was growing up. I was a Southern Baptist until just a few years ago and I can tell you that things changed dramatically as we approached the end if the 20th Century. It became “out of season” to preach the Word. Some never forsook their calling, but many did. They made expedient choices that resulted in their churches becoming compromised. However, the command is to, “preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching.” Expediency says to abandon what does not appear to be working and seek that that does appear to produce immediate results. However, that would mean not preaching the Word when it is not popular. Has it ever occurred to anyone that God meant what He said?

Notice that even when people will not endure sound teaching the Pastor is to never abandon his calling. He is to continue to obey His Lord in being faithful to Word of God by doing the work of an evangelist, fulfilling his ministry. My brethren, if you are in a church that is pastored by a man or men who obey this command then rejoice and thank God for you are blessed indeed. Never stop praying for your pastor(s). On the other hand, if your knowledge of the Bible and doctrine is not growing in depth and you are not being fed the deep nourishing meat from God’s word where you ‘go to church,’ then there is a problem. Go to the throne of grace, seek the face of God and pray for wisdom and discernment about what you should do.

I know that many reading this are in the ‘quitting church’ mode. I was in that mode for many years after we lost our church in Kansas to the Purpose Driven Paradigm. We have relocated from Kansas to Oklahoma and are now part of a good church here. However, during those years of constantly seeking the right church in Kansas it was tough. Why? Those in that mode either have few if any churches in their area that have not been compromised or, if they have not, they are spiritually dead. We know that religiosity saves no one. However, all genuine believers hunger for the pure food of God’s Word. If you are in Christ, you do. While we searched I compensated by listening to godly preaching nearly every day through podcasts. I also had good fellowship with believers where I work and with those who comment here. I also fellowship with friends at the church where we were attending even though we never became part of it. As I still do today, I studied my Bible and prayed everyday to prepare for these posts. However, what was missing was the family atmosphere of belonging to a local body of believers. With a church family, we have accountability and ministerial opportunities.

Let us not walk before the face of God with pragmatic expediency. No, instead, let us always seek His wisdom and discernment and obey Him in all we do. How can we go wrong if we do that?

Soli Deo Gloria!

13 thoughts on “What’s Wrong with Pragmatism?

  1. Christ told His Disciples in Mat 10:16 “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.” Good advice for today as well.


  2. Mike,

    The Tactical Approach and the Holy Spirit (Video) October 21, 2013 Gregory Koukl, a link on your web site which I just watched, plus an old (it’s on VHS) video by RC Sproul both say the same thing about evangelism or outreach in that we (God’s elect) are to do our part to present the (true) Gospel clearly, truthfully, persuasively and graciously (Greg’s words) and the Holy Spirit does His part, whatever the individual case may be. Our part is to preach or to speak forth the Gospel. His part, the big part is to BRING TO LIFE that which is DEAD in trespasses and sins.
    This Friday and Saturday at my new small Bible expounding church there will be a seminar entitled “Biblical Evangelism” which I am really looking forward to attending. I don’t know what to expect but it has to far better than the last “evangelism” class I attended about 4 years ago at my former, seeker sensitive church wherein we worked through a booklet by Bill Hybels. It was about the time of my “awakening” and at the end of the course I was disappointed in that it was very lacking, mostly self-analysis and psychology. It took the “pragmatic” approach to evangelism.
    These seeker sensitive, non-offensive, feel-good “gospel” preachers are building houses on a foundation of sand.

    I praise God for the wisdom He has bestowed on you Mike.


  3. I totally agree Peter. I went through an Evangelism Explosion training and outreach “push” at a former church in the mid 1990’s. I started out as a trainee then the next year I was a trainer. Some “teams” were quite effective because they basically used the technique of sharing the gospel and applied it to their daily encounters, the people they came into contact with daily or with family. However, the leader of the “push” wanted us to do “cold calls”. We used some list he got of people who had just moved into our town and we would go visit them as a team and attempt to evangelize them. I never saw much fruit from that. What I did see was many of the people in our group approaching the EE process pragmatically. It was just an exercise to them so they could say they did it and they could “check that box.” The pastor who was pushing us to do this left right after that. I liked him, but I was not sorry that ended. However, what replaced him was a new pastor who changed our church into a Purpose Driven knock off of Saddleback Valley Baptist Church. I lost most of my good friends in just few weeks after that as they all left for other churches in the area. When they confronted the new pastor about the changes he told them that if they didn’t like it they could leave. I was sorta absent at that time as my job had me traveling a lot and I was preparing to relocate from OKC to Tulsa as they moved my job there. It seems all a blur now, but I do remember encountering some of my former church friends out and about town and they were still upset at how they were treated by this new pastor. It wasn’t until my own “awakening” in 2004 that I was finally able to look back on this and see what was really going on.


  4. Amen, Mike. Though I think you are giving them too much credit by saying they may have had good intentions. There are wolves after all.
    The problem we find now is…there are a few bible believing, bible teaching churches. But they have: contemporary worship (darkened room, graphics, a focus on instruments rather than voices, tendency toward loudness) or they have some weird doctrine creeping in like Federal vision, or they have ties to SBC or the Sovereign Grace churches, etc. It is so confusing. Or else they are teeny tiny and barely able to pay their rent. If this trend continues, I don’t think house churches can be too far off…


  5. Mike,
    Maybe you had to go through all those things to train/prepare you for what you are doing now. 🙂 You can share those events with us and more importantly what you have learned from them to help direct this ministry as you serve in the Kingdom.

    “Seek and you will find” 🙂
    I just left a church which I attended for about 30 years after a move to the new suburbs a long way from my home and the completion of morphing into purpose driven, seeker sensitive, LOUD music driven, etc. enterprise. But praise God I found a small church with about 40-75 people at the Sunday morning service where the pastor does expositional preaching, in my neighbourhood only a short 10 minute walk away. We sing the “old” songs from a hymnal accompanied by a piano, organ and often a violin. I have learned that the words which come out of our mouths are far more important than the music and those old songs mostly speak of the glory of God, rather than some stupid ditty such as “flowing like a river” repeated 12 times like a mantra.
    If our heavenly Father directs His people towards home churches, as in many places in the world so be it. He knows how to care for His sheep.


  6. I have found this pragmatic approach to truth to be an issue since shortly after I was saved in ’84. My issue with this anti-Christ teaching is that it is just that — against Jesus. As a full-time missionary and a street preacher, (of an interacting but not rude with people kind,) I have found many leaders and Christians opposing what I do. It has become my experience that one of the greatest sources of enmity towards the gospel comes from “church” people. Most seem to oppose the direct proclamation of the gospel. Not only that but opposing the idea of preaching about sin is very strong. One of my questions is: “So, what is Jesus going to save you from? Having a good time?” The end result is that you have a bunch of people calling themselves Christians who don’t even know what the gospel is but when they hear it on the street they oppose it. They have been sucked into a relativistic understanding of truth and the idea that producing guilt in people is wrong. Their faith is not based on the gospel and is indeed consequently an existential leap in the dark. If one is honest when we read the things Jesus said we should all feel guilty because we all are. Thankfully he went to the cross, took our punishment and rose again in awesome power opening the way for us to come freely to him having our guilt blotted out. Why does the Church not want this message to go out? Is it because they fear offending people? Is it because the pastor/minister fears losing his job? Is it because they want to be seen as academically acceptable instead of foolish? I am not sure but as I have experienced it over the last 25+ years this opposition to the gospel makes the whole thing far more serious.


  7. Reblogged this on Rainbow Trout and commented:
    Mike, I found the article insightful, and the comments equally so. You really hit a soft spot here. I live in an off and on want to be church like that. The current model is on Service, others call it Missional…the modern definition. What I do observe is that in these churches there is a good deal of prayer effort and good intentions. But often the seminary training or conference driven models, or even “managerial” consultant influence dominates the decisions. And of course numbers do matter: whether to reach the so call “unchurched” or hold on to the “heavy” givers…..nobody really wants to drive them out. And more are always desired.

    And often these churches actually become like clubs with member benefits, of friends and activities that are hard to leave behind, even if one finds that small Bible church not too far away. I know of one about 30 minutes away, but they are limited in supply….and almost impossible to influence people to check it out.


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