Defining Our Terms
The most important aspect of any conversation or dialog is ensuring that the terminology we use is understood broadly. If I approach an individual in a grocery store and ask them if they know where the milk is, and we do not understand that milk is a very particular thing, in the context of the interaction, we will never be on the same page. Practically speaking consider Bill Clinton’s response to a question about his relationship to Monica Lewinsky. “It depends on what the definition of the word is, is…” So, pragmatically, I suppose I need to define pragmatism.
The dictionary defines pragmatism this way:
A practical approach to problems and affairs.
Furthermore, we see it explained as a philosophical school. “It is an American movement in philosophy founded by C. S. Pierce and William James and marked by the doctrines that the meaning of conceptions is to be sought in their practical bearings, that the function of thought is to guide action, and that truth is preeminently to be tested by the practical consequences of belief.”
Within the context of society, pragmatism looks like this. “If it works do it!” I am afraid that the functional definition of pragmatism has morphed into the philosophical definition.
Defining conversion isn’t as hard for me here as most of my readers already know what it means. Quite some time ago I wrote about the radical nature of conversion. This applies to all people who are saved and not to a select few.
Tying Pragmatism and Conversion Together
Within the context of Western Christian Culture there has been a trend for quite some time to ensure the greatest volume of conversions as possible. Many today, especially those like me in the Calvinistic camp, see this as an almost exclusively modern occurrence. Folks will hearken to the days of Billy Graham Crusades and lay much of the blame on Billy.
While I certainly take issue with Billy Graham for many reasons, I cannot blame him for the push toward this trend. Subsequently, we have to look further back in the history of WCC and especially in the history of the Church in the USA. Do we look back to Billy Sunday? Does the root of the blame lie with him?
Perhaps we should look even further back than that? I would suggest that we look at Charles Finney. While I have mentioned him in other articles, I have not spent a lot of time addressing his errors. Nonetheless, I will not address them in depth here either. My desire here is not to debunk Finneyism but to explain how conversion became intertwined with pragmatic practice.
Finney fathered a massive amount of manipulation tactics meant to lead people to conversion. These methodologies were seen as effective because well, they were. Every where that he went, Finney was able to cause “revival”. Whatever it took to get results was fine with Finney. This tactic bled into the methodologies of many who followed. Men like Billy Sunday, Billy Graham and Greg Laurie all adopted his methods.
The pragmatism of Finney and his descendants has deeply impacted the modern mindset of WCC. In fact, I would posit that WCC is exclusively the result of Finneyism. Everywhere you turn when considering Gospel ministry, you will face the “If it works do it!” mentality.
Entertaining People into Hell
I wrote previously about a church that my family and I attended that used a free concert and magic show to “preach the Gospel” to the community. This wouldn’t by necessity be pragmatic. There are certainly Christian musicians and artists that you can count on to preach Christ crucified. However, the problem with this approach is that these events rarely get put on by solid congregations.
Instead, the group or groups that conduct such events often have the same pragmatic mindset. As the old saw goes, “What you win them with you will need to keep them with.” Let me be frank. When I use the term entertaining people into hell I am not speaking only of entertaining people. I am speaking in a broad sense wherein the “church” becomes a place where all the felt needs of lost people can be met.
This pragmatism becomes the means by which we conduct outreach into varied communities. We adjust the message to meet the perceived needs of whichever group we are attempting to reach. Often people will point to Paul when he said, “I become all things to all people…” as a justification for their rationality. This misapplication of Paul’s intent has become the cornerstone for the pragmatism employed to see people converted.
Sadly, what is missing in these instances is the realization that many if not most people converted by these methodologies are not entering by the narrow gate. As was the case in Finney’s days, we are now left with broad swaths of Western countries that are effectively immune to Gospel preaching because they have already “put on Jesus”. These burned over districts, as they were referred to in Finney’s day, are seemingly beyond repair. Many believe they are heading to heaven but sadly have never been truly converted.
Pragmatism and Romans 1:16
I don’t need to quote it. We all know Romans 1:16. Furthermore, we all know that the Gospel is the power of God to salvation. What I want to point us towards is the reality that all of the modern Finneyesque methods tell the truth about WCC. The majority of those who utilize these varied methods are simply showing how ashamed they are of the Gospel.
We have to be honest about this. Pragmatism isn’t just the idea or belief that preaching the Gospel isn’t effective. It goes deeper than that. Pragmatism is the fear and shame at what the Gospel communicates. The Gospel reaches into the lives of every person and tells them how utterly wicked and sinful they are. The Gospel tells a lost and sinful humanity that your intrinsic worth isn’t because of you but because of the Image of God in you. This message is offensive to the lost.
What pragmatism does is reach into the lives of the lost and asks them to determine what God needs to do for them. Do you need healing? Maybe you need your bills paid or a different job. Perhaps you don’t like yourself or you need a better looking significant other. Pragmatic thought comes into these areas of life for the unbeliever and tells them that God desires to improve on those areas of weakness.
So, instead of dealing with the Gospel the way that God intended and as the ancient church and the Apostles understood, the modern church responds with shame. The ends justify the means. It has become imperative that God first minister to people as they desire before we call them to follow Him.
Pragmatism in Friendship Evangelism
I have written about the concept of friendship or relationship evangelism in the past. So, I will not belabor the point from here. However, I do believe that we need to address the reality of what compels the practice. Pragmatism is as much a root compulsion for this methodology as anything else. Friendship evangelism tells us that we cannot preach the Gospel to someone before we have built a positive relationship with them first.
There needs to be a compelling purchase of that person’s time and trust before we can “speak truth” to their sinful state. To me, this is why Front Loading the Gospel into each relationship is vitally important. It allows you to develop an honesty to the friendship. Anything else causes us to work to salvage the friendship even if that means we compromise on the Gospel message. Ala pragmatism!
Why This Matters
In the end, the number of conversions isn’t the compelling factor in any Gospel ministry. The end point is to be faithful to message of the Gospel and leave conversion in the hands of the Sovereign Lord of heaven!
What we do when we engage the world with pragmatic methodologies is actually blasphemous. Moreover, it tells God that not only do we not trust him. But that we know better than He does when it comes to seeing souls converted.
In truth we all approach the Gospel in a somewhat pragmatic way. We have all found a method that suits our personality or personal tastes. However, that form of pragmatism is far different than that of the modern church.
As I close what I want to compel each of us to consider is where we may be compromised. Furthermore, if we can honestly evaluate ourselves in this way, we may find that our genuine attempts at truthful Gospel preaching actually expands to a far broader audience. That is an end goal that I think we can all get behind.
Soli Deo Gloria!