The Sacrament of Pragmatism

Billy is a pastoral intern at Hope Church (PCA) in Hot Springs, Arkansas and also a high school agriculture teacher. He has a wife, Kassi, and a 2 year old daughter.

Every January, people are looking for new ways to do things. Many will write down new goals, or recycle old ones, so that they can improve their lives. Often, these goals will be vague enough that they can be adapted to the ebb and flow of life. The theme of these resolutions are almost always self-improvement. We want to eat healthier, be more physically active, or invest our money more wisely. These resolutions will show up in social media posts one way or another. One example would be a social media post to lose weight, and people will comment on the practical ways they have accomplished these goals. I have not seen someone provide a philosophical reason for going keto or the theoretical considerations of joining Crossfit. People seek things that will work for them on a tangible level. We want to see statistics, survey results, and independent fact-checkers. Pragmatism is not an inherently bad thing. The problem is when we bring pragmatism into the church.

The vision-casting goal-setting growth-minded CEO Pastor

Are we told how God wants his church to be operated? If you were to many lay people within the local megachurch, they would most likely say “no”. That is not necessarily their fault because that answer often reflects the attitude of their pastor. The popular evangelical theology behind their form of church government is no theology at all. The “pastor as CEO” form of church government that is seen in many large popular evangelical churches is a dogma without a doctrine. It is a form of church government that is based on “what works” and everything else is perceived as formal, high church bureaucracy. This is the foundation for the pragmatism found in the rest of the popular evangelical church operations. It is done this way because it yields the results we want to see.

Upon this foundation, the church erects the walls they call church growth strategies. If the way we do church is left up to us, then why not incorporate a strategic plan that includes a marketing plan, social media team, production crew, professional musicians, stage props, skits, strobe lights, and fog machines? The problem with these walls is that the back door is as large as the front. By that, I mean that the business strategy, seeker-sensitive church has a large number of their attendees leaving because they were not satisfied with the production or entertainment value. In order to patch the holes in the sinking ship, the CEO decides to implement several programs to retain these fleeing families. This might sound familiar. He begins with a vision-casting “state of the church” sermon describing the problems with attendance, lack of volunteers, or poor giving habits. This is followed by the CEO setting goals for the church, announcing a new “Pastor of Online Engagement”, or putting a large infographic in the welcome center showing the needs of the church. No matter what it is, these new strategic plans come with a new to-do list.

Evangelical penance

Humans love to-do lists. It is part of our nature to assemble a set of goals that, when or if accomplished, will somehow settle a debt we owe God. In the garden of Eden, we see Adam and Eve were the first humans to rebel against the God who made them. In a world where sin is a constant reality, we fail to see the magnitude of this treasonous crime against their benevolent Father. The way that Adam and Eve attempt to make-up for this horrible act that damned the entire human race to hell is by sewing leaves together to make a onesie. Brothers and sisters, when we decide to replace the corporate confession of sin with a 10 step plan, we are sewing fig leaves together. Evangelical church leaders have taken the Roman Catholic penance system and put it in skinny jeans and thick-rimmed hipster glasses. Hail Mary’s have been replaced with rededications and the rosary has been replaced by church volunteer t-shirts. By the way, volunteering at church is great, I am not condemning that at all. My point is that many church leaders will place burdens on the “nominal” church members to take their faith seriously and volunteer for the welcome team to make up for their lack of faithfulness to God during the week. This has lead to many issues in the modern evangelical church. One obvious problem is self-righteousness. If we keep busy with churchy activities or follow the 10 steps to a better prayer life the pastor gives us instead of the gospel, we trick ourselves into thinking that we earned God’s favor. It’s as if our faith gives us the right standing before God, but the extra stuff we do gives us bonus points. That can easily lead us to look down at other Christians who don’t have their ducks in a row. The other side of the ditch is self-doubt. If we are constantly attempting to follow the new 10 step plan we hear from the pulpit every Sunday, it will bring us to the Slough of Despond. Adam and Eve knew their fig leaves would not cover their sin, and that is what caused them to hide from God. If we continue under the weight of our sin, we will find ourselves hiding behind our filthy good works.

The Demands of the Gospel

The beauty of being in a Presbyterian and Reformed church is the constant reminder of the imputed righteousness of Christ. Every week I am assured that I have been pardoned, and not based on my personal or spiritual achievements. The demand of the gospel is simple. It can almost sound too easy. It’s as if Jesus said his yoke is easy and his burden is light or something… We find our satisfaction in Christ alone. He is our righteousness. He obeyed the entire law (God’s law, not the man-made law in that 10 step sermon) on your behalf. Romans 5:1 says, “Therefore having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” That means that peace with God has already been accomplished by Christ our mediator. Our righteousness is found not inside of us, but rather outside of us. It is an alien righteousness. The message of resting in the free grace found in the gospel is lacking in our popular evangelical churches. The result is a self-righteousness or a self-denial, both of which have our focus on ourselves rather than Christ. Look to him for your righteousness. Go to the house of the Lord and receive the gracious gifts of God communicated to us through the means of grace.

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