Tuesday, July 24, 2007

In defense of pragmatism

In a recent commissioning service for IMB missionaries, Jerry Rankin challenged his audience to follow the example of the apostle Paul. That is, they should adopt a “‘wigtake’ attitude – to do ‘whatever it's going to take’ to get the Gospel to all peoples.” Whether “wigtake” will become the next new buzzword in missions I don’t know (I’ve heard at least one professor at Southern Seminary use it in class), but it does suggest to me an interesting question: What is the role of pragmatism in missions and evangelism?

I for one believe the word “pragmatism” has unfairly gotten a bed rep. Perhaps it is because many define pragmatism by the old maxim “the end justifies the means.” Perhaps it is because we blame pragmatism for the many excesses and examples of outrageous outreach practices among some evangelicals. Perhaps it is because we have become leery of meaningless numbers[1] -- inflated statistics, large numbers of “decisions” or even baptisms that do not result in real church growth -- all seemingly as a result of pragmatism. Put that all together and you find that for many, pragmatism has become something of a dirty word.

I am sympathetic to those who try to avoid the pragmatic approach in favor of a strictly biblical one. Those of a theological mindset might say things like “just preach the Word” or “All I have to do is be obedient and leave the results up to God.” I should not focus on being pragmatic, rather, I should be focus on being “biblical.” While this attitude is pious and well intended, in my opinion it is overly simplistic. I say this because no matter how biblical we become, we still have practical choices to make for which we have no clear biblical direction. Take for instance the person who says “Just preach the word.” Great! I’m all for it. Now, which Scripture(s) are you going to preach? In what language? Which translation? Where will you preach? To whom? At what time of day? What will you wear while preaching? The choices go on and on.

Try another. “All I have to do is be obedient in evangelism.” Ok, now the practical questions: Whom will I evangelize? How will I approach them? When and where? How will I gain a hearing? Should I find a way to build a relationship? How? What approach will I take in conversation? How will I begin my gospel presentation? Will I use a Bible or tract? Should I call first or just cold call? Should I pop in a breath mint? Should my wife and I speak to this couple individually or together? Each circumstance has its own set of questions and choices to be made -- and most of them are biblically neutral.

At this point you have a decision to make. You can say that these questions (and others like them) are irrelevant as long as you are obedient to the biblical command. Or, you can say that at least some of these decisions may have a bearing on the effectiveness of the effort. If you choose the options you think will be more effective, like it or not, you are a pragmatist.

Now, I will grant that not every choice is appropriate – some ideas are unbiblical and should be avoided. I am not suggesting that we should ever do something unbiblical just because it works. At the same time, if given the choice between two equally biblical alternatives—one that might work and one that probably won’t—am I more spiritual if I choose the latter and appeal to Divine sovereignty? In such a case, I will choose what works. The glory still belongs to the Lord. As one of my professors often reminded us, pragmatic means practical. Is it more spiritual to be impractical?

Here, then, is my two cents: Let us be diligent in evaluating everything we do by the words of Scripture. Let us also do whatever it’s going to take to bring the gospel to the world. Let us be biblical and pragmatic. Let us be biblical pragmatists.

[1] Admit it, you thought that wigtake meant “whatever it’s going to take to have impressive statistics to report on the Annual Church Profile.” :- )


21k said...

Thanks for engaging us in reflection over relevant methodologies once again. I think that I agree with the gist of what you are saying, but I am not sure. I agree that we need to be pragmatic in our approach to applying biblical truth, but I don’t think that makes us pragmatists in the truest since of the word.

Pragmatism is a philosophical term that asks how do we know what we know (epistemology). A philosophical pragmatist would agree that the end justifies the means, but it is a much more complex theory than one statement can explain. Pragmatism was spawned by a rejection that there is universal truth and that truth originates from God. The theory grew legs (pun intended) when Darwinism was becoming acceptable as an explanation for how we know what we know. These theories together posit the idea that truth is not truth until it has been tested and proven. In other words, what works is true and what doesn’t work isn’t true. As a result, something might be true for me but false for you because it works for me but not for you.

Pragmatism is fine if we are talking about effective methods. It is true that some methods are “true” for some people and “false” for others. For example, I prefer Coleman’s methodologies for evangelism. Someone else might prefer other methods that work for them. In this sense we are being pragmatic, but that doesn’t make us pragmatists.

A pragmatist would say that we should use whatever methods we want to reach people and grow a church. Truth is relative to your situation. If your methods work, then you have discovered the true way that God wants you to do ministry. Results determine truth. I believe that this mindset has permeated our churches. Many of us readily adopt methodologies without fully investigating their underlying philosophy and truth claims. We must reject this approach. We must start with clear biblical principles for church growth and missions and adopt methods that work best for our situation.

I think that Rankin (and Todd) would agree that truth is not determined by success. Truth is determined by our Creator. Isn’t it amazing how much creativity our Creator gives us to express His Truth to the world?

Todd Benkert said...

Thank you for providing a useful summary of philosophical pragmatism. I hope that it is clear from my post that I am not defending the philosophical pragmatism of Pierce, James, Dewey, and others. :- ) Rather I am using the common definition of pragmatism and its cognates—namely “practical.” I would suggest to you that most objections to pragmatism in missions and evangelism are based on a rejection not of philosophical pragmatism but of the idea that practical considerations (i.e. methods and strategies) have a role in the effectiveness of Christian witness.

I think your assessment in the second to last paragraph is right on target. “Many of us readily adopt methodologies without fully investigating their underlying philosophy and truth claims. We must reject this approach. We must start with clear biblical principles for church growth and missions and adopt methods that work best for our situation.” Well said. This closely parallels my view.

Learning to be both “biblically faithful and missionarily effective” is actually one of the primary purposes of my blog. (If you have time, you can read about this in my inaugural posts). Thanks for sharing your thoughts and insights. I invite you be a regular contributor to the blog. Iron sharpens iron.

Todd Benkert said...

A footnote for the previous comment did not cut and paste so I will add it here. Here is why I justify the use of the term "pragmatism." The etymological history of the word shows that the philosophical use of the term was adopted from its common use and not the other way around. Note the definitions of the following words:

-- Random House Unabridged “of or pertaining to a practical point of view or practical considerations”
-- American Heritage® Dictionary “Dealing or concerned with facts or actual occurrences; practical.”

-- Random House Unabridged “character or conduct that emphasizes practicality.”
Other forms, Pragmatist -- “a person who is oriented toward the success or failure of a particular line of action, thought, etc.; a practical person.”
-- American Heritage® Dictionary “A practical, matter-of-fact way of approaching or assessing situations or of solving problems.” ; other forms, Pragmatist

Hope that clarifies things. That's why I said in the comments to the last post that I use the word pragmatist with a little "p". :-)

21k said...

Thanks for illuminating the term “pragmatism” and expounding on its common usage among missiologists. This type of knowledge is what makes you an expert in your field and provides you with a unique opportunity to address contemporary concerns.

How could any serious practitioner reject “the idea that practical considerations (i.e. methods and strategies) have a role in the effectiveness of Christian witness?” I would venture to say that this idea (the rejection of practical considerations) is not prevalent outside of academia, but I have little to back up such a statement. I’m not one to beat around the bush. It sounds like the work of pontificating theologians rather than true practitioners.

Todd Benkert said...

You said "It sounds like the work of pontificating theologians rather than true practitioners"

That is really my point. You can really only be against pragmatism in theory. In real life, we make practical decisions about missions and evangelism every day.

Our role as practicing pastors, missionaries and laymen, then, should be to weigh our choices biblically, practically and prayerfully.