I was making my way home after speaking at an event in Indiana. Or maybe it was Illinois, or Idaho—they all kind of blur together sometimes. Either way, I boarded my plane to find the seat beside me empty. I couldn’t stop myself from hoping that it might just stay that way, that I’d be able to spread out my stuff a little and enjoy a quiet flight. But sure enough, just as the flight attendants were about to close the doors, a breathless traveler charged aboard and plunked herself down beside me. Foiled!
My fellow traveler was chatty and very eager to tell me about her exciting time in Chicago. And, despite myself, I rather enjoyed the two hours we spent together. She, too, was returning home from an event. She serves as the worship leader and creative arts director of a church a few hours from my home. She told me about her church, about her job, and about what she had learned at her conference. I mostly just listened.
Her main task is to put together and then lead her church’s worship services. Early in the week, the senior pastor tells her his focus for that Sunday and she gets to work. She thinks of stage props that will complement the message, she considers assembling the dance team, she combs through YouTube and popular movies to look for clips—especially funny clips. Some Sundays she removes the sermon altogether so the church can watch a painter produce a work of art or a drama team lead a performance. These “visual sermons” are often more effective than preaching, she said.
At one point she began to tell about her pastor. He is a good communicator and loves to preach, but there is a problem: while the church is getting younger, he is getting older. She isn’t sure he can be effective at his age and is kind of hoping he will move on. I took the opportunity to ask what qualifications the church might value in a new pastor. She thought for a few moments and replied, “He’d need to have good rapport with young people and a great sense of humor.” By then, the plane was taxiing into the gate in Toronto. We said farewell and went our separate ways.
As I drove home that evening, I found myself pondering this creative arts director and the church she represents. I often hear about pragmatism, but rarely have I spoken to someone so sold out to its principles. Pragmatism is a philosophy that judges actions by results. It first determines what results are desirable, then assesses actions by how well they accomplish them. From what I could tell, pragmatism is the underlying philosophy of her church and ministry.
She wants the people in her church to enjoy the services, to find them fun, engaging, and inspirational. Any element of a service is only as good as its ability to bring about those results. If a sermon will inspire people, well and good, but if not, a drama or painting may be more effective. A short prayer between songs may help people engage emotionally, but a full-length prayer will leave them bored. Scripture can be read a verse or two at a time, but anything more will tempt them to tune out. Soon the whole service is answerable only to what works.
As I pulled into my home, it struck me that in all her words about worship, all her words about church, she never mentioned the Bible. It is not her guide to worship, or to the elements of worship. It has become just another tool to be used when it can serve a purpose or meet a goal. Pragmatism is her rule, church growth manuals her scripture. To my ears, her church sounds deathly ill. I couldn’t help but whisper a prayer that God would lead her to study the New Testament and to see his desire for her church and every church: That they would read the Word, preach the Word, pray the Word, sing the Word, and base their fellowship around the Word. God means for his churches to be saturated in his Word, for it is his power to salvation and sanctification.
The irony of pragmatism is that when it comes to church, pragmatism doesn’t work. Churches run on the principles of pragmatism elevate noble desires, and especially the desire to see people come to Christ. But they unwittingly diminish God’s means to achieve salvation and sanctification—the ministry of the Word, prayer, and fellowship. In their place they raise up attractive but ineffective and unsanctioned alternatives. What God commends as powerful is displaced by what is powerless. The trouble with pragmatism is that it has the appearance of godliness while denying its power. It always and inevitably diminishes the wonderful, beautiful, and ordinary means God has established to call, reach, and feed his people.