The Pastor and Pragmatism

It is sometimes said the world operates with secular standards but the church has spiritual standards, and this can lead to a neat division of the secular and the sacred. But nearly every pastor, within the first week, realizes pastoring involves pragmatics, and more often than not the pragmatics bear striking resemblance to how things work in the “world.”

Those same pastors also face another issue: how to create a church that is not just pragmatics. The temptation to do things in a way that “works” is a constant.

Where do you see pragmatism in the church? in ministry? Where does it concern you? What do you see that has helped the church?

Graham Buxton, in his book Dancing in the Dark, takes his many years of experience in the business world and explores those leadership pragmatics through a theological grid. I’m sure anyone interested in church leadership will find this chp — and book — stimulating.

If we are all made in God’s image, and if God’s Spirit is always at work in people, it follows that common grace (or something like it) can be seen in the pragmatics of enterprises and businesses — in other words, since the church corresponds in some ways with an “organization,” some similar pragmatics are at work. Buxton’s theory is “spoil the Egyptians.”

He examines the Church Growth Movement (ICG) with McGavran and Wagner, seeing both their pragmatics and the value of their work — but he wonders if elements of church ministry are neglected in their approach. The entire movement, and not just these two, led to pastors to be “success-oriented and growth-conscious, and a pragmatic ‘what-works’ mentality began its subtle invasion of the pastoral ministry of the church” (244). Thus, we have to face up to the “seduction of pragmatic methodology” (245).

I want to explore one element of pragmatics and preaching, something not discussed in Buxton. How do you get your sermons? Is it pragmatics? Ideas: some “use” the sermons of others, sometimes plagiarizing and sometimes barely giving credit; some want the sermon to hang from the ah-ha moments — that is, they want stories to hold the thing up and to give it value; some rely on the cute and the clever and the never-heard-of-that idea. Others, and here we turn our backs on pragmatism, and say that the best sermons are found on the anvil of prayer, meditation, Scripture study, theological reading over time, and attentiveness to context and congregation.

Back to Buxton: There is a difference between relying upon and plundering. The former assumes pragmatics are right; the latter lays pragmatics into a gospel bed. The focus needs to be Christ; the aim is to participate in what God is doing.

Graham Buxton is a fan of Ray Anderson’s “futurum” vs. “adventus” approach:

1. Some see the past and the present and find a method to get them to their future.
2. Others know the past and the present and are prepared for adventus — the arrival of God’s work in the present in light of where God is taking us.

The first is management and pragmatics; the second is charismatic form of leadership and attentiveness.

Finally, Graham Buxton is keen on learning to keep the “people” factor central in ministry: people aren’t tools (more along Peter Drucker’s theory) but people in whom God is at work and we are called to participate in what God is doing. (He likes the story of Ricardo Semler.) This means three elements rise to the surface:

1. Trust.
2. Teamwork.
3. Size: he’s sensitive to this issue but does not disparage the larger church.

Ultimately, we ask if the method serves the eschatological new creation work of God in our midst. Not if it works.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • http://Www.theparsonspatch.com Mark Stevens

    Although tempted by pragmatics I would advocate the “anvil of prayer, meditation, Scripture study, theological reading over time, and attentiveness to context and congregation”. It isn’t easy work but I think it is essential to what I do. It would be like you barely reading James in preparation for your commentary and then just reading and re- writing others. Just my opinion.

    I sat in Graham’s classes when this book first came out. It revolutionised my approach to church leadership. It helped me see what I did as theological rather than results driven. I have been reading your review and decided to have a flick through the book again. It is a fantastic read even ten years on.

  • http://www.educatingbrian.com Brianmpei

    19 out of 20 times I turn my back on pragmatism when it comes to sermon prep. But if I’m honest there are times I will co-op bits and pieces of someone else’s sermon or build one around a “great illustration” that I found or just because my week filled up with crisis I’ll rely on someone else’s prep and embrace pragmatism with gusto!

  • John

    Women in places of leadership within the church (or more accurately the lack there of) is where I most frequently hear arguments of pragmatism. I am all for contextualizing the implications of the Gospel, but some times these arguments of pragmatism for not allowing women in leadership roles seems like they are sadly missing the mark of the fullness of the Gospel.

  • Kevin

    Do we ever write and “original” sermon? Doesn’t research consist of gathering information written by others (who got their ideas from others still), analyzing that info, synthesizing that info, and contextualizing that info to be communicated in one’s own style and context? The anvil of prayer, meditation, study, theological reading, and attentiveness are necessary for research and preparation, but one is still left producing a sermon that is the sum total of compiled research from sources that are the property of others. The presentation could arguably be original, but its content is always borrowed.

    I’m not sure it’s realistic to make the claim that one could “turn their back on pragmatism”.

  • Karl

    Does Buxton interact at all with the kind of thoughtful Christian “real world” pragmatism espoused by Dr. John Stackhouse, for example in his “Making the Best of It: Following Christ in the Real World”?

  • Scott

    Kevin #4,

    I think “the anvil of prayer, meditation, study, theological reading, and attentiveness” is considerably different than going to pastors.com or some such thing and downloading your next series.

  • Kevin

    I definitely agree with that…not much of an anvil on which to pound out ideas if one just hits “save”, “print”, and then goes out to “preach”…scary!

    My pushback had in mind some in my experience that claim an originality in preaching that all but denies their dependence on articles, commentaries, sermons, and other research tools.

    I think working hard for originality is good, but must be balanced by recognizing our place on the shoulders of giants, and in the procession of great teachers and scholars from whom we glean.

    Thanks for this and many other thoughtful posts!

  • http://www.mwerickson.com Matt Erickson

    Every pastor experiences the tensions between theological and practical realities in day-to-day ministry. To ignore either is to submit our minds toward different types of foolishness. A more seasoned voice than mine, Thomas Oden, wrote: “It is dangerous to the health of the church for ministry to be practiced without good foundations in Scripture and tradition, reason and experience.”


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