Pragmatics vs. Faithfulness

Pragmatics vs. Faithfulness November 21, 2011

Tim Suttle has raised the old specter of the pragmatic approach (what works to get people into church) vs. the faithfulness approach, and sees the latter as a way to shrink your church.

What do you say?

Pastors and churches spend hundreds of millions of dollars each year attending conferences, buying books, hiring consultants, advertisers and marketers, all to try and accomplish one thing: to increase attendance — to be a bigger church.

I’m absolutely convinced this is the wrong tack.

Success is a slippery subject when it comes to the Church. That our ultimate picture of success is a crucified Messiah means any conversation about success will be incompatible with a “bigger is better” mentality. Yet, bigger and better is exactly what most churches seem to be pursuing these days: a pursuit which typically comes in the form of sentimentality and pragmatism.

Sentimentality and pragmatism are the one-two punch which has the American Church on the ropes, while a generation of church leaders acquiesces to the demands of our consumer culture. The demands are simple: tell me something that will make me feel better (sentimentality for the churchgoer), and tell me something that will work (pragmatism for the church leader). Yet it is not clear how either one of those are part of what it means to be the church.

The fundamental problem with the one-two punch of sentimentality and pragmatism is, of course, the church’s job is not to affirm people’s lives, but to allow the gospel to continually call our lives into question. The church’s job is not to grow — not even to survive. The church’s job is to die — continually — on behalf of the world, believing that with every death there is a resurrection. God’s part is to grow whatever God wishes to grow. Growing a church isn’t hard … being faithful as the church, that’s a different story.

I’m the pastor of a church called Redemption Church in Olathe, KS. Our church was planted in 2003 and founded upon church leadership principles that worked like a charm. We grew from 2 families to around 200 families in the first three years. We planted another church in a nearby town and continued to grow. But, when we decided to reject sentimentality and pragmatism and chase faithfulness instead we really began to grow … smaller that is. I don’t know for sure because we no longer count, but my best guess is that we have decreased by more than half. If pressed about my church’s growth strategy, I usually say it is to get smaller and die; to continually decrease the amount of time, resources and energy we spend trying to have the ultimate church experience, and to spend more time actually being faithful. Nowadays, faithfulness — not success — is our only metric. Success is about “doing.” Faithfulness is about “being,” and it’s really hard to measure.

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  • rjs

    I’d have to know what he meant by the faithfulness approach.

    Right now though I think the pragmatic church growth strategy is anti-Christian.

  • jeromie jones

    The problem with this line of thinking is that it makes two things (faithfulness & numerical growth) mutually exclusive when they don’t have to be. Obviously any church that exclusively caters to people’s whims isn’t living out true discipleship and death to self. It is one thing to have people turn away from you in the John 6:60-67 sense. But too many people want to play that card when in reality they’ve stopped caring for and loving those far from God. The hurting and broken were always attracted to Jesus. If they turned away later that was on them. If no one is attracted to your church, I would question why. Is from “faithfulness” or a lack of love.

  • Michael Williams

    I agree that the typical church growth mentatlity needs reform, but we must be careful that we do not begin to become proud of our small size or overly critical of larger congregations. Just because a church is large does not mean that it is unfaithful and just because your church is shrinking does not mean that faithfulness has increased. It would be wise to throughly examine why these people left rather than assuming that they couldn’t handle the truth. If the church is what it ought to be then people ought to be drawn to it.

  • Rick

    I think most church growth advocates would say they agree with:

    “…the church’s job is not to affirm people’s lives, but to allow the gospel to continually call our lives into question.”

    They would say being pragmatic is exactly how God is using some churches. Eventually, these churches would say, people will go beyond the pragmatic and sentimental and see the deeper life in Christ. It is just getting them in the door that needs the pragmatic and sentimental approach.

    If more people are being introduced to the opportunity to know Christ, who can say that it is the wrong way to do it? Who says 1 is more faithful?

    I am not saying that is a good approach, but that is the response I have heard.

  • Joe Canner

    I’m with RJS @ #1. Does “faithfulness” mean they spend all of their time legalistically berating the congregation about how to be more holy? Does it mean spending all of their time ministering to the spiritual and physical needs of their community? Being “faithful” sounds more spiritual than being “pragmatic” but without details it’s just talk.

    Perhaps I’m reading too much into this (I grew up in a church that seemed to pride itself on being exclusive and small), but there seems to be an implicit assumption here that faithfulness is incompatible with growth and that growing smaller is the only measurable fruit of faithfulness. Surely it is possible to be faithful AND to grow?

  • mark almlie

    one very important point: this pastor experienced “success” before he was willing to lead his church into the “faithfulness” approach…does he want other pastors and churches to skip the “success” he experienced straight into “faithfulness”???

  • I recall the comments one person made in a Bible study of Isaiah 6 in relation to faithfulness to proclamation of the particular message found there:

    “I’m not sure that I could justify ‘stumpy christian fellowship’ to anyone.”

  • Pragmatism assesses the truth of a proposition, based on the results. This approach works fine for “method” evaluation – but is totally dependent on what results are we measuring. BIP’s (butts in pews) is not an appropriate measurement for success of a church. But BIP’s helps with the budget, and represents a real opportunity to produce real fruit in larger measure.

    Faithfulness as a measure of human performance in spiritual matters is not particularly meaningful either, because it is hyper-individualized and difficult to observe. Measuring people’s involvement in ministry activities and growth in expression of spiritual gifts is more “pragmatic” because it is observable, and can be construed as measuring the outworking of faithfulness.

    If you want to bash churches that grow at the expense of the truth, or who produce “shallower” disciples because they are busy “packing the house” – I can agree that that is not the mission God had called us to, but using words like pragmatism and faithfulness and sentimentality – kind of misses the point. And if Big for Big’s sake is bad, Small for Small’s sake is equally bad, because size is irrelevant to discipleship and fruit production “per capita”.

  • KLE

    Certainly there are some ego-driven ministries that seek the bigger crowds for their own sake. This is wrong. On the other hand, there are churches that view faithfulness as the highest value, but their faithfulness is to the wrong thing. They are faithful to the style of ministry and “issues” of the church of the (insert whatever decade you want), but not faithful to Christ and the movement of the Spirit. This is also wrong.
    As a pastor, I have been accused of both.
    The author doesn’t tell us what he means by faithfulness.
    For me true faithfulness is faithfulness to the risen living Christ with whom I have a vital relationship. Was I faithful to HIM? That is the question I ask myself. In the end, that is all that really matters for any of us.

  • Re Rick #4, agreed this is a conscious strategy on the part of many church planters I talk with. A market-driven, felt-needs, approach in order to have a say in their lives and then lead them on to deeper discipleship. I get the strategy. My experience has been that it is exceedingly hard to change them from consumers toward disciples.

    Some have said it’s a bait-and-switch. But I know the motives are often very good, unlike a bait-and-switch operation. Yet, in general in my own church and in others I am absolutely NOT impressed by our effectiveness in “selling” consumerism in order to then “sell” discipleship.

  • I’m from a denom family whose mags and denom news releases somehow strike me as quizzical. On the one hand, they talk a lot about how they’re not growing due to being faithful and sometimes courageous. The footnote or fine print, so to speak, is recognition that it has mostly to do with an aging demographic — but they don’t put that in a headline or main text.

    The articles talk about how congregations have been faithful in the ways they have accepted death and closed their doors or sold their sites. That was okay when we were closing churches in places where we had another congregation nearby (mostly due to mergers). But most of the new breed of closures are in places where we don’t have another presence, often in communities in the cities or older suburbs that are largely unchurched or where nearly all the churches are shriveling. That does not strike me as a way of being faithful — unless they kill the congregation to make a new, more fitting church plant in the neighborhood.

    The current method usually involves using the parish’s remaining resources for some socially-positive act. This is held up as a positive example in the denom’s magazines. Yeah, it’s an okay thing in itself, but it’s not the same as bearing a Christian witness to that neighborhood. All it says to their neighbors is ‘here, this is our final good deed before we (sob, sob) abandon your neighborhood’. (Yes, a lot of folks really do take it that way.) And it is done under the fig leaf of being ‘faithful’. It reminds me more of Pilate than Jesus.

    There has to be a better way to do this. Christ *matters*. The tide in most of these places is against the Christian faith. What are we doing to stem that tide? Maybe I’m missing something here.

  • I don’t see this as an either/or proposition, either faithfulness or numbers. Nor do I believe that every fellowship has the same calling. God calls some ministers and fellowships to disciple masses of people and others to disciple a few people. Jesus both preached to the masses, trained the 70, invested even more in the 12, and was intimately close with 3, especially John. Let us stop judging others based on what God has called us to do, based on the passion and vision that God has given us. God is both concerned with the individual and with numbers; shoot, He even named one of the 5 books of Moses “Numbers”! Let us be faithful with what God has called us to do individually, as a local fellowship, as a denomination; and let God judge whether or not we’re being faithful to our calling.

    Also, I thought that the church’s job was not to “die”, but to make disciples. Part of the process of becoming a disciple is dying to self, but if we’re making disciples then the natural thing to do is to grow. A family that is having kids and is effective in raising them to maturity will grow. You know, the whole “be fruitful and multiply” thing!

    Maybe Redemption Church is experiencing a time of pruning (Fall) and a time of growing stronger and deeper roots (Winter); but I hope and trust that that new life (Spring) and increased fruitfulness (Summer) is coming. Often times the harder the winter, the more abundant the summer.

  • Pat Pope

    Unfortunately, some churches have themselves in a bind. Even if they wanted to go the route of dying, they’re tied to a big mortgage and other debt that must be paid, which can only be done by focusing more of their decreasing members’ giving towards the debt OR spending time and money on marketing tactics to increase the giving units, um, I mean attendees. It’s a vicious cycle that is hard to break and is not for the faint of heart or weak-willed.

  • Taylor

    I think the author may have hinted at his idea of faithfulness. It sounds like Bonhoeffer’s Discipleship.

    I wouldn’t point to a shrinking body as evidence of true discipleship. It does seem to often be the case, and the fault may not lie with the shrinking churches, but with the churches that are growing by using Jesus to justify sins and not sinners.

  • Richard H

    If our mission is to maintain our multi-billion dollar investment in buildings and full time jobs for thousands of church staff, then we have to get busy on the pragmatics. If our mission is to make disciples of Jesus, whether we have any buildings or employ anyone, we will still ask pragmatic questions, but the way we handle those questions will be rather different.

  • I like this article. Suttle is correct. The American church is obsessed with growth and baptizes this obsessesion in the guise of making disciples.

  • Richard

    After a particularly hard day in the life of our congregation I picked up Eugene Peterson’s memoirs, The Pastor. I think Peterson would resonate with the OP’s main point here – that increased numbers are not necessarily a correlation with faithfulness to the call of the Gospel

  • Faithfulness is like porn – it’s difficult to define (always occasional, local, contextual), but you know it when you see it 🙂

  • There is no doubt that we need to be careful with our definitions of ‘success’ in the church. That being said, I thought the author’s take was simplistic.

    If being ‘pragmatic’ automatically defines ‘success’ as ‘bigger numbers’ then I probably agree with the author. The problem is that he seems to describe ‘faithfulness’ as automatically equating ‘success’ with shrinking numbers and eventual disappearance. I suppose if the gospels ended with Jesus ascending to the Father with no further witness, I could agree, but that’s not how the story ends.

    Instead, it continues with a budding church as it struggles with faithfulness that alternately leads to numerical growth and settled apathy, spiritual depth and spiritual deceit, and exponential church planting where some of the same problems continue.

    Being simplistic doesn’t help us. Instead, being simplistic hinders us in being faithful because it establishes false categories for our life with God and life as His community that cannot be lived out.

    There must be a tension between spiritual growth and numerical growth in the church. There must be a tension between the narrow way and the open door. There must be a tension between faithfulness and fumbling.

  • Montgomery McRae

    I can’t help but notice the marked “for and against” stances shared by the commentaries in response to Suttle’s article. It appears there are fear’s that a church destined to “die”, as reported, is a result of not doing or at least not responding. And then, blame the failures because the church has turned to faith. That is a very “human” response.
    Over the years I have witnessed many ups and downs in our own church and those other labeled “Denoms” in and around our community. In my opinion I see the pragmatism growth in the church(s) an error in the “truth” of church’s intention.
    Firstly, the church is for the “worship” of God. It is His church not ours. It is not a tool to be used as an avenue to “bring people into discipleship and then in a faith based life”. Discipleship is for believers to encounter and discover their God. It is a place of prayer. It is a place of song, and of fellowship. Our efforts cannot bring people to faith. That is the working relationship between God and the believer. To claim, that it is our “spirit lead” responsibility to gather people into our churches with the intent to evangelize is un-nerving. This smacks of coercion and manipulation and takes away from the basic tenants of the “great commission”.
    Secondly, pragmatism is a form of marketing. Suttle’s best quote is this, “the church’s job is not to affirm people’s lives, but to allow the gospel to continually call our lives into question”.
    So often I have seen growth happen because of the “worship of the man” in the pulpit. His charisma, his communication skills and even the leadership style is quite often the result of a church’s increase in “attendees” and often construed as “church growth”. But when this pastor leaves I’ve noted a great deal of effort by church leadership to replace the great leader with another great leader.
    And finally, this great mix of people, or “numbers” at it has been referred to, weakens the strength of the body. Somewhere is this great mix there are “sheep as well as goats”. One of the functions of God’s church is to temper the metal of believers. If the intention is “draw” people then the risk of pragmatism increases and scriptural values decrease simply through the act of dilution.