What is pragmatism, and why has the church’s turn to pragmatic approaches to ministry stirred criticism from prominent theologians such as John MacArthur and R. C. Sproul? Pragmatism is a philosophical movement that began in the United States around 1870 that, simply put, ascribes to a practical approach to problems and affairs (Hookway, “Pragmatism”). Alarmingly for Christians, pragmatism measures the correctness of ideas and actions based upon the perception of what “works.” It operates by the understanding that “truth is preeminently to be tested by the practical consequences of belief” (Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, “pragmatism”). Pragmatism in our culture is demonstrated in virtually every mode imaginable in our workplaces, our schools, an ever-present media, and the arts and entertainment. Nonetheless for the church to be faithful to God and his desires, we must solidly establish Scripture as our guide in all things, especially in regard to corporate worship and its necessary intersection with culture. When we rely upon pragmatic principles instead of Scriptural principles we deny God’s sovereign authority and act in a man-centered rather than a God-centered way. This idolatry of pragmatism—doing what “works” or is what is “right” in one’s own eyes (Proverbs 21:2) to achieve a desired result—can be seen in several places in Israel’s history. See for example Genesis 16—the story of Abraham, Sarai, and Hagar; and II Chronicles 28:19-27—Ahaz’s offering to the gods of Damascus (John Piper, “Pastors, Pragmatism, Pleasure, and Pride”). Israel’s pattern of idolatry of the Canaanite gods in the book of Judges was a pragmatic attempt to achieve the prosperity of the Canaanites, which appeared to be supported by their religion (ESV Study Bible, 435). As evidenced by Scripture, each of these acts resulted in grievous consequences.
When we consider the pattern of Israel’s idolatry of pragmatism it should be obvious that the American church will struggle to keep the worship of God pure in an ever increasingly self-centered, secular, and subjective-minded culture. Since the worship of God is both the church’s temporal and eternal purpose, our faithfulness to biblical instruction in this area is of paramount importance. If our worldview and understanding of God’s desires for the church are not shaped by Scripture but rather by the surrounding culture—the influences of the prevailing right to individualism, government by the will of the people, and an economy which survives and thrives upon desires of consumers—we will tend to craft worship according to our own desires and wisdom rather than God’s. Our predisposition for “success” or “getting our own way,” fueled by the mindset of our postmodern culture—which assumes that there is no absolute truth—will lead our principles and decision making off course.
Possibly the worst place for this to happen is in the worship of God because the way we worship God forms our disposition before God. This disposition, or spiritual posture, affects everything about our relationship with him. When we worship God “with reverence and awe” (Hebrews 12:28-29) and “according to the glory due His name” (Psalm 29:2) we set up the biblical disposition of fear before God which encourages both trust in God, and humble obedience to Him. Conversely, when we favor our own wisdom above this biblical instruction, our methods will often take on pragmatic values (including entertaining, or other man-centered means to draw people to God). Many of the changes we have seen in the practices of worship in our country in the past several decades result from a desire for the modern generation to worship in a way that resonates with them, therefore allowing greater authenticity. The prevailing belief is that by shifting to pop-music approaches and theater-like surroundings in corporate worship, we are removing barriers to the gospel and enabling the culture to connect with God in a way that historic approaches no longer can. On some level this may appear to be the case. I have heard countless times that the above approach is connecting people with Jesus. I question, however, are we turning to pragmatism or Godly wisdom in our approach to shifting culture? Do we really know all of the “results” we are getting? Are we really getting true disciples or something else? It seems that in many cases we have disregarded the fact that the forms we use mean something in themselves. Ken Myers demonstrates that forms are not merely dispensers of information. Rather, form serves as a metaphor in artistic communication. Thus content is not separable from form (Ken Myers, “Accounting for the Form Knowledge Takes: or What Do We Mean by ‘Meaning?’”). As R.C. Sproul articulates it, “all forms are art forms and all art forms communicate something.” (R.C. Sproul, “Art for Whose Sake?” in Recovering the Beauty of the Arts ) Thus in the worship of God we must be aware of how the forms we use point to the holiness of God and the other aspects of his glory if we are to honor him rightly (1 Chronicles 16:28-30; Psalm 29: 1-2 ). The historic forms of the church’s worship were created with this in mind.
The loss of understanding of these parameters for worship in the mind of the American church is due to several things, primarily a loss of deep discipleship and understanding of Scripture. Understanding the bible as literature makes it clear that form matters in artistic expression. The authors of Scripture used various literary forms to communicate different things (e.g., “proverb, saying, chronicle, complaint (lament), oracle, apocalypse, parable, song, epistle,” etc. See ESV Study Bible, 2569-70; also Myers, 10). This understanding should enable us to see that not just any form will do in corporate worship. The form should be shaped to transmit the message with clarity and integrity. Although many church leaders know that authentic discipleship has been lacking they turn to pragmatic approaches rather than biblical ones to “fix” the problem. These approaches are made much more “acceptable” by two things: 1.) the evangelical church in the last several decades has not plumbed Scripture to teach its people a robust theology of worship that is in concord with the whole counsel of God, and 2.) over the same time period, our culture has seen an increase of the influence of secular thought in the minds and governing worldviews of our church members. So, although we have people coming to Christ, many of our children are still leaving the church when they become adults.
By now you may be asking, how we can change from pragmatism to principled Christianity in our modern context? Just what does reverence for God and His Word in the practice of worship entail? What can Scripture teach us and how do we apply these standards or principles in our modern culture and resist a man-centered approach? In the fall of 2014 a group of seminary professors and pastors, namely, Kevin T. Bauder, Scott Aniol, David de Bruyn, Ryan J. Martin, Jason Parker, and Michael Riley, published A Conservative Christian Declaration (Religious Affections Ministries). Through a series of fifteen articles describing the essentials of conversion and the importance of the entire counsel of God regarding Christian piety and biblical worship, this book strives to help the church achieve a fully-biblical perspective regarding the worship of God. An over-arching concern of the book is the idea that “Christians are responsible to practice, not merely the teachings of Paul, but an entire pattern of life and piety”(67). Hence the authors seek “to articulate clearly a fully orbed conservative Christianity that includes both doctrine and practice (including holy living and rightly ordered worship)” and seek “a statement that like-minded Christians can rally around as an accurate expression of our convictions, while allowing for appropriate differences among us” (6). Scott Aniol, professor of Church Music at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, compares the functionality of the declaration to statements such as the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, the Danvers Statement on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, and the T4G Affirmations and Denials, and the Gospel Coalition documents (6).
Major themes of the book include the concepts of transcendent goodness, truth, and beauty (Philippians 4:8); righty-ordered affections; “Harmony and Variety in Ordinate Affection” related to concepts of cultural diversity; Scripturally commanded “Works of the Imagination” including poetry and music (Colossians 3:16-17); and “Scripturally Regulated Worship” (5). More controversial but important topics include discussion of meaning in artistic expression, challenging the notion that form is neutral in regard to biblical values; and the appropriateness of popular cultural mediums as they relate to rightly-ordered expression and meaning. The authors build a convincing argument for discretion in the choice of musical forms in worship (58-65; 70-3). Additional chapters include the following topics: the “On the Cultivation of Christian Tradition,” “On Our children,” and “On the Local Church and the Sovereignty of God” (5).
This short book should be considered by church leaders and biblical worship scholars as the church battles postmodernism and pragmatism. The authors start a discussion that needs to happen. Surely Christian worship will look differently from one culture to another. However as we move into the future, we must ask whether our methods are “practical” or principled. Are we looking more like the world or like the kingdom of God? If the church is to be “in the world but not of it” (Romans 12:1-2; John 17:16) and “salt and light” (Matthew 5:13-16) we need more books like this that hold in one hand a great concern for biblical truth concerning worship and in the other hand a studied understanding of culture and how these may intersect faithfully. May truth prevail in our practice of worship, and may our worship always be centered upon our wondrous triune God.
Bauder, Kevin T.; Aniol, Scott; Bruyn, David De; Martin, Ryan J.; Parker, Jason; and Riley, Michael. A Conservative Christian Declaration. United States: Religious Affections Ministries, 2014.
Dennis, Lane T.; and Grudem, Wayne, eds. ESV Study Bible. Wheaton: Crossway Bibles, 2008.
Duignan, Brian. “Postmodernism.” Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Accessed March 15, 2016. Available from http://www.britannica.com/topic/postmodernism-philosophy; Internet.
Hookway, Christopher, “Pragmatism.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2015 Edition) [on-line]. Accessed March 15, 2016. Available from http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2015/entries/pragmatism/; Internet.
MacArthur, John. “What is Pragmatism & Why is it Bad” [on-line]. Accessed March 15, 2016. Available from http://www.gty.org/resources/questions/QA209/what-is-pragmatism–why-is-it-bad; Internet.
Myers, Ken. “Accounting for the Form Knowledge Takes: or What Do We Mean by ‘Meaning?’” SCL Journal 8 (Winter 2015): 7-11.
Piper, John. “Pastors, Pragmatism, Pleasure, and Pride” [on-ine]. Accessed March 15, 2016. Available from http://www.desiringgod.org/articles/pastors-pragmatism-pleasure-and-pride; Internet.
Sproul, R.C. “Art for Whose Sake?” in Recovering the Beauty of the Arts. Lignonier Minstries, 2010, compact disc, download, or DVD.
Sproul, R. C. “Pragmatism” [on-line]. Accessed March 15, 2016. Available from http://www.ligonier.org/learn/devotionals/pragmatism/; Internet.