The Long-Term Consequences of Pragmatism in the Church

by Jonathan Leeman June 29, 2015

Did you catch Al Mohler’s provocative and important recent article “Is the MegaChurch the New Liberalism”? Mohler does not quite put it this way, but it essentially poses the question of whether there is something endemic to the nature of megachurches in America that tempts them in the direction of theological compromise.

I say “in America” intentionally. Presumably the tendency to theological compromise is not a property of size. Rather, it would seem to be a property of the pragmatism that characterizes so many mega- (and mini!) churches in the United States. Pragmatism, in the context of a church, refers to the philosophy that churches should do “whatever works” to grow. Along these lines, Mohler cites David Wells “massive critique of the doctrinal minimalism, methodological pragmatism, and managerial culture of many megachurches.”

Of course Mohler knows well enough not to just pin the blame on megachurches; we all deserve it. We are all tempted to change our ministry methods for the sake of reaching a bigger crowd. The problem–to read between Mohler’s lines–is that this kind of methodological pragmatism easily migrates into the ethical and theological stances evangelical churches are willing to take.

Since this question draws so closely to the heart of why 9Marks exists, I thought it would be worthwhile to take a moment, back up, and consider whether there is a larger picture worth seeing. The question I want to think about can be posed like this: is there something endemic not just to megachurches, but to post-1950s-evangelicalism as a whole that, over time, tends to undermine the very doctrinal convictions which makes us evangelicals? More specifically, does our doctrine of the church inevitably tend in a pragmatic direction, such that we will eventually leave the gospel and other core theological convictions unguarded?

Evangelicals Yesterday: A Theological Consensus

TIGHT GRIP ON THE GOSPEL: Think back to the 1950s and 1960s. An evangelical was someone who believed in the inerrancy of the Bible, the substitutionary death and resurrection of Christ, the necessity of conversion, the call to evangelism, and the importance of engaging the culture. In order to preserve the gospel, evangelicals wanted to keep a tight grip on gospel essentials, and a loose grip on everything else.

LOOSE GRIP ON THE CHURCH: This often included a loose grip on the local church. Evangelicals rightly observed that church structure and programming are secondary, but this led many to treat these as unimportant. They decided the Bible doesn’t say much here anyway, and they began defaulting toward the latest trends of “what works.” Eventually, the Boomers wanted one thing, the Xers another, the Millenneals still another. In the meantime, parachurch ministries began supplanting churches’ work of discipleship and evangelism.

Evangelicals Today: An Ecclesiological Divergence

TRIBALIZATION: But pragmatism and parachurch ministries, for all their good uses, are poor guardians of the gospel. Since those early days, evangelical paths have diverged as churches have become distracted by one thing or another. Call it tribalization, Balkanization, or the passing of the old coalition, many people agree that evangelicalism has divided into a number of separate camps. Their members orbit around different leaders, different conferences, different books, and often different church models.

PROLIFERATING MODELS: There are the Emergents, the Neo-Reformed, the denominational loyalists (SBC, PCA, Mainliners, etc), the mystical spiritual-formation movement, the Pentecostals and Charismatics, to say nothing of several prominent megachurches which are movements unto themselves. Floating through these camps are an abundance of church models: traditional, house, multi-site, seeker-oriented, purpose-driven, cell, missional, organic, and more.

THEOLOGICAL UNRAVELING: This might not sound dangerous at face value, but in many cases these camps have begun to represent different theological trajectories. Evangelicals find it harder and harder to agree on the truthfulness of Scripture, the nature of the Christ’s atonement, God’s foreknowledge, and the importance of conversion and evangelism. In short, the old theological consensus has been passing away.

A Evangelicals Tomorrow: A Theological Divergence

GOSPEL COMPROMISE? The question that I would like to pose is, did our original evangelical starting point ultimately leave the gospel unguarded? We chose to treat the church with an open hand—pragmatically—in order to help the spread of the gospel. But did this very first step put us at risk of theological compromise? Mohler points toward the example of one pulpit which is promoting a gospel without repentance. But it’s not too hard to find other examples.

These issues, as I said, go to the heart of why 9Marks exists. One of our basic convictions is that the local church and its polity present the platinum prongs that hold the diamond of the gospel in place. When one generation of Christians decides to downplay or relativize or pragmatize the local church, they just might find that the next generation no longer values the same gospel.

Previously published at 9Marks.org