Most of us are familiar with the celebrated poem “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost.
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both…
The imaginary traveller has come upon a fork in the road, and, looking as far as he can down each direction, he must choose which one he will take – the one with the “better claim, because it was grassy and wanted wear” or should he take the “one less traveled by?”
I believe we are in an age where pastors and churchgoers alike are at a fork in the road when it comes to the kind of pastor they will be and what kind of church they will serve. And it boils down to a choice between the well-worn road and the road less traveled.
The grassy, well-worn road is what we might call the pragmatic church. The pragmatic church is guided by the fundamental notion that they will grow God’s Kingdom by growing their church. This is a noble objective and a truly virtuous motive: to see God’s Kingdom grow. And these churches, for well over fifty years, have blazed the trail in terms of innovation, growth, and influence; and the pastors of these churches have been the primary leaders in American Christianity.
On the other hand, there is the road less traveled. This is what could be called the dogmatic church. The dogmatic church is guided by the fundamental notion that they cannot cause true Kingdom Growth, and therefore must simply focus on knowing and obeying the Word. The pastors and people in that church agree that they cannot by their best efforts grow the Kingdom; but, by God’s Grace, they can vigorously pursue the truths (the dogma) in Scripture and pray that the Lord would allow them some joy in His harvest. These churches are typically (but not always) small, and, as far as the world is concerned, they usually lack in influence. The pastors of these churches are usually unknown, and yet faithfully serve the Lord with that foremost desire to obey the mandates of the Bible.
Now I know what some might be thinking at this point: “Can’t it be both? Can’t you seek Kingdom Growth through church growth and at the same time have the foremost desire to obey the dogma of the Bible?” The answer is, in Frost’s vernacular, “Sorry, you cannot travel both.” And it is my hope that in reading this article you will see why. As you stand in the fork in the road, I want to paint the picture as far down each path, and convince you to take the “road less traveled.”
Primer on the Pragmatic Church
Subsequent to the Industrial Revolution (≈1760-1840), the thinking of the western world changed dramatically. “Success” was redefined in vastly different terms, quantifiable terms, thus, changing business objectives. For instance, before the Industrial Revolution, a “successful” carpenter would be a man who carefully handcrafted his cabinets with the utmost care and attention, and stood behind his work for a lifetime. Even if it took him seventy hours of work to build just one cabinet, a successful carpenter would get it right. He would also be deemed successful if he had sons: children to whom he could pass on the family business.
After the Industrial Revolution a “successful” carpenter, may not even be a carpenter at all. He would be the CEO of a cabinet manufacturing conglomerate; one that had factories that could stamp out 1,000 cabinets in seventy hours, all with a limited, three-year warranty. He would be deemed a success because of the numbers of cabinets produced, the vast amount of money he made the shareholders, and the sheer numbers of customers and employees he claimed. He would be deemed a success if he had achieved great wealth and influence, regardless of his family life or what he left behind.
This business model was now geared around numeric and financial success. And behind that mechanism are legions of business principles. Soon, universities across the Western world began to launch business schools and offer business degrees, all to perpetuate these principles of pragmatic success. Even in the philosophical world, thinkers like William James and John Dewey began to formally propose the philosophy of pragmatism where everything is defined in terms of it’s practical use and quantifiable success.
It was not very long before this thinking infiltrated the church. By the 1950s pastors and teachers like Donald MacGavran and, later, C. Peter Wagner were teaching that in order to grow God’s Kingdom, we must grow our churches. And in order to grow our churches we must adopt the business and philosophical principles of pragmatism. Formulaic church growth books abounded, and still do.
Churches and pastors, with all the right motives, obediently, began to adopt these principles and many saw results. In fact, there was an explosion across the evangelical world in church attendance, denomination size, baptisms, church starts, and especially in church sizes. In the 50s, megachurches (over 1,500 attendees) were rare. Because of the church growth movement, today, there are many in every major city in America and now we look to an ever-growing number of “gigachurches” (5,000+).
The Problem with the Pragmatic Church
The problem with the pragmatic church is not in motives. Even the most rigorously pragmatic pastors I have met are not simply mercenary about what they are doing – they have a genuine desire to see God save people and the Kingdom grow. The problem is that making quantitative, numeric metrics of success does not measure up to what the Bible says in regards to our objectives. Paul said to Timothy that the church is to be the “Pillar and buttress for the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15). In other words, it should be dogmatic (in a good way) not pragmatic. Paul never says, “Timothy, why are your baptisms down?” Or, “Timothy, I have been looking at your attendance numbers and it’s half as when I was there!” Paul certainly did not travel from church to church doling out plaques to the churches with the most giving, or the most growth, or the most ratio of this to that (can we stop this already?)! No, in sum, Paul told Timothy that he should know the truth, obey the truth, and proclaim the truth. Is there any pragmatism, whatsoever, in the following?
“Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching. Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophecy when the council of elders laid their hands on you. Practice these things, immerse yourself in them, so that all may see your progress. Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Tim. 4:13-16).
Paul apparently was only concerned about Timothy’s fidelity to the Word. He is completely silent about the church size, it’s growth, it’s influence in the world, or it’s offering amounts. He assumes that God will see to the harvest, not Timothy, or himself, or any other innovative apostle or pastor. When we make these things our goals, they tend to become our gods and we rearrange our lives, our churches, and our roles in order to reach those goals without any respect to what Scripture says.
Consider this: in the pragmatic church, a pastor is hired primarily on his leadership ability, his past church’s growth, his renown, his fundraising abilities, his rhetorical skill, and his innovativeness. When you read the requirements for pastors the only skill that is mentioned is ability to faithfully teach the Scripture – nothing is said about leadership skill, influence, and etc. But we have redefined his role for our pragmatic pursuits, haven’t we?
The same can be said about praise. In the pragmatic church, worship has to do with relevance, emotion, and the style that will draw the largest crowd in and make them feel most moved. In fact, it wasn’t very long ago that churches started surveying their communities to find out what kind of music they could ‘perform’ to get the outsiders to attend. Does this not smack of rank insecurity and pragmatism?
And finally the same could be asked about the pragmatic church’s programs. In the pragmatic church the fundamental question is, “What programs can we innovate to get more people here?” While the church anchored in the dogma of Scripture says, “We simply want to do the things they did in the Bible. We seek a 1:1 relationship between the activity of the first century church and our church activity.”
The Road Not Taken
I understand these are heavy, almost condemning, thoughts. But I say them as a recovering pragmatist. I have to crucify my pragmatism every day. I have to stop finding meaning in numeric growth and influence (or decline). Even in writing this article, I cannot hope for broader influence or some level of popularity, but simply as an act of joyful obedience to teach the truth of the Word. In pursuing the dogmatic church I crucify desires of fame and popularity. It means it’s likely I’ll never serve in auspicious positions, large churches, or ever be asked to preach in big venues. It likely means ministry in a small place at the end of a career cul-de-sac.
If you are not a pastor it might mean driving a little further to the smaller church that properly exposits the Bible. Or perhaps it means taking your family and children to the church without the climbing wall and trampoline room. Maybe it means going to the church that still uses hymnbooks.
And yet, in spite of those sacrifices, no one’s meaning has ever been found in fame, money, or worldly pragmatic success. True contentment is found when we find in Christ our all in all – and seek only to know him and to obey him. Like most of you reading, I have found little success at times when I’m working for it the hardest; and I’ve stumbled into great success when I’ve done absolutely nothing. Our joy doesn’t rise and fall from the ebb and flow of earthly success. Our lives are enriched and full of identity and meaning when we reject pragmatism and simply seek to know, obey, and proclaim His Word. In fact, true joy is measured when all you can rejoice in, is in Christ. So, why not choose the “road not taken” and discover the joy and contentment for which God has saved us?
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.