Q337 : Is Pragmatism in Christian Ministry Biblical?

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Q337 : Is Pragmatism in Christian Ministry Biblical?

Hi Tony,

I wonder if you could shed some thoughts on the issue of pragmatism in church ministry, namely the argument that the church has to, at the minimum, engage, and more often be relevant to the tastes and fashions of the particular community/world that it is trying to reach in order to win people for Christ. It is commonly expressed in terms such as "Yes, the message doesn't change, but the method has to gear towards the current society's line of thinking.  Look at what Paul did at Athens in Acts 17!  This is what is meant by being relevant!".  Is it biblical?

PS: Those who see methodology will affect the gospel content are in the minority among those who call themselves evangelicals.  I have noticed a higher than average of such Christians are Reformed and therefore covenantal or NCT in their theology.  Most dispensationalists have long ago sold out to pragmatism/relevancy in church ministry philosophy.

A337 : by Tony Garland

First, of course, we want to distinguish between two different ends of the spectrum: on one end you have pragmatism, and on the other end you have principle. As we live, we are always faced with a choice between pragmatism (do what works in the situation without worrying much about whether it is entirely right—try to manage the results) and principle (do what is right, without regard to the outcome—trust God to own the results). I’m one who believes that Scripture places high priority on principle over pragmatism—so that gives a hint at where I’m headed with my answer .

I’m going to answer this question in reverse, because at the end you bring up the idea that those who are Reformed in their outlook appear to be the most concerned by this idea that we need to adapt evangelization to keep it relevant to the culture.

The key here has to do with how Reformed churches view God’s sovereignty: they have a very high view of His sovereignty—even in salvation. They emphasize the role of God, rather than the role of man, in salvation. This is the key element in how one sees evangelization taking place. How one does evangelization has a lot to do with whether one is Calvinistic or Arminian in outlook.

The Reformed churches are God-centered in their view of salvation: they are monergists—which is to say they view the work of salvation as being done entirely by One Entity and that Entity is God, rather than man. Such an approach is overall Calvinistic in outlook.

This view would say that no one, of their own volition, seeks God. People who are of that persuasion (of which I am one—although I’m not a 5-point Calvinist and would differ on how some of the points are defined), believe that nobody is "talked into belief." It is God alone Who draws sinners to salvation (John 6:44, 64-65). This view also holds that God foreknows, predestines, and calls (Romans 8:29-30) and that believers were chosen before the foundation of the world (Ephesians 1:4). This view also holds, from other passages, that none of the elect—those chosen by God—will be lost (John 6:39). In this view, which I hold, the work of salvation is entirely of God.

Therefore, we understand that our role in salvation is to be a ready "conduit" by which the Spirit of God does the work. We don’t do the work: all we do is be a ready tool, used by God. Because we see that as our role in evangelization, we see our job as closely preserving the message of Scripture since this is the primary tool which the Holy Spirit has given for evangelization. That tool is the Word of God, coupled with the convicting power of the Spirit.

By honoring the means by which God intends salvation to work, we provide the best possible basis for the Spirit to do His Work. In other words, our job is simply to “get out of the way,” to present the unvarnished truth of Scripture and minimize our fingerprint upon it so that the Spirit can bring across those truths and do His work of conviction. Therefore, we are not swayed by the idea that ministry must find a way to be relevant and engage the culture.

So that’s the Calvinistic side of how one would view the process of salvation.

Unfortunately, a lot of people who are evangelists, or have a heart for evangelization, don’t like the Calvinistic viewpoint (I say unfortunate, because that is what Scripture teaches)! Instead, they favor a more Arminian outlook which places the locus of salvation in the decision of the individual’s will rather than God’s sovereignty—as if man can birth himself into the kingdom.

Once the emphasis is placed on man’s response as opposed to God’s will, everything possible must be done in order to “woo” the unbeliever. That can include being cagey, hip, and relevant—in the eyes of the culture. Even the phrase “won to Christ” suggests salvation occurs primarily by appealing to the listener’s emotions and intellect, in order to bend their will.

In a more extreme form, it suggests that the job of evangelization involves taking the message of the Bible, packaging it in a way which is unoffensive, combined with our abilities of apologetics, logic, and reason, to convince people . . . to “win them” to Christ.

With that view there is the belief that man, on his own, has the ability to respond, in faith, in some measure. So the man-centered gospel preacher will attempt to leverage this ability to respond—as if there is already a seed present which only needs to be watered to bring it to life.

Such a view can lead to evangelistic techniques which focus more on persuasion rather than conviction. And persuasion leads in the direction of appealing to the views of the unbeliever and a strong temptation to soften hard truths. Hard truths such as: all men are depraved; depraved in all their faculties including their mind, will, and emotions—their love for God is lacking; that no-one seeks God on their own; that unbelievers are children of wrath bound for hell; the heart is deceitfully wicked (Jer. 17:9); and the need to turn from sin.

All of these truths are very negative messages in today’s culture, or any pagan culture which you might try to accommodate. If one views our role in salvation as being that of presenting a friendly, acceptable message, then one is going to downplay these truths because they are harsh and might push people away.

But, when we look at Scripture, we see that the work of salvation begins and ends with God (e.g., John 1:12-13).1 When we are going about salvation, we might find value in comparing our approach with that demonstrated by Jesus in John 6—a passage which demonstrated just how un-accommodating and overtly negative successful evangelization can be (it’s not about numbers, its about reaching the elect).

Some of the dangers of preaching a man-centered gospel, a gospel which attempts to appeal to the unbeliever, include:

  • An attempt to make “Christians” out of people who refuse to acknowledge their lost and sinful condition resulting in churches peopled by the unregenerate.
  • We risk making Jesus an “add-on,” simply an enhancement to this life in order to obtain “our best life now.”
  • The Church is increasingly pulled away from the basics of the gospel in an attempt to reach a culture which is moving further and further afield from truth. Rather than reaching the lost and bringing them to truth, the lost lead the Church into apostasy—the departure from God’s truth.
This can be seen in our day by the departure of the Church from basic teachings of the Scriptures—those teachings which are particularly unpopular or seen as irrelevant by the culture:

  • Evolution - mankind was not created, but evolved (creationists are viewed as irrelevant since they reject the “obvious fact” of evolution)
  • Marriage as a requirement for sexual relations (many who we preach to will not like hearing that they are practicing fornication)
  • Marriage as between one man and one woman (all manner of other arrangements are clamoring for acceptance — the Church is viewed as anachronistic when it upholds this view)
  • Church leadership roles as reserved for men, not to be occupied by women
  • Man is inherently good, only his environment and education is flawed
The risk is that seeking to be relevant often involves accommodation with the culture. Although relevance and accommodation are slightly different, they tend to ride in posse.

In summary, we want to avoid extremes: 1) we don’t need to take into account the culture at all; 2) we have to manipulate or massage the gospel message in order to keep it relevant to the culture. As you've mentioned in your example, Acts 17 is germane to this balance.

In the early part of Acts 17, Paul is evangelizing in Thessalonica—at a synagogue where his listeners are Jews. He clearly takes into account who his audience is in that he reasons from the Scriptures (the Jewish Old Testament) about the predicted Messiah. This is because he knows that his audience is familiar with the Old Testament and also invests authority in these writings. Thus, he has a common basis from which to reason for the hope that is within him.

Later in the chapter, when Paul reaches Athens, he is now evangelizing among Greeks (Gentiles) who are unfamiliar with the Jewish Old Testament and, even if they were, probably wouldn’t afford the Jewish writings any authority. Here, he appeals to the nature of man (designed to worship), the conscience, and their preponderance of idols as evidence that there is a God they seek which they haven’t yet found or properly identified. Once again, he establishes a common basis from which to reason and communicate.

But, in neither case does he soften or change the gospel message: he still brings up the exceeding difficult subject of the resurrection among the Greeks—for which some ridicule him. This is accommodation, but without changing the gospel message.

Our evangelization should be front-loaded by listening rather than spouting a one-size fits-all message. We do want to find out where our listeners are coming from and what their frame of reference is. We then seek to connect their frame of reference to unvarnished biblical truth. The tells us where and how to begin—the very foundation of Spirit-led witnessing. But, this is enormously different from compromising the content of the message of Scripture.

In summary: we don’t need to make the message of the Bible relevant—it is already relevant in every age, in every culture, and in every geographic location. The challenging and transformative truths of the Bible are without cultural or geographic boundaries—they are universal to the condition of mankind. The Fall is common to all mankind, sin is common in all cultures, the love of darkness is common to all cultures, the need to worship is universal among mankind, the conscience and inward knowledge that there is a creator—as evidenced by general revelation (Romans 1) is known to all populations. Yet, like Paul, we are wise to look for a common starting point where possible. We also recognize that salvation is a work of God based on His election, predestination, and calling—which we are unable to overthrow. We are not going to bring one more person to faith than the number of His elect. Conversely, not one among the elect will fail to believe—He will get the job done even though we don’t understand what role we play in relation to each individual saved or lost. The question for us is whether we are going to be tools for the Holy Spirit and whether our usefulness is maximized by a refusal to stray from the truths of Scripture: both the glorious ones and the fearful ones. The closer we stick to Scripture, the more effective tools in the hands of the Spirit we will be.

Our job is not to convince, but to clearly communicate and allow the Holy Spirit to bring conviction—He owns the results, not us. Every salvation is an absolute miracle. Not an achievement of logic, reason, and evidence. As a miracle, there is only One who can bring it to pass—our job is to allow that to happen with minimal interference.


1.It is my view that even our faith ultimately comes from Goda.

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