“However beautiful the strategy, you should occasionally look at the results.” – Winston Churchill
Looking at the results and making decisions based on how it affects those results is called being pragmatic. It is a process of dealing with things sensibly, realistically, based on practical considerations as opposed to theoretical ones.
Should we be pragmatic about ministry? This tends to be a massively polarizing issue. Some feel the church has not been nearly pragmatic enough over the years. “What are the results of our efforts?” they ask.
Others say that being pragmatic about ministry eventually leads to the ruin and breakdown of the church, because in seeking results we inevitably end up abandoning core principles of faith. Thus we need to instead focus on simply being faithful, even if it means the results we achieve are less impressive.
But I think it’s a false dichotomy.
Pragmatic About the Wrong Things
A pastor who is a friend of mine tells the story of growing his church from 150 people to over 800 people. They used proven means to achieve that end, including buying land, constructing a new building, and making their church services more accessible to visitors. They were very pragmatic about it, and it worked! Attendance grew by over 500%.
These are the kinds of things that happen in churches that get “pragmatic” about getting people to come to church. Ditch the organ and hire a rock band. Pull out the pews and put in chairs and tables. Remove the cross, it’s too “religious.” Don’t do communion as often, it’s confusing for seekers.
All of these kinds of things were methods my friend used to “get results.”
However, a few years later, he became disillusioned by the results and began questioning whether growing their Sunday morning attendance was a worthy goal for their church. He eventually came to the conclusion that they had been successfully pragmatic about the wrong things.
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They needed a new goal more aligned with the way of Jesus.
Faithfulness to the Right Things
So they began to look beyond the “proxy” goal of church attendance to the more authentic goal of discipleship and mission being lived out among their people.
They shifted their focus from getting more people in the building (hoping that would make some disciples), and began to focus more on the actual Great Commission, making disciples on purpose.
This is the necessary “first move” for any church that realizes they’ve been pursuing secondary, easier-to-measure goals: take a good, hard look at what you’re actually producing. Is it disciples of Jesus? If not, change some things!
Pragmatic About the Right Things
But I think the temptation after sorting out the right goals is to stop there, hoping that simply having the right goals is all we’ll need to be fruitful. We fall for the trap of thinking that faithfulness is the same thing as fruitfulness.
Which is exactly where the false dichotomy comes in. We assume faithfulness cannot co-exist with “success” or “pragmatism.” But faithfulness and pragmatism actually NEED to work together if we’re going to see true fruitful ministry.
Seem, the reason the pragmatism of the “seeker movement,” for example, was a tad off-base was not because it’s wrong to seek and measure results, but because the results they were seeking weren’t the actual goals of Jesus.
They were trying to be pragmatic about church attendance, which at best is a “proxy” for discipleship, but it’s not exactly what Jesus told us to do.
(Incidentally, this is why I’m never sure what to think when someone says, “It’s not working anymore, we need new methods.” I want to ask, “WHAT isn’t working anymore? Before trying to make it work better, ask if it’s a worthwhile WHAT in the first place. The HOW question only matters if you sort out a worthwhile WHAT.)
So after getting clarity about the right goals, the worthwhile WHAT, the next step is to be as pragmatic as you can to get those results. If it’s a worthwhile WHAT, then go ahead and make the HOW as practical and pragmatic as possible.
If we have the right goal in place, then it makes all the sense in the world to be pragmatic about achieving it, because being obtuse about the right things is almost as harmful as being pragmatic about the wrong things.
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How to Be Practical About Making Disciples
In some ways it comes down to Dallas Willard’s simple, probing statement that every church needs to be able to answer two questions:
- What is our plan for making disciples of Jesus?
- Is it working?
How can we begin to adopt the right goal (making disciples), and then be as pragmatic about it as possible? Here are a couple ideas:
1. Work hard on developing true discipleship metrics.
The reason many people only measure church attendance and giving is because they’re easy to measure. You just count people and money. Measuring discipleship is a little more difficult, but no less possible.
Think about what a disciple of Jesus looks like, the character qualities she will have, the competencies she will have, and create a way of “counting” whether or not it is happening, and how many people it’s happening to.
2. Be willing to tweak your system as you go.
You don’t need to come up with a comprehensive, airtight system for discipleship before you start simply discipling people. Your process and plan for making disciples should morph and change over time, anyway, because you should be looking at the results and adjusting things based on the results you’re seeing!
Don’t become so enamored with your beautiful strategy that you fail to look at the actual results. This is where we must become intensely practical and pragmatic about discipleship. Is our plan working? Is it producing disciples of Jesus? How can we tweak it so that it produces more Christlike disciples?
Don’t be afraid to change things radically if you find your strategy isn’t producing the fruit you want to see.
Be faithful to the right goal, but be as pragmatic as you can about that goal!