October 18, 2011

Church-Planting and Pragmatism

by Eric Davis

I remember that evening clearly. It was during the first year of the church-plant. I was on edge, feeling like I couldn’t take it anymore. Through a variety of humbling circumstances, attendance went from 10 to 50 and back to 13. It drove me crazy. In an act of desperation, I insisted our church put on a community dinner ministry, on a different day than our corporate gathering, with hopes that more would come to us. An elaborate meal was made, much money spent, chairs and table set up, and our core-team ready to bombard anyone who came in to “build a relationship.” The time came and no one showed up. I ran into the bathroom, closed the stall door, sat on the toilet, and begged God with a neck-vein-popping prayer to bring someone. I think two or three people came.

And we never saw them again. I was humbled, weak, and desperate for someone to help me get the church off the ground. Our core-team was working tirelessly and faithfully. I was looking for some way, any way, for the church-plant to get traction. And that was precisely the problem. I was looking for a way; I was on my own little hunt through the labyrinth of church-plant methods to just get the thing growing. No, a desire for growth in one’s church-plant is not wrong. But when the goal becomes to get something going, above ordinary faithfulness to be a good servant of Christ Jesus (1 Tim 4:6), we’re off the mark.

Young, Restless, and Pragmatic

It’s weird, but especially in church-planting culture, there seems to fester a strong idolatry of results. In my short church-planting experience, I have found myself bowing frequently, and even unknowingly, to the “what-works” idol. It’s subtle. It’s consequential. And it’s sinful; abandonment of the King of kings to serve my ego-stroking idol of a visible product.

It cunningly ruled my affections. And whatever captures your affections above the Lord, will seep it’s way into everything. My well-being (or lack thereof), my efforts, and my methods were quietly governed by this idolatry.

Pragmatism: that prominent swear word in evangelicalism, which many of us claim to never touch. Throughout my years in seminary, I had an arm-chair disdain for pragmatism. From the sterilized desks at which I studied, I could call it down with fledgling-boldness.

Never would I have thought that pragmatism would be a temptation for me. After all, during my four years in seminary, I sat under a band of faithful men who navigated the waters of ministry for decades while seeming to avoid it’s temptations themselves.

However, as I would soon find out, it’s one thing to call down battle techniques not having been in battle, yet quite another to be tossed in the throes, grasping for any weapon within arm’s reach to accomplish the immediate job. Once plunged into the storm of church-planting, I was quickly and blindly grabbing for whatever worked. And on a deeper level, I was on a mission to soothe my ego by filling another pew or two.

Permission for Pragmatism

Perhaps higher than anywhere else, there seems to be the utmost permission for pragmatism in church-planting. When you put a young, restless, and pragmatic heart together in the mix of a church-plant situation, things can get ugly. He is so desperate to “get something off the ground,” to “get a church going,” that whatever tool seems to get the job done becomes the right one. Whatever method gives birth to a visible product, especially one by which others affirm you, seems to be the best. The fledgling pastor-planter will sometimes find himself grasping for anything.

What makes it worse, is when the planter, early in his ministry, scans the evangelical landscape and finds celebrity church-planters who have “made it” in their endeavor; they have started from nothing and got a church “off the ground.” This, too, will exacerbate temptation. The more I heard about other successful, celebrity-planters who were getting churches off the ground, my immediate thought would be: “What did they do? How did they get things to work so well?”

The allure of one’s apparent success can easily spark fascination to someone who has “made it.” Questions will race through one’s mind: “What have they done that I have not? What core-group training methods did they use? How do they operate their community groups? What outreach techniques did they implement? What secrets did they discover along the way that I have not? Why didn’t my church-plant training tell me this?”

Pragmatism craves to resemble other “successful” planters. Mantras and quick-results models will look more attractive than humble, exegetical faithfulness. It needlessly sends the fledgling-planter on a voracious search for that “secret” technique; that magical ministry key which will unlock the vault to deeper classified secrets launching our path to great ministry success.

The fledgling-planter will find that he is not alone in the vigorous search for these answers. Many of these planters get put on a pedestal for how they have apparently “made it.” Conferences are held, interviews conducted, and chatter abounds, as the search for the secret path to planting success is coveted by fledgling-planters throughout evangelicalism.

The latest methods are offered which seem to be working in church-planting. Granted, many of these “methods” are helpful and likely put forth with good intentions, in an attempt to faithfully do the work of the ministry. However, the fledgling-planter must take heed to himself, guarding against the pragmatic lure.

Symptoms of a Pragmatic Planter

It can be tricky to recognize when we’ve gone pragmatic. But the warning signs are profuse. In examining my own battle with whatever-works-idolatry, I’ve seen six symptoms of the pragmatist heart in church-planting ministry.

The first and most obvious symptom of the pragmatic planter is great discouragement and unrest due to low numbers. Shouldn’t the pastor be somewhat discouraged by low numbers? Maybe, maybe not. There is a fine line between a pure discouragement over less people converted and celebrating the Lord Jesus Christ in corporate worship, and an idolatrous discouragement of a small audience by which I validate myself. Nothing strokes a fledgling-planter’s ego like swelling pews. Beware that your daily, and hourly, well-being not become subject to warmed pews.

I would get so anxious for our numbers to increase, that I would search somewhat indiscriminately for resources among professing evangelicals that seemed to be making it in the church-planting culture. “As long as they got the gospel correct,” I thought, “they are a reliable source to pull-from,” without asking, “Is what they are doing accurate to the rest of Scripture?” Though I would not have outright articulated it, the unmistakable principle by which I operated was: “if they started something from nothing, they must be something.” I was captured by getting results. And the result in my life was excessive discouragement moved by the storm of fluctuating numbers; a symptom of the pragmatic heart.

A second symptom of a pragmatic heart is an excessive focus on being missional, which I covered in this post. This is not a down-crying of faithful evangelism. No, that is called obedience. And church-planting is a chief way of evangelizing. Again, however, the desire to get a church planted can easily rule the heart over the Lord Jesus. This will manifest in putting all of one’s efforts into getting people to attend a service, a small group, an evangelistic event, and so on. These are not sinful things per se. But when the goal subtly becomes getting people in, and seeing some results, that is when faithfulness to the Lord is compromised.

A third symptom of a pragmatic heart is what I call “bi-polar-church-planter syndrome.” Here is what happens: When that couple decides to stay and become a member in the church, they are instantly like mini-Jesus’ to you; your new pseudo-saviors who, for a moment, ease the raging discouragement of low-numbers. Simultaneously, when that guy decides to leave, for whom you have been driving across town twice a week, burning gas and hours, for months…well, look out. He instantly becomes like a mini-antichrist. In our minds, we cry him down as an apostate, the devil himself, who has denied the faith; and all because he simply decided to no longer attend the church-plant.  The pragmatic heart craves for results, such that the staying or leaving of a few people can take him on an unnecessary emotional roller-coaster ride. “Bi-polar-church-planter syndrome” makes you miserable to be around and is a symptom of a pragmatic planter.

A fourth symptom of a pragmatic heart is excessive time given to studying church-planting material. Certainly much time ought to be given to learning about church-planting. However, when all one listens to is sermons on church-planting methods and reads only the latest blogs on planting, it is possible that a pragmatic heart has set in. All one wants is to get a growing church off the ground, then that is all to which they will devote themselves. But, above the latest church-planting mantras, God’s will for the planter to be versed in the whole counsel of God, being all about his glory as a faithful servant of Christ Jesus. Anyone in church-planting knows that the line is subtle.

A fifth symptom of pragmatism is an excessive emphasis of mission and equipping to your core team. You church-planters know what I am talking about. Your core-team meetings become a 37-week series on “62 ways to make disciple-making disciples.” Again, one’s core team better be missional and competent to equip others to faithfully serve the Lord. However, if the planter only beats the “make disciples” drum in their ears, they will easily get weary and lose sight of the glory of God in exchange for results. Demands on a core team are heavy. They will have right motivation and direction to equip others and evangelize, not when they are bantered to create results, but when the whole counsel of God is unfolded before them. The pragmatic heart is so focused on results that it will often wear out the core team in the name of kingdom multiplication.

A sixth symptom of a pragmatic heart is hasty approval of other church-planters with growing numbers. While a faithful planter may experience a rapidly growing congregation by God’s grace, it is not to be interpreted as heaven’s proclamation of success. Numbers may or may not mean faithfulness. The temptation in one’s heart is to give an instant stamp of approval on the ministry of others pastoring church-plants where numbers are growing exponentially. It’s easy to lose sight with thoughts like: “They’ve made it.” “What are they doing right?” “What church-planting secrets do they know that I don’t?” Underlying the enamored heart and fascination with these apparent successful ministries could be a craving to have what they have: rapidly growing numbers. This is a symptom of a pragmatic heart. But, in all of Paul’s exhortation to young Timothy, not once did he insinuate any correlation of success with numbers. On the contrary, success was defined as being “a good servant of Christ Jesus” in terms of faithfulness to the task (1 Tim 4:6-16).

There is much talk of planting churches that last these days, and rightfully so. Pragmatic-planting is the sure way to prevent that. Sure, some of methods may get some quick results, but at what expense? What will be the cost in the long-run?

I know that church-planting is an arduous privilege that often renders us young guys desperate. But we need to be on our faces in prayer and examine our hearts. No matter how hard it gets; how low the numbers; how apparently unfruitful the ministry, the Lord Jesus deserves our service and worship over results. Worse than negative results in a church-planter’s ministry is his idolatry.

The pragmatism idol is getting far too much veneration in current church-planting culture. But, among other things, something deeper is going on in pragmatic tendencies, which will be explored in one of the future posts.

Eric Davis

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Eric is the pastor of Cornerstone Church in Jackson Hole, WY. He and his team planted the church in 2008. Leslie is his wife of 14 years and mother of their 3 children.
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  • Eric, this has been a helpful, thoughtful, insightful series of posts. Thanks, brother.

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  • I enjoyed this. I see the frustration in my pastor’s face when the numbers are low….Much of this article could have been written by him!

    People try to encourage him and say stuff like “even Paul had to sow tents”, But that isn’t real encouragement. I think that the low numbers, in his mind, makes him think he isn’t doing things right.

    I believe being faithful to God and His Word are more important than numbers, although i do try to up my numbers on social media outlets. So, i guess i fall into this from a different angle. And now that i think about it, a lot of my focus is on enlarging the social media aspect rather than just focusing on content.

  • paulchoi

    amen!

  • Paul

    This has been hugely helpful, especially as I prepare for church planting in another country next year. Thank you very much.

  • Johng

    Good post, I appreciate your humility in sharing your mistakes, it is helpful. I am pastoring a small church plant and it has been really refining and although I can identify with the bi polar church planter syndrome I am coming to the point were I just want to be faithful and numbers are not what I am looking at as a gauge on success. Started a year ago with 10 and now up to about 20. Thanks again for sharing and looking forward to learning more from you.

  • Eric,

    Awesome thoughts. Thankful for you bro… Now, let’s say that the desire to be validated by numbers is not the issue, can you see the pull to say “I am not pragmatic” become an idol on it’s own? As a result could young guys or anyone disregard or close themselves from resources and mentoring (coaching) from others that have been in the trenches and have been church planting for a lot longer than we have. Especially resources from brothers that planted in areas that, as a church, we haven’t done a good job reaching and whose demographics look similar to the context of our church plant? It’s planting in Quito, Philly, JH, SCV the same?

    Could we at times be guilty of not taking the time for the hard process of thinking, and understanding, or studying our demographics and entry ways to confront the idols in our planting cities? Is there a danger to sacrifice church planting missional strategy, to make sure that we avoiding being pragmatic or even being considered pragmatic? I am not talking about over contextualization but the fact that there has been a lot of growth in churches in places, cultures, subcultures that before were not churched before as we have learned how to bring the gospel there. Having said that, there are many churches that, if you take the Holy Spirit completely from the work, they will continue to grow (scary). But God is doing some really cool things around the world and there are things to be learned out there and celebrate. I mean, when I came to TMC in 05, I would have never thought that a few years later hip hop would be used to glorify God during chapel.
    Mad love bro. Appreciate you.

    • Eric Davis

      Juan-

      Great to hear from you, brother. I think you bring up a great point.

      The reason we should fear being pragmatic isn’t b/c we should fear being pragmatic; but b/c we should fear idolatry. Pragmatism is just a symptom of giving our worship and allegiance to something other than Christ. We should avoid pragmatism b/c we love Christ and “flee idolatry” and do all things for his glory. It’s possible for us to simultaneously to err on the side of fearing pragmatism, but that too would be b/c we are in idolatry. I could fear pragmatism b/c I want to appear a certain way, solicit approval, whatever. But usually, not always, we young planters, b/c of the legitimately difficult circumstances, err on the side of finding more comfort in a method that may not be honoring to the Lord. The idolatry is subtle.

      To answer your other question: Our church planting missional strategies better exist; we better be doing something to preach the gospel to people. But even then, we need to carefully think through why we are doing what strategy.

      I also think that too much has been made about city-specific idols. Yes, there are different sins patterns in various sub-cultures, but humans are not that different. Our heart idols, when looked at on the deeper level, are all the same.

      And I too am thankful for how the Lord has used theologically-sound hip-hop for his glory, to equip the saints, and reach the lost. Love it. Praise Jesus for Lecrae, Shai, and some of those guys.

      • Anonymous

        I think Ezekiel 3:4-11 is a helpful perspective when considering mission:

        “Then He said to me, “Son of man, go to the house of Israel and speak with My words to them. For you are not being sent to a people of unintelligible speech or difficult language, but to the house of Israel, nor to many peoples of unintelligible speech or difficult language, whose words you cannot understand. But I have sent you to them who should listen to you; yet the house of Israel will not be willing to listen to you, since they are not willing to listen to Me. Surely the whole house of Israel is stubborn and obstinate. Behold, I have made your face as hard as their faces and your forehead as hard as their foreheads. Like emery harder than flint I have made your forehead. Do not be afraid of them or be dismayed before them, though they are a rebellious house.” Moreover, He said to me, “Son of man, take into your heart all My words which I will speak to you and listen closely. Go to the exiles, to the sons of your people, and speak to them and tell them, whether they listen or not, ‘Thus says the Lord GOD.’”

        Amen that the Lord is working among christians who are bringing the gospel to unreached people! And praise God not everyone is like the Israel of these passages. But revivals aren’t the only ministries that Jesus calls us to. I think a good question to ask ourselves as church-planters is this: “Would I be as excited and thankful to have Ezekiel’s ministry, or to bring it new testament, our faithful brothers ministering to Mormons, as I would to have Paul’s or Spurgeon’s?”

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