Biblical Pragmatism?

We Westerners are pragmatic people. We go with what works. Hollywood does films of successful television program, and video games and sequels of successful movies , our infomercials focus on testimonials, books on business cite success stories of companies who’ve used their model, and on and on. This make sense. Why do what hasn’t worked and ignore what does?

The ‘problem’ comes when we allow that attitude to bleed over into our spiritual lives. This scripture reading program was very successful for him. When that pastor preached a sermon series on this subject attendance went up. This method of evangelism proved very successful for that group ten years ago. And so we buy the book or the program and attempt to import it into our lives and church expecting similar results. As if people are all the same and God will always react to the same thing in the same way.

I was struck by the beginning of Luke 4. Verse 16-30 tell of Jesus preaching in a synagogue in his home town. Luke slows the narration down and give us a lot of detail, especially compared to his next reporting of Jesus in the synagogue in verse 44. Jesus reads from the prophet Isaiah and sits down. Once everyone’s attention is fixed on him and the people are waiting for some commentary on the text, Jesus simply announces that that text is fulfilled in their hearing. At first “all spoke well of him and marveled at the gracious words that were coming from his mouth” (22) but by the end of this episode, they’re trying to throw him off a cliff!

I can’t think of a story in the gospels of Jesus teaching in a synagogue that ended well. He always seemed to be rejected. Yet the synagogue was the exact place Paul and Barnabas went to first when they went out on their missionary journeys. Surely they were aware of Jesus’ success rate at synagogues in Israel, what were they thinking? As a matter of fact, their reception at synagogues outside Israel varied greatly. At one point, Paul was stoned and left for dead after preaching at a synagogue (Acts 14). Surely this was not a successful model of evangelism! But we know better. Paul and Barnabas changed the known world through their ‘unsuccessful’ methods.

So where did they get the idea that preaching in the synagogues would be the way to go? The track record up to that point was lousy. Jesus warned of the reception his disciples would receive in the synagogues (Matt 10:17, 23:34; Mark 13:9; Luke 12:11, 21:12; John 16:2) so it was no surprise to the Church that this should happen. And yet, the Church went first to the synagogue with the good news. They weren’t stupid, but they weren’t pragmatists either. ‘Success’ for them was not measured in the warmth of reception nor in numbers. Success was measured in degrees of faithfulness to the message. It made sense to go first to the synagogue as that is where the spiritually minded people were. The synagogue represented a group of people who were already studying the scriptures from which Jesus would be proclaimed and were people who were engaged in spiritual things.

So it seems that disciples should be pragmatic on methods but need to keep in mind the results are not always the kind that are easily measurable. Counting heads in pews is something that is capturable and helpful to a point. But the body count is not necessarily the best or only measure of success in church. The same thing is true of evangelistic methods. Just because a method worked at one time in one place doesn’t mean it is exportable.

Disciples need to be cautious about being carried away by the latest method because it is “successful.” Jesus and the Apostles measured success in a way that won’t sell many books or programs.

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One Comment

  • And don’t forget Jesus’ winsome monologue in John 6, after which people said “this is too hard” and left.

    Actually, I have been thinking about weakness and His strength and the parallels between our individual lives and our corporate (church) lives. We Americans see discipleship failure and weakness and immediately “individualize” that experience; but I wonder if this experience is true corporately — not that we purposely seek some false weakness together, but that we learn to be comfortable in that place, so that HIS strength is manifest.

    All this is to say: perhaps “church growth” is asking a question that is 180 degrees “out”.

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