Pragmatism in the church

Is it okay if I make some broad generalizations here based on some of my observations?

Mark Dever asked me last week what I thought the advantages/disadvantages of a Chinese Church over an American church were and vice-versa. I mentioned that one of the things I could see being improved in the Chinese church was how our actions were measured more by pragmatism than by trying to be deliberately Biblical. But he responded, “But isn’t pragmatism also a problem of the American church?”

So I thought it about it some more and I realized that though American churches and Chinese churches can both be very pragmatic, but this pragmatism will look very different, because Chinese congregations and American congregations will look very different. Think about some of generalizations we can make about Chinese culture (particulary among overseas born congregations):

– more submissive and respecting of authority
– disciplined and consistent in performing what they consider their duty
– place a higher value in performing public duties, in order to save face
– prefer avoiding public controversy

What about American culture today?

– more individualistic and assertive
– proactive in either fixing what they consider to be problems
– enamored with new and exciting technologies and entertainments
– higher expectations of leaders to earn their trust

So with such different congregations, pragmaticism will look very different among Chinese and American churches. For Chinese congregations, pastors will tend to employ a minimalistic approach. As long as they keep the status quo, as long as church gets “done”, then people will keep coming because they are supposed to. On the other hand, for American congregations, pragmatic pastors will need a very active approach. It will involve keeping up with the latest fads, creating new programs every month, fashioning worship services to suit people’s tastes, fitting the church with the latest technologies and conveniences, and so on. Both are opposite approaches, yet both come out of pragmatism. Interestingly, as more and more American-born Chinese grow up influenced by American culture, the minimalist approach to church will be increasingly frustrating for them. The results of this can usually be seen in ABC youth growing up in a Chinese church, heading off to college and experiencing an exciting, dynamic church, and then coming back to their home church and feeling alienated and frustrated by it.

The solution to all this isn’t more pragmatism, but rather to repent of pragmatism and to pursue Biblical faithfulness in our ecclesiology. God intends to display the glory of His holiness and love through the church and I believe that Scripture actually teaches church leaders how to build churches that display God’s glory.

For more info on a biblical vision for Christ’s church, visit

2 thoughts on “Pragmatism in the church

  1. dan August 14, 2006 / 10:34 am

    Well, Piper was asking me something on one of his sermons, but when I responded he didn’t say anything to me, that’s the only difference you have with your precious relationship with Dever (I am not jealous). Also, would you elaborate further on how the “typical” Chinese and American churches are being too pragmatic and not “biblically faithful”. Because the qualities and actions you labeled as stemming from pragmatism, are not inherently unbiblical, but they could be. Also, the idea of pragmatism-developing, executing, and justifying methods for a desire outcome, doesn’t necessary have to be unbiblical. Are you saying that Chinese church is more concerned with the “status quo” and the American church is more concerned with being innovative than the gospel?


  2. Geoff August 14, 2006 / 10:55 am

    Good question. I knew this post had the potential of being misunderstood. By “pragmatism”, I mean the attitude as to “doing what works” when it comes to filling up a church, as opposed to “doing what the Bible teaches”. You’re right that those things don’t have to be antithetical. I would argue that ultimately what works when it comes to building healthy churches is what’s biblical. Obviously, the Bible isn’t a step-by-step handbook to doing church, but nonetheless, there are clear pictures as to what a church should look like. So by pragmatism, I’m not so much criticizing the methodology, but the attitude which might bring about a methodology. Certainly, I have nothing against with using Powerpoint. Like you said, these things are not inherently unbiblical, but they could be.


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