During the past century or so, the concept of pragmatism has become the guiding force behind how conservative churches function and how the gathered church worships. According to the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, pragmatism is “a practical approach to problems and affairs.” Philosophically, pragmatism is “an American movement in philosophy founded by C. S. Peirce and William James and marked by the doctrines that the meaning of conceptions is to be sought in their practical bearings, that the function of thought is to guide action, and that truth is preeminently to be tested by the practical consequences of belief.”
Basically, pragmatism boils down to doing what works, doing what produces the desired results. The April 25, 1912, issue of The Christian Index, the weekly paper of the Georgia Baptist Convention, editorialized: “‘What can it accomplish?’ is the question that meets every man today who presents to the world for its consideration either some new invention, or some new theory of social, civil or political activity; or some religious belief and practice.” That which applied to individuals also applied to organizations: “‘What are you accomplishing for the betterment of men and of society?’ is the question which every organization of men has to meet and answer. And the higher the claim of such organization the more searching the investigation that then will make into the results it is achieving.” Obviously, then, those churches which were producing tangible results were the ones which had satisfactorily answered the question. For support, the work of the Salvation Army was presented: “Some years ago, the Salvation Army began its operations, and by its strange, biazarre [sic] methods, shocked the sensibilities of the thoughtful. It had to run the gauntlet of suspicion, ridicule, contempt, and misrepresentation. But it stood the test. It has done a great work where no one else was working. In the parlance of the day, it has ‘made good;’ and now men of every creed and nation recognize it as a great power for good. Its officers get a hearing anywhere and purses open to its pleas that remain closed to those of regular churches.”
Neither the doctrine nor the methods of the Salvation Army were examined for biblical faithfulness. The criterion for approving the Salvation Army’s methods was that they had “made good.” The Index found support in the words of Jesus: “‘By their fruits ye shall know them’ is as true of churches and denominations as it is of individuals.”
Whatever works, whatever gets the most persons to the worship “service,” whatever appeals to the populace so we can get out our message—these are the concepts which have been directing much of the work of evangelical churches for over a century. In the twenty-first century we find churches following the latest fads to attract a following. Pastors wearing suits are out; pastors preaching in jeans and untucked shirts are in. Reverent worship is out; high-powered bands are in. The use of discretion in sermons is out; explicit talk about sex is in.
Many of these churches teach doctrine which we would endorse, and yet there seems to be danger lurking. When a church appeals to outsiders through a “hip” pastor and a certain style of music and the use of coarse speech, that church is on the slippery slope to compromising its message. It may not happen in the first generation, but the next generation will discover that people are turned off by concepts such as personal holiness, judgment and hell, the wrath of God, and the inability of humans to come to Christ in their own power. After the hip wears off, the message will come under attack. The apostle Paul’s warning in 2 Timothy 4:3-4 will come into play: “For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.”