“Then he said to his disciples, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.‘” | Matthew 9:37-38 (ESV)
The Pragmatism Gospel looks upon this image in Scripture with wonder and awe. It becomes enamored with the vision of fields of abundance ready for the gathering. The affections of the heart and the zeal of the soul get caught up in excitement, adoration, and gratitude. Unable to contain its joy and eager to get started, the Pragmatism Gospel runs to city square where it plucks up passersby, and convinces them through sheer enthusiasm to take up a set of field tools and to join them as fellow harvest workers. Artisans, civil servants, engineers, and poets alike are plucked off the streets and run through programs to help equip them with the skills needed for field labor.
Desiring to exhibit their absolute best, the Pragmatism Gospel strives to go above and beyond, training their growing workforce of recruits to become competent in specialized skills. The workforce blossoms from mere field workers to a vibrant assortment of arborists, botanists, and horticulturalists to tend to the plants of the field – to ensure their health and to increase the yield of their fruit. Irrigation specialists are trained and brought in to maximize the efficiency of water management. Compost systems are set up and meticulous fertilization schedules are set in place. Carpenters put themselves hard at work, optimistically building staggeringly large barns and storehouses in anticipation of a monumental harvest.
Yet despite all their effort and labors, the harvest remains the same. It doesn’t increase. Dejected, but not altogether discouraged, the workers redouble their efforts and vow to perform their self-assigned duties even better than before. Maybe then, the harvest will be further multiplied!
Yet in their eagerness, zeal, and joy to participate in the plentiful harvest of the Lord, the Pragmatism Gospel loses sight of reality of the harvest at hand.
They lose sight of the fact that they were only ever called to be laborers. The yield of fruit was only ever God’s to provide and decree. Never by their efforts, skills, programs, or techniques could they ever hope to add to the number of the elect that were set aside for salvation before the foundations of the Earth – no matter how much they toil at the rake and hoe.
They also lose sight of the fact that they were never called to recruit or raise laborers themselves. Rather, they were to humbly go to God and ask Him to provide the laborers needed. Only the Lord is able to call, send, equip his laborers.
Ultimately, the Pragmatism Gospel, though well intentioned, appoints man’s ingenuity as the Lord of the harvest rather than Christ.
Obviously, I’m being hyperbolic in order to illustrate a point. By no means am I saying there’s no wisdom to be found in seeking to be wise and efficient with our time, energy, and resources in pursuit of honoring God and seeking the good of the Church. In fact, such prudence and wisdom is good, and even commanded and commended by Scripture.
I’ve also never been in a pastoral role and have never faced the genuine difficulties of trying to honor the Lord in my leading of a congregation in the midst of overwhelming and difficult circumstances, knowing I’ll be held to an immensely great account for how I stewarded His Bride. I fully acknowledge that I very well could be speaking too flippantly here and ask any pastors or church leaders that may be reading this to receive it in a spirit of grace and love.
What I am saying is that vast swaths of modern American Evangelicalism are bound up in an incestuous pairing of well-intentioned service and faithless corporate strategy.
Isaiah 55:10-11 tells us, “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it” (ESV).
By God’s Word hearts are changed (Romans 10:17). By God’s Word sinners come to repentance. By God’s Word are the eyes of the heart opened to the truth and glory of His character, deeds, and worthiness. He sends out His Word with a purpose to be accomplished, and it does not fail.
Do we believe this? Do we truly believe the Word of God alone is powerful enough to save souls? Do we believe the gospel alone is sufficient for salvation? Or do we feel the need to dress up the gospel to appear more authentic, engaging, and relevant? Perhaps we think it’s stuffy, old-fashioned, and could use a fresh authentic and community-centric veneer to appeal to the youth of today. Or perhaps we think that we just have some great ideas that can boost an already compelling and persuasive message. Maybe if we run a comprehensive social media campaign, hone in on the right branding, and secure enough funds before making any big moves, we can be secure enough and savvy enough for the Lord to really do some work through us. Whatever it is, surely if we just work hard enough and long enough we can really help make a dent in that harvest.
The irony here is that these things that the Pragmatism Gospel chases after so eagerly are not bad things. Indeed, they’re incredibly good things: community, fellowship, discipleship, friendship, accountability, service, etc. But where do genuine and healthy expressions of these good things come from? They come as a fruit of the Word. They come as the gospel of the Suffering Savior brings the hearts of wicked sinners into repentance, admiration, awe, and gratefulness. The pardoned sinner who truly grasps the severity and majesty of the gospel seeks after community, service, friendship and the rest. The real flaw in the Pragmatism Gospel is the inadvertent reversal of fruit and root. Rather than nurturing a bold proclamation of and meditation on the Word of God as the roots from which come the fruit of action, the Pragmatism Gospel seeks to draw in nominal believers and unbelievers with activities, programs, and groups in hopes that those things will cause them to come to love God’s Word.
I don’t think I’m the only who has seen churches of 20 that are far healthier, far more mature, more dutiful, more loving, and accomplish far more for the Lord than churches of 2,000. Despite lower funds, crappier (or non-existent) websites, emptier schedules, lack of social media accounts and live-streamed sermons, objectively less skilled worship teams, and fewer programs. Why? What fuels this? Faith. Confidence. They understand what Paul proclaims in Romans 1:16: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” [emphasis mine].
The fruit is good. But true fruit can only come from the root.
Further Reading (contains affiliate links)
The Deliberate Church by Mark Dever and Paul Alexander
The Compelling Community by Mark Dever and Jamie Dunlop