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The Failure of Pragmatic Christianity

America's greatest contribution to the world's philosophies is Pragmatism.  Practically speaking, Pragmatism is practicality.  Since the late 1800s, "The philosophy of Pragmatism emphasizes the practical application of ideas."  The standard American question, "So why are we even doing this?" is a classic statement of Pragmatism. 

Other Pragmatic questions:

  • "What's the use?"
  • "What's the purpose?"
  • "Is it effective?"
  • "What is the outcome?"
  • "What is the best, most effective, and most efficient course of action?"  Note: Pragmatism is another word with Greek roots.  The Greek word pragma means action. 

Pragmatism requires that these questions have a practical, down-to-earth, here-and-now answers.  American pragmatists want to know how what they are doing makes trains run on time, makes better mousetraps, or makes their lives better.  In the absence of satisfactory answers, any ideas or programs that do not seem workable are rejected.

Pragmatic Christianity versus Idealistic Christianity

Thoroughly schooled in Pragmatism, Americans have taken their emphasis on relevancy and outcomes to church.  The emphasis on social welfare programs, and numbers-attracting entertainment, and how we feel are all examples of Christianity mixed with Pragmatism.  Our burning desire to measure, and reject what does not measure up, is another example. 

Reorganizing our churches according to practicality and efficiency, Pragmatic Christians have seen Jesus walking out their door.  Why?  Instead of practicality, Christianity is built on Idealism.  Contrary to the practicality of Pragmatism,  Idealism argues that the quality of ideas matters more than their effectiveness or efficiency, and that impractical constructs like right, wrong, truth, sin, righteousness, and eternal salvation are the most important. 

Idealist questions include the following:

  • "It is right/wrong?"
  • "Does this course of action satisfy God?"
  • "What is Heaven like and how do we get there?"
  • "How can we get beyond the here and now?"
  • "How can we be in the world but not of the world?"

Yet today's "successful" churches measure themselves according to their practical impact on society, by their attendance numbers, in terms of the number of their ministries, or in proportion to the bang for their buck.  Look at our building.  See our people.  Take a look at what we do.  Approve our accomplishments.    

The Failure of Pragmatic Christianity

Terribly impractical, Jesus said, "You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free" (Jn. 8:32).  "Knowing" is not measurable.  "Truth" is a practically purposeless concept.  "Freedom," especially in the Christian sense, has zero pragmatic application.

This idealistic impracticality defines the Church.  Jesus said that "My kingdom (His Church) is not of this world" (Jn. 18:36).  Rejecting a practical response to His arrest, Jesus promoted an idealistic, otherworldly response to the world.   "This is the victory (not visible) that has overcome the world, even our faith (also invisible)" (I Jn. 5:4).

Genuine (an impractical descriptor) Christianity is reflective (Why are we even doing this?), worshipful (What's the use?), holy (What's the purpose?), penitent (Is it effective?), devotional (What is the outcome?), and sacrificial (certainly not the best, most effective, and most efficient course of action).  The true Church (a truly idealistic descriptor)  is "the pillar and firm foundation of the truth" (I Tim. 3:15).  Valid faith (validated by comparison with a standard outside our own experience and rewarded with an immeasurable reward )  "is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see" (Heb. 11:1).  


People immersed in the practicalities of life, schooled in the Pragmatism of our culture, and skilled in professions that require efficiency and effectiveness are flabbergasted by Christianity.    "As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are (God's) ways higher than your ways and (God's) thoughts than your thoughts" (Is. 55:9).  We can unmake Christianity by remaking the Church according to Pragmatism, or we can unmake our dogged cultural practicality and remake ourselves in to the image of God.