I was sure that the long-standing practice by evangelicals and fundamentalists alike of judging success by numerical results had died a long overdue death in the 1990’s. My seminary education had instilled in me the commitment to judging my ministry as a pastor by the standard of whether it pleased God or not, that is, whether it was faithful to Scripture. Numbers mania had gone the way of the dodo by the late 1990’s.
Or so I thought. Pragmatism seems to have returned with a vengeance. In order to survive the ever-changing ministry environments of the past decade, many ministries seem to have made their peace with whatever changes of philosophy will keep their doors open.
To make matters worse, not many members seem to have noticed. Ministries that once prided themselves on their conscientious commitment to a thoroughly Scriptural philosophy and practice have overthrown all core values in a matter of a few years (or sooner). And those who challenge the turn to pragmatism find their protestations falling on deaf ears.
Carl Trueman, church history professor at Westminster Theological Seminary, and ever keen cultural critic, writes about the turn to pragmatism he sees:
This all takes me back to a question I have raised before: in a world where success is the ultimate sacrament of absolution, who is there with the credibility to call the successful to account? Not the man in the small church. Suspicion that he is motivated by envy will always undermine his authority in such a context. And, if we are honest, envy will likely always be a part of the motivation for such criticism. I preach total depravity, after all, and it is also the one example where I can honestly say I consistently practice what I preach. What pastor of a church of fifty does not want to be pastor of a church of five hundred? The church I serve has ca. 90 on a Sunday. Yes, I would love a few hundred more. If we ever got to four hundred, I hope we would plant a church, as long as I did not have to drink zinfandel and grow a soul patch. But yes, I would be lying if I said I did not have a twinge of envy at those whose ministries are – well, you know, successful. I guess that is the word.
So what about the successful? Will they point out the problematic excesses of the self-promotional culture which seems to pervade much of the modern conservative evangelical church? One can only hope so; but history gives little cause for optimism on that score. Nobody wants to bash the successful, for our culture assumes that that would be to identify with failure and mediocrity.
The psychology of success is fascinating: those who are successful often start as well-intentioned people; but increasing success almost always seems to bring in its wake an increasingly relaxed attitude to the rules, a fuzzier conception of right and wrong and an odd sense of entitlement whereby the successful come to think that, for them, the normal criteria of behaviour do not apply. This incremental exceptionalism is reinforced by the failure of those who should check them from actually doing so. It is almost as if, for all of us, success (and in church we typically mean numerical size and growth) is the ultimate criterion of truth and that therefore as long as it seems to be working, as long as it is popular, it must be true. You can ape the Hollywood aesthetic; you can be increasingly vague on the hard teachings; but as long as the machine keeps working as it should, everybody is happy — or at least comfortable in their silence.
… As long as you pull in the punters, especially the young ones, as long as your name on the conference flier helps to sell tickets, and as long as your preaching is popular with the rising generation, those with the standing to state the obvious and do something about the excesses will generally not do so for fear of spoiling something which seems to be working as it should. Indeed, you will enjoy the benefits of a powerful and heady perfume which gives the successful a high and hides the hollow reality from outsiders: the sweet smell of success. You just can’t beat it.
And when it all blows up, you can be confident it will be nothing to do with anyone. “Seriously, guv, I never even knew the man…..”
I think we would do well to consider.