Pragmatism is Church Kryptonite

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If you ask a group of Olympic medal winners how pleased they are with their own performance, which group would you expect to be the happiest: Gold, Silver, or Bronze medalists? Researchers have actually studied this, and they found that gold medal winners were obviously the happiest. But, the surprising result was that bronze medalists were much happier than silver medalists. Third place was more emotionally pleasing than second, for one simple reason. All the bronze medalists could think of was how close they came to missing the podium. All the silver medalists could think of was how close they came to winning the gold, and how they came up short. Silver medalists were tormented by what might have been.

That’s the power of success. It can turn winning a silver medal at the Olympic games into a complete failure. The difference between “I almost didn’t get a medal at all,” and “I almost won the gold,” is a world of hurt when you live in a society that is captivated with success.

Americans are born and bred to celebrate success, and to chase all things bigger, better, higher, faster, and stronger. Success is in the water.

What’s the famous line: second place is just first loser? It’s not enough to be good. One needs to be great. In fact, “Good is the enemy of great,” we’ve been told, even at our church leadership conferences.

Winning, success, greatness – this is the American story, but it’s not the Christian story.

In the Old Testament the people banded together to build a fortress-tower at Babel. They wanted to trust themselves for their own survival, saying, “Come let us make a name for ourselves.” (Genesis 11:4)

John the Baptist was as successful as one could be, as far as 1st Century Jewish apocalyptic prophets go. He was a rock star with huge crowds coming to see him in the wilderness. Then he met up with Jesus and everything changed. Soon his followers were crossing the Jordan in droves, off to follow Jesus. When John’s disciples asked about the loss of market-share, John’s reply was simple:

I must decrease. He must increase. – John 3:30

When pastors chase ministry greatness, making success our ultimate goal, I have to wonder: are we telling the story of our culture, or the story of Jesus?

Is our life, our ministry, about making a name for ourselves, or is it about getting out of the way, shrinking down our egos, and getting smaller?

Nearly every pastor or ministry leader I’ve ever met operates with the underlying assumption that their job is to make their ministry successful. When leaders accept this premise, using it as a guiding principle, they allow the American story of bigger, better, higher, faster, and stronger to dictate the terms of leadership, over and above the life and teachings of Jesus.

Jesus was not about success. Jesus was about faithfulness.

This wholesale acceptance of the cultural value of success has had a profound impact on the Western church. Perhaps the most powerful reason the church is in decline in North America right now is that the church’s way of being in the world does not represent a genuine alternative to the way of the dominant culture. When the church becomes an agent of the culture, indistinguishable in most ways from society at large, people cease to see the value in belonging, and they opt out.

Nowhere is this dynamic more pronounced than in church leaders’ wholesale acceptance and integration of the ideal of success. The current church leadership culture is every bit as fascinated with success as the rest of the culture. We no longer represent an alternative way of life.

The current church leadership conversation could never produce a John the Baptist. I’m not saying those kind of leaders don’t exist. I’m saying the current church leadership culture cannot produce them, and it certainly cannot sustain them. The reason it cannot is because the current church leadership culture is bursting at the seams with pragmatism.

Pragmatism is the church’s kryptonite, and church leaders swallow it constantly.

Pragmatism asks one question: What works? In other words, what will make me the most effective in my pursuit of success? The building blocks of pragmatism are strategies, models, and techniques culled not from the scriptures and traditions of the church, but from the world of business. Models, strategies, and techniques can be copied and pasted from one context to another, and they are meant to help us become successful or even great.

Pragmatic leadership is about doing certain things, not being a certain kind of person. Pragmatic leadership’s most consistent outcome isn’t even growth, it is anxiety. The pursuit of ministry greatness exerts a crushing pressure on the local church and produces a consuming anxiety in its leaders, especially pastors.

Success has become a god in our culture.

When we join the throngs of church workers building our tower, making a name for ourselves, we are participating in a story that is not our own. If we grab onto the story of success, we are holding kryptonite, and it renders us powerless to speak up for a different mode of being a leader. We cannot speak out against the false gods of success if we constantly bow down to them.

Church leadership should not be about pragmatism, it should be about faithfulness.

Faithful leadership isn’t about effectiveness; it is about embodying Christ in the life of the church, becoming the body of Christ, the faithful people of God. This leadership is not based on models, strategies, and techniques. Faithful leadership is based in a robust ecclesiology, the narrative of scripture and tradition, and the virtues Christ embodied—things like vulnerability, cooperation, brokenness, patience, and fidelity. These building blocks cannot be transplanted or copied. They must grow out of the soil of a church’s specific context.

The most consistent outcome of faithful leadership is not anxiety, but human flourishing. In fact focusing on faithfulness serves to drain the church community of anxiety. When the pressure to grow is removed, the people of God become free to absorb the pain and suffering of their neighborhood, allowing it to be transformed into a resurrection-life, involving others in a new story of human flourishing, and loving community.

That’s the good news. If you follow Jesus in your leadership philosophies and practices, you will begin to flourish. So will the people who join you, and the neighborhood in which your church is situated. Here’s the bad news: your ministry will probably Shrink.

The Jesus way is a narrow road. Not everybody wants this kind of life. The Jesus way is down. Maybe that’s why His most characteristic call was, “take up your cross and follow Me” (Matthew 16:24). That’s not a call to success, or ministry greatness. That’s a call to lay down your life. That’s a call to lay down your expectations of growth and your need to feel successful. That’s a call to Shrink.

Yet, there is a kind of grace to those times when our ministry gets smaller, because this is when we finally start to ask ourselves the kinds of questions that really matter:

Do I really believe God knows what God is doing with the church? Do I think God determines ministry outcomes, or I do? Do I trust God for the future life of this church, or do I need to feel like I’m in control?

Our society constantly asks. “Who will dare to become great?”

Christ asks, “who will dare to do a small thing faithfully?”

So what does it mean to “decrease” in ministry, practically? This is the point at which I should give pragmatic steps on how to become a faithful leader. The truth is that I can’t give you any pragmatic help. You will have to figure this out on your own. The best I can do is give some practical advice on what you can stop doing.

Stop counting heads: Stop measuring period. If you have to measure things, stop sharing the numbers with your people. Stop believing that faithfulness can be equated with growth. I spent the first two years as a senior pastor convincing my congregation nothing was wrong, telling them that we are a beautiful expression of God’s love, and that if God wants us to grow, we’ll grow, but I’m not going to worry about it anymore.

Stop using the word “success”: Remove the word “successful” from your church vocabulary. Tell your folks it’s a concept that is beyond our pay grade. If you came to my church and started talking about success, I wouldn’t have to say a word. Somebody around you would tell you that success is not what we’re about. We aren’t trying to be successful. We are trying to be faithful.

Stop being pragmatic: As we think about how we are stewarding the resources of our church, the question, “Is this effective?” must give way to a new question: “What does faithfulness require of us right here and now?” The pastor is not looking not for effectiveness, but for the flourishing of your community and the people within it.

Stop serving only the affluent: Find a way to include the poor in worship. When the church becomes busy serving the poor, we have little time to worry about our own successfulness. Service rendered to the least of these is always service to Christ. This is the church at its most powerful, faithfully representing a genuine alternative to the culture at large.

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Watch the Video for Shrink: Faithful Ministry in a Church Growth Culture

Your Turn

Have you felt the pressure towards pragmatism in your leadership and pastoring? Have you felt the urge to measure your “success” in numbers? What does faithfulness require of you right here and right now? Come join the conversation on our blog. We would love to hear from you about avoiding Church kryptonite!

Shrink book cover Tim Suttle

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Tim Suttle

Tim Suttle is the pastor of Redemption Church in Olathe, Kansas and the author of Finding God's Story in the Midst of Extremes and Public Jesus. Tim and his wife, Kristin, live in Kansas City with their two boys, Nicholas and Lewis.

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