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Tozer’s Second Concern – Pragmatism

A.W. Tozer had the uncommon ability to step aside from his own culture, and see as alien what had become natural. Tozer saw that the pragmatic philosophy of Americans, which had brought such material success to the nation, was devastating the evangelical church. He wrote: “As one fairly familiar with the contemporary religious scene, I say without hesitation that a part, a very large part, of the activities carried on today in evangelical circles are not only influenced by pragmatism but almost completely controlled by it. Religious methodology is geared to it; it appears large in our youth meetings; magazines and books constantly glorify it; conventions are dominated by it; and the whole religious atmosphere is alive with it.” (“Pragmatism Goes to Church”, in God Tells the Man Who Cares.)

What was he referring to? What form did pragmatism take in the mid-twentieth century? The introduction of amusement into worship to make it familiar, fun, compelling and therefore popular. The replacement of the hymn heritage of the church with gospel songs, and singspiration hymns. The changing approach to youth ministry: segmenting the youth into herds, becoming a celebration of juvenility and silliness to make church fun and popular. The ministerial ambition for success, measured by the number of attendees, number of supposed converts, size of building programs, and size of annual budgets. The prevalent and increasing appeal of celebrityism, and the increasing place of publicity in Christian ministry. The commercialization of worship and discipleship and the subversion of the pulpit to pander to the tithers.  This had begun in the 19th century, particularly under Charles Finney, picked up speed after the Civil War, gained impetus under D.L. Moody, Billy Sunday, and J. Frank Norris, and was by the mid-twentieth century, in Tozer’s words, the makeup of the whole religious atmosphere.

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Tozer saw further. He recognized that pragmatism eventually affects the gospel itself. If all things are judged by their utilitarian value, that soon enough happens to Christ. “That Utilitarian Christ” is an article Tozer wrote to warn that the American gospel was fast becoming a means to man’s own selfish ends. “The New Cross”, Tozer would say, does not slay men, but leaves the old man very much alive, ready to consume certain religious habits he finds attractive.

Tozer died in 1963. The Jesus Movement would begin by the late 60s. Larry Norman, considered the father of Christian Rock, would release his first Christian Rock album in 1969. Bill Hybels would establish Willow Creek in 1975. Hillsong would release “The Power of Your Love” in 1992. Rick Warren would write “The Purpose-Driven Church” in 1995. In 1999, Joel Osteen would take over at Lakewood Church. In 2005, Time magazine would list among its 25 most influential evangelicals Rick Warren, Ted Haggard, Joyce Meyer, T.D. Jakes, Billy Graham, Bill Hybels, James Dobson, and Brian McLaren. And in 1993, John MacArthur would write in his critique of pragmatism in the church, Ashamed of the Gospel, that what was now commonplace in the church was “staged wrestling matches, pie-fights, special-effects systems that can produce smoke, fire, sparks, and laser lights in the auditorium, punk-rockers, ventriloquists’ dummies, dancers, weight-lifters, professional wrestlers, knife-throwers, body-builders, comedians, clowns, jugglers, rapmasters, show-business celebrities, reduced length of sermons, restaurants, ballrooms, roller-skating rinks, and more.”

The last article Tozer wrote before his death was appropriately on the remedy for pragmatism. It was entitled, “The Waning Authority of Christ in the Churches”.  Imagine if we heeded these words, 53 years later:

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“For the true Christian the one supreme test for the present soundness and ultimate worth of everything religious must be the place our Lord occupies in it. Is He Lord or symbol? Is He in charge of the project or merely one of the crew? Does He decide things or only help to carry out the plans of others? All religious activities, from the simplest act of an individual Christian to the ponderous and expensive operations of a whole denomination, may be proved by the answer to the question, Is Jesus Christ Lord in this act? Whether our works prove to be wood, hay and stubble or gold and silver and precious stones in that great day will depend upon the right answer to that question.”

David de Bruyn

About David de Bruyn

David de Bruyn currently pastors New Covenant Baptist Church in Johannesburg, South Africa. Since 1999, he has presented a weekly radio program that is heard throughout much of central South Africa. He also blogs at Churches Without Chests.

20 Responses to Tozer’s Second Concern – Pragmatism

  1. I don’t see any definition of “pragmatism” here. I don’t see any clear or descriptive case in point. I don’t see any description or illustration or any quote from “The Purpose Driven Church” here. I don’t know why Pastor Warren is somehow equated with Joel Osteen here. I think that your equating the two is very, very questionable. And as for what Tozer said (says) about Him being in charge of the project or merely one of the crew, I don’t know what the accusation is here. I can’t find any case in point of that here. Please advise.

  2. Todd,

    I suppose I assumed a reader understands the meaning of pragmatism: when ends justify means. Practical results justify the methods employed to achieve them.

    If you do not think that Rick Warren is synonymous with pragmatic ministry, I can’t help you in the space of these comments. Perhaps some critiques of the seeker-friendly movement will be a primer for you. I am writing for those already familiar with the phenomenon, and with those considered pioneers and icons of that approach, Hybels and Warren being the foremost.

    Osteen and Warren are certainly different. You seem to think their differences erase their similarities. In respect of pragmatism, they are the same – they both employ pragmatism. Osteen’s might be more shameless, vapid, and crass, but Warren’s unwillingness to go there is only a fortunate inconsistency in his approach. Osteen goes boldly where Warren stops short.

    Tozer’s point is that Christ’s authority in Scripture was rapidly being undermined in the way churches handled themselves. You can easily Google the title of his article and read the whole thing for more examples.

  3. Pastor de Bruyn, I’ve been a part of a Bible study designed and conducted by Pastor Warren recently, and I would like to defend him here with some of these matters; in the context of what Pastor Warren is teaching, and his Biblical worldview, I wish to defend him. I find that the principles and qualities and Christian attributes that he teaches are indeed Biblical; I’m not sure what you find in the contrary. As we’ve been taught, the first churches were megachurches (Acts 2:41) — but not only that, Saddleback is modeled on the very first church principles of being seeker-friendly on the one hand, and then nurturing faith within small groups, conducted inside the homes of church members (Acts 2:42 to 2:47). Those are the very first churches. Saddleback adheres to that model. I don’t know what specific things you criticize in the book “The Purpose-Driven Church”; I haven’t found you to provide any citations from it. With regards to the early church model followed by Saddleback, it does seem to be indeed to be Biblical. He indeed admonishes everyone in Saddleback churches that growth in the church happens inside small groups.

    What I infer from the criticism of Pastor Warren is a minimisation of The Great Commission. And I can’t accept a minimisation of The Great Commission.

  4. Rick Warren loves the Great Commission.
    I love the Great Commission.

    I criticize Rick Warren’s ministry philosophy.
    You criticize my criticism.

    You infer from my criticism of Warren that I minimize the Great Commission.

    Can I infer from your criticism of me that you minimize the Great Commission?

  5. Todd,

    Can we grant that something may be consistent with a biblical worldview and still not be Christian? Most cultures have laws/taboos/mores about murder even if they are little influenced by Christianity. Are they then Christian? Or are they merely proper parsers of natural law?

    So, to import this (or a similar) phenomenon into the realm of Christendom, well, have you heard of the category some call Moralistic Therapeutic Deism? What differentiates Warren’s teaching from MTD?

  6. David,

    I think you have misinterpreted things or been confused with categories. If you are trying to place Pastor Warren inside a so-called “MTD” category, you are gravely misunderstanding his teachings and theology. And in your first question, that is a separate thing altogether. Not the same category. Not the same thing. If you are trying to place him in a Deist category, that’s quite incorrect, if I may say so.

  7. Why is my first question a separate category? And I ask again, what differentiates Warren’s teachings from MTD? Should be easy to answer, no?

    Or you can simply assert I’m off base. Up to you.

  8. David, I believe you’re way off base. Way off base. On both things. Please allow me to respond to Pastor de Bruyn before I get back to you. Thank you.

  9. Pastor de Bruyn,

    Forgive me, it looks like I’ve misjudged you. I regret and apologize for any misjudgment on my part. I’m still trying to process these matters.

  10. This is only a test post. In the recent weeks, I keep receiving error messages when I try to post.

  11. David O.,

    Pastor Warren does back up his teachings with Scripture. He may point out some things that might be considered common sense but all truth is God’s truth. If he says that there are “introverts” and “extroverts,” it’s true; it’s a common-sense, trusted reality that is not contradictory to Scripture — and a reality that can be helpful in determining what specific type of Christian ministry a person is suited for, which is something he and Pastor Erik Rees have taught about. I think we’d all agree that introversion and extroversion are part of temperament, and one’s temperament(s) can be helpful in determining what specific ministries one is particularly suited for.

    Hope that helps.

  12. David O.,

    Christian news outlets have been picking up the article on Michael Phelps and Pastor Rick Warren’s book “The Purpose Driven Life.”
    Here’s where the research article originally appeared at Breakpoint.
    http://www.breakpoint.org/bpcommentaries/entry/13/29694

    I would add that you have claimed that Warren’s teachings are supposedly “MTD”. But you haven’t cited any case in point.

    Todd

  13. David O.,

    As I’ve mentioned to you before: as far as I can tell, you’ve provided no case in point to equate Pastor Warren’s teachings with “MTD”.

  14. Pastor de Bruyn,

    What in particular is objectionable in “The Purpose-Driven Church” (1995)?

  15. Pastor de Bruyn, the first weblink seems to be of little value in having an substantive discussion of Purpose-Driven churches. Also, the comments section is seriously lacking in substance and Scripture. The two links at the bottom have been nonexistent for quite a while. I could try digging into the websites at the very bottom of the page http://www.biblebb.com/files/purpose.htm at web.archive.org — but they’ve been nonexistent for an incredibly long period of time, and an attempt to dig into the web.archive.org found meager, if any, amount of content.

    And the author(s) claims they “EXPOSE the Purpose Driven Movement”. Really? Expose? Why the language? Is it so EVIL?

    If there is an outcry against marketing, let us consider that Saddleback makes a lot of resources available free of charge. In fact, their Coaching & Careers Counseling Ministry has taught that none of us should have to pay money for any service at all — in any form — in regards to helping one find a career suited for him.

    As to the interview with Pastor John MacArthur, I’ll have a look.

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