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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.

31 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.

  16. Pastor de Bruyn, I’d like to follow up with another question. You point out, “Hillsong would release ‘The Power of Your Love’ in 1992.” With all due respect, is there anything in particular you find alarming about that release? Also, is there anything in particular you find alarming within that book?

    As to the written account of MacArthur’s CNN interview(s), (http://www.biblebb.com/files/purpose.htm) I question why the writer feels the need to point out CNN’s opinion on something before we decide what to think about it. The writer says that “The Purpose-Driven Life” message runs counter to The Resurrection, no? I think that Pastor Warren would consider them the same thing.

    I have several follow-up questions.

    If CNN is so important in deciding doctrinal truth, why aren’t Larry King’s interview(s) of Pastor Rick Warren cited? Also, why aren’t John Piper’s interview(s) with Pastor Warren cited? They’re plainly available on Youtube. If “The Purpose-Driven Life” is so problematic or aberrant, then why isn’t it evident during (or after) the Piper interview(s) with Warren? Are they not in agreement on key aspects of the Gospel? And each of them have spoken in reverence of Jonathan Edwards; they each consider Him one of the finest minds America has ever produced.

    One of my brief two talks with Pastor Warren pertained to someone else’s consternation with my attending events at Saddleback Church. Pastor Warren responded to me, simply: “Has he *been* here?”

  17. Todd,

    Wow, this thread feels like pen-pals using messages in a bottle. I think the reason these discussion drag on, is that it appears you don’t understand my/our (referring to the other RAM writers) principled objection to pragmatism. You have repeatedly cited your personal interaction with Rick Warren, and asked what we find objectionable in him.
    These two lines of thought have little to do with each other, so we will keep talking past each other. No one would I know of would deny that the ministry philosophy or Hybels or Warren is pragmatic in philosophy or practice. Until you grapple with the question of whether ends should justify means, and whether such means can be immoral, questionable or simply unwise, we’ll keep coming back to Warren’s person, which is not at issue here.

  18. Thank you Pastor David for the reply. I truly don’t understand what’s wrong with calculating that the ends justify the means; if my automobile passenger suddenly has a heart attack or if I suspect he’s had a stroke, and that the quickest way to transport him to hospital would be for me to drive exceedingly over the speed limit to get him to medical treatment, then I might do so, even knowing that I were breaking a speeding law to get him to the hospital as quickly as possible; said speeding law punishable by enormous fine punishable by law.

  19. As to Tozer’s criticism of pragmatism, I would suppose that the American churches would say that injecting a segment of entertainment is not wrong in and of itself. I quote: “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.” I don’t see that that’s wrong in and of itself. Then, the articulation of “…[success] measured by the number of supposed converts…” Yes, I’ve witnessed a proclamation of numbers of people baptized on a weekend, for example. I don’t see what’s wrong with that. I don’t see what’s wrong with Steve Green singing an uplifting song to the congregation, “May all who come before us find us faithful; may the fire of our devotion light their way…”

  20. Todd,

    When David brought the Ark back to Jerusalem, he put it on an ox-cart, with the priest Uzza riding next to it. When the oxen providentially stumbled, the Ark was about to come crashing down off the cart, possibly breaking open and irreparably damaging Israel’s most sacred instrument of worship.
    Uzza simply stuck out his hand to stop that from happening. Uzza just wanted to prevent damage to a priceless object. I don’t see what’s wrong with that, do you? Uzza saw that the end – preventing the Ark from crashing down – justified the means: touching the Ark. I don’t see what’s wrong with trying to save the Ark, do you? Uzza just wanted to make sure the Ark would be there for future generations. I don’t see what’s wrong with wanting the Ark to survive, do you?

    But God struck him dead.

    Why didn’t God honor his pragmatic motive and method?

  21. Pastor David, I don’t know. I decided to read Matthew Henry’s commentary on 2 Sam 6. “Yet this was his crime. Uzzah was a Levite, but priests only might touch the ark.” Well, that’s one specific way he disobeyed God. David afterwards owned that Uzzah died for an error they were all guilty of, which was carrying the ark in a cart. Because it was not carried on the Levites’ shoulders, the Lord made that breach upon us, 1 Chr. 15:13. But Uzzah was singled out to be made an example, perhaps because he had been most forward in advising that way of conveyance; however he had fallen into another error, which was occasioned by that. Perhaps the Ark was not covered, as it should have been, with the covering of badgers’ skins (Num. 4:6), and that was a further provocation.”

    So apparently, Uzza sinned specifically because only priests were allowed to touch the Ark, and perhaps God was also making an example of one of the men guilty of carrying the Ark in a cart — where, although he punished only Uzzah, every man was guilty.

    I suppose that your point is that, although Uzzah wanted the Ark to survive, he was guilty of greater sins. Or, perhaps sinning presumptuously was his greater sin against God. Psalm 19:13 says, “Keep back your servant also from presumptuous sins; let them not have dominion over me: then shall I be upright, and I shall be innocent of great transgression.” Presumptuous sins were all the more terrible than other sins, as Spurgeon notes in his sermons.

    So, I’m wondering how you would say this pertains to pragmatism; authors here (and Tozer) decry pragmatism. I don’t understand. Uzzah sinned, and his sin is (was) presumptuous. But where do we find sin.

    Another place where I don’t understand your view is that being right or wrong does not at all speak to someone’s character. If a man is very wrong in something as it pertains to making right or wrong judgments or decisions, it is not relevant to speak of one’s character. My view is that don’t the sum total of a man’s supposedly bad decisions speak to his character? You said, “His character is not in question”, I believe you said, concerning Saddleback’s so-called pragmatism. How can that be? I simply do not understand. I’m not trying to be flippant or anything; I’m serious.

    I’m wondering how this discussion of Uzzah and the sinful, disobedient Israelite(s) in any way parallels the use of, say, contemporary music styles or types of sermons.

    Thank you for hearing me out.

  22. Pastor David, you said, “[a leader’s] person, which is not at issue here.” Not at issue? If Uzzah made such terribly wrong decisions, we can judge Uzzah’s person as terrible, no? It seems to me that Uzzah was sinful.

  23. Todd,

    It’s really very simple. Uzza’s action was pragmatic. It had great motives, but methods which God condemned. However nice a guy Uzza was, however good his character, however upright he typically was, this one pragmatic action caused him to lose his life.
    The lesson is, in matters of worship, discipleship, and ministry, we do not focus on a man’s motives, or general niceness. We evaluate his methods. A pragmatic method is not always wrong; we’re all pragmatic at some point. But when pragmatism characterises the ministry, as seeker-friendly ministries do, there is a high probability that what will drive the ministry is no longer theocentrically determined, but anthropocentrically determined.
    If you can’t actually see that in front of you in much evangelicalism, then we should probably just end the conversation – because I can’t help you to see. I don’t mean that unkindly or aggressively. If you are genuinely scratching your head and asking where American evangelicalism is pragmatic, and why that’s a bad thing, I don’t believe a blog conversation will help you. We’d probably need many hours in face-to-face conversation; you’d need to immerse yourself in church history, we’d have to walk through hundreds of texts on the main theme of Scripture, and we’d need to speak at length about reverence, appropriateness, form and content, and the medium being the message.
    But if you are serious about learning, I’d encourage you to chase down some of the books that are recommended on this site.

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