Having just read through some literature on the Church Growth Movement, I have started thinking about the relationship of theology, missions and pragmatism.
For some, the word pragmatism carries negative connotations. Its the idea of doing something because it works. It is related to utilitarianism. In both cases, you do it if it works whether it is right or wrong, or whether it contradicts other held beliefs, practices, or even itself. The slogan of pragmatism, in this vein, would be Nike’s Just Do It! (Philosophically, pragmatism also involves other complicated issues, such as truth, etc. I’m avoiding that discussion for now!)
Also, saying that something is pragmatic is not the same thing as saying that something is practical. Something is considered pragmatic because it is done only because it is practical, or expedient. Contrarily, saying that something is practical can be a compliment, that the idea behind it is good.
So, it is granted that trying to talk about pragmatism in a positive light may be like walking up a greased 75 degree slope while wearing banana peels as slippers, but I think it is worth the effort until I can think of a better term! (Ideas are welcome.)
The discipline of Missiology, despite being classified as Practical or Applied Theology, is a highly pragmatic discipline. In missiology, theological disciplines, inter alia, are merged with social sciences for the purpose of aiding intercultural ministries. When it is all said and done, this merger is an absolutely pragmatic necessity for primarily theological reasons.
An Absolutely Pragmatic Necessity for Primarily Theological Reasons
The appropriations of the social sciences by Missiology is absolutely necessary for intercultural ministry. There is literature upon literature on this subject. No need to delve into it here; there is really no debate on this one either. While there is debate on the extent of the usage of the social sciences, no serious Missiologist denies the marriage its legal rights, so to speak. But why is it necessary? It is an entirely pragmatic reason. Without the contributions of the social sciences, intercultural ministry doesn’t work well. However, by wise implementation of the social sciences, intercultural ministry is more successful. And while intercultural ministries themselves contribute to the advancement of the social sciences (and may have made the most foundational contributions to many of them), the decision to continue using them is fundamentally pragmatic. Its pragmatism at its best. Truly.
But, it is more than mere pragmatism. There are foundational theological reasons for being so pragmatic. The church truly has a mission that is by its very nature intercultural (you will note that I have not used the expected “cross-cultural”; I do not deny the nature of missions to include the traversing of cultural barriers, but it goes beyond that to continued intercultural relationships). The theology of the Bible demands that we be pragmatic when it comes to missiology. The gospel must be preached to the ends of the earth. Beyond the theological reasons for utilizing pragmatic methods, there is an actual true theology. Theology is not determined by pragmatic ideals. Theology is derived from the biblical world (or, the grand biblical narrative) in accordance with the missio Dei centered upon the total work of our Lord Jesus Christ. Theology determines one’s praxis, not the other way around!!!
Thus, pragmatism does not trump the spiritual nature of the task and care must be taken to rely on the wise leading of the Holy Spirit at every turn. Also, care must be taken not to spiritualize the pragmatism. By this I mean that there is a danger of equating one’s pragmatic use of the social sciences with one’s theology or spiritual authority. The result of this equation would be the canonization of method. Unfortunately, this happens all too often. Rather, method, constrained by theology, should always be open to change, it should always be contextual.
These are my thoughts for now and I would love to have any feedback, critiques, or comments you may have.