‘What Works Best’: Unhealthy Pragmatism in Missions

We must prioritize biblical faithfulness over pragmatism when determining our missiological methods.

When it comes to missiological pragmatism, here’s my simple definition: the modification of practices and methods according to “what works best” or what has proven most “productive” and “efficient.”

Most missionaries are willing to admit that some level of pragmatism makes sense. All of us have to employ it at some point. Often, there are matters on the mission field that have to be decided on by wisdom and prudence rather than clear biblical warrant (though I think the regulative principle would be well applied on the mission field and not just in our worship services). However, there is a line; there is a point at which one’s pragmatism becomes unhealthy. It’s the point at which we’re willing to bypass clear biblical warrant in the name of our pragmatism; it’s when we, first, let pragmatism make our decisions for us and then, second, backtrack to Scripture to craft some semblance of a biblical defense. What’s more, if we’re known more for pragmatism than sound theology and biblical faithfulness, a red flag should go up—or, at the least, a yellow one.

The more I read the works of the late Donald McGavran, the more I (surprisingly) find myself agreeing with him on both minor and major points. I’m even willing to say that his overall contribution to missiology was positive. However, my personal disagreements with him still outweigh my agreements, and most of them have to do with his emphasis on pragmatics. One point I had to clarify as I started to read through his works (for my dissertation), was whether “pragmatism” was solely a label his detractors had given him or if it was also self-professed. Now well into that endeavor, it’s become quite clear that the latter is as true as the former. McGavran, and many who are still influenced by him, was unashamedly pragmatic.

One case study from McGavran’s book, Contemporary Theologies of Mission, sticks out as an example of how one’s pragmatism can become unhealthy. And it actually has to do with a current issue in missiology, one that’s caused quite the discussion and controversy in recent years—whether missionaries should use “Son of God” language in their ministry to Muslims in light of how offensive some find it to be.

In a section from his book entitled, “The Necessity of Effectiveness,” McGavran claims that it’s “reasonable contextualization” for missionaries to not refer to Jesus as the “Son of God,” opting instead for a phrase from the Qur’an—Ruh i Allah—“Jesus as the Spirit of God.” Yet, having already made clear that he thinks there’s nothing unbiblical about this contextualization, McGavran still discourages its use. But on what grounds? Pragmatism. He doesn’t believe this step should be taken—not because it would be unbiblical, but because it doesn’t work. He claims its “employment has not led many Muslims to Christ,” and thus, he encourages using “Son of God” because in areas where hundreds of thousands of Muslims had been coming to Christ, “The Gospels which speak of the Lord Jesus as the ‘Son of God’ are read with great pleasure.”

So, what leads McGavran to encourage certain contextualizations over others? The belief that it’s a missionary’s job to “concentrate on contextualizations which God has obviously blessed to the spread of the gospel.” And what makes a contextualization “blessed?” It must have proven results.

I know some might say this specific case study is an unimportant or irrelevant one since in the end, and even after all of the missiological gymnastics, McGavran still ended up recommending the use of “Son of God” in one’s proclamation of the gospel. Yet, it remains an important example. We can’t allow pragmatism to be the driving factor for our missiological decisions; the Bible must be, for if what McGavran believed to be a “reasonable contextualization” had produced results, then he would’ve encouraged its use, seeing no contradiction with Scripture.

In this particular situation (i.e. utilizing “Son of God” language) and others like it, we have to let the Bible be the offense that it is, while aiming to “speak the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15) and giving our answers “with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15). When we don’t, choosing to skirt by the truth of God’s Word instead, we enter into dangerous territory. Like Paul, we should “refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s Word” (2 Corinthians 4:2). There likely wasn’t a time when Jesus used this term for himself, or others when speaking of him, that it wasn’t considered offensive by some present. Yet, he still uses it! Thankfully, God can make the “aroma that brings death” into “an aroma that brings life” (2 Corinthians 2:16).1

When we’re faced with issues like this, we have to make our decisions based on Scripture alone. We shouldn’t reverse the hermeneutical process here, looking to make a biblical defense only after a method has proven pragmatically effective (which is quite common today). Instead, we are to study God’s Word, pray that the Spirit would reveal how we are to work, reasonably employ those methods that are in step with Scripture (both those clearly given and those we develop and assess through biblical wisdom and prudence), and leave the results to God.

If you read just a bit further in McGavran’s book (pp. 148-149), he goes on to advocate group conversions (or what he later termed “multi-individual decisions”), which he came to believe in but not because he first went to Scripture and saw that it was a God-given means. Rather, he had seen it prove “successful” in that it had led to a greater number of converts than the one-by-one process. Only later—I believe, as others do—did McGavran then make his biblical defense, which is quite lacking in my opinion (but that’s another article for another day).

Unfortunately, it’s become more normal for missionaries and missiologists to figure out “what works” and then do whatever is necessary to make it line up with Scripture, often employing a biblicist, “proof-texty” hermeneutic instead of taking the whole of Scripture into account. I hope this case study serves as a useful example as to why we must avoid over-emphasizing missiological pragmatism.

And as a kind of postlude, let me note that regardless of the disagreements I may have with McGavran and others, I can still agree with Paul’s words in Philippians. I can still be grateful, that even through unhealthy means, God has and will continue to accomplish his end of salvation: “What does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice” (Philippians 4:18).

1. For what it’s worth, I don’t think it’s that difficult to conclude that avoiding “Son of God” language in order to appease Muslims is unhelpful and, dare I say, unbiblical. The Southgate Fellowship’s affirmations and denials are helpful on this, especially 82c: “We deny that contextualization efforts which attempt to separate form and meaning are proper or useful (e.g., while in some contexts ‘Isa’ does mean the biblical Jesus, some renditions of dynamic equivalence linguistic theories wrongly make the Islamic ‘Isa’ dynamically the same as the biblical Jesus, or the Son of God dynamically equivalent to a legal representative).” You can also read Matt Bennett’s fantastic article, “Muslim Insider Ecclesiology,” which deals with this very issue.

C.J. Moore

C.J. Moore serves as an Associate Pastor at Grace Bible Church in Oxford, MS and as an Adjunct Professor of Missions at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he is also a Ph.D. candidate in Biblical Studies. He has more than a decade of ministry-related experience, including time as a mid-term missionary in East Asia and then as a stateside mobilizer for the International Mission Board. He’s been married to his wife, Cassandra, since April of 2014, and together they have three children: Jemma, Luke, and Lottie.