Thursday, May 6, 2010

Pragmatic vs. Practical

For years some churches and ministries lived by the motto, “If it works, let’s do it.” In other words, they operated under pragmatism. If a particular ministry or method worked or was successful, then more time, money, and energy was spent on it. If it did not work or was not immediately successful then it was zapped.

I understand this is a broad generalization. However, I have been told by more than one person, “If we are supporting a missionary who hasn’t seen a conversion in many years, then we will seriously consider not supporting them any longer.” That is certainly an extreme case but in the end, the legitimacy of a ministry was determined by results only.

Thankfully, in seminary we were taught that there would be ministries worthy of support and funding but that may never have the results that make it appear successful. This is of course true. For example, a missionary may be in a spiritually dark area for years faithfully sharing the gospel. However, in their lifetime the may never see a convert. Was their life wasted? Certainly not. God has promised that his word will not “return void” so we can be confident that even if fruit was never produced, the seed was definitely planted. But that takes perseverance on the part of the missionary and on the part of his or her supporters.

It’s not all about results; it’s not all about pragmatism.

But there is an extreme to the other side as well. An extreme that I have often found myself falling into. That is, being skeptical of and avoiding all “methods” or “strategies” for fear that they are all about pragmatism. Anything that speaks of a “method” or “strategy” that has worked for them makes me immediately nervous because I want to avoid pragmatism. However, this extreme is also wrong.

So, is there away to be wise in what is a best practice but avoid extreme pragmatism? I think so. And, it begins with understanding a difference between being pragmatic and being practical. Pragmatism says, “If it works, we will do it. The ends justify the means.” Being practical says, “The means that we use matter. We want things to work, but we will not compromise on our values to achieve results.” Pragmatism is after results. Practicality is also interested in results (we don’t want to waste time, money, or energy) but recognizes that there are things we are called to do whether we immediately see the results or not.

So, pragmatism should be avoided. But, asking the question of “What works?” also has its uses if we begin with, and remain committed to, our values. So we should be practical.

Begin with the question, “What has God called us to do?” Then seek the best way to do that. God has given us intelligence and resources to make sure we are using our time, money, and energy in the best way and even if we don’t see results in this lifetime, our methods still matter.

So in my own life, when I read of a new method or new strategy, I ask, “Is this results focused or is it seeking to do what God has called us to do in the best way possible?” There is a difference. Our methods matter.


For an example of being practical I have found this post (and no doubt the future posts) at Timmy Brister’s blog very helpful.

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