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Why Pastors Can't Always Be Pragmatic

Last week, I was at a church leadership conference. I thought it was good and helpful, highly pragmatic, and I was glad I went. I was also embarrassed at how bored I got at times. As an active Twitter user, I didn’t even find myself inclined to share a lot of quotes. It was good for me, but kind of in the way that brussel sprouts are good for me. So then, Monday night, I went to hear Krista Tippett’s, of NPR, “On Being” lecture on the relationship between science and religion — and I was going bananas. I felt like all my senses were alive, engaged and occasionally on fire. I wanted to tweet every single line. I devoured the lecture like a starving man.

And I realized that the contrast probably says a lot about me. I am grateful for people who get into the discipline of “leadership.” You will know them by their maxims. God bless them all. I realize that, as much as I’ve tried to alter myself, I still get bored when people talk about mission statements. (Gasp!) I am moved by beauty in God and in the world, and I preach and write about it. I am basically hopeless. I don’t play golf, I don’t sit around talking about John Maxwell and Patrick Lencioni books (though I do read them). I love theology and literature. I am utterly unqualified to be a CEO and don’t try to be one. I don’t think that is superior or inferior; it just is. I love the business-savvy leadership guru pastors! I really do. I just no longer apologize for not being that guy, and am ok being this guy. I’m just saying: For those of you who are drawn more to the beauty of God than leadership maxims, there’s room for us too.

I do not think it is a contradiction to think well about leadership and theology. What I do think we have to be careful about is the tendency in leadership, proper, to be driven exclusively by pragmatic concerns. To be clear, I think there are times and places to think pragmatically. I just think there are a lot of ways in which a life with God is the opposite of pragmatism. God often does things that do not make sense to us or most anybody else. A lot of the things I have felt like God has drawn us to do as a congregation in recent years are not pragmatic. Sacraments, for example, have little “pragmatic” value. The sacraments always take us deeper into the mysteries of God.  

This is the other way that we must be careful not to be too beholden to pragmatic concerns, though. The more initiated we become in the language of the world, as opposed to our native language of the Christian story, the more tempting it can become to try to reduce the mystery. In fact, I think this is what pragmatic religion often does — reduces mystery. Monday night, Krista said that scientists often have the sense of beauty and mystery that people in religion often lack these days, and that we need to relearn mystery from the scientists. What an indictment! But the more pragmatic we become in our approach to church leadership, the further we get away from mystery — knowing God will immerse you in greater mystery, not solve the mysteries for you.  Hence, I don’t know how to package this God, nor how to easily quantify what it’s like to know this wild deity in a way that’s easy to sell.

So, I don’t know how to reconcile with religion that eliminates ambiguity, when I find knowing God often heightens and deepens it. It is true that the road to faith in Jesus as Lord will mean that some things about our lives will move from ambiguity to clarity. But I also find it true that the road to faith will be just as much about unlearning and will largely be a move from certainty to uncertainty, if it is indeed Christian faith.

When pragmatic leadership drives Christian communities, the end result is always the same: We tell people, “Here are the things you’ve always wanted to be and to do … follow Jesus and He will help you be successful at these things.” Jesus becomes a means for people to get better/be better at something. Ironically, people who are “failures” seem to know Him best. It is beautiful, but it is messy, counterintuitive and largely not pragmatic.