Recovering From Theology Sufficiency

Pragmatism gets a bad rap. As if doing what works is inherently wrong. Some people, myself among them, can talk about being pragmatic as if it were the worst possible characteristic of a church’s ministry. But the real rub is not pragmatism. It is doing ministry in any way that would circumvent biblical means and still expect genuine results.

The pragmatism of our day—the cause and effect mathematics of ministry that looks more like a marketing schematic than a ministry model—is undoubtedly a danger. But the solution to so-called pragmatic approaches is not a wholesale rejection of what works. Because those methods in reality do not work. Instead, we should employ the most pragmatic and effective program of all, prayer.

Typically I would join others in maligning ministry pragmatism as self-sufficiency, depending solely on human methods or programs to accomplish desired fruit. But at some point, maybe when ministry got hard, I began to see the connection between others’ pragmatism and my own lack of prayer. They are exactly the same.

A lack of prayer is not a lack of faith, but faith in the wrong object. What we tend to label as pragmatism is no different. It is misguided dependence on pathways to success that do not flow from God. If I would bash the pragmatism all around me, I should simultaneously condemn the lack of prayer within me. Because when we don’t pray we are ignoring the exact means God has given for us to experience the fruits of ministry. As I tried to be a catalyst for church planting in a Muslim country, it became painfully clear to me that my failure to pray was the most unpragmatic thing I could be doing. And that’s not a good thing.

In reality, there is a lurking pragmatism in many of us that would preach against it. In lieu of self-sufficiency we can substitute something else that we might call theology-sufficiency. Its logic goes something like this: if I preach exegetically, use the best discipleship curriculum, practice biblical counseling, put the right books in my people’s hands, and attend the best conferences (which allocate almost no time to prayer) the church will grow. Maybe it will not grow numerically, but it will spiritually. Hopefully wider, but certainly deeper.

All through the God-given means of his word. All without prayer.

Of course, none of us would actually say it so. Prayer is important to us. But when we evaluate our church calendars and personal schedules, when we examine our order of worship, when we ask our children about their parents’ habits, we realize prayer doesn’t come across as so important after all. I know this because I’m a recovering theology-sufficient person.

We as ministers of the gospel may have asked ourselves at one point or another why church members find it easier to listen to a sermon than participate in a prayer meeting. Maybe they are lazy and uncommitted. That could be possible. Or maybe we’ve subtly communicated that one is more central, more crucial, and more effective than the other.

Undoubtedly the theology-sufficient among us know the consistent teaching of scripture on prayer. We may even remember the emphasis of Calvin’s Institutes on the hand-in-hand means of Word and Spirit. But for whatever reason we tend to hold scripture over prayer, as if simply putting spiritual food in people’s mouths will lead to nourishment and growth without the necessity of a Spirit-given digestive system. As if regular fill-ups at the gas station negate the need for working spark plugs or an engine.

The truth is, a gospel-centered and word-focused ministry is insufficient. Without dependence on the Spirit, it is at best a half measure and potentially unhelpful. To exalt the word without the accompanying power of the Spirit gained through prayer is, dare I say it, impractical.

Before I went overseas I well knew the example of Christ and the Apostles. Jesus often withdrew from his mission of teaching and healing to pray. Paul was only confident in his preaching when he sensed the accompanying work of the Spirit. But, practically speaking, I operated as if I only needed to plant seeds in order to see growth. Watering them with tears in prayer was optional.

In my theology-sufficient mind, when I didn’t experience the growth I desired or expected I could always revert back to the sovereignty of God cop-out. Or maybe I could blame the hard soil. It wouldn’t be in any way related to my own lack of prayer, would it?

But I am slowly learning and relearning that the most practical thing we can do in our churches and homes and missions is to pray. Why? Because prayer works. We must never forget that the prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective. Following the old but memorable translation of the King James, it availeth much. To put it another way, prayer is pragmatic. And that’s a good thing.

Elliot Clark

Elliot Clark has lived in Central Asia for seven years where he served as a cross-cultural church planter along with his wife and three children. He is currently working to train local church leaders overseas.