We rightfully condemn the prosperity gospel. Much has been spoken and written about its deception and dangers as it distorts Scripture and replaces the good news of Christ with positive thinking in pursuit of health and wealth. However, there is another false gospel that is just as dangerous but more insidious. I call it the practicality gospel.
What is the Practicality Gospel?
The practicality gospel is when accomplishing things in the name of Christ supplants the redeeming work of Christ by faith alone. Pastors, leaders, teachers, community groups, planning teams, and committees exchange the Gospel for strategic goals.
Sermons become rally speeches to spur congregants to action. We create programs to keep people engaged and design them to be winsome to attract others. The priority becomes growth through marketing instead of the care of souls. Supernatural transformation through the work of the Spirit by God’s means of grace is traded for steps toward sanctification achievable in our power. How does all this happen? Practically.
The Slide of Orthodoxy
What begins with the best of intentions causes us to drift away from the heart of Christianity. In the name of tangible progress, we rewire our churches to become educational hubs to give financial guidance, parenting advice, or relationship tips. Ministry becomes the active role of the church in transforming people’s lives through education and programs. Sermons focus on application to improve life. We measure success by visible metrics instead of the Bible.
Scripture isn’t viewed as a revelation of God chiefly displaying his love and sacrifice for sinners. It is a guidebook. Missing the gospel forest for the trees, we tend to parlay God’s word into one-shot lessons of morality, inspiration to action, or guidance.
Orthopraxy replaces orthodoxy. The noble but misguided rationale is that we should see the impact of Christianity here and now in every aspect of our lives. But that thought process assumes that resurrection power comes by filling in the blanks of a five-step sermon outline, volunteering enough, or attending a class on a topic of struggle.
The default questions in gauging spiritual health almost always go to what we are doing. How is your church attendance? Are you plugged into the programs? How is your bible reading? How is your prayer life? Of course, those things impact spiritual health, but they are symptoms of the root issue: unbelief. Has the church settled for treating symptoms instead of consistently delivering the cure?
More importantly, has the church become blind to how quickly treating the symptoms obscures the cure? Rather than pointing people outside themselves and to Christ, we settle for home remedies. Because there are still allusions to the cure, we’re unaware how treating symptoms has become the atoning work.
Pragmatism Plain and Simple
Pragmatism is a philosophy of getting results. The ends justify the means. What works is what’s right. In the context of this approach within Christianity, the result is results without faith. The insidious nature of it within so many of our churches is that we sprinkle Scripture everywhere. We even include the Gospel as an aspect of the programs to be worked in when the sales pitch timing is right.
We’ve been in this pattern of thinking so long that we’ve become blind to the arrogance and idolatry behind it all. In our pride, we imagine that we can produce fruit or at least contribute to its production. In our idolatry, we shift the Holy Trinity to the background as we bring life change, community impact, and cultural engagement to the front.
We’ve become addicted to results, so we never critically think through the theological and spiritual ramifications of trading supernatural faith for what we can accomplish. We find ourselves religiously busy yet spiritually atrophied.
Burdened and Burnt Out
Souls are parched despite quenched practical thirsts. Armed with tips, advice, steps, and plenty of Biblical application, we still wrestle with guilt, shame, regret, sorrow, and ultimately unbelief. I’ve seen so many weary shipwrecked believers clinging to scarce driftwood while churches call out from the safety of a rescue vessel with instructions on how to pace yourself in the water. I’ve been that capsized believer for long stretches.
Longing for a word of peace, absolution, and hope to reorient our hearts to the reality of the Gospel, we only receive to-do lists. We have opportunities to serve, teach, sing, and volunteer. We’re offered classes, groups, projects, and meetings. There are many hoops to jump through, but it looks more like behavior modification training for a dog show than caring for our souls as the sheep of Christ’s pasture.
Pascal’s Wager Versus Paul
I’ve heard different variations of Pascal’s wager since I was a kid. Now I regularly see the sentiment shared in online graphics. Essentially, it states that it’s better to believe in God and have it turn out there is no God than not to believe and find out that there is. All one has to lose by believing is having led a moral life in that line of thought. It seems logical at first glance, but the problem is that it’s not biblical.
Paul states in 1 Corinthians 15:19, “If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.” This verse is in the context of Paul’s rebuttal against those denying the resurrection of the dead. His underlying assumption is that the whole of Christianity rests in the resurrection of Christ and the sure promise of our resurrection tied to that reality. In other words, the crux of Christianity is not a life well-lived. The heartbeat of Christianity is the death and resurrection of Christ that grants all who believe in Him resurrection as well.
In the name of relevance, variations of Pascal’s wager find themselves in churches’ philosophy of ministry. We carry on as if this life is the only life. The practicality gospel subverts the Gospel.
Does the Gospel impact our lives practically? Absolutely! It does so supernaturally (Colossians 1:3-6). God continuously transforms our hearts and strengthens our faith through the simple yet powerful means of grace. The good news of Christ confronts our natural inclination to walk the Christian life by merit as the nature of the Gospel as a gift transforms our hearts, reorients our minds, and motivates us to serve others.
Instead of engineering our own visible and measurable achievements, we should lean into the supernatural impact of the Gospel as it shapes our lives in service to our neighbors. The Gospel is more practically impactful than anything we could design (Romans 1:16, 1 Corinthians 1:18, 2 Corinthians 4:4).
We may be rightfully quick to denounce the prosperity gospel, but we need to train our ears to hear and speak out against the practicality gospel just as forcefully. Often, it manifests itself as bearing fruit, reaching others, or seeing growth. However, when the church shifts its focus to improving lives, bottom lines, or growth metrics, it does so at the expense of caring for souls.
Calvinist Picard is a Master of Arts in Biblical Studies graduate and currently about halfway through a Ph.D. in Leadership program. He has worked in education and ministry in various roles for just a little over a decade. Follow him on Twitter at @CalvinistPicard and on Facebook at CalvinistPicard.