An article came my way the other day from a popular ‘church leadership’ source, advocating for an embrace of online church practices in the post-COVID world. The article said a number of things, and was not utterly devoid of useful thoughts, but one of the prominent features that struck me was the pragmatic ecclesiology that seemed to undergird it. Remote is the future, so churches should embrace it; in-person is comfortable, but online is innovative. Beneath the slick tweetable tidbits and the buzzwords, it seemed to me, lay an ecclesiology made of secular principles and standards.
One of the diseases of American evangelicalism is a pragmatic—rather than biblical—ecclesiology. Churches model their leadership on the corporate world, their buildings on the commercial world, and their worship on the entertainment world. Expository preaching gives way to other styles designed to appeal to listeners’ felt needs. Christian publishing houses carry—or even publish—books that are shallow or theologically compromised, but sell well and appeal to popular ideologies and trends. Christian organizations eschew transparency, or even use NDAs. The megachurch and, even moreso, the multi-site church grow out of such pragmatic soil, and their size, wealth, and influence are implicitly taken to justify the approach.
But, if it works, why not do it? That’s the heart of pragmatic ecclesiology. The opposite is looking to God’s Word for His guidance about how to structure His church. God has called us, embodied beings, to be a community gathering together for worship (Heb. 10:25; Acts 20:7), but we think that if online church is the way of the future, we’d better embrace it; so the article I mentioned at the beginning speaks against churches seeing online as an add-on. God has designated elders to shepherd the church (1 Pet. 5:1-3)—and shepherds know their sheep (Jn. 10:1-6)—but we think that a huge congregation gathered to hear a pastor who doesn’t know most of them is better.
But if it is Christ’s church, then it should be ordered in obedience to Christ. Faithfulness should be our standard of success, and the Bible our source for guidance. Now, what God does not forbid, we should not be legalistic about; there’s a place for using the tools of 21st century ingenuity in advancing the gospel. But pragmatic concerns have to take a decidedly back seat to pursuing the kind of covenant-formed community that God has designed the church to be.
That means that in-person gatherings are not just comfortable, but important because we are embodied beings God has designed for real community—emergency restrictions are just that, not license to challenge the normative standing of corporate worship. Doubtless there are things to learn about leadership from the business world, but it is much more urgent that pastors learn to be shepherds of the flock and expositors of the Word. Maybe we can’t draw an absolute line for how large a church should be, but we should have a healthy dose of skepticism about any church model where the pastor doesn’t know his people.
A biblical ecclesiology may not usually build huge churches, but it will build strong churches—churches better prepared to weather the hostility of the world, and to constitute a kingdom counter-culture. There are pragmatic benefits to doing things God’s way, because God is wise. But the fundamental matter of importance is not the benefits to the church, but the glory of the Lord of the church. Our goal should be obedience to God. Jesus is Lord.