I’m finishing up Eugene Peterson’s wonderful memoir, The Pastor, a book I’ve anticipated eagerly since I first learned of it last year. About halfway into the book, in a chapter titled “Company of Pastors,” Peterson includes a letter he wrote to a colleague who was leaving his church for one “three times the size of where he was.” He writes,
I certainly understand the appeal and feel it myself frequently. But I am also suspicious of the appeal and believe that gratifying it is destructive both to the gospel and the pastoral vocation. It is the kind of thing America specialize in, and one of the consequences is that American religion and the pastoral vocation are in a shabby state.
It is also the kind of thing for which we have abundant documentation through twenty centuries now, of debilitating both congregation and pastor. In general terms it is the devil’s temptation to Jesus to throw himself from the pinnacle of the temple. Every time the church’s leaders depersonalize, even a little, the worshipping/loving community, the gospel is weakened. And size is the great depersonalizer. Kierkegaard’s criticism is still cogent: “the more people, the less truth.”
This is strong language and it’s a theme that runs throughout the book. Peterson sees the pastoral vocation opposed, in most cases, to the trajectory of the American Dream. In the letter he goes on to show why “largeness is an impediment” to Christian maturity.
Classically, there are three ways in which humans try to find transcendence- religious meaning, God meaning -apart from God as revealed in the cross of Jesus: through the ecstasy of alcohol and drugs, through the ecstasy of recreational sex, through the ecstasy of crowds. Church leaders frequently warn against the drugs and the sex, but, at least in America, almost never against the crowds. Probably because they get so much ego benefit from the crowds.
Most of my experience as a pastor has been in medium-sized congregations of a few hundred people. As these congregations grew it was hard not to notice how much time needed to be given towards administration, organization and strategy. While the growth in size was welcomed, it also required more pastoral effort to mitigate the effects of the increasing size. But increased time and attention to these details at the expense of more traditional pastoral responsibilities is not Peterson’s primary complaint. His is a theological concern.
But a crowd destroys the spirit as thoroughly as excessive drink and depersonalized sex. It takes us out of ourselves, but not to God, only away from him. The religious hunger is rooted in the unsatisfactory nature of the self. We hunger to escape the dullness, the boredom, the tiresome of me. We can escape upward or downward. Drugs and depersonalized sex are a false transcendence downward. A crowd is an exercise in false transcendence upward, which is why all crowds are spiritually pretty much the same, whether at football games, political rallies, or church.
In the past year, for the first time, I’ve pastored a church of fewer than one hundred people. While we have seen an increase in the size of our young congregation, we are- using American church standards- nowhere near being a large church. I have enjoyed this. The extra administrative and strategic efforts required by a larger congregation simply aren’t needed in our church. To be clear, I’m working harder than ever but the work has more of a pastoral edge to it: listening, praying, questioning, studying, leading.
But again, Peterson’s gripe is more theological than what I’ve been observing in my own experience. A church, if I read him correctly, that feels and behaves like a crowd is an impediment to the ways the Gospel transforms people in community.
How do you see this? Does Peterson overstate his case, or is he on to something important that is difficult to hear within the American way of measuring growth and success?
My pastor once told me that a church of 300 people seemed like an ideal size to him. Anything greater than this was evidence of God’s sending nature, pushing a portion of the congregation out to begin a new community of faith. His words resonated with me and Peterson, as he has done many times, now gives me new language to think about old dilemmas.
I’ve written previously about Eugene Peterson.