“Crowds are a worse danger, far worse, than drink or sex.”

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.

Peterson closes the letter by stating his belief that “crowds are a worse danger, far worse, than drink or sex.”

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.

13 thoughts on ““Crowds are a worse danger, far worse, than drink or sex.”

  1. I have a few random thoughts borne out of years in exceedingly large churches combined with reflection on Peterson’s thoughts.

    First, most big churches in America have really big facilities. These really big facilities come with really big price tags and really big upkeep costs. Is that worth it?

    Second, the early church had pastoral problems too. The church got too big for the Twelve, so they appointed others to administer service so that the Twelve could do preaching and teaching. Many large churches I have seen set up something like this for the preaching minister.

    Third, if a church reaches 300, and they do plant another church, what happens to the original church. Are we saying that at 300 it is maxed out? What if people want to keep coming to Jesus? What about the need for 300 to keep spreading the gospel? What if they excel at that? Is the drive to undo the crowd effect in a large church really such a problem?

    Fourth, the opposite of the crowd, namely solitary removal from society, is also a false transcendence upward. This is my primary interpretation of monasticism.

    Just some thoughts, I’m sure there will be others. Great post, David.

    1. Your third point has been something I’ve wondered about Jody. I’m not sure there is a science to it, but I wonder if the ongoing rhythm of gathering and sending might be a way for the entire church to be involved with “spreading the gospel” while avoiding the downsides Peterson points out in larger churches. I’m generally convinced that Gospel witness that leads to discipleship to Jesus happens best and most often in the context of smaller churches, especially when these churches expect to regularly send members to begin new outposts of the kingdom.

  2. Hi Dave!

    I read all the time but have been prompted to respond to the concept put forth by Peterson. I agree with the concept of ‘crowd’ being a danger to spiritual maturity, in fact all kinds of maturity. But I think that making “large” the enemy is a bit of an over-reach (and here I think to myself–are you really going to disagree with Eugene Peterson?!).

    To me the issue is one of the ‘crowd mentality’ which is easier to fall into in a large group but can also become the nature of a small group. The crowd mentality to me is essentially a ‘group think’ orientation, tendency for individuals to assimilate to the maturity of the ‘least common denominator’. I think the other characteristic of a crowd mentality robs people of the responsibility for pursuing their own maturity. In the case of a church the crowd follows Jesus by drafting on the strength of the Pastor’s relationship with Jesus, not by chasing Jesus for themselves. This can happen in a church of 500 or 50.

    I think it’s possible to have authenticity in a group of 500. Possible but not simple. That said, I must confess that I am happy to currently be pastoring a smaller church and anticipate sending people out as soon as we reach a threshold where administration would have to take precedence over relationships.

    1. I hadn’t thought about this as “crowd mentality” Leeann, but I think your on to something. I agree that this mentality is more easily avoided in smaller churches, but this is certainly not always the case.

      I wonder, are there benefits of a larger church that make it worth the effort and allocation of resources to have, as you put it, authenticity?

      1. I’m not convinced about the value of the resource allocation (e.g. in the case of multi-million dollar facilities) but the largeness of a large church often allows for specialization of pastoral talent, though I think that this is often done inappropriately and inefficiently.

        Something that hasn’t entered the discussion is the distinction between denominational structure (and resources) and church size. In a denomination with no real structure, churches are left to their own devices to develop the resources they need (such as at the church I grew up in). Denominations can provide support that isn’t available in smaller churches, but at the cost of personalization.

        @Leeann, your point about crowd mentality and responsibility for maturity is well taken. Without authentic community, it is easy to let your sense of responsibility disappear. It also hinders others from contributing directly to a person’s growth.

  3. First, I am picking this up tomorrow and I’ll still be jealous that you’ve read this before me. Second, having been in and around large churches for most of my memory, and having later started considering the experiences relative to spiritual formation, I agree with Peterson essentially. That’s not a shock to you. From my read of him, the five or six books I’ve taken in from him in ten years, he’s not even getting to the practical implications that we’re discussing as much as the foundational, fundamental, and theological. You’ve stated that in the post. He’s going to a fundamental element in the nature of a leader in this letter, right? He’s going under the now necessary principles of managing and operating outwardly to deal with ego and pride and greed, all of which are sinister, slippery and often quiet sins in a leader. Yes and thank God that people can encounter, hear, and follow or reject Jesus Christ and his Church in a local church of every size. Peterson wouldn’t disagree. But he’s talking about the reasons leaders leave and whether we are leaving to encounter Christ, because we hear and are following Jesus, or whether we’re tempted and won over by some addiction. That’s much more personal a matter. Absolutely we should respond to large numbers, prepare for them, etc. But I’m with him when it comes to us leaders and pastors having better or worse reasons for the decisions we make.

  4. I read this post this morning and have been churning it in my head ever since. The thought I keep coming back to is a quote from Chesterton’s “Orthodoxy”:

    “I did, like all other solemn little boys, try to be in advance of the age. Like them I tried to be some ten minutes in advance of the truth. And I found that I was eighteen hundred years behind it. I did strain my voice with a painfully juvenile exaggeration in uttering my truths. And I was punished in the fittest and funniest way, for I have kept my truths: but I have discovered, not that they were not truths, but simply that they were not mine. When I fancied that I stood alone I was really in the ridiculous position of being backed up by all Christendom. It may be, Heaven forgive me, that I did try to be original; but I only succeeded in inventing all by myself an inferior copy of the existing traditions of civilized religion…. I did try to found a heresy of my own; and when I had put the last touches to it, I discovered that it was orthodoxy.”

    The more I look at the present direction of Protestantism the more I see a return to the Catholic tradition from which we came. I don’t think we should become Catholic, per se, I just think that, for all their faults, the Catholic church has gotten things right that we Protestants still fight with. The largest Catholic church in the United States seats 3500 people (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Basilica_of_the_National_Shrine_of_the_Immaculate_Conception) and it doesn’t even have regular masses. I see the same thing in interactions and pushes for community involvement, in areas of health care, pastoral care, and etc. New Community is effectively becoming a diocese of the Covenant church in Chicago with the various satellite congregations as parishes.

  5. There is an article on “belief blog” that talks about the popularity of sports in our culture. Of course, sports can teach you a lot of positive things, but the allure of the crowd is there. Being a spectator and/or an athlete at a large sporting event has its own type of high. I think this is what Peterson was referring to.


  6. Peterson’s statements hit me like a brick. For years, I’ve heard pastors talk out of both sides of their mouth on the subject, piously dampening the appeal of the Crowd–“Numbers don’t mean anything in themselves”–only to turn around and say things like, “Those who run numbers down usually aren’t running them up.” But, until I read Peterson’s book, I’d never seen a minister take a smooth stone from the ecclesiastical bank, put it in a sling, and send it dead-shot into the face of the giant. I’d never heard a preacher say, “Not only do we not need a crowd; we shouldn’t have a crowd.”

    Instantly, I recognized my own tendency to equate the Crowd with success. With a little more effort, I dug deeper, examining the roots of that tendency–my own desire that my preaching should be heard by more people. I confess to sinful pride. I own it; it’s mine.

    To be as truthful as I can, though, I don’t believe I’m just worried about how many come to hear me preach. I’m worried about our church itself. I currently serve a congregation that’s aging, probably dying. We have few young families. In a town of 25,000 with a church on every corner, some of which are large and offer many programs, with new churches being planted here every other year, my congregation’s slice of the pie continues to shrink. Many of our people are sick and infirm. Almost weekly, it seems, the phone rings with news of a medical crisis, a turn for the worse, a death. Each day, I can hear the clock ticking. It seems to be growing louder.

    The temptation to leave for greener pastures is strong. One thing that keeps me from doing so is my own age. A man in his mid-fifties doesn’t get on the short list of candidates for younger, growing congregations.

    So Peterson’s letter, and his book, comes at a critical juncture in my career. It forces me to ask myself what I’m doing and why I’m doing it. If the Pastor is a shepherd, then he can’t simply leave his flock, can he? Not if he cares about the sheep. Naturally, if it’s only sheep we’re talking about, mere wooly mammals, then there might be half-dozen legitimate reasons to leave them–a bigger, better opportunity elsewhere, more money, even sheer boredom. But people aren’t animals to be tolerated ; they’re souls to be cared for.

    Struck as I was by Peterson’s statements, I don’t feel any gore antipathy toward larger, even mega-churches. Some of the godliest men I know lead big churches. But that isn’t my calling. I just wish I didn’t feel so frustrated, so frightened in my present position. Thanks for your prayers.

  7. Isn’t it interesting that Jesus, Himself, didn’t, couldn’t, wouldn’t break the ‘200’ growth barrier with His followers. In Acts 1-2 we find 120 gathered in the upper room. So was Jesus a failure in church growth? I think not. Maybe He knew things we lose in our hot pursuit of the 3-B’s (bigger Buildings, increased Bucks, & more Butts in the seats). I’m just sayin’

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