A pastor recently left a lengthy and incredibly thoughtful comment on a post from last year. In that post I quoted Eugene Peterson twice from his memoir about the danger of churches becoming crowds. I’m copying the entire comment here as this pastor’s experience and perspective is one that should be heard.
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.