“The devil is a great intellectual.”

Eugene Peterson:

It is the devil’s own work to take the stories Jesus told (and the many other stories that provide so much of the content of our Scriptures) and distill them down to a truth or a moral that we can then use without bothering with the way we use them- unconnected from the people whose names we know or the local conditions in which we have responsibilities, apart from what we know about Jesus, who tells the story. The devil is a great intellectual. He loves getting us to discuss ideas about God. He does some of his best work when he gets us so deeply involved with ideas about God that we are hardly aware that while we are reading or talking about God, God is actually present with us, and the people whom he has placed in our lives to love are right there in front of us…

In order to respond rightly to this voice, this Word-made-flesh voice, we must listen and answer in our actual neighborhoods while eating meals of tuna casserole and spinach salad in the company of people who know us and whose names we know: our spouses and children, friends and fellow workers, just for a start. Nothing in general. Nobody anonymous. No disembodied or unvoiced words.

– “Sir, Let it Alone,” a sermon from Habakkuk 3 and Luke 13 in the wonderful collection of Peterson’s sermons, As Kingfishers Catch Fire.

“…in trouble most of the time.”

The language of prayer occurs primarily at one level, the personal, and for one purpose, salvation. The human condition teeters on the edge of disaster. Human beings are in trouble most of the time. Those who don’t know they are in trouble are in the worst trouble. Prayer is the language of the people who are in trouble and know it, and who believe or hope that God can get them out. As prayer is practiced, it moves into other levels and develops other forms, but trouble – being in the wrong, being in danger, realizing that the foes are too many for us to handle – is the basic provocation for prayer. Isaac Bashevis Singer once said, “I only pray when I am in trouble. But I am in trouble all the time, and so I pray all the time.” The recipe for obeying St. Paul’s “Pray without ceasing” is not a strict ascetical regimen but a watchful recognition of the trouble we are in.

-Eugene Peterson, Answering God: The Psalms as Tools for Prayer (1989).

“…a recovery of personal, relational, revelational language…”

The language we are really fluent in, the language we are most used to, deals with impersonal data and functionalized roles.  The practice of prayer, if it is going to amount to anything more than wish lists and complaints, requires a recovery of personal, relational, revelational language in both our listening and our speaking.

-Eugene Peterson, Practice Resurrection (2010).

“Crowds are a worse danger…” cont.

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.

“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.