Eugene Peterson has influenced the faith of thousands through his writings on spiritual formation. He has written over thirty books, including his contemporary translation of the Bible, The Message. Peterson’s most recent book is a memoir of his life and ministry titled, The Pastor. In this interview Peterson shares his thoughts on church models, spiritual growth, and the art of pastoring.
ChurchLeaders: Eugene, in your book The Pastor you describe how important your childhood was in forming you for ministry—specifically your father’s butcher shop—can you elaborate on the importance of your childhood and how it impacted your view of the church and pastoring?
Eugene Peterson: Well, in the sectarian in which I grew up, there was a very sharp distinction between the saved and unsaved in the church world and the other world, and in that butcher shop, there was no division. It was all one world, and pastors kind of represented for me an alien world or a world which was very circumscribed. It just felt tiny to me, and the butcher shop just took in the whole community and all kinds of people in the community. So I think that was it. There was sense that God so loved the world. It’s something embracing, and I got that. That kind of penetrated my imagination and never left it.
CL: What kind of church models did you experience growing up?
EP: I grew up in a culture which was very entertainment centered. Pastors were really good storytellers, and they were attractive people, glamorous. And then I transitioned to a mainline denomination when I was in university, in seminary, and I wasn’t very attracted to that world either. It was more religion is a business and keeping good records and making sure everybody was keeping the rules. So in neither place did I find a model. I guess I experienced anti-models or non-models, and when I became a pastor, I thought this is what I was born to do, but it didn’t have anything to do with celebrity or entertainment. It had nothing to do with organization and such. I had the whole world, the whole field to myself to figure out what was going on, and I did find allies, most of them in the cemeteries. Pastoral work which has been done for two thousand years that didn’t fit those two stereotypes that I had grown up with or that I experienced.
CL: You often talk about the need for pastors to avoid the pressures of “fast” growth. I’m curious, what do you think about the “church growth” model for ministry? Is it helpful, or potentially hurtful to the life of the church?
EP: Well, I don’t want to be too harsh or dismissive. These are my brothers and sisters doing this, and they’re doing good things and doing things I could never do. But I do think that the commercialization, making just this slight twist on things so that religion becomes a consumer commodity, really changes the way you look at the church, and it makes you dependent upon money and numbers, and that’s very addictive. It’s really hard to get out of that. But it also means a terrific loneliness in the pastoral life. The pastors who give themselves to this, and many of them, not all of them, but many of them end up with pretty thin lives. That just grieves me.
CL: You talk about the consumer commodity aspect of church, could you give me a tangible example—something specific that creates more of the consumer mindset that you’re talking about?
EP: Well, when the Gospel is presented as a way to get what you want, have peace, have success, that’s introducing a very distorted view of what Biblical revelation is, and it has become much more American than Biblical. And so that’s what I was hoping, in writing The Pastor, or after I got started writing it, that I could get some dignity to a pastoral life which was modest and non-competitive and personal and local, and those are not qualities that are much in evidence.