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A Letter From Eugene Peterson on Christian Celebrities, Transition and the Megachurch

Christian Celebrities

Eugene Peterson has deeply shaped my outlook on life, spirituality, ministry and pastoring—probably more than anyone else. He will be deeply missed.

I’m not here to give you a synopsis of his last days, if you want that, you can read it here. If you want to hear ministry lessons on the life of Eugene from a wide range of church leaders, you can click here. And if you want to read about the one sermon Eugene preached, you can be inspired here.

A Letter from Eugene Peterson on Christian Celebrities, Transition and the Megachurch

What I want to share with you today is a letter that Eugene wrote to one of his friends after his friend had told him that he wanted to change churches because he felt that his gifts were being wasted where he was. His friend wanted more of a challenge and an opportunity to multiply his effectiveness. He wanted an opportunity that was more promising, so he was going to leave his small church for a larger one—one that was three times larger than his current pastorate.

LETTERS LIKE THIS ARE PRECISELY WHY I LOVE EUGENE PETERSON.

When I came back from Korea—bruised, hurt, devastated and in the desert, thinking that I wasn’t called to ministry anymore—God used Eugene to pick up the pieces in my life (you can read about it here). Not personally, but through his lectures at Regent College and his book on the life of David, Leap Over a Wall.

It’s sad that I never got the chance to personally thank him for just how much God used him in my life, but I guess now that he’s in glory, it doesn’t really matter.

I came across this letter from Eugene as I was preparing a talk for an upcoming conference.

I’ll be speaking at Exponential—a conference for church planters, pastors and ministry leaders. So while I was writing about the shift that needs to take place so that we can move from being the hero to becoming hero-makers, I immediately thought of this letter that he had written to a friend in his Memoir.

Although it had been several years since I read the book, for some reason, this letter had been seared into my soul as a warning. And am I ever glad that it was—and is—because I don’t want my story to go the way of the recent implosions of pastors that you might’ve come across in the news.

HERE IT IS, IT’S FROM PAGE 156 OF HIS MEMOIR:

Dear Phillip,

I’ve been thinking about our conversation last week and want to respond to what you anticipate in your new congregation. You mentioned its prominence in the town, a center, a kind of cathedral church that would be able to provide influence for the Christian message far beyond its walls. Did I hear you right?

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 specializes 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.”

The only way the Christian life is brought to maturity is through intimacy, renunciation, and personal deepening. And the pastor is in a key position to nurture such maturity. It is true that these things can take place in the context of large congregations, but only by strenuously going against the grain. Largeness is an impediment, not a help.

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.

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 tiresomeness 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.

So why are we pastors so unsuspicious of crowds, so naive about the false transcendence that they engender? Why are we so knowledgeable in the false transcendence of drink and sex and so unlearned in the false transcendence of crowds? There are many spiritual masters in our tradition who diagnose and warn, but they are little read today. I myself have never written what I really feel on this subject, maybe because I am not entirely sure of myself, there being so few pastors alive today who agree. Or maybe it is because I don’t want to risk wholesale repudiation by friends whom I genuinely like and respect. But I really do feel that crowds are a worse danger, far worse, than drink or sex, and pastors may be the only people on the planet who are in a position to encourage an imagination that conceives of congregation strategically not in terms of its size but as a congenial setting for becoming mature in Christ in a community, not a crowd.

Your present congregation is close to ideal in size to employ your pastoral vocation for forming Christian maturity. You talked about “multiplying your influence.” My apprehension is that your anticipated move will diminish your vocation, not enhance it. Can we talk more about this? I would welcome a continuing conversation.

The peace of Christ,

Eugene.

Just so that we’re clear, I’m not anti megachurch.

In fact, I’ve pastored at two.

The reason Eugene’s words here are so poignant and applicable to us today is precisely because church size is such a temptation for pastors to place their identity in.

But pastor, your self-worth is not tied to how many people are at your church.

The size of your church is a not a reflection of God’s favor on your life.

And opportunities to pastor at bigger and better churches, while they might seem like opportunities from God, could actually be invitations from the devil.

Remember that phrase “Expect great things from God; attempt great things for God” by William Carey?

Yeah, that’s not about you being the hero. It’s a call for you to rise up and become a hero maker.

The reason we know about William Carey today is not because he was a great evangelist. In fact, over the course of 41 years in India, he only saw 700 people make a commitment to Christ in a nation of millions.

The reason we know of him today is because he was a hero maker—missionaries like Lottie Moon, Hudson Taylor and David Livingstone, among many others, were inspired and influenced by his dedication and commitment to the harvest.

And the reason generations of Christians will know about Eugene Peterson, for centuries to come, is because he was a hero maker.

Thank you Eugene.

This article originally appeared here.

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Daniel Im is the Founder of NewChurches.com and the Director of Church Multiplication for LifeWay Christian Resources, Teaching Pastor at The Fellowship, co-host of three podcasts, and author of No Silver Bullets: Five Small Shifts that will Transform Your Ministry and co-author of Planting Missional Churches: Your Guide to Starting Churches that Multiply (2nd ed).