Author’s Preface: Eugene Peterson, the acclaimed writer, poet, pastor, and translator of The Message Bible, has become a friend and one of the more important figures in my life. I’m writing a three-part series, and here’s a link the first installment in case you missed it.
Eugene and Me, Part 2–On Megachurches
Recently, an interview with Eugene Peterson was published in which he was asked whether he’s encouraged or discouraged by what he’s seeing across the landscape of the American church. In his response, he talked about megachurches:
“I’m not sure it’s either/or. I do feel like pastors are not doing their job. Look at what’s going on in the church, at least in my Presbyterian church. It has a consumer mentality. It’s about what we can sell and how we can attract people to come to church…I think the thing that’s most disturbing is the megachurch because megachurches are not churches. My feeling is that when you’re a pastor, you know the people’s names. When 5,000 people come into the church, you don’t know anybody’s name. I don’t think you can be a pastor with just a bunch of anonymous people out there. In the megachurch, well, there’s no relationship with anybody. I think the nature of the church is relational. If you don’t know these people that you’re praying with and talking with and listening to, what do you have? I feel pretty strongly about that…Now, there’s a lot of innovation in the church, and overall, I can’t say I’m disheartened. I’m just upset by the fad-ism of the megachurch, but I just don’t think they’re churches. They’re entertainment places.”
Now, a quick autobiographical bit about me: I have spent my entire life in megachurches, which the Baylor Religion Study of 2007 simply defined as any church that has more than 1,000 members. My parents have pastored for 40 years and my formative years were spent in a fantastic (and very large) church in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Straight out of my undergraduate theological studies, my wife and I moved to Colorado Springs where I’ve spent the last 12 years serving at New Life Church, which is also a very large church.
With my background, one would think that it would be easy for someone like me to be put off—if not outright offended—by Eugene’s comments. But I’m not. And here’s why:
First, I know Eugene. I’ve exchanged letters and shared phone conversations with him and Jan over the last nine years. I’ve made seven visits to be with them, four times in their home and three times for retreats in various parts of the country. I’ve shared meals at their kitchen table, prayed with them around their fireplace, and spent several nights upstairs in their guest room. I’ve gone on walks with them around the lake and sat with Eugene in his study. We’ve talked specifically about megachurches.
I will never forget my first flight to Montana to meet Eugene and Jan. I was a nervous wreck because I wondered if I was going to get rebuked by him for working at a large church. I wondered if he was going to tell me that if I wanted to work at a real church I would have to go find a group of 300 or so where I could be a real pastor. After spending those first three days with him, I was shocked that he didn’t say any of that!
Instead, he asked me about the process of discerning my call to New Life Church, and he wanted to know what life in our particular church is like. He asked me about the congregants, what kind of work they do, what challenges they face. He asked me what life is like in Colorado Springs, a military town situated in the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains. So I told him the story.
Like a loving grandfather, he encouraged me. He told me that it sounded like God had clearly called me to this church, to serve these people, at this specific moment in time. And lest I idealize life in a small church, he told me that there are no ideal churches, large or small. In the world that is awaiting the finishing touches of God’s newness, we’re always working in approximations, always trying to do our best. Eugene, more than anyone I know, has worked to dismantle any romantic notions of a utopian church. He told me that he was sure there are unique temptations in a church like mine, and that there were difficulties and temptations at a small church like the one he pastored, and that my work was to discern and stand against the particular idolatries that exist in my context. And then he laid hands on me and prayed for me, commissioning me to get back into my work with every bit of focus.
The second reason I’m not going to let Eugene’s comments get under my skin is because I know that he hasn’t had the opportunity to see some of the beauty of the megachurch. He doesn’t know that many megachurches are leveraging the strength of their resources to serve the poor. Several years ago, New Life Church bought an old run-down and abandoned apartment complex. Our mayor told us that our city had a shortage of transitional housing, and that many single parents were sleeping in their cars at night with their kids. These are the working poor who are trying but just can’t get over the hump by themselves. After much prayer, our pastor and elders sensed the Lord was moving us to do something about it. So we told our congregation about the need and our heart to help, and they gave generously. We purchased the apartment complex with cash, remodeled it beautifully, and today all of the units are filled with single moms and their children who not long ago were sleeping in their cars. That is one of the unique strengths of a megachurch, and every time something like that happens the announcement of the arrival of the Kingdom of God reverberates throughout a city.
I’m also guessing that Eugene doesn’t know that many megachurches consist of several smaller congregations. At New Life Church where I work, our senior pastor, Brady Boyd, has organized and actively oversees our five different congregations that meet in five different locations. All of them have lead pastors who preach live; all of them have a dedicated pastoral staff; all of them have scores of congregants serving on vibrant teams; all of the congregations serve our city in unique ways and in various locations.
For example, at New Life Church we have a 700-member Spanish-speaking congregation (called Nueva Vida) that is located in one of the most economically depressed regions of our city. They have a food bank that offers help to some of the neediest among us. They have provided help to immigrants by providing attorneys that specialize in immigration law. Nueva Vida enjoys the aggregate strength of the large church while also enjoying the small church feel. In a way, the multi-congregational model “shrinks” a large church, and I know many churches in America that have adopted this approach. In short, there are innovations afoot within large churches that allow pastoral ministry to function locally and personally, which is what Eugene has been calling for all these years. He would be pleased by many of these innovations, I’m sure, if he knew about them.
There’s a third reason why I—a pastor at a megachurch—am not going to get defensive about his comments. I’m not offended because I want to be humble enough to listen to criticism to see if there’s something I can learn, and I’m not offended because I understand Eugene’s current role within the larger American church. For his working years, he was a local church pastor, taking care of the needs of his flock. He spent his time making house calls and hospital visits, officiating weddings and dedicating children, preaching the scriptures and calling people to carry a cross and follow Jesus. He had been assigned a specific people in a specific place—Christ Our King Presbyterian Church in Bel Air, Maryland—and he did that work faithfully for 29 years.
But over the course of the last two decades, he’s played a different role. In my mind, God has raised Eugene up as a prophet to the Church in the West. But it would help us to understand the role of the prophet. Prophetic speech, you see, is less about precision and more about provocation. Precision is absolutely necessary, but it’s the work of accountants and engineers. A prophet’s task is to roll into town shouting, Wake up, Sleeper! A prophet exaggerates because sometimes that’s the only way that we will finally hear the truth. A prophet wounds so that his listeners might ultimately be healed. Remember that the prophet Hosea said,
“Come, let us return to the LORD. He has torn us to pieces but he will heal us; he has injured us but he will bind up our wounds” (6:1).
As I’ve paid attention to the megachurch conversation through the years, I’ve discovered that there are usually two responses: either uncritical optimism or unbridled cynicism.
Uncritical optimism celebrates what is without recognizing that some reform is needed. Unbridled cynicism, on the other hand, refuses to acknowledge even the possibility of good. In my mind, neither approach is adequate. There has to be a more nuanced middle way where we megachurch pastors ask the hard questions and critique our own practices without devolving into unbridled cynicism.
Since Eugene doesn’t know megachurches like many of us do, he’s probably working with the very worst caricatures—the stuff you read in the news when something goofy happens. But as an insider, I do know life in the megachurch. I know a bunch of large churches that seem to be faithfully carrying out their call. And I also know that there is plenty of sacrilegious gimmickry and cheap entertainment to be found out there, which means that there’s at least a kernel of truth in what Eugene is saying. We can and must do better.
When Eugene pushes on the megachurch, I don’t think he’s saying we should shut them all down and divide people up into neat little groups of 200 based on their zip code. I think he is using prophetic exaggeration, hyperbole to shake us from settling for the current version of our churches when there may be some reforming to do. So Eugene is not totally wrong, and he should know that many of us are listening.
Instead of getting flustered by Eugene, we need to know how to read Eugene. We pastors teach our congregations that there are different genres in the canon of scripture—there’s Law and wisdom literature, there’s history and narrative, there are epistles, there’s apocalyptic, and poetry—and each of them is to be read differently. Just like we don’t read poetry literally or scientifically, we shouldn’t read Eugene Peterson’s comments about the megachurch as some sort of factual sociological data about the state of the American church. Instead, we should hear a prophetic chastening, a grandfatherly reminder to take our time, to think it through, to make sure we’re building well.
For St. Paul himself said, “God was kind and let me become an expert builder…and we must all be careful how we build…” (1Corinthians 3:10). Eugene has given us all a fresh chance to consider how we are building.
Note: Feel free to subscribe to the blog and look for the third installment of the series coming soon.