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.
SermonCentral: 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.
SC: 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.
SC: 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.
SC: 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, or 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 give 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.
SC: You talk a lot about the importance of "place" and ministry context in pastoring. How would you encourage young pastors to better embrace their ministry locale as a part of their formation as a pastor?
EP: Well, this is where most of the satisfaction comes in being a pastor, in being local and being personal. The vocation of the pastor is one of the best in which you can learn to find out ways to be intimate with people and to understand the actual location where you live. This Earth is glorious, and we’re not disembodied—we don’t levitate. We’re people with our feet on the ground, and who else gets to do this in quite the way a pastor can do? You know, a doctor deals with bodies who are disembodied from place and relationships, and the businessman is dealing with commercial transactions that have nothing to do with relationships as far as he’s concerned. But a pastor gets to do it all; the whole thing comes together, and the pastor knows whole entire families and neighborhoods and gets to see the whole thing: the good, the bad, the indifferent, the sick, the healthy. I think it’s a glorious vocation to get called into, and it saddens me when pastors eliminate so much of it just by ignoring the actual circumstances in which they live and try to plant something that’s disincarnate and using programs instead of relationships in order to cultivate the Christian life.
SC: You've written over thirty books, many of them on spiritual formation. In your opinion, does church size matter when it comes to spiritual formation? Are megachurches healthy places to grow?
EP: It’s very difficult to develop maturity in a place where the size is so huge. I’m thinking particularly about pastors. How can you preach to people you don’t know? The sermons become, and the church is run, primarily through programs, which are inherently depersonalizing. And so you’re choosing a way to have church which makes it very difficult to be at church. Of course, there are many good things that happen. You can have mission projects and world influence in what’s going on, and you can certainly say what needs to be said. You know, our primary theological tenet is the Trinity. God is personal, and He’s interpersonal. There is nothing God does that doesn’t come from a Trinitarian sort of an operation, and when we start to develop strategies that bypass the personal, the local, then it seems to me we’re just hamstringing ourselves.
SC: What are the major things you would encourage young leaders and pastors to be involved in on a daily and weekly basis in their ministries?
EP: I think one of things I think I’d like to convey is that there are hundreds of different ways of being a pastor, and there’s probably no vocation in which you’re able to be yourself, with your whole self as a pastor. And I think it’s important for each of us to say, “What’s gone into the making of me as a pastor?” and use the strengths that we’ve been given, the experiences we’ve been given to be a faithful servant of Jesus Christ. But I think local and personal is very important. There are a lot of different ways to preach a sermon or teach a class or visit somebody in the hospital, but if we try to take somebody else’s mantle and put on us, it’s like Saul’s armor. It just doesn’t work. It might look really good, but we can’t move in it. It keeps us from being ourselves. So I think that’s what I’d say. Pastors I’ve known and who have been important to me have kind of done it out of their own skin, have tried to be modeled by somebody else.
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