This Is What Eugene Peterson Thinks Is Wrong With the Church Today

Eugene Peterson, the author of The Message, was also a pastor for 29 years at Christ Our King Presbyterian Church in Bel Air, Maryland. He founded the church.

He has some thoughts on how pastors should talk to their church members and how all of us should talk to God. He shared them on a ChurchLeaders podcast.

In many ways he is disappointed with the state of the church today. His dissatisfaction began when he started his church outside of Baltimore in 1962.

If love does not shape the way we speak and act

by Eugene Peterson

No matter how right we are in what we believe about God, no matter how accurately we phrase our belief or how magnificently and persuasively we preach or write or declare it, if love does not shape the way we speak and act, we falsify the creed, we confess a lie.  Believing without loving is what gives religion a bad name.  Believing without loving destroys lives.  Believing without loving turns the best of creeds into a weapon of oppression.  A community that believes but does not love or marginalizes love, regardless of its belief system or doctrinal orthodoxy or ‘vision statement,’ soon, very soon, becomes a ‘synagogue of Satan’ (Rev. 2:9).

~Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places, page 261

Communion of the Saints

I think most of us Americans don’t think “community” – we pride ourselves in our individuality.

Eugene Peterson spoke of  “the communion of the saints.” in the following in a 1981 interview.

“…When we arrived [at our present church home], one of our goals was to develop spiritual community. I thought it would be pretty easy: we’d get these people in our home, pray together, sing some hymns, and we’d have it. Well, it just didn’t happen. Sometimes we felt we were making progress, but it never really happened.”

“Then a young woman in our congregation died of cancer. She was thirty-one years old and had six children.   About a month after she died, the father was discharged from his job and then lost his house. We took those kids into our home. Suddenly things started happening. Food would appear on our doorstep; people would call up and take the kids out and entertain them. It was almost as if we came to a place of critical mass. Then it just exploded, and we suddenly had community in the congregation. It didn’t fizzle out either. The hospitality increased and people took an interest in each other. It seemed almost like a miracle, and it took just one incident to trigger it. All our earlier attempts to create community now bore fruit because of the meeting of a need that wasn’t part of our strategy.”

Q: How can other churches develop community?

“It’s very difficult to get, and there’s not much community in our country. Most of our relationships are based on needs, on rules imposed on us.   There’s no shortcut to true community. We’re immersed in a transactional society where we trade things off, exchange things, and consume things. To get to the point where we’re open and vulnerable enough just to be with people is not all that easy. But the thing that is prominent in my mind now is that at our church we did everything we could think of to develop community, and it didn’t develop. We did one thing that wasn’t part of the strategy, and success, if you want to call it that, came.”

“An overweening, or overbearing, desire to be successful, it seems to me, inhibits attainment of true community and true success. It prevents us from doing things that are risky, that we can fail at” (p. 234-5).

~ This entire 1981 interview can be found in Eugene Peterson’s Subversive Spirituality (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997).

Let us continue to love each other

The apostle John

My beloved friends, let us continue to love each other since love comes from God. Everyone who loves is born of God and experiences a relationship with God. The person who refuses to love doesn’t know the first thing about God, because God is love—so you can’t know him if you don’t love. This is how God showed his love for us: God sent his only Son into the world so we might live through him. This is the kind of love we are talking about—not that we once upon a time loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as a sacrifice to clear away our sins and the damage they’ve done to our relationship with God.

My dear, dear friends, if God loved us like this, we certainly ought to love each other. No one has seen God, ever. But if we love one another, God dwells deeply within us, and his love becomes complete in us—perfect love!

This is how we know we’re living steadily and deeply in him, and he in us: He’s given us life from his life, from his very own Spirit. Also, we’ve seen for ourselves and continue to state openly that the Father sent his Son as Savior of the world. Everyone who confesses that Jesus is God’s Son participates continuously in an intimate relationship with God. We know it so well, we’ve embraced it heart and soul, this love that comes from God.

~ The Apostle John in The Message Bible, translated by Eugene Peterson, 1 John 4:7-16.

Worship whets our appetite

Eugene Peterson

Worship does not satisfy our hunger for God,  it whets our appetite!

Reflecting On Peterson (Part One)

I, too, have enjoyed reading Eugene Peterson’s books. He is silled with words and it makes for both intellectually enlightening and worthwhile reading. This is from Trans•formed By  | Leave a Comment

Sometime in the late eighties, when I was slogging my way through my first senior pastorate, I was introduced to Eugene Peterson. I don’t remember how I got on to his books, but I read Working the Angles, and I was hooked. His opening words stopped me in my tracks—“American pastors are abandoning their posts, left and right, and at an alarming rate. They are not leaving their churches and getting other jobs. Congregations still pay their salaries…they continue to appear in pulpits…but they are abandoning their calling.”

As a young pastor trained to lead the church, create a vision, and think strategic, I could not help but ask—have I gone “whoring” after other gods? Have I metamorphosed into a shopkeeper concerned to keep the customers happy, or into a CEO committed to church management? Peterson has served to keep these and other questions before me ever since. I think I have read just about every book he has written. Most notable include The Contemplative Pastor, Five Smooth Stones, Under the Unpredictable Plant, and The Pastor.

Recently, I came across Pastoral Work, a new book edited by Byassee and Owens. The book is composed of articles written mostly by pastoral theologians, but what every writer has in common is that he/she has been powerfully influenced by Peterson. Their insights have reinforced my own conviction that Peterson is the most influential pastoral theologian in the church today.

Some of the writers discuss Peterson and his approach to words. This is part one of the book, and part one of my post. A reason his writing is so pleasurable to me is because Peterson has a high regard for language. He forces those of us who enter the pulpit to ask what Barbara Brown Taylor asks—“Have you done your homework? Are your words the very best you could find?” This is needful, for as she puts it, “nourishing words are so hard to find—words with no razor blades in them, words with no chemical additives. Most of the words offered to us have been chewed so many times there are no nutrients left in them.” This reminds me of sports radio, where some voices repeat the point so often you wonder if they are simply trying to use up air time between commercials. Sometimes I scream, “Okay, I get the point. Move on.” Could it be all too many in the pew feel the same way?

I’m not impatient with Peterson. He makes his point and moves on, though I often hang around to ponder what I have just read. His words feed the soul. They nurture because of Peterson’s own commitment to God’s Word. God’s decision to use words as a means of revealing Himself underscores the importance of language. He honors the Word of God as a living message, a voice to be heard. Reading and listening are not the same. He warns those of us who come with our exegetical tools to keep in mind that this is no lifeless cadaver inviting an autopsy. “Exegesis, if it is to serve the church’s life and be congruent with the pastor’s calling, must be contemplative exegesis”.

Likewise, we dare not read for mere personal reasons; we read to participate in an immense world, one that can never be domesticated. We read to be broken apart and put back together. We read—not for information—but for formation. We must, for the Word of God is written to form our core identity. We read—not acquisitively—but receptively. If we are receiving, if we are listening, we will find the Word leading us out from under the low, gray ceiling of our own purposes to a place where we might see infinitely broad horizons of God’s purposes.

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We don’t grow and mature in our Christian life by sitting and listening

Eugene Peterson

… l [have] been incrementally realizing that there is far more to this Christian life than getting it right. There is living it right. Learning the truth of God, the gospel, the scriptures involves understanding words, cocepts, history. But living it means working through a world of deception, of doubt and suffering, a world of rejections and betrayal and idolatry.

 We don’t grow and mature in our Christian life by sitting in a classroom and library, listening to lectures and reading books, or going to church and singing hymns and listening to sermons. We do it by taking the stuff of our ordinary lives, our parents and children, our spouses and friends, our workplaces and fellow workers, our dreams and fantasies, our attachments, our easily accessible gratifications, our depersonalizing of intimate relations, our commodification of living truths into idolatries, taking all this and placing it on the altar of refining fire— our God is a consuming fire — and finding a life of holiness. A life that is not reserved for nuns and monks but accessible to every Dick and Jane in every ordinary congregation.

~ The Pastor, p. 230

Inhospitality is epidemic in America

From The Pastor by Eugene Peterson

We were facing this in a more personal and vocational way as we were starting out in this new congregation in the decade of the sixties. Jan (his wife), in particular, was noticing that inhospitality is epidemic in America. There are a lot of displaced persons in our American society. It is hard to be a woman in America today. It is hard to care for creation, its resources and its beauties, when we are immersed in a culture of consumption. It is hard to take time to be personal, leisurely, relational with another when there are so many impersonal time-saving technological shortcuts at hand. It is hard to cook a nutritious meal and gather children and spouse and friends around a table in conversation and blessing when there are so many easier and quicker ways to get fed. There is a lot of hate in the air and strangers who are suspicious of one another.

Eugene later writes of the time when wife spoke to woman’s retreat at Laity Lodge in Texas.

Her assignment was to give a talk on hospitality. After she made her presentation, someone asked, “Do you have any pearls of wisdom that you can give us for raising our children?”

Her answer: “Have a family meal every evening.”

That seemed a little abrupt so she elaborated by telling of a women’s retreat she had led a few years before. Her subject was, as it was here in Texas, hospitality. But she had decided to be as specific and. down-to-earth as she could. No generalities, no big goals like taking in strangers or working in a soup kitchen for the homeless, but just zero in on one manageable task: gather the family for the evening meal. Every evening.

I know that it might be difficult, but it should be possible to get everyone away from the TV in their rooms with their microwaved meal on a TV tray to eat together. A time to gather the events of the day into conversation, to enter into the mutuality of passing and receiving, of stories, potatoes, carrots, and pork chops. Share food and conversation with one another. Listen to one another. Receive a blessing.

She got uneasy when she received no response. Hoping for some interaction, she asked, “How many of you have an evening meal with your family?” There were thirty-eight women. Not one of them raised a hand.

I came home and told Eugene. I was depressed for three weeks.

And then this to the person at Laity Lodge who had asked for a pearl:  There are no ‘pearls’ out there that you can use  — no scripture verses to hand out, advice to guide, prayers to tap into. As we live and give witness to Jesus to children and whoever else, we are handing out seeds, not pearls, and seeds need soil in which to germinate. A meal is soil just like that. It provides a daily relational context in which everything you say and don’t say, feel or don’t feel, God’s and snatches of gossip, gets assimilated along with the food and becomes you, but not you by yourself — you and your words and acts embedded in acts of love and need, acceptance and doubt. Nothing is abstract or in general when you are eating a meal together. You realize, don’t you, that Jesus didn’t drop pearls around Galilee for people as clues to find their way to God or their neighbors. He ate meals with them. And you can do what Jesus did. Every evening take and receive the life of Jesus around your table.”

Growing into maturity

I have had a number of books pawned off for me to read by one of my close friends. He went to college and ran on the same track team a Eugene Peterson. So now I have collected a stack of Eugene Peterson books to read. I have some down and some to go. Fortunately, Peterson is easy to read. Very good writer. The current book is The Pastor  from which I will be happily sharing some morsels. 

… l [have] been incrementally realizing that there is far more to this Christian life than getting it right. There is living it right. Learning the truth of God, the gospel, the scriptures involves understanding words, cocepts, history. But living it means working through a world of deception, of doubt and suffering, a world of rejections and betrayal and idolatry.

 We don’t grow and mature in our Christian life by sitting in a classroom and library, listening to lectures and reading books, or going to church and singing hymns and listening to sermons. We do it by taking the stuff of our ordinary lives, our parents and children, our spouses and friends, our workpalaces and fellow workers, our dreams and fantasies, our attachments, our easily accessible gratifications, our depersonalizing of intimate relations, our commodification of living truths into idolatries, taking all this and placing it on the altar of refining fire— our God is a consuming fire — and finding a life of holiness. A life that is not reserved for nuns and monks but accessible to every Dick and Jane in every ordinary congregation. p.230

Faithful to the end: An interview with Eugene Peterson

This is about a friend of my close friend. They ran together while attending Seattle Pacific university (way bak in the Dark Ages). I like his writings, and, although I am aware of the disputes over The Message, I still find it helpful at times. His other writings are also very good.


 Show caption

One of America’s best known Christian theologians, Eugene Peterson, reflects on 81 years of life and ministry.

Eugene Peterson is one of the best known theologians of our time. Most famous for penning The Message, a contemporary rendering of the Bible, he is also author of many popular books such as A Long Obedience in the Same DirectionWith the release of his memoir, The PastorPeterson has begun reflecting on life and the ways in which Jesus-followers can respond to God’s call. Here, we discuss his unlikely call to ministry, the work of a pastor and what, if anything, he wishes he could change about The Message.

JM: In The Pastor, you describe your journey into ministry. How did you first sense God calling you into service?

EP: Well, I never really thought I’d be a pastor because I had so many pastors I didn’t respect. I just assumed I would be in academic work, so I started doing that—I went to seminary and graduate school to be a professor. And then I became a professor at the seminary in New York City where I graduated. But they didn’t pay me very much. Greek and Hebrew professors aren’t very high on the pay scale. So I got a part-time job in a church, because I had been ordained but just to be a professor. I’d never been around a pastor who was a man of God, to tell you the truth.

I was teaching Greek and Hebrew on Tuesdays and Thursdays and after awhile I did this for three years. But after the second year I thought, “Wow, the church is a lot more interesting than the classroom. There’s no ambiguity to Greek and Hebrew. It’s just right or wrong.” And in the church everything was going every which way all the time—dying, being born, divorces, kids running away. I suddenly realized that this is where I really got a sense of being involved and not just sitting on the sidelines as a spectator but being in the game. So I gradually reshaped my sense of what I was doing and became a pastor.

JM: With your experience in both the church and the academy, I wonder what advice you would give to young seminary students today. If you were asked by one to describe what is at the heart of the work of pastoring and shepherding, what would you say?

EP: I’d tell them that pastoring is not a very glamorous job. It’s a very taking-out-the-laundry and changing-the-diapers kind of job. And I think I would try to disabuse them of any romantic ideas of what it is. As a pastor, you’ve got to be willing to take people as they are. And live with them where they are. And not impose your will on them. Because God has different ways of being with people, and you don’t always know what they are.

The one thing I think is at the root of a lot of pastors’ restlessness and dissatisfaction is impatience. They think if they get the right system, the right programs, the right place, the right location, the right demographics, it’ll be a snap. And for some people it is: if you’re a good actor, if you have a big smile, if you are an extrovert. In some ways, a religious crowd is the easiest crowd to gather in the world. Our country’s full of examples of that. But for most, pastoring is a very ordinary way to live. And it is difficult in many ways because your time is not your own, for the most part, and the whole culture is against you. This consumer culture, people grow up determining what they want to do by what they can consume. And the Christian gospel is just quite the opposite of that. And people don’t know that. And pastors don’t know that when they start out. We’ve got a whole culture that is programmed to please people, telling them what they want.  And if you do that, you might end up with a big church, but you won’t be a pastor.

JM: You’ve written dozens of books over your career. Which one do you consider to be your magnum opus, and why?

EP: You know, I didn’t know it was when I was doing it, but I suppose The Message could be that book. The odd thing is when people ask me, “What do you like of what you’ve done?” I never think of The Message. Because I never felt like it was my book. You know, a writer likes to write really well. And you like to really have your own things. I was always second place to Isaiah, and coming in second to Mark, and to Paul. I never was writing what I was proud of. I was just pleased I was able to get into their life and do it in my way. But I really never even think of The Message as being my book.

When I finished my work at Regent College, I’d been teaching there for six years. And I’d written all these books on pastoral life and lay life. But I didn’t have any structure in mind. I just wrote these kind of as they came to me, and what I was doing and thinking about and reacting to. But I thought, the whole world of Christian life, spiritual theology, is not really very healthy. It’s mostly about being yourself in charge of things. There are a lot of really good scholarly books which are profound, but I’m thinking about pastors most of the time. And so I thought I’d like to gather up everything I’ve done in a sequential and comprehensive way. So I got the idea of writing five books—Jan calls it the “Peterson Pentateuch”—to see if I could get the whole world of Christian life, in this society, in this culture, and have it deeply biblically-oriented, with a Trinitarian structure and everything, and do it in language that people could understand. And so I did five books. I call them Conversations in Spiritual Theologyand I really feel satisfied with those books. I think I said best what I’ve been saying all my life, but I’ve done it in an organized and sequential and comprehensive way.

Peterson's "The Message" has sold more than 16 million copies worldwide.

Peterson’s “The Message” has sold more than 16 million copies worldwide.

JM: You mentioned The Message, your paraphrase of the Scriptures, which has been such a blessing to so many and an international bestseller. When you read it now, are you pleased with it or are there passages you wish you could go back and render differently?

EP: I’m a little hesitant to say this, but when I was doing that—maybe I should say that I could never have done that without being a pastor. I knew the languages really well, but I focused on getting into the idiom of the congregation as I was writing the translation, which took me 12 years. I always had the sense that I was working out of something I didn’t know much about: the metaphors. And it just kind of flowed. So I learned that language by listening to people from my congregation, and I guess I had a sense that there was something going on besides me. It never ever really dawned on me to do a translation of the Bible, so when the publishers approached me, I said “no” immediately. And then they kept talking and calling and I started praying and I thought, “Well, maybe this is my work now.” I’d been a pastor for 30 years in one church, and I was 60 years old. I thought, “Well, maybe this is it.” So, I did. And I’m really glad I did. But to tell you the truth, I don’t read it much. Every once in awhile I pick it up and start reading and think, “How did I think of that? I never knew that before.” I’d say I’m mostly pleased with it.

JM: Your book, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, has become something of a Christian classic since it was released more than thirty years ago. How have you seen discipleship change over the last three decades and what advice would you offer people who want to live that long obedience in the midst of an instant society?

EP: I hate to be pessimistic, but it’s declined. At this point the world is making a bigger impact on people than discipleship is. And so I think you end up working with small starts and long finishes. I can’t believe A Long Obedience has had as long of a life as it has. Another thing that’s hard for me to believe—you know I’ve not written for a popular audience—I’ve written 35 books and they’re all still in print. Well, not all of them, but 35 of them! That’s almost unheard of these days. So there are people who are reading my books who I wouldn’t have guessed. It pleases me that some people are listening to something, which I think is biblical and Trinitarian and in some ways anti-cultural.

JM: I heard A Long Obedience was almost not A Long Obedience

EP: A Long Obedience had been rejected by 20 or so publishers. And InterVarsity said yes. So I went to Chicago, to the press, and they said, “It’s a great book but you can’t use that title—its is not a lively title. ‘Obedience’ is not a word that makes people jump up and down.”

So I said, “Look, it’s not my title, it’s Nietzche’s title. And it’s in iambic pentameter. It’s a piece of poetry. And wouldn’t you just love it if we got that title and Nietzeche came back from the grave and saw that and thought, ‘Wow, somebody used this great sentence of mine for a book.’ And then he looks at it, and he realizes it’s about God. Who he thought he’d buried a hundred years ago. And so this grin goes off his face.” Anyway, I’m glad I disappointed him.

JM: In November, you’ll turn 81 years old. What has the aging process taught you about life and how to be faithful to the end?

EP: It’s kind of nice, to tell you the truth. Last November, I was 80 and I thought, “I’ve been under writing deadlines all my adult life.” I loved writing—I didn’t really like the deadlines—but now I don’t have to do that anymore, so I decided I wouldn’t. So my wife, Jan, and I just called it “quits” to traveling. I don’t really enjoy travel; it’s really a lot of work these days. So I’m done with that. And I’ve had this huge sense of spaciousness as a result—I didn’t know you could live this way! The only difficulty is that I don’t have very much energy to enjoy it as I used to. We’re in a lovely place: our children are doing well, our grandchildren are a lot of fun. And I have friends all over the world.

JM: Eighty-one years is a long time. As you enter your final season of life, what would you like to say to younger Christians who are itchy for a deeper and more authentic discipleship? What’s your word to them? 

EP: Go to the nearest smallest church and commit yourself to being there for 6 months. If it doesn’t work out, find somewhere else. But don’t look for programs, don’t look for entertainment, and don’t look for a great preacher. A Christian congregation is not a glamorous place, not a romantic place. That’s what I always told people. If people were leaving my congregation to go to another place of work, I’d say, “The smallest church, the closest church, and stay there for 6 months.” Sometimes it doesn’t work. Some pastors are just incompetent. And some are flat out bad. So I don’t think that’s the answer to everything, but it’s a better place to start than going to the one with all the programs, the glitz, all that stuff.

JM: I know I speak for millions when I say, “Thank you for being faithful. Faithful to the end.”

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