Eugene and Me, Part 2: What I Learned from the Man Behind The Message

 

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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.

 

 

 

 

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Eugene and Me: What I Learned from the Man Behind The Message

Me with Eugene and Jan

Author’s Preface: Eugene Peterson, the acclaimed writer, poet, pastor, and translator of The Message Bible, has been the topic of conversation the last couple days. If you have not heard anything and would like a quick summary, his literary agency has a short statement here. So, I thought I would take a moment to tell you about the Eugene Peterson that I have come to know and love. This will be a three-part series, and I’ll cover a range of topics, including his recent comments critiquing megachurches with some of my conversations with him in years past that will broaden the conversation.

Eugene and Me, Part 1

Nearly eleven years ago, life changed for me. I had been on staff at New Life Church for a year-and-a-half when suddenly we lost our pastor due to a moral failure. Lisa and I were in our mid-twenties and she was pregnant with our first child. We had moved away from both of our families and friends, and now this. It was a moment of great sadness for so many people. Thirteen months later on a snowy Sunday morning, a young man stormed onto our campus with an assault rifle and 1,000 rounds of ammunition and killed two beautiful sisters in our parking lot before storming into our church building where he was confronted and took his own life.

As a church, it felt like we had nothing left. As a young pastor, I was spent.

One sleepy Monday morning, I walked into a Goodwill Industries store. When I go I always have to scan the used book aisle to see if someone got rid of a gem, and that day was no different. A particular book on the shelf just wanted me to find it. It was the only one I could see.

The Contemplative Pastor.

I had never heard of it, but I saw Peterson’s name on the spine. I think that’s the guy who translated The Message Bible. So I grabbed it for $.99. When I say that book changed my life, I’m not exaggerating. I had seen my parents live the pastoral vocation beautifully in front of me, but I had never before seen it articulated like this on the page. The day I finished the book is the day I wrote a letter to thank this perfect stranger who was awakening in me a fresh imagination for my work.

But I didn’t know anything about Eugene—how old he was, what he was like, or where he lived. That meant I would need to send my letter to his publisher, which I did. “If you could get this to Mr. Peterson, I would be grateful. But if you can’t, I understand.” In my letter, I thanked him for his writing and asked him if I could spend a day with him discussing our shared vocation.

Truth be told, I expected that would be the end of it.

Then one day I came home from work. I went to the mailbox. Just like I did every other day. But this day was different because there it was, the white envelope—I have it sitting in front of me on the table as I type this—with my name handwritten in the most distinct cursive. You know, the cursive a grandparent uses because they were educated in a different era, and they cared about such things. That cursive. When I looked in the top left corner of my envelope, I saw “E Peterson, Lakeside, Montana.”

Time stopped.

“Dear Daniel, Yes, I would be willing to spend a day with you here in Montana. But not so fast.”

But not so fast.

He went on: “I think it would be better if you spent some time thinking about what is involved. Why don’t you take some time to reflect on what ‘pastor’ exactly means to you. And what ‘church’ means to you. Write a couple of pages on each, pastor and church, and send them to me.”

As I’ve reflected over the last nine years of interacting with Eugene Peterson, I’ve come to think of those four words as some of the most important words ever spoken to me.

But not so fast.

Speed is one of the gods that reigns among the American pantheon. We want what we want, and we want it now. Get rich overnight. Lose weight overnight. Fix your ailing church overnight. You name it, the formula for fast is being sold by someone. Amazon Prime is the natural result of such a society, and I admit that I love Amazon Prime. But that impatience has seeped into the life of faith. We are in trouble when we start thinking a mature life in Christ comes quickly.

Eugene has become an icon of faithful presence in a world that runs on adrenaline.

Pastoral ministry is slow work. Pastoral work is inter-generational work, dedicating a young girl to the Lord one week and burying her great-grandparents the next. Pastoral work is work that takes a lifetime. Stay in one place for as long as the Lord will let you, pour your life into the people in front of you, and watch the Kingdom come. And when I get tempted to take shortcuts, I hear Eugene: not so fast.

The world we live in celebrates a lot of flashy things while hidden faithfulness is often overlooked. Eugene is a man who lived and wrote in virtual obscurity until The Message erupted onto the scene. “It only took Eugene Peterson 65 years to become an overnight success.” That’s what I’ve told all my friends. Have you ever heard of Bel Air, Maryland? Exactly. I hadn’t either until Eugene told me he pastored there for 29 years. His book A Long Obedience in the Same Direction has become the epigraph for his life and it has become the goal for many of his readers.

As one looks around the American landscape of local church ministry, it is difficult to find people who have been in it for the long haul, whose love for God and his church is still vibrant, whose familial relationships are still intact, and who are full of innocence and joy. Eugene and Jan Peterson are two people who meet this description.

Some people this week have been frustrated with Eugene for what they see as a sloppy interview and/or a muddled retraction. I can understand that. I’m guessing Eugene and his publicists were thinking this would be a routine interview for his final book before riding off into the sunset. But it wasn’t easy. And he’s slowing down. He’s almost 85. This is how life works, people.

Grandparents make their children and grandchildren possible. They carry them, pray for them, cover them in their weakest and most vulnerable moments, and see them through into seasons of fullness. Eugene has done that for so many of us. But while grandparents make children and grandchildren possible, there comes a moment when the roles are reversed and children and grandchildren must carry their grandparents. That is where we are right now.

Eugene has spent the last 60 years taking care of other people. Now it’s our turn to honor and take care of him.

Note: Feel free to subscribe to the blog and look for the second installment of the series coming soon.

30 Years of New Life Church: A Thank You Letter

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This last Sunday as I was in the church foyer, a South Korean friend of mine came up to me for a chat. I’ve known and worshipped with her for 10 years, so this was nothing out of the ordinary. She’s every bit of 75 years old and no more than 5’0’’ tall. This particular Sunday she was wearing one of those big, Russian fur caps with earflaps that tie above the head or under the chin, and a long winter coat. It’s cold, so I hugged her tight and thanked her for the lovely Christmas card.

But talking to her this time was different. In her scratch English she told me a story I had never heard before.

It was somewhere around 1990 and our church had just bought a piece of ground to build a sanctuary. A place to put down some roots. Up to that point we had hopped around from place to place, worshipping wherever we could—a year here, three years there. A basement. An old hotel ballroom with threadbare carpet. A commercial space situated between a bar on one side and a liquor store on the other. Wanderers, probably more like the children of Israel than we could ever know at the time.

But not anymore! That was all going to change now. Foxes have holes, and birds have nests, and now, by the grace of God, we’ll have a place to lay our heads!

But this is where her story stopped me in my tracks.

She told me about a group of people that would meet at the newly purchased land at 4 a.m. every morning to pray. She told me that they’d walk the whole plot of ground and how many of them would lay in the dirt field, in this undeveloped and up-to-this-point outskirt-ish part of town, and cry out to God to make it a place of salvation and healing, of restoration and joy. A place where the lonely would be set into family, where the overlooked would be situated in the center of God’s love as demonstrated by this group of people.

Did you hear me?

They lay in the field…on clods of dirt…in the darkness that accompanies 4 a.m.…and they prayed. Holy people on holy ground.

When I heard that all I could think was, Someone has got to thank these people! I pulled her close and wrapped my arms around her. I thanked her for her prayers those many years ago. Then I started thinking, We’re all here today because a bunch of people took God seriously and prayed resolutely.

And indeed, those prayers are still being answered. This coming Sunday our church, New Life Church in Colorado Springs, Colorado, will celebrate our thirtieth anniversary. And there are just so many people that must be thanked:

To Ted and Gayle Haggard, our founding pastors, who had the guts to pray and fast and seek the Lord for what He was saying, and who had the gritty faith to leave the life they had known in Baker, Louisiana to plant a church in Colorado Springs, thank you! We live in a world that often remembers people for their worst moments, but when I think of you I can’t help but thank God for the enduring gift you have given so many people, myself included.

To every person at New Life Church, past or present, who has ever devoted a moment of your time to serve another person in the Name of Jesus, thank you. You may have been setting up chairs or making a hospital visit; you may have been opening your home to share a meal or caring for small children as their parents were hearing the word of God; you may have been vacuuming the floors or praying for someone that sits in the row behind you, but whatever you were doing “for one of the least of these, your brothers and sisters,” you were doing it unto Jesus himself.

To every person at New Life Church, past or present, who has ever given a dollar when the little white bucket was passed, thank you. It has become easy in our day to be skeptical about “the offering plate,” but something spiritual and instrumental happens in a moment of sacrificial giving. It’s one of the ways we worship, and it’s a form of worship that does something—namely, it makes feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and housing the widows and single moms of our city possible. It makes it possible for us to host and officiate funerals for people who’ve never set foot in our church, but who need to be dignified and remembered in the moment of death.

To Brady and Pam Boyd, our senior pastors, who obeyed God and showed up here not having known a single person, who were yet willing to do the hard work of giving your lives here for the sake of a congregation you would grow to love and who would grow to love you, thank you. You’ll probably never know the mark you’ve made on our church and our city.

To every staff member, to every elder, to every family, to every hospitality worker and parking lot attendant, to every usher and greeter and café server, to every bookstore worker, to every band or choir member, to every person that’s ever served in the children’s ministry, past or present, who has taken God seriously and prayed resolutely for God’s kingdom to come and his will to be done in Colorado Springs as it is in heaven, thank you.

To God, who alone deserves all glory and honor for everything good that’s happened at New Life Church over the last thirty years, we give thanks.