strenuously pastoring against the grain

peterson goes into great detail describing his experience in “the company of pastors:” the name given to his accountability group (which, by the way, is still in existence after 42 years!) that had as its mission, “a place to form and nurture a pastoral identity that had theological and biblical integrity.”

when one of “the company” announced plans to leave his congregation for one three times its size, peterson felt compelled to write him a letter.  and, in turn, i feel compelled to share a portion of that letter here…

I certainly understand the appeal (of ministry in a larger context) 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 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 crowds and spiritually pretty much the same, whether at football games, political rallies, or church.

So why are pastors so unsuspicious of crowds, so naive about the false transcendence 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 the 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 the 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.

i realize this is probably not the proper forum for confession, but the sentiment of that letter crushes me into brokenness.  it forces me to my knees in confession of my misdirected pursuit of transcendence, and to repentance of my secret yearning for “ego benefit from the crowds.”  you see, i have been guilty of pursuing growth as a sort-of vindication.  and i have been guilty of viewing my church as a product to be marketed and, thus, my people a commodity–or worse, as a sales force to be galvanized aroung my “calling.”

so what do you think, sage readers?  Could it be that crowds are “a worse danger, far worse, than drink or sex“?





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