Megachurch Pastors: A Petersonian Perspective

Mark Stevens, our friend down in Adelaide Australia, posted something that led to my posting about whether or not one can call a megachurch pastor a “pastor” — and Mark suggested … well, he’s come back to respond to some of us and here’s his response, a response rooted in some insights from Eugene Peterson:

Hello all, thank you for taking the time to consider what I have written. I am not sure how many people have taken the time to read my response to both the events that lead to my post and those comments I made in response to Jim West. I trust my response was gracious and yet expressive of what I believe to be true of the pastoral vocation.

Firstly, I disagree somewhat with Scot’s assumption that I am working on the one church one pastor model. Although I understand the point he is making. I have no problem with multiple pastors on a staff. In our own church I work with a team of elders, of who I am one. I just happen to be the pastor and I am paid. We have also had, at different times, a youth pastor or student ministers. The point I make in my post is that although I believe mega-churches are not “suitable places for faithful pastoral practice or deep spiritual formation of people in the way of Jesus” I cannot deny their place as the body of Christ (or in the body of Christ).  My concern relates to the often pragmatic nature of mega-church ministry and the way they are often run as businesses.  This is where I shared a point of agreement with Jim West; although I disagreed strongly with the attitude of his post.

I like the way RJS put it in her comment, “Growth is an intentional business decision. It requires facilities and institutional structure. It is always tainted by pride and ambition – even good Godly men and women have to fight this tendency as was true in the first century as today. Personally I think the charismatic pastor should intentionally self-limit and grow up separate churches with others as central figures and preachers. This isn’t failure to use God’s gifts – it is a responsible use of God’s gifts.” I am concerned that mega-churches are promoted as being kingdom successful when in reality I don’t think we can judge success by size or even effect. Furthermore, it is my opinion that scripture or church history doesn’t teach us that the pastor is responsible for outward growth. It is the vocation of the pastor to be faithful in all he or she undertakes. As Eugene Peterson argues, Pastors are never responsible for the formation and survival of the community of faith. This is solely the work of the Holy Spirit. We (pastors) are responsible for being obedient and serving. God is responsible for formation and survival” [Eugene Peterson-Taken from an Audio lecture at Regent College]

The primary concern within my response is not so much with mega-churches rather; it is with the nature of the pastoral vocation and what it means to be a faithful pastor. If I might borrow another quote from Eugene Peterson and apply it to how I see ministry as an insider, “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. Their names still appear on the church stationary and they continue to appear in pulpits on Sundays. But they are abandoning their posts, their calling. They have gone whoring after other Gods. What they do with their time under the guise of pastoral ministry hasn’t the remotest connection with what the church’s pastors have done for most of twenty centuries.” (Eugene Peterson, Working the Angles, p.1)

The truth is there is no blue-print for being a pastor. The circumstances and call of each pastor and their ministry are as unique as the person themselves. Nevertheless, those who are called to lead the church are called to be shepherds of God’s people. My concern is with how the pastoral vocation is conceived of, developed and understood. It is easy for most of us to give lip service to what it means to be a faithful parson when in reality what we do and what we are taught to do is pursue careers. We plan, we build we call people to follow us and our vision for God’s church. I just don’t think this is what it means to be faithful. It maybe how the world defines faithfulness to a creer but I don’t see it as faithful pastoral practice.

One of things I appreciate about Eugene Peterson is that he never provides a model for ministry. He is far more concerned with developing a pastor’s imagination and their ascetic. Regardless of where a person is a pastor three aspects of ministry must, in my opinion, be at the forefront of what it means to be a pastor: prayer, scripture and spiritual direction (as opposed to visionary leadership). Now I admit freely that I am thoroughly Petersonite on this. The primary activities upon which any ministry is undertaken are these three disciplines. They are not all a pastor does but they are the most important aspects of what we are called to do. However, all too often we pastors give lip service to them and then move on to taking charge of the church. Within a mega-church situation one is perhaps more likely to be pulled away from these essential disciplines and be distracted by running the church.

As I said earlier, my concern is with the way in which we understand and perceive the pastoral vocation. Sure, I might be old fashioned and I realise I hold a minority opinion. However, because most churches around North America and my native Australia are not mega-churches I think we need a definition of pastor that better suits what most of us do and what we are called to do within our own contexts. This is where I find Eugene Peterson incredibly helpful and freeing. I also admit that my views are born out of my own experiences and disappointments (more can be read about that here   I don’t want to be someone who beats up on mega-churches or those who attend them. I have my concerns and I have my opinions however, at the centre of it all lies a deep, passionate concern about what it means to get it right and do it faithfully. A pastor’s primary role is to say the word God accurately and personally. In order to this we need to, as one wise teacher recently taught me, “Love the Lord your God with all our heart and with all our soul and with all our mind and with all our strength and love our neighbour as our self”.

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  • Joseph McAuley

    Nice response Mark. Peterson’s memoir The Pastor is a fantastic read as well.

  • It is very easy for pastoral ministry to shift from service to self-fulfillment if one is not careful. The local church was always intended to represent God as a counter-culture community of love, but in our day and age it is easy for a pastor to inappropriately consider one’s church as a representative of themselves. When this happens there is a tendency for “tower building”, accumulation and hoarding to take place as opposed to continued scattering as RJS suggests. It is something I’ve been considering on my blog recently.

  • The second quote quoted from Eugene Peterson is from Working the Angles page 1 not Contemplative Pastor page 1.

  • I love Peterson. He’s a hero. The thing I think we need to probe in Peterson is the degree to which he understands the church as missionary. Of course, I am in the middle of a dissertation on this so I am probably prone to see it everywhere but the question “what should a pastor do?” is a subset of a more important and more biblically substantiated issue surrounding what the church or people of God are to be and do. The separation between church and mission (the latter which I’m thinking here of in terms of evangelism) is a real problem for both sides: the pastor-shepherd folks and the megachurch folks. If it is any comfort to Mark Stevens, he is on the side of the Orthodox, Roman Catholics, Lutherans, Anglicans, Presbyterians, (even the Methodists despite their camp meeting beginnings), and just about every ecclesiology substantially developed under Christendom (that is, when the church operated in close relationship to the state); they all say with Mark Stevens and Eugene Peterson that the purpose of the church is to be faithful (scripture, prayer, and spiritual direction–Peterson’s three “angles” or practices of a pastor) and that mission (or evangelism) will (probably) overflow from that and they are heartened that they will likely not fall into too much heresy if they stick with the “fundamentals.” The problem is that these church practices or pastoral habits are surely a product of Western Christendom (in which everyone was seen to be a Christian (baptized as an infant and so evangelism wasn’t important)–some will even admit that but will say the development of these Western structures was guided by the Holy Spirit and so are now endowed with some special permanency. It is no surprise then that the membership of these churches is plummeting world-wide–partially mitigated by high Roman Catholic fertility rates. The problem, on the other side, with the megachurch folk (and others who share their ecclesiology such as baptists, Mennonites, “non-denominational,” pentecostals) is that they tend to see evangelistic success (hundreds of adult baptisms and big weekend attendance) as signs of their success which may have been arrived at through (at least theoretically) by unfaithful moves–think “health and wealth” gospel or corrupt TV evangelists. These ecclesiologies are extremely susceptible to whatever pagans think is cool because they have so purposefully jettisoned traditional church; materialism and consumerism, (i.e. “money), and nationalism and militarism (violence, perhaps better “hate”) are typical ancient and contemporary temptations. So, on the one hand, the shepherd-pastor people unconsciously accept and absorb the troublesome vestiges of centuries of non-missionary Christendom habits; the megachurch folks tend to swallow pro-missionary pagan-like heresies. Happily, there is some movement on both sides with people like Darrell Guder in the Presbyterian church calling for ecclesiological renewal and reform in the mainline (i.e. Gospel in Our Culture Network, Newbigin’s influence, “missional church,” etc.) and “free church” people (if not megachurch people) scouring the Christian tradition for resources to evaluate and test the fads and proclivities of this age–I’m one of the latter writing here at Duke on Karl Barth and John Howard Yoder.

  • John W Frye

    I, too, have influenced by Eugene H. Peterson. What strikes me so powerfully is how much Peterson grounds pastoral ministry in the Grand Story of God. He refuses the seductive pull to base local church ministry on cultural trends whether in the secular or church realms.

  • Scott Leonard

    There will always be errors of ignorance, pride, and fleshly excess in even the best of the churches. And whenever numbers are being generated for the kingdom, whether it was by Billy Graham, Bill Bright, Rick Warren, Billy Hybels….you can be sure there will be criticism from every motive corner. But I have to say I find it interesting that the very first sermon in the Church age is highlighted with a Holy Spirit tally of numbers. “Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day: “Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.” And the numbers reporting did not stop there: “And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.”

    Pray and work that these places where conversions are exploding will stay theologically sound and refine the vehicles for discipling reproducers.

  • lonelyvoice

    A discussion on the role of a pastor cannot avoid a discussion on how pastors should make a living as well. As long as a pastor’s livelihood is fully paid by the church (as in many of today’s situation), defining the role of a pastor could be futile. It seems that the biblical understanding of ‘pastor’ is a gift and not a ‘position’ as we have made it to be today. I do believe most genuine pastors know what they are suppose to do. But when the rubber meets the road (getting paid from those whom you need to tell them what to do), it is a different story.

    As an ordained pastor, I have wrestled with this issue. I have even tried to start a church to change the mentality. However, I find myself collecting unemployment these days.

  • Thanks for the conversation, I appreciate the push back especially from you Andy. I am working on a response that I hope to post tomorrow.

    John, I think you’ve nailed it re. Peterson. I am working on my Masters thesis on Peterson’s understanding of the pastoral vocation. Yours is a very helpful observation. BTW, I just ordered your book Jesus the Pastor! 🙂

  • Mark, thank you so much for the thought-provoking discussion. I am a mega-church pastor but profoundly influenced by Eugene Peterson. This is a tension point for me, but I am glad for it. I believe that the tensions are what bring life and growth to our ministry and churches.

    I serve with Peterson’s three key practices in mind (i.e., prayer, Scripture, and spiritual direction), but I wonder if at times the personality of the pastor can shape things in different directions. Stuart Briscoe, a wonderful Bible teacher and pastor, talks even today about three essentials of ministry that are being squeezed out in the professionalization of ministry: preach the word, love people, and pray for the Holy Spirit to move. These three don’t sound very different, but Briscoe ended up as a mega-church pastor because of his faithfulness to these things.

    Is it possible that capacity and personality shape the way that even these essentials of ministry play out?

    Two other, but related, questions:
    – doesn’t vision flow out of a ministry built upon Peterson’s three?
    – was Moses a pastor or a businessman based on his father-in-law’s advice about delegating leadership?

    Many thanks for continuing the conversation.

  • Thanks for the compliment Matt and thank you for taking the time to respond. Maybe we need more pastors like you who feel the tension. Maybe the tension is a good thing? Even though I don not pastor a mega-church I also feel the tension.
    What I like about Peterson is that he defines the pastoral vocation apart from context and even personality. He is more interested in the ascetics of the pastor. Having said that I also know he is not a fan of mega-churches. With the exception of yours of course! 😉
    I wonder if in your own ministry being a pastor of a large church is inconsequential. By the sounds of it, it is is the by-product.
    As for your questions: I don’t think vision is our main business other than pointing people to Jesus and helping them to live faithfully as the people of God
    The second point about Moses is interesting. I would see it as a historical note about how Moses structured God’s people. Maybe lessons can be drawn but I’m not sure we should stretch the story to far to justify any way we do ministry. I hope that isn’t too minimalist. 🙂

    At the end of the day, like Peterson, I am just trying to get it straight. Get it straight what it means to be a pastor and to set myself to the task at hand!

  • Thanks so much for the comments, Mark. I do know that Peterson isn’t a fan of the mega-church or that approach to pastoral ministry. It is something I wrestle with but am at peace about as God has, I sense, led me into this role.

    I have never had the goal of being a pastor at a large church but have always wanted to be faithful to where God has called me. The setting – large or small – is, to use your word, ‘inconsequential’.

    I think our conversation about ‘vision’ is perhaps that we are using the term in different ways. I like Dallas Willard’s article about helping people have a vision of God, rather than specifically adhering to the way we see certain projects. That being the case, I think that specific churches in specific locales with specific people in the midst end up living that out in unique ways. I would see the pastor’s role as part of the facilitator of that vision that hopefully is Christ-focused but also dynamic with the power of the Spirit.

    Regarding Moses, I do agree that we cannot use one story from Scripture to justify a specific way of ministry, particularly one from many years later. That being the case, I do think that episode, along with the calling of the deacons and the church planting work of Paul give us a sense of how ministry is diffused but also focused.

    Amen to your last paragraph! May God by His grace continue to set us all straight as He brings us along into His good purposes for the Kingdom in our day and time.