Megachurch Pastors: A Petersonian Perspective

Megachurch Pastors: A Petersonian Perspective July 3, 2012

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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