*UPDATE – July 13, 2017: Peterson has now offered a retraction of his statements in the Merritt interview.
Recently, well-known author and pastor Eugene Peterson made waves in Christian circles when, in an interview with Jonathan Merritt, he spoke of his newfound support for same-sex marriage and homosexuality in general.* The response was quick from the evangelical community. Most were sad. Some weren’t surprised given Peterson’s denominational background. But the interview had several other parts. One segment dealt with Peterson’s view of the American megachurch. In lamenting the consumer mentality in American congregations overall, Peterson singled out megachurches:
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.
For the record, I like Eugene Peterson. A lot. His pastoral heart, literary giftedness, and anti-celebrity persona are incredibly endearing to me and instructive for me.1 His latest revelations on sexual issues notwithstanding, I have found myself resonating with much of what he’s written and said over the years. I felt like he was a needed voice in American Evangelicalism.
Now, among other targets, Peterson has set his sights on the megachurch. As one who pastors in a megachurch, I think it’s easy to get defensive when critique arises. My experience over the years is that diatribes against the megachurch are a mixed bag. They can be full of straw men, false equivalences, and over-generalizations as well as proper rebukes, accurate assessments, and necessary correctives. I quite remember when the tune of critique for one famous megachurch was, “They never preach the gospel there, but just some watered-down Jesus in order to draw a crowd.” These critical publications were met with cheers by those with an axe to grind while it sowed seeds of doubt in the mind of neutrals. What angered me was not that the church in question was above critique2, but that the critique given wasn’t true of what I knew of the church. I had attended that congregation over the years and had yet to hear some curtailed, gospel-lite presentation of Jesus. Maybe they only “beefed it up” when I was there, but I doubt that was the case.
But I also know churches of any stripe can easily become blind to their own shortcomings. Megachurches included. And I absolutely concur that megachurches need to be critiqued when that critique is merited (and there are many places where it surely is). That’s why I think it’s good to ask questions about Peterson’s critique. It’s also good to address his assumptions.
As to the high number of people in a church:
- Is Peterson working under the assumption that a church should have a solitary pastor?
- In Peterson’s view, if a church grows, should it only grow to the degree where the pastor knows everyone and is able to minister personally (pray, talk with, listen) to each and every one of them?
- If the church grows beyond the pastor’s relational quotient (say, for the sake of argument, 250 people), would it be wrong to add pastoral staff? Or does that kind of growth necessitate the planting of another church? If another so, where would you plant it?
- If you can’t pastor a church where 5,000 people come into it because you, as the solitary pastor(?) cannot relationally minister to all of them, what would Peterson say of the first collection of Christians in Jerusalem when “there were added that day about three thousand souls” (Ac. 2:41)?3 Is that not a church as well?
- Is it fair to say “in the megachurch there’s no relationship with anybody”? What of arrangments where the larger group is broken into smaller ones (cf., Ac. 2:42-46)?
- Would Peterson say Charles Haddon Spurgeon wasn’t a pastor because he led a church of 5,311 people, at that time the largest independent congregation in the world?4
As to entertainment in the megachurch:
- What practices on Sunday morning would lead Peterson to call megachurches “entertainment places”? What activities or accoutrements associated with entertainment find themselves in megachurch services?
- How has consumerism infected American churches? Are megachurches the embodiment of this malady? How so?
- How do megachurches address the relational dynamics needed in the local church as Peterson describes?
- When is something innovative and when is something regressive or unbiblical?
- What would make a service less about entertainment and more about being biblical?
To be honest, I resonate with much of Peterson’s reservations. My church isn’t perfect. Far from it. We want to honor God and his Word as faithfully as possible. I don’t want any churches, megachurches included, that don’t pastor their people or aim to entertain on Sundays. If these pitfalls are easier for larger churches to fall into, then I want to redouble my efforts for my church to be a place where the lost can hear the gospel and the those who’ve embraced Jesus can live out the gospel mission as a gospel community. However, nothing is above critique, including the critique itself. I want to engage critiques based on Scripture instead of someone’s preconceived idea of what the ideal church is. Where we have the former there should be repentance. But where we have the latter, well, it seems a brief tour through the New Testament as well as church history demonstrates congregations came in all shapes and sizes. Each have their own challenges to be sure, but let’s make sure if a church needs to repent of something it’s actually something to repent over.5
- You can see these wonderful attributes at play in Navpress’ video on Peterson.
- There are other criticisms this particular church surely merits.
- Even if one posits the 3,000 is composed of festival pilgrims who wouldn’t stay in Jerusalem (though textually, vv. 42-46 seem to operate with the same body of v. 41), it’s not a stretch to argue a large number who remained. See respective commentaries by Witherington, Bruce, Marshall.
- Like abandoning the biblical view of sexuality.