The wisdom of Eugene Peterson

Many of you know that Eugene Peterson has been a mentor of mine for the past six years. We’ve written dozens of letters to each other. No one has marked me more in pastoral ministry than Eugene. See earlier post on one of his letters he wrote to me and the Renew Community here.

A few days ago I received a letter from him. I’ve read it about a dozen times and I am still digesting it. I asked him: What are the non-negotiables of being a church planter?

“The one great advantage you have as a new church pastor is that you are forced to start small. Nothing is imposed on you. Determine that you will know every person, their names and whatever of their lives they are willing to let you in on. Be in their homes. Invite them into your home in small groups for an evening or lunch. The killing frost in too much new church development is forming programs that will attract people or serve their perceived ‘needs,’ getting them ‘involved.’ The overriding need they have is worship and that is the one thing that is lowest on their ‘needs’ list. Insist on it: keep it simple – learn to know every last one of them relationally. And call them to worship – and not entertainment worship, but a community at worship. Americans these days are not used to being treated that way, personally and apart from promotional come-ons. Religious entrepreneurism has infected church planting all over the country. When it is successful numerically (and if you are a good salesman and smile a lot it probably will be) you will end up with a non-church.”

I then asked: what is the greatest temptation when planting a church – and how do I avoid it:

“I’d say ambition. Church planters are tempted to do what it takes to succeed. Most of us grow up as competitors, competition is bred into our bones. And most of us are good at it. But the very nature of church – the Christian life – is to stay close to the ground that you are given, the people you are given, the Jesuw ho comes alongside of us. The temptation is to look for ‘leaders’ or ‘winners’ or look at people as ‘resources.’ That is not a mindset that cultivates patiences with losers and the mediocre. Not that we don’t want to do our best, but unchecked ambition cripples us for dealing with the people who are right under our noses, the left-out and ignored. If we hold our competitive instincts on a short leash, we will probably stay small for a considerable time.”

Eugene is one wise man. His words, teachings and life are a gift.

What question(s) should I ask him in my next letter?

21 Replies to “The wisdom of Eugene Peterson”

  1. Hey name buddy. What a fortune to have someone like Eugene Peterson speaking into your life and ministry! I would love to know his thoughts on the differences between traditional church planting, where most of the responsibility falls to one man (ala Acts 29 and the religious entrepeneurism he mentioned) and more missional approaches to church planting where it’s more about a community of people committing to life to life together in a place for the good of others. There are upsides and downsides to both and they require different leadership skill sets. I would love to have the reflections of someone so committed to spiritual formation on stuff like this.

  2. J.R. – I would be curious to hear Eugene’s response to a question we asked each other a few days ago. “How do you define “success” and “failure” when it comes to church planting (and ministry in general).

  3. JR, If you begin to start finding yourself in phenomenal growth (with kids programs, buildings and building campaigns, counseling departments, benevolence, etc.), how do you avoid the pitfalls that some Megachurches find themselves in? DougG

  4. Hey JR, This is a great post! Eugene’s words are deep and impacting. The question that I would love hear Eugene’s wisdom on is, “what steps does an aspiring Church Planter need to take to be prepared for the calling?” For him what does this spiritual journey look like?

  5. I’m still picking myself up from the ruins after his “Under The Unpredictable Plant”.

    Esp. his thoughts on the “careerism” of ministerial vocation. Sad I missed him in the heydey up @ Regent.

  6. Dear brothers and sisters,
    I totally agree with Pastor Peterson , those deep connections are the ones that have the most meaning. How sad it is that today’s chruches have to undergo ” Sterotype” problems. I believe that to over come these instincts that keep us from living life to the fullest, break these walls down that people put around you. I agree that you should not try to please everyone but I also see the great value of being open to ways and rituals that can enhance that worship and open doors to those who have been turned away by what they percieve as the ” Same Old” “Same Old”. God is in all things, why not worship him creatively, always keeping the sacred first in mind. To make things sacred, you must do them with love . Churches should inlcude elements that are expressed with LOVE first and foremost, not the trend and what everyone else is doing, but things that are meaningful to them. That very thing is what has troubled churches and planted the stereotypes we are battleing. The important thing to remember is the Relationships between GOD and people, and that God is inside each of the people so each of them and there relations to one another is sacred!
    Just some rambles!

  7. Mega churches have their own huge problems. I remember Rick Warren sharing his distress of managing this huge church (Saddleback) every day. Why compare our sizes(church)? Be yourself at all cost because there is freedom from religious careerism. Eugene told me so himself.

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