Pastors of traditional churches are trained to do everything possible to increase the number of people in their Sunday morning congregation. Great preaching. Inspiring music. Excellent childcare. Adequate parking. The list goes on and on. Success or failure is measured, to a significant degree, on the pastor’s ability to draw (and keep) a crowd.
Eugene Peterson, well-known author (The Message paraphrase of the Bible) has a shockingly different perspective on the meaning of crowds in church on Sunday morning.
Earlier in his life, Peterson was, for many years the pastor of a Presbyterian church in Bel Air, Maryland. For much of that time, he was part of a fellowship of other pastors. One day, a member of the group announced that he was leaving his congregation to become the pastor of a church of a thousand members, three times the size of where he was. Peterson had lunch with this man and found himself bothered by his motivations to make the change. Over the next week, he wrote a letter to this friend. Some of what he wrote, speaks to the reasons that a growing number of leaders are being drawn away from traditional church to the original (small!) form of church found in the New Testament.
The following excerpts from that letter are found in The Pastor: A Memoir (Chapter 18) by Eugene Peterson …
…Classically, there are three ways in which humans try to find transcendence – religious meaning, God meaning – apart from God as revealed in the cross of Jesus: through the ecstasy of alcohol and drugs, through the ecstasy of recreational sex, though 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. 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 is false transcendence upward, which is why all crowds are spiritually pretty much the same, whether at football games, political rallies, or church.
…I really do feel that crowds are a worse danger, far worse, than drink or sex…
Although, as far as I know, Peterson has not come to the place of embracing the house church model which really is the logical extension of his thinking about crowds.
The alternative to crowds? Small, family-like churches multiplying like rabbits across the landscape. Just like they did it in the New Testament!
How do we learn life in a house church if we’ve spent our whole lives in a traditional church? A great first step is a six week learning experience called the Foundations Course. To learn more and to register, go to http://storiesfromtherevolution.blogspot.com/2011/09/foundations-course.html