Pastors, Megachurches and Eugene Peterson

Buried in the middle of Eugene Peterson’s recent interview and lost amongst the controversy about his position on same-sex marriages is an equally important little quote when he talks about mega-churches

“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.”[1]

Now, a couple of qualifying statements.

  1. The Largest Church I was part of was when at University. The church had about 1000 people attending each Sunday.  Also, the church I grew up in had about 300-400 people attending regularly each week. I have visited Shenzhen Christian Church where several thousand attend each week.  Most of my experience has been in small to medium sized churches.
  2. There may be different views on what we would consider a mega church and how we perceive size. Peterson talks about pastoring a church of 500 and for many in Europe that would seem very large. You won’t be able to know everyone in a close personal way at that size. Indeed, most of us will struggle to know everyone by name personally once you get more than 200. However, I think you still can know people and have a pastoral relationship with them.  Also, I don’t think that we should expect to know everyone in the same way and to the same degree.
  3. I agree with Peterson that mega-churched can risk becoming places where audiences look for entertainment (this can happen in smaller churches too).  However, I do know of churches that have grown large where the ongoing priority is to see people taught well from God’s word, grow in faith and learn to serve as part of the body.
  4. I suspect that in a lot of cases what you are seeing in reality is not one “mega church” but a collection of church families co-operating together to share resources such as a building, staff, outreach ministries, hopefully for the good of the Gospel. The extent to which you are comfortable with that will probably depend upon your view of different types of church government (because in effect you sort of have a form of Presbytery or diocese).

However, I hope that we don’t lose the challenge here because there is the need for proper thinking on church life and the drive for numbers. There are a lot of books available to buy and articles on the internet telling me how to get our church through the 200, 400, 800 barriers.  And this is where I think Peterson hits the nail on the head. They tend to have one thing in common.  The way you do it is by stopping being a pastor.

The common theme is that a pastor acts like a shepherd knowing those in his care by name and giving time to finding them food and water whilst protecting them from wolves.  However, he cannot do that with more than 200 people so what he needs to do is change from being a shepherd to being a rancher. He then employs under-shepherds who look after a section of the flock each. His responsibility is to lead them.  Now, just to make this very clear, if you are doing that then you are creating the equivalent of a bishop -or what some of the newer charismatic churches refer to as an apostolic ministry.  Often the example of Moses being advised to structure the leadership of Israel under leaders of 10s, 50s and 100s is used to support this approach.  Now, I think there is some practical wisdom in terms of how we organize but I wonder whether you can just transplant Moses’ responsibility for nation onto our responsibility for local churches.

So, Peterson touches on something I feel deeply uncomfortable with. Here are the reasons:

  1. I know that a constant temptation I face is to chase the numbers. Stephen Kneale writes about the numbers game here.[2] These books, websites and seminars seem to encourage us to chase the numbers for our local churches without really asking the question why? Does  it really glorify God and serve his mission or does it primarily serve our egos?
  2. I am being asked to change my role without the proponents properly acknowledging that this is happening and that this therefore means a change in calling. I am being asked to leave a specific calling to look after a congregation by “pastoring” it.  I am effectively being asked to become an administrator/manager and/or a public speaker pulled out of the context of body life.  This is important for me. How can I be  a preacher who exegetes both God’s Word and the congregation if I don’t know them? Not only that but I don’t think that the case has properly made that this is a legitimate calling, especially when the conversation is happening in the context of Independent church ecclesiology.
  3. I am being asked to just accept a hierarchical structure and abandon a genuinely plural and equal eldership.

Now, there is a strong case to be made for encouraging Christians to work together for the cause of the Gospel. I also think that there are going to be very practical reasons at times for sharing resources (see earlier discussions on multiple congregations) nor do I want to be legalistic on size. It’s possible to have a small church where few people genuinely know each other and all the work is done by one or two just as a large church can at times “feel small” with a sense of intimacy and togetherness and where every member ministry is happening.

However, we must not get caught up in the World’s measure of success. Just as I refuse to buy into the Homogenous Unit Principle for the sake of adding numbers, so I shouldn’t buy into the “Build your mega-church model” if the result of that is that we lose out in terms of plural leadership, genuine pastoral engagement and every member ministry then we have lost things that matter too much.



[2] By the way I don’t completely agree with Stephen on this – I will try to go into more detail why in a follow up post but I think he helpfully raises some concerns.