“Crowds are a worse danger…” cont.

A pastor recently left a lengthy and incredibly thoughtful comment on a post from last year.  In that post I quoted Eugene Peterson twice from his memoir about the danger of churches becoming crowds.  I’m copying the entire comment here as this pastor’s experience and perspective is one that should be heard.

Peterson’s statements hit me like a brick. For years, I’ve heard pastors talk out of both sides of their mouth on the subject, piously dampening the appeal of the Crowd–”Numbers don’t mean anything in themselves”–only to turn around and say things like, “Those who run numbers down usually aren’t running them up.” But, until I read Peterson’s book, I’d never seen a minister take a smooth stone from the ecclesiastical bank, put it in a sling, and send it dead-shot into the face of the giant. I’d never heard a preacher say, “Not only do we not need a crowd; we shouldn’t have a crowd.”

Instantly, I recognized my own tendency to equate the Crowd with success. With a little more effort, I dug deeper, examining the roots of that tendency–my own desire that my preaching should be heard by more people. I confess to sinful pride. I own it; it’s mine.

To be as truthful as I can, though, I don’t believe I’m just worried about how many come to hear me preach. I’m worried about our church itself. I currently serve a congregation that’s aging, probably dying. We have few young families. In a town of 25,000 with a church on every corner, some of which are large and offer many programs, with new churches being planted here every other year, my congregation’s slice of the pie continues to shrink. Many of our people are sick and infirm. Almost weekly, it seems, the phone rings with news of a medical crisis, a turn for the worse, a death. Each day, I can hear the clock ticking. It seems to be growing louder.

The temptation to leave for greener pastures is strong. One thing that keeps me from doing so is my own age. A man in his mid-fifties doesn’t get on the short list of candidates for younger, growing congregations.

So Peterson’s letter, and his book, comes at a critical juncture in my career. It forces me to ask myself what I’m doing and why I’m doing it. If the Pastor is a shepherd, then he can’t simply leave his flock, can he? Not if he cares about the sheep. Naturally, if it’s only sheep we’re talking about, mere wooly mammals, then there might be half-dozen legitimate reasons to leave them–a bigger, better opportunity elsewhere, more money, even sheer boredom. But people aren’t animals to be tolerated ; they’re souls to be cared for.

Struck as I was by Peterson’s statements, I don’t feel any gore antipathy toward larger, even mega-churches. Some of the godliest men I know lead big churches. But that isn’t my calling. I just wish I didn’t feel so frustrated, so frightened in my present position. Thanks for your prayers.

Author: David Swanson

Pastor of New Community Covenant Church in Bronzeville. Collecting signs of life.

4 thoughts on ““Crowds are a worse danger…” cont.”

  1. This is good David. Personally, I think churches views of “success” should also not be determined by numbers. In my opinion, I look for their diversity if they are actually representing all areas of the “Body” different denominational backgrounds, races, spiritual gifts, and levels of wisdom aka ages. Like the Revelations church where every tribe and nation come together praising the Lord. Some of the most powerful churches I’ve gone to it would be normal to sit next to a man with a beard, long pony tail and overalls and next to him was a well dressed man in a suit. Where the spirit of the Lord truly is, I believe anyone seasoned believer or new seeker is drawn.

      1. Correct me if I’m wrong on assuming this, but I believe an end to a denomination or atleast from the church’s name would draw in more true believers and earnest seekers and help others see all of us Christians as being on the same team. It would be easier if it was presented as just light or darkness as it is in the bible. If I’m a seeker just finding out about God I wouldn’t know whether to go to a baptist, presbyterian, anglican, apostolistic or whatever kind of church, because they sound more exclusive to “their kinds” or those sharing a common lineage even. I think the original apostles had it right just calling the original Christianity “the way.” You either follow it or not. Although this leads to the fear of losing order and tradition in the church, but I don’t know if that is as much of God’s concern if we’re led by His Holy spirit in decision making, as it is our own concern and sense of comfort. I believe there’s nothing more powerful than unity in the body. I’m starting to see this shift just a little in churches here with the pentecostal and presbyterian/ non-denominational crowds merging and in especially in neighborhood house churches forming. It reminds people that God’s presence is not dependent on specific theology or having a holy and pure seperate place to worship him, but he’s everywhere. That’s a long post. Church reform is one of those topics that I get excited about.

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