I am currently taking my second journey through Eugene Peterson’s latest book, Practice Resurrection. As with all of his books, I am deeply affected by the powerful, image-laden, metaphor-driven, literary strength of Peterson’s words. And with this last edition to the “Spiritual Theology” series, the affection and “effection” are no less powerful and shaping. I hope to share with you 2 or 3 or 4 or… as many as it takes… posts about this rich book “Practice Resurrection” as I go through it again.
Practice Resurrection is a “conversation on growing up in Christ.” The context for this “growing up” is church. In his introduction Peterson notes that the biblical writers give us a healthy metaphor for spiritual growth and development. That metaphor is life. Peterson notes that, as with life, there is a progression. We are born. After birth, we immediately start to grow. We start on milk as an infant, but then we graduate to solid foods as children. And soon, we are making our own decisions about what to eat and what nourishes us, as adolescents. And finally we grow up into adulthood.
Peterson, tired of American Christianity’s unhealthy obsession with new-birth and near total neglect of spritual growth, says this:
“We cannot overemphasize bringing men and women to new birth in Christ. Evangelism is essential, critically essential. But is it not obvious that growth in Christ is equally essential? Yet the American church has not treated it with equivalent urgency. The American church runs on the euphoria and adrenaline of new birth – getting people into church, into the kingdom, into causes, into crusades, into programs. We turn matters of gowing up over to Sunday school teachers, specialists in Christian education, committees to revise curricula, retreat centers, and deeper life conferences, farming it out to parachurch groups for remedial assistance. I don’t find pastors and professors, for the most part, very interested in matters of formation in holiness. They have higher profile things to tend to.”
For Eugene, church in the West has been subject to all sorts of methods, techniques, and schemes for “church growth” that have not come from scripture. In the first chapter, Peterson notes two metaphors, during his lifetime, that American churches have used as means to an end. For Peterson, neither the means nor the end are holy. The end was always church growth (which means, almost without fail, numerical growth only), and the means was whatever “way” the world offers for “successful” entities to achieve or reach an established goal. These metaphors were militarism and business models.
Early on in Peterson’s life he recalls sermons based on Song of Songs 6:4, “You are as beautiful as Tirzah, my love, comely as Jerusalem, terrible as an army with banners.” If the church was to grow, it needed a military focus and discipline. The American military, after all, has been percieved as an incredibly successful force in the world. Later, however, after the harsh military mindset had escaped the predominant cultural agenda, another force (perhaps more powerful than the first) had replaced it – the business model. So many corporations had achieved never before imagined success, even stretching the unseen borders of America more than Rome could have dreamed of with double the army. Business models, permeating the conciousness of nearly every middle-upper class American, ever obsessed with effectiveness and fiscal success, were the new way to “make it” in the world. Got success? Try our model!
But when Eugene, as young pastor, began to reflect on the purpose of church as training centers in spiritual growth ever more into the likeness of Jesus Christ, the more he realized such models will not do.
“It turned out that I didn’t have an adequate imagination to deal with either my actual experience as a participating member in a church or my vocational repsonsibilities as a pastor. The childhood and adolescent illusions I grew up with didn’t survive long as I found my way as an adult in the church, worshiping and working for the most part with decidedly unglamorous and often desultory men and women. There were always exceptions, but nothing that matched the lissome Tirzah or the terrible army. On the other hand, the pragmatic vocational embrace of American technology and consumerism that promised to rescue congregations from ineffective obscrity, violated everything – scriptural, theological, experiential – that formed my identity as a follower of Jesus. It struck me as a terrible desecration of a way of life to which the church had ordained me, something onthe order of vocational abomination of desolation.”
Still yet, the point is not to expose false models for church growth. The point is to have a conversation on how people within churches “grow up in Christ.” And for the wise old pastor, it is deeply helpful to look to the book of Ephesians: an imperfect, weak, squabbling, fledgling little family of faith that Paul writes to in hopes that the disciples there would, “grow to be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.” Eugene concludes the first chapter by saying,
“It is significant that there is not a single instance in the biblical revelation of a congregation of God’s people given to us in romantic, crusader, or consumer terms. There are no “successful” congregations in Scripture or in the history of the church. But we do have Ephesians. We immerse ourselves in Ephesians to acquire a clean, uncluttered imagination of the ways and means by which the Holy Spirit forms church out of just such lives as ours. This is the holy soil in which we have been planted, the conditions that make it possible for us to grow up in Christ, to become mature, ‘healthy in God, robust in love.'”
Eugene’s intent, to this point in the book, is that we need to get over our notions of perfect church, or even successful church. The truth is, he writes,
“Paul’s account of the first-generation church is totally devoid of the romantic, the glamorous, the celebrity, the influential: ‘Consider your call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God.’ He still does.”
So this is what, better, who we are: the church. A gathering of imperfect people.
“Not a Tizrah illusion, not a ‘terrible as an army with banners’ illusion, not the lie of a humanly managed popular provider of religious goods and services, but a congregation of embarrasingly ordinary people in and through whom God chooses to be present to the world.”“