Eugene Peterson On Contemporary Worship

Just finished my first Eugene Peterson book.  Well, unless you count The Message – but I hear he had help with that one.  I decided to start early in his writing career; admittedly, Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work did not sound exciting to me at all.  This is probably because the Old Testament books he based these reflections on did not, at the outset, interest me.  How stupid of me!  The hype about Peterson’s pastoral writings is dead-on.  This is balm for the pastor’s soul.  There is so much that could be highlighted, but what I found juiciest was the discussion of Hebrew/Christian worship contrasted with Baalism in his chapter on Ecclesiastes and the work of ‘nay-saying’:

Pastors are subjected to two recurrent phrases from the people to whom they give spiritual leadership.  Both are reminiscent of Baalism, enough so as to earn the label “neo-Baalism.”  The phrases are: “Let’s have a worship experience” and “I don’t get anything out of it.”

About the call for a “worship experience”:

…neither the Bible nor church uses the word “worship” as a description of experience…worship is neither subjective only nor private only.  It is not what I feel when I am by myself; it is how I act toward God in responsible relation with God’s people.  Worship, in the biblical sources and in liturgical history, is not something a person experiences, it is something we do, regardless how how we feel about it, or whether we feel anything about it at all.

About the complaint that “I don’t get anything out of it.”

The assumption that supposedly validates the phrase is that worship must be attractive and personally gratifying.  But that is simply Baalism redivius [yeah, I had to Google it], worship trimmed tot he emotional and spiritual specifications of the worshiper.  The divine will that declares something beyond or other than what is already part of the emotional-mental construct of the worshiper is spurned.  That worship might call for something beyond us is shrugged off as obscurantist.  And so the one indispensable prsupposition of Christian worship, the God of the covenant who reveals himself in his word, is deleted.  A Freudian pleasure principle is substituted and worship is misused to harness God to human requirements…we may be entertained, warmed, diverted, or excited in such worship; we will probably not be changed, and we will not be saved  Our feelings may be sensitized and our pleasures expanded.  But our morals will be dulled and our God fantasized. (Peterson, Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work [Grand Rapids: Eerdman’s 1980], pp. 183-185)

Whew.  Now, nowhere does he come out and say this is a direct reference to the worship wars.  But I don’t see how it could be otherwise.  This is clearly a dig a the feelings-centered, emotionalistic worship that is widely assumed to be the only legitimate form of worship in certain Protestant circles.  At the end of the chapter, he does make a note indicating that not anything is to be tolerated in worship, that the pastor must be sensitive to the felt needs of the congregants, and that worship should be intelligently executed, vital, creative, and passionate.  But still, the bulk of the arguments seems to be against non-liturgical worship; the kind of worship that somehow draws a line between “praise” and “worship”; worship that assumes the gathering of the church community is only worthwhile if everyone leaves on a “high” and is planned as if Christians have only been gathering for worship since the Macintosh.

This is probably one of the best indictments of the philosophy behind contemporary worship that I’ve read.  But still, questions remain.  More and more, I’ve been wondering about the sociological draw of certain kinds of worship.  It strikes me that certain forms appeal to certain folks.  I’m not willing to write this on stone tablets, but it seems to me that there is a class correlation to worship preferences.  Now, whether there should be worship preferences is a different question altogether.  I’m no Luddite, either; I lead a liturgical service that makes use of a projector, sound, and video equipment.  But I do it wearing an alb.  Yeah, call me strange.

I don’t recall having reading about this elsewhere but I’m sure I’m not the first one to think this.  Anyone know of any resources that explore this?

A working thesis: perhaps, just perhaps, folks who are at the margins of society, folks who do not feel empowered  or believe their views and experience are deemed valid by the wider culture, would be drawn to worship that validates and encourages personal expression.  I am aware this is oversimplifying, but my own observation is that charismatic and pentecostal (and in general, “expressive”) worship tends to attract people on the underside of the social order, while “high church” worship seems to appeal to folks who are empowered by and within the prevailing order.  Exceptions abound – but I think I have enough evidence to convict.  Thoughts?

At any rate, Peterson is awesome; don’t let the validity or invalidity of any of my commentary dissuade you.  Any pastor would benefit – spiritually, psychologically, vocationally – from this work.

9 thoughts on “Eugene Peterson On Contemporary Worship”

  1. Working the Angles and Under the Unpredictable Plant are also really good books, but I consider Five Smooth Stones his best. I go back and read it time and again.

    I have no wisdom about the class/sociological analysis. I would not be surprised if there is some truth to that. Personality type also plays a role, I bet.

  2. I love what little I’ve read by him. Perhaps the most, _The Contemplative Pastor_. He suggests a subversive ministry, one in which the pastor pushes the congregation to reflect more faithfully the kingdom of God, even though they might object if presented upfront with what that really means.

    Your instincts resonate within me.

    1. I don’t have a great deal to say, except that you seem to have an interest in critiquing everything I post. That, of course is fine, I just find it curious.

      Defending The Message holds little interest to me. Technically it is a paraphrase and not a translation, so any critique that puts it on par of other preferred “translations” is actually missing the point altogether. My own thoughts, at least for the purposes of preaching and pedagogy in the church, are that the Message is a good servant but a poor master. It can be helpful to put Scripture in a common tongue, but should not be studied or read as a the primary source. I will say it often makes me think of angles I hadn’t imagined.

      I respect Peterson deeply. The book I quoted in this post is amazing for anyone in the pulpit.

  3. His ‘paraphrasing’ speaks volumes about the man’s perspective of the bible. Your infatuation with his writing skills, speaks volumes about you.

    I’m not interested in critiquing you as a person, but as a ‘man of God’ who speaks publicly.

  4. I thought only Rob Bell’s books could be condemned before reading them?

    He loves the Bible enough to try and make it readable.

    I’m not sure why my love for good writing bothers you, but…I’m sorry? I guess?

  5. I’m a writer, I can appreciate a good writer. What I can’t appreciate, is a man who twists God’s word, so that it conforms to modern society as to be more palatable.

    I’m just saying, your a ‘man of God’, and for you to accept a heretical piece of work goes without saying.

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