Eugene Peterson


BOB ABERNETHY, host: We have a profile today of the writer and retired Presbyterian minister Eugene Peterson. His latest book is “The Pastor,” a memoir that includes Peterson’s concerns about how hard it is for pastors and everyone else to live Christian lives in modern America. Peterson is best known for one of his many earlier books, “The Message,” his translation of the entire Bible into everyday American English. “The Message” has sold more than 15 million copies worldwide.

Peterson lives now in northwestern Montana near Glacier National Park. In late winter it is both majestic and full of life. Peterson grew up nearby, in Kalispell in the Flathead Valley. His father was a butcher who built a summer place on Flathead Lake, which Peterson and his wife, Jan, expanded and improved. When we met there, I asked Peterson about his theology, but he said he has little time for anything abstract. He listens for the holy, he said, in people and in the quiet of the place he loves.

EUGENE PETERSON: How do you pay attention to the unheard, the unseen? In a cluttered, noisy, distracted society it’s very hard to do it. A lot of the language in the church—well, not just the church, in religion itself, has to do with trying to figure out the truth of things. What’s true? What’s true? And I’m not really interested in what’s true. I want to know if I can live it. I want to test it out.

post01-eugenepetersonABERNETHY: Peterson was the founding pastor and for 30 years the minister of Christ Our King Presbyterian Church near Baltimore, Maryland. Because he had been trained as a scholar, he started out giving lectures from the pulpit.

PETERSON: After a couple of years I realized, you know, this isn’t working, and I began to change the way I talked, the way I preached, the way I taught, so I was inviting conversation, and you enter into the soul, the spirit of somebody else by listening to them, not by telling them something. I get asked, what do you miss most about being a pastor? I think it’s the intimacy, the incredible gift of intimacy. You go through death with somebody, with their families, and there’s an intimacy that comes through that that is just incomparable.

ABERNETHY: In his 30-some books, one of Peterson’s themes is that there is no way pastors can develop one-on-one relationships with their people if their churches have more than about 500 members.

PETERSON: A pastor in personal relationship is not just trying to find ways to make people feel good, loved, whatever. This is a kingdom life we are living. It has to do with salvation. It has to do with justice. It has to do with compassion, and you can’t do that wholesale. You just can’t.

ABERNETHY: So Peterson deplores megachurches. He thinks they are too big for pastors and worshipers to have close relationships with each other.

post02-eugenepetersonPETERSON: What’s so bad about it is that they don’t have to live responsibly. When you are part of a megachurch you have no responsibility to anybody else.

ABERNETHY: But, obviously, aren’t megachurches what many people want?

PETERSON: The minute the church and pastors start saying what do people want and then giving it to them, we betray our calling. We’re called to have people follow Jesus. We’re called to have people learn how to forgive their enemies. We’re called to show people that there is a way of life which has meaning beyond their salary or beyond how good they look.

ABERNETHY: Not surprisingly, Peterson also condemns the so-called prosperity gospel—preaching that if people follow Jesus, God will give them tangible rewards.

PETERSON: Well, I think it’s a lie. I think it’s just a downright rotten lie. It’s nowhere in Christian tradition, so how does this get going in our culture? It’s greed is what it is. It’s greed given a spiritual name: God will bless you. I want to ask these prosperity gospel people, do your people ever die? Do the people in your church ever die? What do you do when they die? Where’s the prosperity in that? I don’t have much patience with them, to tell you the truth, because I think they’re defrauding people.

ABERNETHY: I also asked Peterson what he thought of doing church online.

post06-eugenepetersonPETERSON: Oh, my. You know that you can have virtual baptisms now? There are pastors who have virtual baptisms. You can—he’ll baptize your baby in the bathtub. You do the baptizing, he’ll say the words, and you have a virtual baptism. How do you like that?

ABERNETHY: As Peterson compares life on Flathead Lake in Montana to life in the rest of the country, he does not like what he sees.

PETERSON: American culture is probably the least Christian culture that we’ve ever had because it is so materialistic and it’s so full of lies. The whole advertising world is just, it’s just intertwined with lies, appealing to the worst of the instincts we have. The problem is people have been treated as consumers for so long they don’t know any other way to live.

ABERNETHY: The antidote, for Peterson, is what pastors can teach.

PETERSON: Introduce them to a living Christ, a Christ who makes life livable in the terms in which you are living—that everything in the gospel is livable, not just true.

ABERNETHY: Although the mainline Protestant churches have lost millions of members, Peterson sees them as essential.

PETERSON: I think the mainline churches are the ones who are kind of holding things together while all this faddy stuff goes on.

ABERNETHY: I could not resist asking Peterson how he and his wife, as Christians, have dealt with the prosperity his books have brought them.

PETERSON: We give it all away. Our standard of living hasn’t changed, not a bit. We just—we know a lot of people we like to give it to.

ABERNETHY: In retirement Peterson seems content with his writing and his sense of place—of being, in his words, at home.

PETERSON: What makes me sure of what I’m doing is that virtually everything that seems to me that I’ve believed I’ve been able to live.

  • Beverly Heid

    where can you find his book “Will of God as a Way of Life: How to make every decision with Peace & Confidence?

  • Barbara of Berkeley

    So timely, appreciate Bob Abernethy’s interview with Pastor Peterson near Flathead Lake – one of my favorite places on earth.
    Pastor Petersen thank you for your courage, we share similar views on the ‘prosperity gospel’ and it’s negative implication that if you are suffering financially, it is your fault and shames those in need. Many years ago, I really wanted to move to Kalispell but instead worked and purchased my first home in Missoula. Eventually I ended up in No California and now work at Cal.
    Cal is not anything like it was 30 years ago, but in many ways it is worse, today’s young people are so self consumed, our society cleverly has closed them off from the world by distracting them with electronic devices of every sort. The programs they watch, the music they listen to and the games they play, protray life as a self indulgent consumer obsessed ‘Goal”. Now! Cal’s plan is to move education toward online instruction, which will isolate them even more. Our educational institution’s have forgotten their obligation to teaching the whole person.
    As a child in Madison WI, I attended a catholic elementary (50+ students per class) our education was spotty, but the Sisters/Nuns & Priests opened our eyes to our place & responsibility in the world. 1st protect the weak & vulunerable among us, including children, elderly, anyone suffering from discrimination and if you see something wrong – don’t be afraid to question to authority.
    How can we teach our children, it’s a privilege & a responsibility to give back, if they don’t know anyone else is here?

  • Pilar

    I really loved reading this interview and have the utmost respect for Pastor Peterson.

  • Ruth Elsbernd

    To live the Gospel as Peterson suggests and to outlaw advertising and the greed it fosters would turn American culture upside down. Then we could let go of greed and care about the rest of people starving and homeless. Perhaps then we could welcome the immigrants.

  • Sharon Kuehnel

    Excellent interview. Love Pastor Peterson’s honesty and ethical standards. I thank God for men such as this who stand for the truth of the Gospel.

  • Joe R. Goss

    Having been a part of a mega church for many years, Peterson is spot on with his comments. The fact that you can sooth your conscience by attending a mega church and easily disappear into the woodwork, therefore avoiding accountablity and responsibilty are why so many people attend.

    Plus you get great wholesome entertainment.

  • Joe mccarthy

    Thank you!

    Refreshing , clear, principled and focused.

  • John J. Burke

    I was much impressed with Pastor Peterson’s approach to faith and life. As a Roman Catholic and the father of a priest-pastor, I have some idea of how challenging his life is/was. He and his wife appear to practice charity in a clearcut manner, without reservation. As a weekly viewer of Religion & Ethics, I found the Peterson interview a moving experience.

  • Karl Pohlhaus

    I agree with Rev. Peterson. Let me clarify my agreement. I believe that being a Christian means practicing ethical principles and seeking the experience of the presence of God. Hinduism, Buddhism, Sufi Islam and mystical Judaism also agree. As Christians and as spiritually minded people we walk on two legs-practicing Micah’s instructions-doing justice, loving compassion and walking with God (the essence of righteousness) and with the near countless mystics of every stripe, seeking the direct experience of God-in quiet, in meditation, in prayer, in joy and in intention, Church has its place for reasons of community and reinforcement but often church attendance means little unless it brings us both the prophetic function and draws us closer to God in the moment. Big churches miss that. Materialism misses that. Easy, Cheap grace as practiced by born-againism misses that. The apparent marriage between materialism and evangelical/fundamentalism is an artificial religious expression that generates financial success and little else.

  • Jack Morrison

    I’m an atheist and felt enraptured while watching the Peterson interview. His message was direct, sensible, and thought provoking. I’ll certainly read him. I’m retired and do volunteer work. Some time back I visited the office of the church where my membership resides and offered to do repairs, yard work, etc, for elderly, disabled, or impoverished church members. I was told politely that “we have no programs to address such needs, but thank you.” I wonder what Reverend Peterson would have thought of that. The church is large and affluent, but not all that large.

  • Ken Phipps

    Our pastor introduced Peterson’s paraphrased edition of the Bible to us several years ago. I use it regularly in my private study and in our Life Group. I was very please to see Mr Peterson on your most recent broadcast on the Dayton, OH Public Broadcast Station Channel 14. I watch your program every Sunday just before I go to Church.

  • Judy

    Loved the book! It really helped put a “face” on the creation of “The Message”. It is also refreshing to hear a voice of maturity talk about his growing in faith, place, and leadership. Thank you Pastor Peterson!

  • Ted Kehn

    I have read several of Pastor Peterson’s books and use “The Message” frequently in Bible study, but this was my first opportunity to see him in an interview. He comes across as a true follower of Christ; he has a moral and spiritual anchor in his Savior. There are so few, so very few, with his character and devotion.

  • Merle McCallister


    I particularly appreciated Pastor Peterson’s comments on mega-churches and theology of prosperity-churches. He was able to verbalize what I have essentially felt for some time. Would appreciate being able to contact Pastor Peterson via US mail, but do not want to invade his privacy. May I submit a letter to him through Religion and Ethics?

  • David Fischer

    I apprecisted the interview as I have read his Message and several of his books without ever seeing him speak.
    He has the voice of spiritual experience from his journey with Christ. Thank you dear brother for your thoughts of wisdom. I just wrote my memoir as a lay person who struggled with God and myself as to which would dominate my life. My accumulated thoughts included an indictment of the mega-churches and the promotion of the mainline churches as the truer sentinals of Christ’s way of living. If we can’t live it it isn’t real. God bless you!

  • Lila Campbell

    I was really moved by this interview. Peterson sees living day to day in our current Kingdom as i aspire to.
    And ditto to Joe Goss’s comment on Mega Churches. My boys go every other weekend to my small church (120). Very personal, relational ‘body of believers’ kind of church. Where everybody knows your name and we’re a family of sorts. It’s a neighborhood church actually so we do mostly all live around the church, which adds a bonus that your fellow worshippers are also your neighbors
    My boys go to a mega church with their father every other Sunday. That’s exactly what I think all three of them experience – exactly what Joe Goss described above. Well said, IMO, Joe!
    Keep on writing and talking, Mr. Peterson……you speak the truth to me.

  • Diane Tucker

    Thank you for highlighting this quiet man of integrity when what we mostly hear from American christians in the mainstream media (I am in Canada) is bitter judgment, political spin and money-grubbing.

    Eugene Peterson’s book “A Long Obedience in the Same Direction” changed my life of faith profoundly and permanently improved my mental health. Truth will do that!

  • windom elliott

    How do you pay attention to the unheard, the unseen. I think I’ve read look to the unseen, but the unheard I’m not sure of what your refering to.As far as the unseen I think your point of view was to get primary focous on God through the way society is today. Look to the unseen a verse comes to mind 1 Corinthians chapter 15 verse 47. The megachurch judge not and not be judged,but be about your own buisness being a pastor would the magachurch be your buisness.Treat others as you want to be treated.There are somethings I would like to talk about with someone with alot of knowledge in scripture.

  • jc

    My experience in small churches consisted of controlling pastors operating under the guise of “accountability”. Whining congregants who cared only about themselves. Narrow-mindedness and choking traditionality. . My mega-church allows me to take it or leave it. I don’t feel pressured to get involved with things or people I don’t agree with. I have a large pool of people I can choose to be, or not be with. I’m experiencing spiritual “freedom”.

  • JS

    I caught the ending of this program, but what I heard I really enjoyed. i think he is so right about the compromise we are making in the churches today. God is not pleased!

  • jc

    I have to smile at Mr. Peterson’s exhortation that mainline churches are holding Christendom together while all the “faddy stuff” fades away. How many mainline pastors condemned Mr. Peterson’s “the message” as faddy. Not true biblical stuff. The holy spirit holds churches together not any mainline denomination.

  • Darlene Kostrub

    Does Mr. Peterson speak or preach now in Montana?

  • Howard Norgaard

    In the 1950′s there was a Eugene Peterson in Harlan, Iowa, attending the same church I attended. He was a Bible scholar and serious thinker. Is this the same Eugene Peterson? I think he would recognize the Norgaard name.

  • Keith Kirkpatrick

    Just spent the weekend with the Peterson’s at a conference for small churches that Eugene keynoted in Naches, WA (near Yakima). What a wonderful loving couple, and so willing to drive the long distance from their home in Montana to this small central Washington town as a favor to Pastor Steve Trotter, who interned with and assisted Eugene with some writing at Christ the King Church in Baltimore.