January 27, 2021

Eugene Peterson, Working the Angles and the Matt Chandler Bobblehead

WKAMatt Chandler spoke at my alma mater this week (yes SBTS alumni, class of ’84 and more). You can watch the message here, but one of the Thinklings excerpted part of Chandler’s message and the words were very familiar.

Chandler’s quoting Eugene Peterson, he who created the much vilified paraphrase “The Message” and who most recently endorsed The Shack with a glowing comparison to Pilgrim’s Progress. Suffice it to say you won’t read a lot of Peterson quotes at 9 Marks or hear his name dropped at Together for the Gospel. Classic mainline liberal, fiery prophet of learning from Dickinson and poets no one can pronounce, renegade translator of the original languages into even more original language, a curmudgeon who lives in Montana and doesn’t answer the phone, unapologetic advocate of “spiritual direction” and “contemplation,” and without question the most passionate advocate of the role of the classic Protestant pastor and the most fearsome critic of whatever it is that passes for a pastor today.

Chandler was reading from page 5 of the most underlined book in my library, Peterson’s nuclear attack on the contemporary re-invention of the pastor, Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity. If you think you are a pastor or might want to be, this book cannot be avoided.

I’ve read every word of Peterson that I can beg, buy, borrow or steal. I discovered him in the original IVP Long Obedience In The Same Direction, and then couldn’t stop. I’ve read Five Smooth Stones. If you have read that one, you can drink coffee with me anywhere.

In 1987, I was a young church staff member with a burning desire to preach, convinced that once people heard me they would melt like butter. Peterson took pastoral ambition and its contemporary manifestations in entrepreneurial and therapeutic garb to the bombing range, tied them down and proceeded to drop explosives for 130 pages. When he was finished, I never- never, never, ever- looked at a pastor the same way again.

You can complain that Peterson’s model of the pastorate is too Catholic, isn’t evangelistic, turns the pastor into a spiritual director, doesn’t match up with the pace of modern life, won’t work in the megachurch (oh my….you have to keep reading Peterson till you get there) and is just a reflection of his personality. I’ll tell you that Peterson is one of the few writers with the courage to keep his eye on the ball and tell the team exactly why they can’t play the game, even if they can point to a big score.

Peterson is closing his writing career with a series of books on Spirituality, The Bible and Discipleship. All are worthwhile. Whoever finds Peterson has found one of the true spiritual masters of our age. He’s PCUSA. His views on the controversial issues of the day probably wouldn’t be popular. He’s a contrarian with a massive burden for Jesus shaped people and pastors. But he speaks to everyone who’s teachable about what it means to be a pastor. Acquire his books and be torn down and built up.

A few words on Matt Chandler. I’ve listened to Chandler for several years and I notice a few things.

This is not one of those guys who shows any plans to join anyone’s club. He says he’s a Calvinist and he quickly says he doesn’t want to be known as one.

He is not anyone’s drooling fanboy, though he’s obviously appreciative of others.

He does not tolerate a cult of personality by looking like he doesn’t notice, all the while liking it. I’ve rarely heard anyone as severe on that aspect of the current evangelical scene.

He isn’t educated and he doesn’t play his church growth and preaching success as proving education doesn’t matter. (I do believe he can be a much better preacher with some academic study of the Bible, but neither God nor Matt asked for my opinion.)

His focus on the Gospel isn’t shorthand for a focus on Calvinism or Reformed theology. There is no reformed winking or nodding.

He genuinely struggles with the issues of multi-site success and a growing mega-church.

He understands the dynamics of hero-worship and ministerial celebrity that are flooding into evangelicalism today. He understands the dark side of technology. He convinces me he fears the potential damage and corruption.

He unashamedly built a large part of his church’s ministry on a Rick Warren program, Celebrate Recovery (lately evolved to their own version.)

In preaching, he cuts it to fit, not to entertain.

He may not be all about Peterson, but he gets Peterson’s critique of the contemporary minister and it is burning inside him.

I don’t think he will have a bobblehead anytime soon.

I don’t think he reads these kinds of posts.

His preaching style can be odd, even uncomfortably revivalistic, but you know there will be the real deal at the core of it all.

If there is someone out there who seems to defy most of the stereotypes, it’s Chandler.

I won’t ruin his life by saying I like him, but you ought to.


  1. Matt Chandler’s The Village Church is less than 2 miles from our house. The church is moving into a renovated Albertson’s Grocery Store soon, if they haven’t already. Since that’s on the OTHER side of Justin Road/Hwy 407 in what is the City of Flower Mound, TX, and not Highland Village (and also less than 2 miles from our house), I guess they’ll have to change the name to The Flower Church. 🙂

    FWIW, I took a Morris Proctor Logos Bible Software training seminar with Matt. Great guy from my experience and conversation. Tall, too.

    • Jonathan Hunnicutt says

      I live in Lewisville! But I haven’t had a chance to make it to the Village Church.

      But I’m becoming Anglican, so…

  2. I am reading through Peterson’s “conversations” right now. I’ve read “Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places” and “Eat This Book” and am now working through “The Jesus Way.”

    Rich, amazing, powerful, life-altering stuff. I love it.

  3. I pray that God will raise up more Chandlers and David Platts and Francis Chans. The timing of such men emerging in evangelicalism and that they are being given plattforms in the SBC is so encouraging. Soli Deo Gloria

  4. don’t know chandler, really, but i haven’t read anyone (other than willimon, maybe) who speaks to pastors as sharply, beautifully, and poignantly, as Peterson. looking forward to having that coffee…i loved five smooth stones (and under the unpredictable plant, working the angles, contemplative pastor, long obedience, christ plays, eat this book, the Jesus way etc.). He’s GREAT!

  5. iMonk- during my current time in the wilderness there have been only a few voices that give me hope in Jesus. Eugene Peterson and you are the top of that list. Thanks.

  6. Every time Peterson’s name is mentioned, I fall down, ala Wayne and Garth, and cry, “I’m not worthy!”

    Seriously, he’s the gravity that keeps my feet on the ground in ministry. I start reading him and all the circus music fades. “Yes, thank God,” I think. “Someone gets it.”

  7. Thanks, I Monk. You’ve pointed me to a few good books before, but I’ve never read Peterson. Till now.

  8. Lots of great stuff about Peterson and I just have to nod and agree. I have only read some of his newer stuff though, looks like I might need to dig up some of those other titles.

    When it comes to Chandler I have yet to figure him out. He’s about the only guy that I can listen to him yell and not feel the need to turn him off. It’s a passion rather than an anger and most people SAY that’s what it is, but with him you can tell.

  9. Peterson is the kind of pastor I should have wanted to be like. His concerns, perspectives, etc., were like my own, but the “relevant church” crowd got to me. 🙂 When I want company in my part of the evangelical wilderness I turn to Peterson. I knew he had to be listened to when I found that I had hardly heard of the books on his “must reads” list. No Moody Press, IVP, Zondervan, Nav Press, etc. Maybe a little of Eerdmans. Who will take his place? (Gosh, I love The Message).

  10. One of my daughters goes to The Village and works in Little Village. It is a great church and Matt Chandler is authentic. I knew of him when he was “Matt who?” and remember when The Village wasnt’, but was another dying congregation when Matt came as pastor. What God has done in that place and through Matt’s leadership is phenomenal. May his tribe increase!

  11. aaron arledge says

    I just started on 5 stones. Looking forward to reading more of his stuff.

  12. “Traveling Light”, Peterson’s commentary on Galatians, is another classic, but well worth reading. I worry for our future when people like Peterson are vilified. I’m not into Hybel’s whole contagious Christianity thing, but I don’t get this other side, which seems to take as their calling to make everyone and everything as miserable as possible.

  13. Matt Chandler…from what I’ve heard on his podcasts, good stuff.

    I remember when few in the Denton/Flower Mound area (where I live) knew him. And now, I see him quoted in people’s facebook statuses nationwide.

    I never did attend his church, but I know a couple of people who do.

  14. I haven’t read Peterson’s books yet, but he gets mentioned by other authors that I love, so I do need to read some. I am not a preacher, as you know. Is there one you would recommend over others to me? I really enjoy reading his The Message online. Eventually, I may buy the book. I know people “vilify” the book, like you said, Michael, I guess because it is paraphrased and because he did it on his own, so to speak. But if the man knows his Hebrew, Greek, and Latin and is guided by prayer and the Holy Spirit, I say more power to him!

    In honor of Peterson, here is his take on Matthew 3:11-12 where John the Baptist says:
    “I’m baptizing you here in the river, turning your old life in for a kingdom life. The real action comes next: The main character in this drama—compared to him I’m a mere stagehand—will ignite the kingdom life within you, a fire within you, the Holy Spirit within you, changing you from the inside out. He’s going to clean house—make a clean sweep of your lives. He’ll place everything true in its proper place before God; everything false he’ll put out with the trash to be burned.” (That’s Peterson style, all right.)

    • My two cents, if your not a pastor (which I’m not), his newest series on Spiritual Theology is excellent. “Christ plays in ten thousand places” is the first but not the easiest to get thru. “Eat this book” is an excellent book on the role of scripture/divine reading in our lives. Vocational wrestling? “Under the Unpredictable Plant” is very good, and one that God has used several times to reorient me. He’s done several books reflecting on various portions of the Psalms, all good. Michael’s mention of “A Long obedience in the same direction”, also a good general read. “Subversive Spirituality” a collection of essays, a good sampling but I think his regular books are better, not to mention the pastoral books that are good for anyone in any shepherding role (all of us as God leads).

      As you can see, I’m not anyone of consequence but I think he is a modern day prophet for the Protestant church in North America at the very least. And finally, I just love to read his style of writing. It’s ruggedly eloquent, poetic, earthy, disruptive and Jesus centered. He is a literary mentor.

  15. I have been privileged to hear/see Eugene Peterson speak at the Writers’ Symposium by the Sea at Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego a few years ago. He speaks but rarely, and stepped in to fill the shoes of a dear friend unable to attend (sorry, I’m a former literature prof, not a theologian, so don’t remember who it was.

    Peterson’s Eat This Book was incredible. And I loved his premise that all pastors should spend the first two years of seminary studying literature; his story about how reading Joyce’s Ulysses changed his perspective on pastoring “ordinary people” is wonderful.

    Here’s the video of the talk at Point Loma, if anyone’s interested: http://video.google.com/videosearch?q=eugene+peterson&hl=en&emb=0&aq=0&oq=eugene+peter#

    Susanne 🙂

  16. I am disabled and often have to miss church unless I want to risk a trip to the emergency room. Matt Chandler is my preacher when I’m stuck inside, and God has mightily touched me through his teaching! He hammers the gospel over and over and over and over and I need it so badly. I grew up in the church, and to me the gospel used to be that thing you learned in grade school, something to graduate past. I now have a deep passion for the gospel and find I learn more about it and learn it more deeply every day.

  17. Aside from NT Wright, there is no pastor/preacher I have more respect for than Eugene Peterson. His series of books on Spiritual Theology literally transformed my understanding of preaching. Thanks for the post. If I could have only 10 books in my library, Peterson’s would be fully 8 of them. (The other two would be the Bible and The Count of Monte Cristo.) Only Peterson would have the nerve to title a book about discipleship after a quote by Nietzsche.

    The only thing that bugs me is that there is, at least that I have found, not much in the way of Peterson’s sermons anywhere–written or audio recordings. If you know where to find them, do enlighten.

    Thanks again.

  18. Not sure how anyone could villify Peterson, unless they’ve not met him or been in a room with him. The man leaks humility and authority, and he is as grounded as anyone I’ve ever read. He knows the story of Scripture and tells it over and over without contradicting himself.

    Christ Plays was a masterpiece. No one’s mentioned Reversed Thunder yet. Great read on Revelation that stays away from prediction. Pastors not reading Peterson should begin today.

  19. I loved Reversed Thunder. What am image for prayer!!!

  20. “When he was finished, I never- never, never, ever- looked at a pastor the same way again.” yup
    I’ve found lots of good Peterson resources at Regent’s book store!

    “….to the bombing range” Amen 🙂

  21. To quote a blurb on the back of one of Peterson’s books, “Peterson saved my pastoral soul.” I go back to him regularly — his best stuff is readable and re-readable and re-readable and re-readable…you get the drift. I am indebted to him for reminding me again of the nobility of being a good priest. He is the man!

  22. I love Peterson. His book “The Contemplative Pastor” radically changed the way I thought about my job (and myself). No one blends deep mystical spirituality, a wide breadth of academic engagement and the centrality of Jesus like he does.

  23. Trey Atkins says

    Peterson calls me to integrity and honesty like no other. I read “Working the Angels” and “Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work” every year; plus, anything else I can get my hands on. Thanks for letting a broader community know about this wonderful author.

  24. I’ve read most of Peterson’s books and now watching and listening to him speak on the You Tube video he comes across as an old man set in his ways. He could be dogmatic at times. He has an over insistence on story and really doesn’t understand the “evolution” of doctrine and thinking that has come from the result of looking at life and the Scriptures

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