January 15, 2021

The Eugene Peterson Book That Turned My World Upside Down

epeterson.jpgI’d read Eugene Peterson for a while in his IVP Old Testament books when I purchased and read a book on pastoral ministry called Working the Angles. Wow.

No book in my library is more underlined. This is what I needed to hear in seminary. It’s what I needed to hear from older men in my denomination. If you are like me as a young minister with dreams of success, this is the cold cup of water that will wake you up.

Working the Angles is still in print, but you won’t find it recommended by many of the pastors you hear at conferences. Here’s why:

American pastors are abandoning their posts, left and right, and at an alarming rate. They are not leaving their churches and getting other jobs. Congregations still pay their salaries. Their names remain on the church stationary and they continue to appear in pulpits on Sundays. But they are abandoning their posts, their calling. They have gone whoring after other gods. What they do with their time under the guise of pastoral ministry hasn’t the remotest connection with what the church’s pastors have done for most of twenty centuries.

A few of us are angry about it. We are angry because we have been deserted…. It is bitterly disappointing to enter a room full of people whom you have every reason to expect share the quest and commitments of pastoral work and find within ten minutes that they most definitely do not. They talk of images and statistics. They drop names. They discuss influence and status. Matters of God and the soul and Scripture are not grist for their mills.

The pastors of America have metamorphosed into a company of shopkeepers, and the shops they keep are churches. They are preoccupied with shopkeeper’s concerns–how to keep the customers happy, how to lure customers away from competitors down the street, how to package the goods so that the customers will lay out more money.

Some of them are very good shopkeepers. They attract a lot of customers, pull in great sums of money, develop splendid reputations. Yet it is still shopkeeping; religious shopkeeping, to be sure, but shopkeeping all the same. The marketing strategies of the fast-food franchise occupy the waking minds of these entrepreneurs; while asleep they dream of the kind of success that will get the attention of journalists.

The biblical fact is that there are no successful churches. There are, instead, communities of sinners, gathered before God week after week in towns and villages all over the world. The Holy Spirit gathers them and does his work in them. In these communities of sinners, one of the sinners is called pastor and given a designated responsibility in the community. The pastor’s responsibility is to keep the community attentive to God. It is this responsibility that is being abandoned in spades.

From the introduction of Working the Angles written by Eugene Peterson.


  1. Mike,

    thanks for the post. I’ll get the book. Looking forward to reading it.

    thanks for your thoughts…

  2. Hi Michael
    Been in the ministry for quite some time now. I have only read one book of Peterson (The Jesus Way). As you said. Peterson is not recomended as reading for any theology student or pastor I know of. We have two theology students in ou church. They are very confused as a reslut of what they are taught at University. During the December holidays we will be working through “The Jesus Way” together. When that is done, I am going ot try this one.

    As I was reading these words I thought the question I am going to post will be: “What is it that pastors should be doing, because I agree with what Peterson says. The these words. “The pastors responsibility is to keep the community attentive to God.”

    Today I wil seek every opportunity to make God’s angels attentive to Gos, by showing them the signs He left that He is at work in this perons life.

    Thanks for the post.

  3. I have a pastor friend in Romania and he asked that I send some books on pastoral ministry. You know what he got, a big box full of Peterson and Willard.

    I think no other book influenced me more than his book A Long Walk in the Same Direction. Just the title speaks volumes.

    Great reading.

  4. Patrick Kyle says

    Peterson is a freakin’ genius, and a spiritual giant. His book ‘Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work’ up ended my whole paradigm for ministry. Another of his works ‘The Contemplative Pastor’ has encouraged my Pastor and a couple others I know to stay in the ministry. I am currently enjoying the third volume of his magnum opus on Spiritual Theology ” The Jesus Way.” What a breath of fresh air.What clarity of vision. What sanity.
    Michael, did you see his interview in ‘Christianity Today’ a year or two ago? I can’t believe they printed it. He flat out says “Relevance (in reference to the Church growth mantra) is a crock.”
    God bless that man.

  5. This book is my handbook for ministry. I have a guy in parish preparing for ordination working through it with me right now. Absolutely life/ministry changing for me.

  6. Michael,

    This is a great quote! Thanks for this and for changing my mind about Eugene Peterson.
    I also have a question about him. In some comments on internet sites, people are critical about him. They accuse him of using New Age principals in his Bible translation. I have read passages, but couldn’t recognise it as New Age. I sincerely want to know what’s happening. What’s your opinion on this? Other people are invited to react as well.


  7. Hi David,
    You asked about Eugene Peterson and New Age principals re: the Message. I have heard this as well and truth be told, I am not a huge fan of The Message. The language strikes me as unpoetic and too vernacular, sacrificing the genres expressed in the Good Book. However, Peterson is very well schooled in Biblical Hebrew and Greek and there are places in The Message where he gets the sense of the Greek and the Hebrew exactly right. In other translations, the sense is lost in the attempt at either literal one-to -one word translation or in making it too relevant. Peterson has an interview with Christianity Today called Spirituality for All the Wrong Reasons. Unfortunately, CT requires a subscription to read it, but I have read this online somewhere without a subscription. In it, you will read a devastating critique of the New Age and the search for relevance in the Christian church today, so at least in PEterson’s own mind he is dead set against the accusations against him. Like iMonk, I find Peterson to be a voice in the wilderness setting the path straight for those of us entering ministry.

  8. Nicholas Anton says

    Re church pastors/elders/shepherds
    As a bridge to understanding the following, I will firstly introduce the reader to the varying, interplaying concepts and practices surrounding the question of church government, and the one event that shifted the whole initiation and developing process to an antithetical conclusion. The three dominant forms of government in the first century Roman empire were the Patriarchal, tribal concepts as practiced by Israel, though in a corrupted form, the various forms of democracy as introduced by and practiced in the Greek city states, and the autocratic, dictator type rulerships as exemplified by the monarchies of ancient societies, including, as well, the autocratic government of Rome. The one event that changed the direction of church government late in the first century was the destruction of Jerusalem by Titus in 70 A.D. As a result, that which had been taught by Jesus, that which had existed in the church at Jerusalem as well as in other Jewish churches, that which was being introduced to and was being established in the Gentile churches by Paul and his emissaries, Timothy and Titus, evolved into something entirely different from Jesus’ teaching and Jewish practice; something more akin to autocratic Roman concepts, though it continued to use the same terms as had existed in the church at Jerusalem in it’s inception and as was being introduced in the Gentile churches.
    Now, regarding the terms “pastor”, “shepherd”, and “elder”, which are not used interchangeably and synonymously as the “elder rule” group would suggest, allow me to make the following observation and suggestion. As in the late first century Greco-Roman churches, we have taken a simple word, meaning older/senior, have, because of shifting practice and usage read a hyper dose of authority and dignity into the term, transformed the term into a title, and then once bestowed on an individual, we assume them to also possess the qualities, as well as the supposed authority and dignity that we have imagined to go with the term. Thus, through the evolution of terms, we have transformed a youth into a senior and a servant into a king. That is the way of the world. Though we know for certain that the transformation of the term “elder” from representing a naturally older, mature patriarch within a patriarchal society with the natural responsibilities and dignity that go with it, into a bureaucratic position did take place, the only point of contention are when and why?
    Allow me to propose the existence and functioning of a natural eldership versus a bureaucratic eldership in the early church, because of Old Testament practice, because of what Jesus taught in Scripture, because what the term itself signifies, because what the early church taught and practiced, because of what was introduced in the Greco-Roman churches by Paul and his emissaries, and because of the basic instructions in Scripture at large regarding elder qualifications and church leadership. In that all the epistles in the Bible were written prior to the destruction of Jerusalem by Titus in 70 A.D., they must be interpreted in the church context prior to the Romanization of the church after 70 A.D..

  9. @David

    Not that I am fluent with Eugene Peterson, but I love what I have read. I have not seen any “New Age” influence, just a man deeply influenced by the Bible. There are many people who if something does not fit there private understanding are willing to label it in a derogatory fashion. “New Age” is a wonderful label because it is so nebulous and ill defined. Moreover, there are similar words like meditation. Some people cannot grasp that the terminology looks similar but is not and so they rant. Half the time when I see someone complaining about “New Age” practices they do not understand what they are complaining about and they do not understand the evil practice they compare it to. How do you pick such people out, read lots and get to know some of those new age (no quotes here) people.

    Good job on asking the question. I hope the answer is not too vague.

  10. A friend of mine bugged me for three years to read Working the Angles. I am so glad I finally did. A great insight into ministry by a man who is not cowed by American ecclesiastical successism.

  11. Here is a link to the Peterson interview mentioned by some which does not require a CT subscription:


  12. I am not a pastor by vocation, but I am married to one and shepherd by practice. Reading Working the Angles has done tremendous things for the way we approach ministry together and individually. Since every believer is a minister in my tradition, I would recommend this volume to every follower of Jesus. Thanks for sharing the excerpt from the introduction. The conviction was thick in the room when Ronnie and I read those paragraphs aloud.

  13. Black Angus says

    I had the joy of coming across Peterson while I was at Bible College and like for many people above he has shaped my approach to pastoral ministry more than any other writer. His emphasis on Scripture, prayer and what I think of as an ‘agricultural’ approach to ministry really struck me: ‘That’s the kind of pastor I want to be!’ By agricultural I mean Peterson’s emphasis on long-term patience. Not looking for quick changes or growth but planting now for a long-term harvest, and sticking around to be part of it! He should be on the required reading list for anyone training for or in pastoral work.

  14. Eugene Peterson has written some wonderful, challenging books. Like Josh, A Long Walk in the Same Direction is one of my favorites. I’ve also been really enjoying his new series of books, the first of which is Christ Plays in 10,000 Places. I like The Message, though I prefer reading passages in conjunction with another version. I do wish more people could be exposed to his other books, as well.

  15. I’d just like to add that I am a student at a large Southern Baptist Seminary and Peterson’s books on pastoral ministry (though not his Bible translation) were recommended to me by at least 2 different professors and also were recommended in a chapel service. So, I’m glad to say that at least some are still “getting it.” I’m trying to get my hands on Five Smooth Stones now.

  16. Joshua Manning says

    Between Michael Spencer, Eugene Peterson, and Capt. Picard, bald is cool again!

  17. I really appreciate Peterson’s depth, humility, and willingness to share his perspective.

    I was able to download some good talks and an interview of him from Calvin College’s web site.
    You might also be interested in Mary Yerkes’ blog post containing a PDF of Peterson’s presentation: “What Are Writers Good For?”

  18. People,

    Thanks for your answers on my question about Peterson. It really helps me.

  19. I just love Peterson’s books on pastoral ministry. Get them. Read them. He has the really irritating habit of saying “he or she” whenever referring to a pastor, but he has so many profound and insightful things to say that you just have to forgive him.

    The Contemplative Pastor
    Working The Angles
    Under The Unpredictable Plant
    Five Smooth Stones For Pastoral Work

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