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How can one get away with adultery, drunkenness, and many other sins within the church? Eugene Peterson tells us how to do this with a rather sad, but also very humorous story about his time as a pastor submitting a monthly written report to his denominational oversight team. Peterson said that the first page of his report was typically on the “3 B’s of “ministry success” (Buildings, Budgets, and Bodies). So he would report how many showed up in his congregation to the services, how much money was given, how the building campaign was progressing, and other similar stats. The second page (& beyond) of his report was supposed to be the aspects of his ministry regarding spiritual health and where God was at work within the church. Peterson said that after doing this report for some time, he began to get the feeling that his denominational oversight team was not reading beyond the second page; all they were concerned about was the first page on the more outward measurements of ministry (Buildings, Bodies, and Budgets). In order to test his theory, Peterson, over the next many months, would add into his denominational report, beyond the first page, about how he had a drinking problem, was sleeping with another woman, and doing all other sorts of vile sins. Month after month would go by, and he would hear nothing from his denomination about all of his open, rampant sins that he had written into his report. He said that he and his wife would get together and just make up all sorts of wild stories beyond that first page, having a grand old time with it too! And of course, as the months went by, Peterson never heard anything from the denominational office, mostly confirming to him that they were not reading beyond the first page. In essence, Peterson was getting away with all sorts of sins that he, of course, didn’t commit, but was nonetheless reporting to his leadership!
After some time had passed the denominational leaders summoned Peterson to the head office so that he could evaluate how they were doing with their oversight. Once Peterson arrived he told them that they were doing a good job in most areas, but that he was disappointed that they were not reading his full, monthly report. They protested and assured him that they did indeed read all of his reports. Peterson then said, “Well why didn’t you help me with my drinking problem, or reprimand me for the affair I was having?” The leaders were dumbfounded! Eventually, they got Peterson’s point!
ARE WE CONCERNED AT ALL WITH WHAT’S ON THE SECOND PAGE?
What is it that we can learn from this account? I think that we must honestly ask ourselves, “Are we more concerned with the ‘first page’ (the “3 Bs” of Success-Buildings, Budgets, and Bodies), or are we more concerned with the ‘second page’ (our spiritual health and intimacy with God and His working in our lives) in our churches?” I believe it’s safe to say that for the most part, in the Western church, especially in America, we are far more concerned with the “first page” rather than the “second page.” I think that we would be quite content with spiritual stagnation for an indefinite period of time as long as the “numbers were up” and there was plenty of “activity” going on. We falsely perceive numerical growth, and “movement,” along with a full calendar with zero white space on it, as somehow more spiritual than a long prayer meeting or a deep Bible study. As J.R. Briggs says in his book “Fail,” this overt focus on the “first page” of quantifiable success is “what develops when we have a Bible in one hand and Forbes in the other” (pg. 63). Let’s face it: It’s a whole lot easier to count the number of heads in your church service than it is to extract pride from your heart or cultivate humility.
Denominations will give out plaques and will publish records with your church’s name in the “top 10” of giving to a particular cause, but where is the notoriety for a church that has had a consistent prayer meeting on Saturday nights from 7pm-10pm for nearly 10 years now? No one is looking for notoriety in those situations, but it is quite telling that the sheets we hand out are those that consist of, mostly, metrics that concern the budget, bodies, or buildings. Maybe we don’t have sheets that speak of advancement in prayer and spiritual growth because these virtues are a little more difficult to measure quantifiably, and I think that’s part of the point here. We have somehow duped ourselves into believing that the only measurements of success in Christianity concern outward measurements alone. We’ve completely, or at least mostly, neglected the fact that we have very little control over the actual growth of a ministry or a church. We are sowers and waterers of the Word; only God can bring the increase (1 Corinthians 3). There is much in ministry that we cannot see, and sometimes that makes us nervous or doubtful about our work, but it sure is a good test of our faith and trust in God and His Word. God calls us to set our eyes and our minds upon Him, to be faithful to preach and teach His Word, and to live lives that trust in Him and seek after His holiness. If we will do these things, we will focus on the “second page” and not just the “first page” alone. (Below is a link to J.R. Briggs’ “Fail” book which I HIGHLY recommend to anyone who cares about the overall health of evangelical churches today!)
I first heard this story from J.R. Briggs in an interview I saw on YouTube. Here are links to two of his interviews (Link 1 and Link 2). You can also find an extensive quote from Peterson on this story at Kevin DeYoung’s blog here.
YOUR TURN! (I’d love to hear Your Thoughts in the “Comment” section below!)
- Would you say that your church focuses more on outward numbers or more on spiritual growth? If spiritual growth, then in what ways does your church focus on spiritual growth?