The Jesus Way Versus the American Way

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Eugene Peterson thinks Jesus as "the truth" gets far more attention than Jesus as "the way."

In this short excerpt from his book The Jesus Way, Eugene Peterson encourages Christians to attend not only to the “the truth” and “the life” of Jesus, but also to “the way” of Jesus—and he explains why he believes that the way often followed by North American Christianity and its consumer-driven churches is not the Jesus way at all. 

Here is a text, words spoken by Jesus, that keeps this in clear focus: “I am the way, the truth and the life.” (John 14:6) The Jesus way wedded to the Jesus truth brings about the Jesus life. We can’t proclaim the Jesus truth but then do it any old way we like. Nor can we follow the Jesus way without speaking the Jesus truth.

But Jesus as the truth gets far more attention than Jesus as the way. Jesus as the way is the most frequently evaded metaphor among the Christians with whom I have worked for 50 years as a North American pastor. In the text that Jesus sets before us so clearly and definitively, way comes first. We cannot skip the way of Jesus in our hurry to get to the truth of Jesus as he is worshiped and proclaimed. The way of Jesus is the way that we practice and come to understand the truth of Jesus, living Jesus in our homes and workplaces, with our friends and family.

A Christian congregation, the church in your neighborhood, has always been the primary location for getting this way and truth and life of Jesus believed and embodied in the places, and among the people, with whom we most have to do day in and day out. There is more to the church than this local congregation. There is the church continuous through the centuries, our fathers and mothers who continue to influence and teach us. There is the church spread throughout the world, communities that we are in touch with through prayer and suffering and mission. There is the church invisible, dimensions and instances of the Spirit’s work that we know nothing about. There is the church triumphant, that “great cloud of witnesses” who continue to surround us (Heb. 12:1). But the local congregation is the place where we get all of this integrated and practiced in the immediate circumstances and among the men, women and children we live with. This is where it becomes local and personal.

The local congregation is the place and community for listening to and obeying Christ’s commands, for inviting people to consider and respond to Jesus’ invitation, “Follow me,” a place and community for worshipping God. It is the place and community where we are baptized into a Trinitarian identity and go on to mature “to the measure of the full stature of Christ” (Eph. 4:13), where we can be taught the Scriptures and learn to discern the ways that we follow Jesus, the Way.

The local congregation is the primary place for dealing with the particulars and people we live with. As created and sustained by the Holy Spirit, it is insistently local and personal. Unfortunately, the more popular American church strategies in respect to congregation are not friendly to the local and the personal. The American way, with its penchant for catchy slogans and stirring visions, denigrates the local, and its programmatic ways of dealing with people erode the personal, replacing intimacies with functions. The North American church at present is conspicuous for replacing the Jesus way with the American way. For Christians who are serious about following Jesus by understanding and pursuing the ways that Jesus is the way, this deconstruction of the Christian congregation is particularly distressing and a looming distraction from the way of Jesus.

A Christian congregation is a company of praying men and women who gather, usually on Sundays, for worship, who then go into the world as salt and light. God’s Holy Spirit calls and forms this people. God means to do something with us, and he means to do it in community. We are in on what God is doing, and we are in on it together.

In addition to being a poet, author, and scholar, Dr. Peterson is also an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA). He is the founder of Christ Our King Presbyterian Church in Maryland, where he was the pastor for twenty-nine years. Dr. Peterson has written numerous books including The Pastor: A Memoir, The Jesus Way, Practice Resurrection, Leap Over a Wall, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, Working the Angles, and Reversed Thunder . He is probably best known for developing a paraphrase of the Bible called The Message.

More from Eugene Peterson or visit Eugene at http://eerdword.wordpress.com

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  • Revdeppisch

    All this is very interesting—and before I was apprehended by Christ I was a typical consumer driven American as Eugene describes.

    But once born again and led by the Holy Spirit, old things like consumerism passed away and all things in Christ became new.

    I don’t think the Jesus “way” is a problem for those truly saved– but it remains aa concern for many who have “made decisions” to follow Christ. When someone chooses to put on Christianity as opposed to being chosen of God, then the culture in which that person lives is what will drive their “faith”.

    I don’t see it so much as an “American” phenomenon– but as a cultural problem driven by many tares among the wheat who then exert a great deal of influence on the corporate body.

    • phil

      The final revelation : His ways of Torah are good.

  • David Kinnon

    I am not sure that Eugene Petersen is on firm ground here. I say so as one who has little time for “The Message” believing paraphrases to be inferior to sound translation, and being of the view that The Message is even misleading in places. In the verse which Mr Petersen quotes, taken out of its Upper Room ministry context of John ch 14, Jesus was responding to Philip’s specific enquiry, and declaring Himself to be the way to knowing God, relationship with God. He was not declaring some lifestyle as Mr Petersen’s article would beguilingly have us think. For the record, I too an appalled by consumerist approaches to fulfilling the Great Commission of Matthew ch 28. Working with my local church on matters of vision and strategy based upon the wisdom of God, I find it strange to see how the expression “Marketing” has crept into the church’s vocabulary.

    • Joe

      David,

      I think you’ve given a fair and accurate assessment here…  Thanks for your comments!

      Joe

    • brother_roger

      David, 

      Thank you for sharing your insight on this topic. It can become all too easy to embrace a “works-based” salvation which is what I saw when I read Mr. Petersen’s remarks on the way. Truly there will be changes in our lifestyles and behaviors once we see and believe in the truth that is Jesus Christ, but we must never confuse those changes with the grace by which we are saved. Jesus is the way to come to the Father, but it is only by grace we are saved and not by works.

    • g lincoln

      To me, your analysis misses the mark.  It sounds more Pharisaical than anything else.  That is, your missing his point, straining at the gnats.  …Faith always declares lifestyle… Disciple Making always declares lifestyle…  Jesus as the Way to the Father… of course.  But as we put our faith in Jesus as the Way we find ourselves disciples… learning, following, practicing…  GREAT ARTICLE BY EP!

  • http://twitter.com/johnvinod Vinod John

    It’s a great challenge to not just Americans but to all Christians today to not Jesus believe in Jesus as a theory, but to live like him.

  • Danny

    fantastic insight ,i never thought in this way ,jesus first as way ,later truth and life .way matters more in India because we are pluralistic religiously.

    danny

  • Bo

    I agree with David. that isnt what Christ is saying in that passage. This passage isnt about lifestyle but about the exclusiveness of Salvation. there is only one way to God, that is Jesus, there is only one truth about God, that is Jesus, and there is only one life in God, and that is Jesus. there other sections of Scripture tha EP should have used opposed to this one (Titus 2:14, Eph 2:10). We must interpret scripture within its context in order to prevent misunderstandings for the sake of the Body.

    i agree with EP that we should imitate Jesus, but may we dare put words in His mouth where He didnt mean it.

    • Guest

      With all due respect, are you 100% sure that you know what he meant in that passage? Is it possible, even remotely, that you could be misinterpreting it? Your last statement just strikes me as interesting because it’s possible you’re also doing it.

  • AdamLeggDotCom

    Powerful truth.

    “We can’t gather a God-fearing, God-worshipping congregation by
    cultivating a consumer-pleasing, commodity-oriented congregation.”

    Thank you for this article!

  • Max

      Very good reminder EP!

  • http://twitter.com/paulwilkes Paul Wilkes

    This is so true and I believe that the best way forward is for people to be shown The Way in everyday life!

  • Pastormatt

    Can anyone please define consumerism for me?  It’s become a very cliche way to describe “other” churches, without anyone ever admitting that their own preferences are in fact consumeristic (if that’s a word).  You may feel very well fed at your church.  If I don’t feel fed and leave for another church, does that make me a selfish consumer?  Your heart might fly as you sing from the hymn book, but if I feel closer to God when a guitar is blaring, am I just a consumer?  It’s interesting to me that the other church is always full of consumers, while my church is filled with God-fearing, sincere people.

    • Virak_Mac

      Matt, I’ve wondered the same myself. And I’ve wondered why the conservative voices — those who don’t want to change tactics or strategies — always get to define themselves as non-consumerist when, so often, they lack the missiological motivations for demanding their preferences be upheld. 

    • Max

      I suspect ‘consumerism’ has to do with: what is in this for me?  Give me the keys to success… I want God’s best for me… I want a great marriage, wonderful family, good job, health etc— tell me the ‘Secrets from the Bible and I’ll attend this church’.   
         It’s about consumption for self and self interests.  All wrapped in the package of God’s blessings to enjoy now.
         Eugene seems to be hitting the note of: pick up the cross (die to old self) and follow Me… I am the way.   My way is a serving others type of life.   It’s not about getting for self it’s about giving of self – (the washing of feet illustrates that our joy is found in serving others).  
         I may have him wrong but that’s how I read it.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_Z7GMTWXF3W7RKZ4I2FJC7AESWM shadow

    I wish I could find just one church that does not have a loud sound system, flashy lights, and ear splitting bands, because I have a medical issue forcing me to avoid those. It is bad for me, plus I doubt the pastor would care to stop his service to call 911 for me. *sigh*

    • Korrey

      PRAY AT HOME ALONE THEN. THAT’S WHAT I DO!

  • Brian Considine

    “A consumer church is an antichrist church”? Say what? Peterson is going too far with that comment. God has used all forms of ecclesia throughout the ages to accomplish his purposes. Antichrist implies that the consumer church was deliberately opposed to His purposes. While the church has often got/gets it wrong, I don’t think its ever been any local churches intention to knowingly oppose the purposes of God (well Westboro Baptist is an exception). We’re beginning to understand that our ecclesiology needs to change and hasn’t produced the best results but this statement is beyond the pale. I usually like Peterson, and much of what he says in this article is true, but maybe grace and truth spoken in love would be much more helpful in bringing the needed change

    • Geo

      antichrist means: instead of… and can mean against
         You are correct Brian, what local church thinks they are putting something in the place of Jesus?  No church does that on purpose but many do it thinking they are on the right track even as the folks at Galatia– who placed the Jewish scriptures (Torah or as the English reads: law) in the place of Jesus.  And Paul had an apoplectic fit over it.
      The church has since those early days run Jesus offer the cliff… and replaced Him with their cultural preference.  Jacque Ellul wrote a terrific book some years ago noting how present day Christianity bears little resemblance to Jesus.  If the earliest church got it wrong… so can we.  And maybe the old pastor Eugene is onto something.

  • Korrey

    O.K SORRY BUT IT’S THE GOD’S HONEST TRUTH.

    OK K
    So, should I wipe my Butt with my Left hand too?

    Why not they still do that in the middle east that means Jesus did…I mean You’re saying to act like we did back then. Well Back then thing’s were different. And You may ask How I know of this Gross silliness.???
    Well Sir,
    I had the opportunity to go to Afghanistan on a tour while I was i the Marine Corps. And I just so happened to Work in a Detainee Facility. Where I had to supervise these young Afghan Gangster’s. And well they’re a little tiny bit stuck in the past. Like 1500’s or so. They have a radio tower and they live in houses made from the soil. But, I remember handing one guy a roll of toilet paper and he uses the whole role…
    THEN HE DROPPED THE WHOLE ROLE DOWN THE PORT-O-JOHN.

    That was a waist. Heck I can’t believe their Dad’s didn’t teach them how to be an up scale citizen. And leave some for everybody else.. Then he used his left hand anyway. I did four months at that facility I’m just happen I had gloves on the whole time. But, let’s get back on subject. You don’t like the thought of two Men pork in each other behind your dumpster. Se em’s like every other country it’s, “Sex with Women is for procreation and Sex with Men is for pleasure.” How do I know this??? Same time in Afghanistan, I saw daily, Indian and Philipino’s Holding hands to the Chow hall. Then they’d kiss at the table while I’m trying to Eat. Well of course I was done eating but, all that time of losing my appetite, I was bound to just deal with it for seven Months. HAHA Army Deploys for 18 month’s so don’t feel sorry for me. Yes, MEN holding hand’s kissing and I’ll stop right there. I think America is the only one with the Problem of it. How about let’s make a new law. Everyone must join the Military. Because I feel 10 times more educated than any politician I ever met. Then maybe that way I’ll get a Job too. Because everyone seems to be afraid of what they don’t know. And they don’t know what it’s like to go to war. So, Automatically Being an American is more like Being Black in the 1800’s.

    If you think about it, Planet earth is just taking it’s course and weening off the people we have so many duplicates of. Because if we kept going toward PROCREATION. We’d all end up starving because. we’re past 7Billion people. Um Earth is only 24,000 miles around. 7Billion can duplicate faster than Hamsters off ‘The Rug-rats’ Furthermore, I remember coming here to planet Earth. And I was 3 years old when I came into my BODY. Let me just say I didn’t pick. I was watching a train go by then. UH OH I couldn’t fly any more I was STUCK
    THEN…
    SHI-BAM
    The person you see before you today.

    You want the whole story of my OLDEST MEMORY you’ll have to read it in my Book, “Proof of God”
    BUT COME ON, Let’s face it Jesus couldn’t be the man he was, Today. Now I know him, and I’m pretty sure he knows that it takes an even stronger Man to do what he did, NOW; as in today’s society.” But, I still try. Heck, even I can’t drive ten miles without breaking the LAW. But, that never stopped me from breaking a promise.
    ok ok ok.

    Let me finish. I, a MAN, Could have popped into any young body healthily nurtured. Even a girl… So the way I see Gay’s.
    “They’re just opposite sex spirit’s in the wrong Body.”

    Or the Right body. Depends on which way you look at it. I mean LOVE IS LOVE.

    HECK I’M KISSING JESUS AS SOON AS I’M HOME AREN’T YOU?

    BUT I HAVE TO BE HONEST, I HAVE tried the OTHER direction ONCE. NOT FOR ME. I see it as Every Girl is 47% Gay whether they make that number go down or up as they get older that’s up to them. Guy’s it’s more of a 13% Gay growing up and if they made that number grow well, I’ll bet they had a damn good reason too.

    So, you know nothing MOMMY’S BOY activists. Please do your research before you make articles like yours. ESPECIALLY FELLOW CHRISTIANS. I DIDN’T WANT TO BUT YOU CROSSED THE LINE. & You made yourself sound OLD… Wake up it’s 2013… But, you should know this, for some is pretty much 500BC… And news FLASH Brother. I’d like to have an intelligent conversation too SOMEDAY. But, from the looks of it that aint going to happen…

    • RevRalph

      Rants are like dust bunnies. Not really harmful, but none the less unpleasant.

  • alhatesreligion

    When Jesus speaks of Himself as the “Way” He’s is not speaking or asking us to emulate a lifestyle He is simply stating He is the way to God the Father. He is the portal to get from this life to the next, from the temporal to the eternal.

    When He says He’s the truth He not saying He is the only truth rather He’s saying I’m the only truth concerning faith and salvation. The “life” well this is an easy one He’s the source of true and eternal life.

  • amos8

    What defines an “anti-Christ Church”? Consumerism? Perhaps.

    Yes, we should be greatly concerned with worldly notions in the church, but our biggest concern, BY FAR, should be that of false teachers … wolves in sheep’s clothing. Those who undermine the Word, who change the Word itself, who discourage us from reading and studying the Word, who point us to false teachings (e.g. “The Eucharist”), who purposefully blur the lines of truth and error … widen the road (e.g. Jesus is NOT the only way … all in an attempt at being more “gracious” or having a “more forgiving God”).

  • Ralph

    Perhaps the biggest concern and/or criticism I have with the constant bickering about what scripture is the most accurate or which supposedly short-changes the message of God’s word is this: Even if we can pin-point exactly what the scriptures say to us, then of what value is there in knowing His word without using, doing, living and applying it in our everyday Christian walk. These various translations were not thrown together by one or two people who just wanted to present their own interpretation of what the scriptures say, but rather by many who searched and studied God’s Word for an innumerable period of time before putting pen to paper. Isn’t it ironic that the scribes and Pharisees thought they knew every jot and tittle as to what the law and scripture had to say, but could not understand God’s Word and how it could be applied to their everyday lives. Could it be, likewise, that we are no different if we get too bogged down as to what God’s word says yet understand how we are to live it.

    • amos8

      You do know that “The Message” was a one-man show, right? I appreciate what you said, especially about living out the Word, but have you seen the documentation of the problems in “The Message” when compared to all other translations? We are not talking about splitting hairs or “bickering,” we are talking about accuracy concerning the very Words of God. Some problems are very subtle and are disagreements over preferences, but then there are glaring errors.

      • KathyFische

        The Message is not, and never has been, a translation. It is a phrasing in the vernacular of multiple translations. Cleaning the commonalities of language and words and updating them for the manner of communication that we use today is what it is about. A translation is very different. Let’s not confuse the two.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1501417684 Nancy Myers

    Self..Self.. has infiltrated the Body of Christ…we are in great need to come to repentance. Come and seek His face and not His hand is the Holy Spirits calling in the time we live.

  • Ken Ferguson

    If you cannot grasp the wisdom of what is being shared here, then go back to sleep…nothing to see here (the sarcasm is free by the way…no charge)

  • Jh

    This kind of talk complicates the message of Christ and the message of grace. And only serves to exacerbate the concern about a house divided. Preach the gospel. Live like Christ (or try) and show love, mercy, compassion. Love love and love some more. The rest is peripheral. You might like hymns or contemporary. Yay. Who cares?