I recommend this small book highly for any group discussing the future direction of their church or group of churches. It is a little short for a Sunday School quarter, but would be perfect as supplementary reading for a weekend retreat.
Nouwen’s work really spoke to my condition. A text which I should have read in far less than an hour filled my attention for several hours. There are some books that I cannot put down, because they draw me in. I found it difficult to keep my nose in this book, because line after line spoke to my condition. I kept wanting to jot down notes, read passages ten times, dialogue with others about what these passages might mean. I wanted more than to read the text, I wanted to engage it in conversation.
Nouwen started by calling us to be irrelevant. In his own life, this meant leaving a professorship at Harvard, and becoming part of a community of people with mental disabilities. Nouwen went from teaching religion to the best and brightest, to learning faith from the marginalized of society. He speaks about the contrast, and calls the Church to change course.
In this book, seminaries are painted as a place where people are taught a slightly Christianized set of secular ideas. Theology is separated from prayer, and experiences with God. Pastoral care becomes an exercise in psychology, and if I understand my professors an act of mental health triage where the pastoral care giver decides which professional the parishioner needs to see.
I find Fr. Nouwen’s appraisal of seminaries to be very apt. It is rare that I read a Christian book which has our Faith struggling with wider culture. I am thankful that we are reading books written by Jews, who’s writers struggle in a way Christians writers do not, but why do Christians believe the church to be compatible with secular values? For Nouwen, the secularization of the church in an attempt to make us relevant makes us replaceable. The secular world will be glad to live without religion by filling the secular needs the church provides. Nowen writes:
They face an ongoing decrease in church attendance and discover that psychologists, psychotherapists, marriage counselors and doctors are often more trusted they… The secular world around us is saying in a loud voice “We can take care of ourselves. We do not need God, the church, or a priest. We are in control. And if we are not, then we have to work harder to get in control”
There is a critique of the Church’s pursuit of power and influence. There is even a wider critique of the individualism that is common among Christian Leaders. Seminary teaches leaders not to form close friendships with parishioners, forcing them to stand aloof. Nouwen points out that ministry in the New Testament was a partnership, and the ministry was to persons.
Nouwen’s story, telling of what he learned from the mentally retarded is so very clear. He begins and ends telling about his partner in the ministry, Bill. Though Bill had no ability in the the ways the world measures, he impacted those who heard this message in a way that Nouwen could not have done alone.
Having finished, I am likely to read again… but, for now, I am full of questions.
How can we choose faith over relevancy?
How can we bring prayer into our Theology?
How can we bring Theology into our ministry?
How can we see Jesus in individuals?
How can we find partners in ministry?
How can we love God?
How can the Incarnation be part of our worship communities?
How can we better value a shared ministry?
How can we point to God’s healing, instead of attempting to be human healers?
How can we speak to both the mind and the heart?
How can we value love over impact?
How can we struggle with the our culture?