Nouwen & Ecclesiology pt. 2

From Popularity to Ministry

Nouwen begins this section by explaining the transition that he had to make from individual to shared ministry in his move from the world of academia to the community of l’Arche; he went from an environment where he was completely free to do whatever he wished, coming and going as he pleased, to one that demanded more accountability. In this transition, he was able to come to see that it is more important to love than to be lauded, and that lasting relationships are more important than fleeting applause.

The second temptation that Jesus faced was to do something spectacular, something that would win him great applause and acclaim; this is a temptation faced by many in the church, especially in an age where celebrity status is easily reached and actively sought after. As Nouwen puts it:

Stardom and individual heroism, which are obvious aspects of our competitive society, are not at all alien to the church. There too the dominant image is that of the self-made man or woman who can do it all alone.

And so, when Jesus called Peter to look after his sheep and feed his lambs, this is not to be heard in an individualistic way, “as if Peter was being sent out on a heroic mission.” Rather,

.. when Jesus speaks about shepherding, he does not want us to think about a brave, lonely shepherd who takes care of a large flock of obedient sheep. In many ways, he makes it clear that ministry is a communal and mutual experience.

First of all, Nouwen argues, we are meant to bring forth Jesus’ message of good news together, in community. In short, we need each other; we can’t possibly do it alone. We need to pray with one another, remind one another of the task at hand, and to challenge one another to stay pure in mind, body and heart. We need that accountability and support lest we come to think that this is more about us and less about the singular person of Jesus Christ and his kingdom come among us. We need to know that “it is Jesus who heals, not I; Jesus who speaks words of truth, not I; Jesus who is Lord, not I.” Therefore, “whenever we minister together, it is easier for people to recognize that we do not come in our own name but in the name of the Lord Jesus who sent us.” Nouwen seems to be suggesting, then, that church is less about gathering around one individual once a week, and more about how we live and interact as a community of disciples on a day-to-day basis. Just as the early followers of Jesus were distinguished as a community of followers of ‘the Way’ of Jesus, so too are we to demonstrate to the world that a different way of living has been made possible through Christ. And this happens most effectively within the context of a worshiping and ministering community of disciples.

Secondly, ministry is to be a mutual experience. Disciples of Jesus, ministering in community, according to Nouwen, are to approach their role “not as ‘professionals’ who know their clients’ problems and take care of them, but as vulnerable brothers and sisters who know and are known, who care and are cared for, who forgive and are being forgiven, who love and are being loved.” Here, Nouwen seems to be walking a fine line. On one hand, as he argues, we have come to believe that “good leadership requires that we keep a safe distance from those we are called to lead.” Many might see a certain wisdom in that, and certainly it is important to keep proper boundaries. On the other hand, however, the following is also true:

But how can we lay down our life for those with whom we are not even allowed to enter into a deep personal relationship? Laying down your life means making your own faith and doubt, hope and despair, joy and sadness, courage and fear available to others as ways of getting in touch with the Lord of life.

Building on the truth expressed in the previous section that we are indeed fundamentally all the same – created to give and receive love – then shepherding must be a mutual experience. Disciples of Jesus do not have to pretend that they are the ones that have it all figured out, and in so doing develop an ‘us/them’, ‘in/out’ dichotomy. As opposed to models of church and Christian leadership wherein power is exercised over others, faith communities must embrace the radically different style of leadership as spoken of and demonstrated by Jesus, in which the leaders are vulnerable servants who needs the people as much as the people need their leaders.

A core discipline that Nouwen identifies as beneficial to this leveling out process is that of confession; disciples of Jesus are to be “persons always willing to confess their own brokenness and ask for forgiveness from those to whom they minister.” If we are too afraid to be authentic and genuine with one another, to readily admit when we fail, how then can we truly demonstrate to one another the all effacing love of God that is meant not only to bind us together, but to quite literally change the world? Again this is a bit of a fine line, for as Nouwen readily admits, this is not a call for us to indiscriminately proclaim to all our deepest and darkest. What it does entail, according to Nouwen, is the following: all disciples are called to be full members of their faith communities, are accountable to one another as members of that community, and are called to minister with their whole being, including their wounded selves.

This, then, is the essence of true, meaningful and transformative ministry: that we gather together to uncover what it means to follow Jesus with our whole beings – even (or maybe especially) the broken and messy bits – seeking not to make a name for ourselves, but rather to proclaim the name of Jesus Christ and his kingdom come.

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