Thursday, May 30, 2013

Thoughts on In the Name of Jesus

I just finished Henri Nouwen's In the Name of Jesus. Like, I literally just put it down, picked up the computer and started typing (after of course putting on some good music). It was my first time to read through the book and is a surprisingly fast read. Like, take an afternoon in your hammock with some lemonade fast read.

You may recall that while at Fuller I took a class on Nouwen. It was an excellent class. Somehow this was not on the reading list. Maybe the assumption was, "If you know Nouwen, you've already read it." And that may be fair. It is his best known book.

Like I did with A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, here is a quick synopsis. This book is basically a speech Nouwen delivered on Christian leadership at a big event. It was written shortly after Nouwen left Harvard and joined L'Arche. One of the decisions that L'Arche made was that Nouwen wouldn't travel alone. So, one of the guys from the community traveled with him, and they did this together. Nouwen also offers some personal reflections on the event and the impact of having Bill with him on the stage.

Nouwen basically has an introduction, a conclusion and an epilogue on either side of three chapters that are all set up the same. Each chapter introduces a temptation Jesus faced in the wilderness, followed by part of the "Do you love me/feed my sheep" story of Peter and Jesus, followed by practical ministry tips. A really simple outline, especially for a speech. The surprising thing about the book is just how much power it punches. This is a book that is very tweetable, thought-provoking, and yet disregarded in how most pastors actually approach ministry.

In being part of the Church nigh on twenty years I think the biggest struggle we face is one of desired power. I think often that we long for the days of the Church being the dominant social power of the day. We long for the days of Constantine. The Church flourished. The world converted. Our job was easy...just proclaim our personal devotion to Jesus. The government took care of the rest.

But as I look at the teachings of Jesus and world history I see two divergent philosophies. Jesus came to serve, and when the Church is in a place of power she typically serves...those who convert. We oppress everyone else. I know that is harsh, but I don't even have to point to history in this case, you already know the stories.

And yet, time and again, we see that Pat Robertsons arise. We see calls for the Church to lead government. Now before your feathers get too ruffled, I will be the first to say that men and women of faith need to run for political office. They need to serve their country out of conviction. They also need to share their faith. But an agenda of promoting the platform of the Church through the government is just not something I endorse. The Church is grassroots. The Church is personal. The Church is not power.

And to a great extent that is what Nouwen is communicating. Nouwen argues that the Christian leader of the future will be those who choose irrelevancy, powerlessness and communion with their communities. I think the first two are harder for pastors in theory, but the third is harder for pastors in practice.

So many of the messages being thrown at the Church today are opposed to what Nouwen said. We are searching for new ways to be relevant to culture. We want to be cool. So churches now have CSAs, hipster services, secular concerts, etc. And honestly, if these things are a natural outflow of who the community is, that is fine. But when we use ploys and present ourselves in a certain light for the sake of being relevant we lose credibility. We all know how to smell a fake.

I think this is the type of irrelevancy Nouwen is addressing. We don't put on tattoos, skinny jeans and bad facial hair if that is not authentically who we are. Same goes with those who put on suits, square frames, and more hair product that your neck can support. The desire to present yourself, and/or the Gospel in a particular light because you believe it to be more attractive is tempting. But the Gospel is simply the Gospel. It will also be as it is. The story of Jesus and what he did never changes.

But the last idea is where I want to spend a little bit of time. Nouwen challenges the idea that pastors need to keep the same professional distances that doctors, psychologists and others keep. He challenges that this is the natural working order for a spiritual community. And I think he is correct in that assumption.

Instead of completely bucking the entire system and for a pastor to weekly bear his entire soul to the community, Nouwen simply offers this: do the same as your congregation is already doing. Have someone in your congregation you can talk to. You don't have to go outside the congregation for this.

I will be the first to admit that is nearly impossible in today's society. You don't admit your weakness. You don't expose to your people what could get you fired. But this is the same reason that we see men and women fall to infidelities of every kind in ministry. We have created a culture that has rejected communion for the pastor. We have spurned pastors as active members of community and made them an other. And until this is fixed, heck, even after it is fixed, we will continue to see disconnection between pastors and congregations.

It isn't easy being vulnerable...for anyone. Pastors know this, parishioners know this. But the community that finds a way for pastors to fully partake of community instead of only being servants or lords of the community will find joys that are missing from the church. When we find a way to be friends with pastors, when we find a way to provide confessors for pastors, when pastors find it okay to be vulnerable with elders then we might just find a way to live in authenticity as a community. And that is a good thing.


  1. "But an agenda of promoting the platform of the Church through the government is just not something I endorse. The Church is grassroots. The Church is personal. The Church is not power."

    If only more of Christian society would adopt such reasoning. To me, it is ironic that many of those who profess their steadfast faith, which is meant to be centered around humility and love for ALL people, as a basis for their political or societal platforms are many times among the most hypocritical of politicians. One should not profess a faith in Christ as they proceed to abandon all humility and attempt to use their religious beliefs as a tool not only to further their own hegemony, but also to publicly degrade their opponents. Yes, we need men and women of faith in office. But as you said, if that faith isn't being made apparent in humility and conviction while in office, they're likely only propagating the problem.

    Looking forward to the read!


    "We don't put on tattoos, skinny jeans and bad facial hair if that is not authentically who we are. "

    This is debatable.

  2. can wear skinny jeans, even if you feel like it is inauthentic. I will only judge you a little. But, yeah. You said this really well. The lack of Christian humility, the amount of mud slinging and backhand deals really does tarnish the work of people genuinely trying to follow Jesus.