When Henri Nouwen found himself among the mentally disabled of the L’Arche Community, he learned something about himself: the skills, knowledge, and “value” that he thought he had were all meaningless to that particular community. This caused him to reevaluate his understanding of Christian leadership, which is spelled out in his marvelous little treatise In the Name of Jesus:
“I am telling you all this because I am deeply convinced that the Christian leader of the future is called to be completely irrelevant and to stand in this world with nothing to offer but his or her own vulnerable self. That is the way Jesus came to reveal God’s love…Jesus’ first temptation was to be relevant: to turn stones into bread.” (17)
Of course, this is almost the exact opposite advice many Christian leaders are given today. We go to workshops, drown ourselves in piles of books, and rack up CEU’s as if they are lottery tickets (one of them will be the key to a life and ministry of ease!) all in search of new skills, techniques, and methods. Most of all, we want to matter. Such is a tragic, if not pathetic, position for pastors in the twilight of Christendom, when many in the West view the church at best as little more than a vendor of religious services (marriages and burials, crisis intervention, a baptism to keep grandmother happy, etc.). Pastors are faced with the temptation to be something more, something objectively useful: a “real” counselor, a life coach, a motivational speaker, a fundraiser, a master of conflict resolution. We want something to show that says, “I promise I really DO matter!”
But all of this may be deeply misguided:
“The question is not: How many people take you seriously? How much are you going to accomplish? Can you show some results? But: Are you in love with Jesus? Perhaps another way of putting the question would be: Do you know the incarnate God?” (24)
For Nouwen, the cure for this temptation is a discipline both ancient and (to the astonished ears of hipster pastors everywhere) relevant: contemplative prayer. Such prayer takes us back to the heart of God, the place of our true identity, meaning, and value:
“To live a life that is not dominated by the desire to be relevant but is instead safely anchored in the knowledge of God’s first love, we have to be mystics. A mystic is a person whose identity is deeply rooted in God’s first love…contemplative prayer deepens in us the knowledge that we are already free, that we have already found a place to dwell, that we already belong to God, even though everything and everyone around us keeps suggesting the opposite.” (28-29)
To put it another way: church leaders would do best to begin any task, goal, discussion, study, or discernment not by asking “what works?” or “what must we do?” but rather by seeking the face of God. Amazing things happen when we refuse the temptation to relevance, and instead act, not out of calculated strategies and therapeutic utilitarianism, but out of an encounter with the living God of Scripture and the Church.