Tag Archives: Henri Nouwen

Books-for-Church-PlantersThe words contemplative and church planter do not frequently appear together. Church planters are sometimes caricatured as driven, gregarious, extroverted individuals who magnetically attract the team of followers who help them launch a new worship service. But that’s not the only way–and I would say not the best way–to plant a church.

At Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, we use words like discerning and attentive to describe future leaders of new worshiping communities. New churches don’t come out of a box with step-by-step instructions that make them easy to assemble. Instead, new churches emerge when we listen attentively to the Holy Spirit, listen attentively to the people to whom God sends us, and discern in that conversation what form the Church ought to take in a given context. The fruit of such listening and discernment: congregations who speak and demonstrate God’s Word with authenticity and integrity in the communities where God has placed them. Rather than being driven by the personality of the “planter”, these churches are guided by the Spirit of the only Sower of the Seed, Jesus Christ.

What we read shapes the way we think, and in the sea of literature on church planting, books which really help cultivate postures of discernment and attentiveness are rare. These seven books have helped me develop such postures in my ministry. Some are by well-known theologians, others by local church leaders and missionaries who are living this calling at the grassroots level. With each I’ve given a quote or two, followed by a comment on its relevance for contemplative church planters. Here are 7 books for church planters:

1 Growing Local Missionaries: Equipping Churches to Sow Shalom in Their Own Cultural Backyard by Dan Steigerwald

“As missionaries, we must continually cultivate our listening and noticing capacities, comparing and contrasting what is already known about our context with new discoveries” (p. 55).

“Far too many Christians do little or nothing to cultivate relationships with people outside the Church” (p. 61).

Dan’s suggested rhythm of missional engagement begins with “Immerse and Listen.” We want to know our mission field intimately, and Dan’s advice and example show how we can.

2 Sailboat Church: Helping Your Church Rethink Its Mission and Practice by Joan Gray

“Prayer saturates the lives of leaders and members in a Sailboat church” (p.51).

Gray uses the contrasting images of a rowboat and sailboat to describe how churches (both new and established) function. Many are rowboats, with members and leaders straining at the oars as they rely on human strength and direction. Sailboat churches, by contrast, are blown along and directed by the wind of the Holy Spirit. Our role as leaders and participants in such churches is to trim the sails of attentiveness to the Spirit through prayer and obedience.

3 Marks of the Missional Church: Ecclesial Practices for the Sake of the World by Libby Tedder Hugus, Keith Schwanz, and Jason Veatch

“Waking up to God’s presence means tuning-in: watching and listening for the times and places God’s word appears in our world. This awakening is even brighter when mediated through the community of faith, a shared experience among God’s people” (p. 62).

Each chapter of Marks of the Missional Church is designed like a small liturgy. This has the beautiful effect of leading the reader to “wake up to God’s presence” through the book itself.

4 The Go-Between God: The Holy Spirit and Christian Mission by John V. Taylor

“The main concern of any missionary training should be to help people to become more receptive to the revelations of God” (p. 70).

Taylor pictures the Holy Spirit’s work as one of awakening awareness, opening our eyes to perceive more clearly those to whom God has sent us. Our task is to learn to listen to the Spirit and recognize what he is doing, to become “receptive to the revelations of God.”

5 Life Together by Dietrich Bonhoeffer

“Innumerable times a whole Christian community has broken down because it had sprung from a wish dream” (p. 26).

“A Christian fellowship lives and exists by the intercession of its members for one another, or it collapses” (p. 86).

Every Christian should read Bonhoeffer’s Life Together. For the church-planter, his warnings against the idolatry of our “wish dreams” are particularly relevant. What matters is God’s desire for the people whom he loves, not our vision for a new church.

6 In The Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadershipby Henri Nouwen

“Jesus has a different vision of maturity [than the world]: It is the ability and willingness to be led where you would rather not go. . . . The servant-leader is the leader who is being led to unknown, undesirable, and painful places. The way of the Christian leader is not the way of upward mobility in which our world has invested so much, but the way of downward mobility ending on the cross” (pp. 81-82).

Nouwen frames his reflections on leadership in In the Name of Jesus around the temptations of Christ described in Matthew 4:1-11. Church planters experience the temptations Nouwen identifies in even greater degrees: to be relevant, to be spectacular, to be powerful. Nouwen challenges us to turn away from self-aggrandizing ministry, and to pursue instead an intimate nearness to Christ.

7 The Joy of the Gospel by Pope Francis

“The primary reason for evangelizing is the love of Jesus which we have received, the experience of salvation which urges us to ever greater love of him. What kind of love would not feel the need to speak of the beloved, to point him out, to make him known? If we do not feel an intense desire to share this love, we need to pray insistently that he will once more touch our hearts” (p. 127 / ¶264).

Pope Francis’ Joy of the Gospel is a missional, holistic, and justice-seeking call to “all Christians, everywhere” to rediscover the joy of sharing the Gospel. His words about motivation are particularly poignant for church-planters: Are we engaged in this ministry primarily because of the love of Jesus which we’ve experienced? Do we take delight in inviting others into relationship with the One who loves us so deeply? Do we find such joy in Jesus himself that mission is our natural response?

This post was first published on the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary Blog on September 10, 2015.

In less than two months, I’m going to attend the Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin College.  I first heard of this festival shortly after I graduated college, where I had double-majored in Religious Studies and Creative Writing with an emphasis in Poetry.  Faith and writing were both obviously close to my heart, so I was immediately interested in the Festival.  Then seminary happened, and for several years schoolwork took precedent over writing for the sake of writing.  Now, I write mostly sermons and blogposts (here and for the House of St. Michael), but writing is still one of the most life-giving activities in which I engage. And I want to write more.

So, one of my goals for 2012 is to sharpen my writing skills. To do so I’ve both been writing more often and reading about writing.  Earlier this month, I read several essays from A Syllable of Water: Twenty Writers of Faith Reflect on Their Art (Paraclete Press 2008).  Some of my favorite writers have essays in this book, including Scott Cairns, whose essay on poetry made me hunger for The Lord’s Supper.  But the chapter that left me thinking the most was by Richard Foster.  In it, Foster describes the work of “spiritual writing.”  In this genre, you might include the great devotional writings of Church history, the sort of books listed in 25 Books Every Christian Should Read, as well as the hundreds of other spiritual classics that didn’t make that list.  They’re books that have shaped the Church as a whole by shaping the souls of countless individual Christians over the centuries.  Spiritual writing, as Foster puts it, is “heart writing. It aims at the interiority of the reader: the heart, the spirit, the will. Spiritual writing is highly relational.  It is personal.  It is in close.  It is intimate.  It is never at arm’s length. Never.” (p. 169). And because spiritual writing is up close and personal it cannot leave the reader untouched.  The best leaves the reader transformed.

So what advice is there for a young writer who wants to write works that transform people spiritually?   Foster says “As writers, our first incarnational task is to be ourselves filled with this life we are talking about” (p. 173).  To be a spiritual writer, you have to be spiritual.  So Foster advises that we learn to listen.  “The best spiritual writing comes out of the silence.  As writers, we learn to be quiet and still; listening, always listening” (p. 172).  And listening includes reading the works of those who were filled with the life they wrote about: The “best way to understand spiritual writing is to read the best of these writers throughout history” (p. 178).  Listening, praying, worshiping, acting, learning, submitting, reading – this is how we start to live the life we want to write.

I think the act of writing itself can be added to the list of practices one must live and internalize in order to become a spiritual writer. I have a long journey ahead of me as I seek maturity in Christ, but I take comfort in the fact that writing is also a process of discovery. And that means writing is a process that can be used by the Spirit to lead the writer to greater maturity in Christ. Every time I sit down to write, I’m surprised by the final product.   Henri Nouwen, one of the most well-known spiritual writers of the twentieth century, describes the act of writing as a process, a revelation, and a journey.  These sentences from Nouwen’s Reflections on Theological Education (as quoted in Philip Yancey’s book Soul Survivor [Doubleday 2001] p. 298) show what this means:

Most students think that writing means writing down ideas, insights, visions.  They feel that they must first have something to say before they can put it down on paper.  For them writing is little more than recording a pre-existent thought. But with this approach true writing is impossible.  Writing is a process in which we discover what lives in us.  The writing itself reveals what is alive. . . . The deepest satisfaction of writing is precisely that it opens up new spaces within us of which we were not aware before we started to write.  To write is to embark on a journey whose final destination we do not know.

I want to embark on that sort of journey.  Or rather, I want to continue the journey the Holy Spirit is already leading me on, one which is still a process of discovery, opening up new spaces.  All I know about my destination is that I want to seek the Kingdom of God.  And I want to write as I travel the path that leads to Life.

Following up on this past Saturday’s “End of Sexual Identity” event, I want to share about another book that has the potential to change the Church’s conversation about sexuality.  It’s Wesley Hill’s Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality.

Hill writes as a self-identified gay Christian man who is choosing to remain celibate.  As he shares in the book, it’s difficult to find others speaking up from his position.  The voices that speak the loudest in the Church’s debates about sexuality are either (1) those thumping the Bible defending traditional Christian views of sexuality, often with insensitivity toward those who experience same-sex attraction, or (2) those promoting the more culturally acceptable view that homosexual activity is not sin.  The arguments between those two sides are often marked by callousness and lack of compassion.  People become entrenched in their positions and then talk past each other.  Perhaps because of that insensitivity, it’s hard to hear the voice of men and women who experience attraction to members of the same sex, yet deliberately choose, because of their Christian convictions, not to live into those attractions.  Shame, the feeling that their sin is “worse” than others, and fear of insensitive responses from others in the Church too often keep Christians who experience same-sex attraction in a lonely closet. Thankfully, Hill has given voice to that struggle, and his voice needs to be heard.

Though Hill identifies as a gay man, and uses categories like “homosexual” in ways which Jenell Paris would not, he makes it clear that the most important part of his identity is his identity in Christ. And his very personal story bears witness to the fact that one’s identity in Christ includes taking up one’s cross.  Hill writes movingly about the loneliness, isolation, and shame he’s experienced.  But he also shares about loving community and supportive friends, other celibate gay men who have served as role models (including Henri Nouwen), and the hope he has looking forward to the day when Jesus will say to him, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”  The personal aspect of Washed and Waiting makes it impossible to talk about homosexuality in abstract terms.  It’s a deeply personal matter, and this is a moving testimony from someone living a deeply personal struggle. 

Anyone interested in the Church’s debates about sexuality should read this book. Anyone who’s struggling with their sexuality and unsure where to look for guidance should read it, too.  Just as I hoped our event with Jenell Paris would change the conversation about sexuality in the Church by giving us different language for the Church to use, I think this book can change the conversation by presenting a different perspective: that of someone who’s chosen the counter-cultural path of celibacy. Hill makes it clear that such a path is not easy, but he believes it’s the right path. One does not have to express oneself sexually in order to be fully human. Jesus Christ was fully human and remained celibate. Surely the Church should be a place where voices like Hill’s can speak openly as they seek faithfulness to their Lord.