The relevance of irrelevance
A couple of weeks ago I had the privilege of presenting a conflict resolution training to a group of leaders involved in planting a new church. It was thrilling to hear their vision and feel their passion.
It took me back to my own church planting endeavor in 1988. Idealism ran high, genuineness deep. Our fledgling group was determined to create a church that powerfully impacted our community and beyond.
A few days after doing my workshop for these church-planters, I read Henri Nouwen’s The Wounded Healer. Nouwen writes:
“In hospitals, where many utter their first cry as well as their last words, ministers are often more tolerated than required. In prisons, where the human desire for liberation and freedom is most painfully felt, a chaplain feels like a guilty bystander whose words hardly move the wardens. In the cities, where children play between buildings and old people die isolated and forgotten, the protests of priests are hardly taken seriously and their demands hang in the air like rhetorical questions. Many churches decorated with words announcing salvation and new life are often little more than parlors for those who feel quite comfortable in the old life, and who are not likely to let the minister’s words change their stone hearts into furnaces where swords can be cast into plowshares, and spears into pruning hooks.”
I should have read Nouwen before starting a church.
But I wouldn’t have believed him back then.
I wouldn’t have understood what he was saying, either.
Looking back over the 20 years I served as pastor of the church I helped plant, I recognize Nouwen’s genius. Many times I tasted the seemingly irrelevance of the message of the Gospel and my church’s ministry.
Paul wasn’t kidding when he said the Gospel is foolishness and ministers are tossed to the scrap heap.
It’s a bitter pill to swallow.
Many of us who pastor (at least it was the case for me) are looking for something to give us significance. We fantasize about having the kind of numbers we read of in Acts. It’s not that we actually care that much for people, but because we believe such results validate who we are and what we do.
None of us want to be irrelevant. We want to be hip. Cutting edge.
As I ponder Nouwen, I think this might be why many of us start new churches. We perceive existing churches to be out of touch, failing to make an impact, irrelevant. For sure, many have lost the pulse of culture.
But I wonder if we aren’t motivated to start new churches as a way to distance ourselves from the embarrassment of being overlooked by society. Our sense of self is too fragile to be included in that number.
A cool, hipster church that preaches the “real Gospel” is just what the doctor orders.
I was pretty convinced we were such a church when we got started in the late 80’s. We were “doing it right.” Once pagan, unchurched folks heard about us, they’d be knocking our door down.
The bubble began bursting within the first year of our existence. I ran into one such unchurched pagan in our neighborhood convenience store. I happened to know he was struggling in his marriage (his wife had told me she wasn’t happy with how things were going).
I smugly invited him to our next service, assuming he’d eagerly respond. He would soon realize my incredibly generous offer to fix him.
Instead, he matter-of-factly stated loud enough for everyone in the store to hear, “No. I’m not interested in your church. Why would I want to go there?”
Being irrelevant, unimportant and overlooked is the lot of pastoral ministry. But that’s okay. It’s by our Master’s design.
It’s in the foolishness, pain, suffering, rejection, irrelevance, and loneliness that Jesus shows up. Salvation and healing come incognito. Redemption and restoration manifest through our nothingness.
It’s the way of Jesus.