I was reading Henri Nouwen’s The Way of the Heart this morning and something he wrote stoked the embers of my memory. He was talking about the role of silence in the organization of a congregation’s activities.
When I was an associate pastor, one of my priorities was to coordinate the church’s activities. I took on a personal priority to always “have something for our people to do.” This translated into maintaining a fairly busy church calendar. On top of our weekly worship, I wanted to offer some form of small group meeting almost every night of the week, a monthly church-wide event for the entire church community, and various ministry and outreach events. Internally, I felt a busy calendar meant we were “doing kingdom work” and that we were “going somewhere.” And to be honest, I really believe a lot of good was accomplished in people’s lives.
But since then, a lot has changed in me. I’ve become aware of my own personal time pathologies and the sickness of my restless soul. I’ve become aware that I’ve equated busyness with personal worth, both on an individual and corporate level. And I’ve realized with much shame that I made the life of the church I served more a center of activity and distraction than a center of communion and community.
In that light, listen to Henri Nouwen words:
“In a society in which entertainment and distraction are such important preoccupations, ministers are also tempted to join the ranks of those who consider it their primary task to keep other people busy. It is easy to perceive the young and the elderly as people who need to be kept off the streets or on the streets. And ministers frequently find themselves in fierce competition with people and institutions who offer something more exciting to do than they do.
“But our task is the opposite of distraction. Our task is to help people concentrate on the real but often hidden event of God’s active presence in their lives. Hence, the question that must guide all organizing activity in a parish is not how to keep people busy; but how to keep them from being so busy that they can no longer hear the voice of God who speaks in silence.
“Calling people together, therefore, means calling them away from the fragmenting and distracting wordiness of the dark world to that silence in which they can discover themselves, each other, and God. Thus organizing can be seen as the creation of a space where communion becomes possible and community can develop.”
Nouwen’s profound spiritual direction reminds me of some wisdom I’ve gleaned from Craig van Gelder’s book, The Essence of the Church:
“The church is. The church does what it is. The church organizes what it does. The nature of the church is based on God’s presence through the Spirit. The ministry of the church flows out of the church’s nature. The organization of the church is designed to support the ministry of the church. Keeping these three aspects in the right sequence is important when considering the development of a missiological ecclesiology.”
The very nature of the the Church is communion with God and with each other so that we are formed into the likeness of Christ, from which we, like Christ, naturally embody God’s kingdom, character and presence in our world. That communion requires the Church to truly be the “called out ones” (ekklesia). We must be called out from the world of fragmenting noise, busyness, and distraction and called into a quiet, healing and transforming communion with God and each other.
Nouwen’s words are another stark reminder of how I must learn to live and embody solitude, silence and prayer so that in turn, I may contribute to a faith-community’s life to seek the same.
“O God, come to my assistance; O Lord make haste to help me.”