Chapter 1 in Henri Nouwen’s In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership is titled “From Relevance to Prayer.” Contrary to what most of the Protestant church in America thinks, both mainline and evangelical branches, Nouwen names relevance as a temptation for Christian leadership rather than a virtue. Why is this?
Nouwen identifies relevance with the ability to meet practical needs. Not such a bad thing. In fact, a desirable thing. However, when relevance is the supreme value, competancy is the ultimate requirement for the Christian leader. Do we want incompetant leaders? No, but the central competancy must Christ-centered vulnerability. Having recounted the ways in which his previous acheivements as a writer, professor, and speaker were irrelevant in his ministry among the mentally handicapped adults at the L’Arche Community, he says this:
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. This is the way Jesus came to reveal God’s love. The great message that we have to carry, as ministers of God’s word and followers of Jesus, is that God loves us not because of what we do or accomplish, but because God has created and redeemed us in love and has chosen us to proclaim that love as the true source of all human life.
The question this provokes, I believe, is this: Is there anything more truly relevant to the human condition than persons willing to lay down the relevance-façade for irrelevance and vulnerability?”
I am tempted to fake knowledge of a subject in order to impress someone rather than admit my ignorance. One way this admission of ignorance, a kind of vulnerability, plays out is simply inviting others to tell you about their lives–their interests, their hurts and fears, dreams and passions, etc. It seems to me that a hospitable spirit of compassion and humility is better than put-on identification that we sometimes call being relevant. Our quest for relevance can quickly carry us into inauthenticity, whereas a truthful admission of vulnerability only leads to authenticity, which is what people are most attracted to and most need. Entering the world of those we would serve and lead, as Christian leaders and as Christian witnesses, is done best by taking the posture of learner–an admission of vulnerability indeed.
Nouwen points out that “beneath all the accomplishments of our time there is a deep current of despair.”
People yearn to be known and loved. According to Nouwen, only someone willing to be irrelevant in the world’s eyes can truly know and love persons as Jesus did. For Nouwen, vulnerability and irrelevance are connected to Jesus’ path of downward mobility to the cross, the inverse-pinnacle of vulnerability and irrelevance.