Listenings: The Critical Role of the Church

In last week’s posting, we implied the role of the church in spiritual formation.  Today, we follow Nouwen into a concrete emphasis upon it.

He says the role of the church is critical precisely because “it is painful to realize how poorly prepared we may be to walk this inner terrain” (p. xix).

We sometimes speak of the spiritual life as natural (due to the imago dei), but that does not mean it is automatic.  We are created with the natural capacity to learn a language, but that does not mean we learn to do so without effort and guidance.  Similarly, we do not make our journey into God without the engagement of our will and the encouragement of the community.

Unfortunately, Nouwen is concerned at this very point.  He looked at the church in his day and expressed anxiety about the weakness of the church to be a formative agent.  He wrote, “Most Christian leaders are used to thinking in terms of large-scale organization: getting people together in congregations, schools, hospitals, and running the show as a circus director.  They have become unfamiliar with, and even somewhat afraid of, the deep and significant movements of the Spirit within.  I am afraid that in a few decades the Church will be accused of having failed at its most basic task: to offer people creative ways to communicate with the divine source of human life” (pp. xix-xx).

To the extent this happens, the church will have defaulted on its core mission.  There is a God-given hunger and thirst for abundant living, and Jesus opened the way into it.  But it is the role of the church (as Sam Shoemaker put it) to “stand by the door” and invite people to take note of the hunger, honor it, and follow its instinctive leading into Christ.

About Steve Harper

Retired seminary professor, who taught for 32 years in the disciplines of Spiritual Formation and Wesley Studies. Author and co-author of 42 books. Also a retired Elder in The Florida Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church.
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