The book is the outcome of Henri Nouwen’s own personal struggle to bridge the gap between ministry and spirituality,
Lest the readers who are not ordained ministers or priests label the book as irrelevant to them should ponder on these words of Nouwen,
Hence, the terms, “minister, priests and layman” are used interchangeably in the book.
Purposeful Christian ministry covers the five core functions of teaching, preaching, individual pastoral care, organizing, and celebrating. Effectiveness in fulfilling these ministry responsibilities demands those ministers or lay leaders who are called to exercise in any of these functions to undergo “professional” training. Essential training includes gaining the knowledge and understanding of the Scripture and special skills to respond to the needs of individuals and groups. Professional training is also valuable in equipping the minister with the best method or approach to find answers to questions that may threaten their survival in the ministry (p. xx):
Other ministry techniques needed in the Singapore context today may include,
These questions are extremely important to their ministry and require the minister or the lay leader to do careful study, research and acquire the necessary competencies. However, the author cautions,
That is, Christian ministry preparation must go beyond professionalism. Why? The ministry leader may be struggling with his or her sense of being (p. xx),
The struggle will seek out the true relationship between the minister’s personal Christian faith and his or her act of service. To Nouwen, a doctor may cure a patient without subscribing to the value of human life but it will be impossible for a Christian minister to provide pastoral care who does not uphold the sanctity of life that forms the core of his or her faith. Therefore, ministry and spirituality are not mutually exclusive. They are inseparable. The author reasons and illustrates from his repertoire of experience the creative link between spirituality and the ministry functions of teaching, preaching, pastoral care, organizing and celebrating in the next five chapters of the book.
The ministry of teaching can be a violent process or a redemptive process. The first chapter compares and contrasts the two models of teaching. The violent model of teaching provokes unhealthy competition, views the teacher as the expert and alienates students from “real” life learning. In contrast, the redemptive model creates a binding teacher-student relationship that promotes mutual trust and producing students who are lifelong learners. The redemptive model of teaching is the preferred choice but the teacher must exercise creativity to break students’ resistance to learning,
Preaching is the “heart of the Christian ministry” but the preacher often faces the question of motivating his audience to listen or removing barriers that “prevent the Word of God from falling on fertile ground (p. 25). The chapter discusses the two major difficulties in preaching: the messenger and the message. The solution lies with the spirituality of the preacher who must “move beyond the ‘telling of the story’ and makes his own deepest self available to his hearers so that they will be able to receive the Word of God” (p. 114).
The pastoral relationship between the minister and the person in need of help takes the form of a spiritual covenant and not a professional contract (Chapter 3). The minister is called to “go beyond the levels of skills and techniques” (p. 63) through self-denial and by being a faithful witness of God’s covenant and contemplating on the meaning of human suffering (pp. 64,65).
The fourth chapter examines the relationship between spirituality and the ministry of organizing. The term, “organizing” describes the minister as an agent of social change or a social reformer. Should Christians be involved in social reforms? To Henri Nouwen, preaching the word, “love” from the pulpit and teaching the concept of “love” in the classroom will be meaningless to a “woman who does not have enough bread for her children,” and “counselling skills will not take away her hunger” (p. 70). The real agent of social change must be “contemplative at heart, able to hear the voice of God in the middle of the crying children, and see His face behind the dirty curtain of misery” (p. 87). That is, the change agent must be a man or woman, who integrates contemplation with action,
Chapter 5 calls for the minister to enable his fellowmen to a celebration of accepting and valuing one’s life. It is a spiritual exercise to “turn away from fatalism and despair and to make our discovery that we have but one life to live into an ongoing recognition of God’s work with man” (pp. 93, 94). The rest of the chapter illustrates how “life” should be celebrated.
The book is not about garnering the most creative method, technique or approach to “doing” ministry to gain power, recognition and success for the minister. Creative ministry is about bridging the gap between spirituality and ministry. The emphasis is “being” a minister in which the ministry becomes a way of the Christian life,
Neither is Nouwen writing against training or theological education for ministers,