We modern folks, Protestants in particular, have a hard time conceiving of ministry that doesn’t somehow involve an exchange of information. We talk a lot. Many words.
We ask for prayer requests and affirmations of faith. We made the sermon the central feature of the worship event. We analyze hymns based on their lyrical content. Especially since God cannot be seen directly with the eyes, we are tempted to reduce Christian faith to exchanging the right kind of information in the right way.
Let me be as clear as possible: I have come to believe that we have made a vital error in this. Faith and ministry are adamantly not primarily about the exchange of information.
I experienced this firsthand in a new way last spring when I visited St. Gregory’s Abbey, a Benedictine monastery in Three Rivers, Michigan. During my week there, I shared that space with the monks who live there year-round and with several other visitors: an Anglican priest, a Quaker pastor, a woman going through a difficult life transition, two young women in campus ministry, a group of men on retreat from a nearby Episcopal church, and a rabbi in the throes of a psychotic episode.
Each of us had our own reasons for being there, but what I experienced most deeply was the sense of togetherness and connection that emerged, not from our conversations, but primarily through the space shared in silence. We got to know each other while knowing very little about each other. This was intimacy minus the exchange of information. It runs completely counter to the style of relational building that our culture has trained us to pursue (which could be described as the exchange of information without intimacy).
There is a similar kind of ministry that grows among us at North Presbyterian Church, where I serve as pastor. Most of the people we do ministry with have some kind of serious, chronic mental illness. Some of our people are barely verbal in their cognitive expression. I stand up to preach every Sunday, but it’s not the main event of the service. My sermon could be good or bad, short or long, and the ideas would still go over the heads of several people in the congregation. They don’t come for the sermon.
Instead, they come to sing their hearts out (loudly and off-key), to share a hug and a smile (maybe the only one they’ll get all week), to voice their weekly joys and concerns in words that are sometimes unintelligible (but known to God in prayer), to receive the Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist (which we celebrate weekly, a rarity among Presbyterians).
Our liturgy is messy and rowdy: quite the opposite of Benedictine silence and Presbyterian “decency and order.”
Our worship and ministry at North is not about the exchange of information, but the intimate connection of heart to heart in the gospel. It happens in music and touch, in bread and wine.
The following video illustrates this beautifully. While none of our members are as impaired as Ms. Wilson, the principle of ministry is the same. St. Francis of Assisi is thought to have said, “Preach the gospel always; use words when necessary.” This video shows how it’s done: