Nouwen’s (1989) In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian’s Leadership is a notable work by the famous Dutch writer and theologian. As the name suggests, the book covers the author’s perspective on Christian leadership and, although first published in 1989, aims to envisage what a Christian leader should aspire to be in the 21st century. Nouwen makes a well-organized and rhetorically effective case for a leader overcoming temptations of relevance, popularity, and power, but his Christian background and the assumptions stemming from it undermine the book’s persuasiveness for non-Christians.
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The author’s thesis is that the historical situation on the eve of the 21st century necessitated the reinvigoration of Christian leadership. According to Nouwen (1989), “the need for a new Christian leadership” becomes imperative at a time when people feel lost and express a general dissatisfaction with the efficiency and success-oriented theories of leadership (p. 22). Christian leader, as envisaged by the author, is the one “with outstretched hands, who chooses a life of downward mobility” (Nouwen, 1989, p. 73). Therefore, the book’s thesis is that Christian leadership is necessary and manifests in a leader who rejects the striving for personal relevance, popularity, and power in favor of interacting humbly with the flock.
The first main point of Nouwen’s text and suggests that a pious Christian leader has to overcome the temptation of significance. According to Nouwen, it is entirely human to hope to be relevant due to one’s achievements. However, in the author’s Catholic view, people only mean something not because of their accomplishments, but “because God has created and redeemed us in love” (Nouwen, 1989, p. 17). Nouwen (1989) suggests that a Christian leader should overcome the lust for personal relevance through contemplative prayer, According to him, only the knowledge of God’s love may lead a person to the understanding there is nothing more relevant.
Another point raised in the book is that a Christian leader should overcome the temptation of popularity as well. The author cautions an aspiring Christian leader against the desire to do “something that could win him great applause” (Nouwen, 1989, p. 38). According to Nouwen (1989), the point of Christian leadership is in ministering not for the sake of ministers themselves, but “in the name of the Lord Jesus” (p. 41). Instead of striving for popularity, the author argues, a true Christian leader admits he needs care and forgiveness just as much as those whom he leads.
The third major point in the author’s interpretation of Christian leadership is rejecting the pursuit of power in favor of the honest service to the leader’s flock and, ultimately, God himself. Nouwen (1989) points out that, while it is undoubtedly easier “to control people than to love people,” this is not the Christian way, as it subverts the very essence of Christianity. According to the author, the core part of Christian leadership is not exerting power over others, but submitting to the will of the Lord.
One who aspires to lead in a Christian way should be, first and foremost, able to follow God whenever He leads “trusting that, with him, they will find life” in abundance (Nouwen, 1989, p. 64). Thus, the Christian leader, as envisaged by Nouwen (1989), does not aim to amass power but recognizes instead he is but one of the followers of the Lord.
One of the book’s strength is its simple yet effective structure that facilitates the gradual development of the author’s thesis. The three parts of the book correspond to the three significant temptations to overcome for a Christian leader – namely, relevance, popularity, and power. Nouwen (1989) takes his time to explain how the prayer helps against striving for personal significance, how trust outweighs popularity, and how willing to admit vulnerability is preferable to amassing power.
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Consequently, when Nouwen (1989) reiterates his thesis in conclusion and says that the Christian leader is a “praying leader, the vulnerable leader, and the trusting leader,” the audience appreciates the argument fully (p. 73). Therefore, the simple three-part structure of the book is an effective way of organizing the delivery of the author’s three-prong thesis.
Another advantage of the text is rhetorical, as the author personally displays the same modesty his book requires from the future Christian leaders. In the prologue, Nouwen (1989) admits that he initially felt inadequate to the task of speaking before his fellow ministers about Christian leadership. According to him, he doubted what he could say to those “who are thinking day in and day out about the future of the priesthood and the ministry in the church” (Nouwen, 1989, p. 2). By admitting this doubt, Nouwen (1989) demonstrates humility expected from a good Christian. This demonstration reveals that he aims to live up to the proclaimed ideals himself and raises his credibility in the eyes of the Christian audience.
The first weakness of the book lies mostly in the author’s Christian background and the assumptions stemming from it. The author claims that people are “sinful, broken, [and] vulnerable,” Christian leaders included, which is why they need care and forgiveness (Nouwen, 1989, p. 43). Therefore, Nouwen (1989) expected the audience to share the assumption of the original sin, which may not resonate with non-Christian readers. One may object this is not an issue, as the book’s intended audience is exclusively Christian, but this is not true.
The author claims Christian leadership is necessary for everyone suffering from the “lack of friendship and intimacy, broken relationships, boredom, feelings of emptiness and depression” (Nouwen, 1989, p. 21). This group includes more than just Christians, and relying on the premise non-Christians do not share undermines the effectiveness of the argument.
Another downside is criticizing modern models of leadership while offering Christianity as an alternative. Nouwen (1989) opines that efficiency-oriented leadership is responsible for the sense of emptiness that fills “the hearts of millions of people in our success-‐oriented world” (p. 21). Yet he admits that the history of the Church is full of leaders preferring “to choose power over love” (Nouwen, 1989, p. 60). This begs a legitimate question of how Christian leadership is a good alternative if it failed to produce the leaders the author describes in its two thousand years.
Within a course’s area of study, one may interpret Nouwen’s (1989) book as an example of a text expecting the audience to share particular assumptions. As mentioned above, much of the argument for Christian leadership rests on the premise of original sin and the fact of people being “sinful, broken, [and] vulnerable” (Nouwen, 1989, p. 43). This adherence to religious assumptions makes the book compelling for Christians but undermines its persuasiveness in the eyes of other readers.
Its limitations notwithstanding, In the Name of Jesus is a fairly solid representation of the author’s case for Christian leadership. The books’ three-part structure corresponds to the main points of a three-prong thesis, and the author’s rhetoric should be convincing for the Christian audience. Although non-Christians will not be as impressed with the author’s presumptions, it does not detract from the text’s effective organization or the author’s undeniable passion.
Nouwen, H.J.M. (1989). In the name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian leadership. NY: Crossroads Publishing.