Jean Vanier is Precisely the Kind of Pioneer the Church Needs Today

Churches seldom reach new people. Those churches that are growing are often fighting for an ever-shrinking pool of people who already want to be a part—and whose lives allow them to be a part—of traditional Churches.

Entrepreneurial leaders who want to start new communities can easily get trapped in this same mindset. They can focus on “winning back” nones and dones who have disassociated from Church. Or they try to “do church” in “cool” or “edgy” ways, hoping to convince people of their relevance.

Even the best of these “rebranding” and “revival” efforts will face some overwhelming cultural problems. Aside from the fact that Sunday morning at 9 or 10am just doesn’t fit for an increasing number of people, the rise of secularism, and how it has been fueled by technology, has removed many of the traditional social pressures that pushed people to take part in a local church. On top of that the Church in the West has serious credibility issues with many secular people, “nones and dones,” and even many practicing Christians who are on the edge.

A vibrant missional movement must empower pioneers whose focus is on those who cannot participate in church communities as they are commonly structured and whose approach bypasses the common credibility issues facing the church.

This past month, we lost one of the greatest living examples of this kind of work.

Jean Vanier was a French-Canadian who served during WWII in both the English Royal Navy and the Royal Canadian Navy. His experience of war, and of assisting survivors of Nazi concentration camps, transformed him and led him to commit his life to peace. After years of searching, he became aware of the plight of thousands of people institutionalized with developmental disabilities, and began experimenting with living in close community with the mentally handicapped. This work eventually inspired two organizations, L’Arche and Faith and Light, and they now have 1600 such communities spread around the world. Their goal is to encourage “people toward mutually transformative relationships, where those who help are transformed by those they encounter.”

Vanier was a close friend of Mother Teresa and was instrumental in introducing the world the work of Henri Nouwen. He was awarded the Templeton prize in 2015. He passed away at the age of 90.

Though there are many lessons to learn from the life of Jean Vanier, those who seek to start new spiritual communities need to pay clear attention to his focus, credibility and scale.

Three Lessons New Church Movements Should Learn From Jean Vanier

Overtly Focus on Those Who Cannot Be a Part of Church

Since the earliest days of the movement that became the Church, Christians were known for caring for those who were left out by society. Tabitha, who cared for widows, was so beloved that they called in Peter with hopes he could miraculously bring her back from the dead. The early church was known for rescuing abandoned children.

Over the centuries, this solidified into movements and religious orders that provided community and care for the outcasts. It is important to note that in Catholic and other traditions these orders have been considered as fully-formed expressions of Church, not ancillary “ministries.”

The church has historically been at the forefront of education and healthcare, as can be seen in the schools and the hospitals that bear religious names. However, many of these organizations have little-to-no relation to the Church, and are subject to the same economic forces that secular organizations face. Jean Vanier and L’Arche provide a stark contrast, not only to our culture’s methods of education, health care and mental health, but also to common approaches to starting new churches.

After witnessing the horrors of World War II, Jean Vanier decided he must commit himself to works of peace. He went back to school, earned a doctorate and lived in a contemplative community. But in 1963, he was invited to visit an institution for the disabled.

“I sensed a great cry,” he said. “‘Why have I been abandoned? Why am I not with my brothers and sisters, who are married and living in nice houses? Do you love me?’ A great thirst for friendship.”

He bought a house and invited two severely handicapped men from the institution to live with him. This model of small, direct, humanizing care became the backbone of L’Arche.

When asked why he left behind his military and academic career, Vanier answered plainly, “I thought Jesus wanted me to.”

In the West, churches are accustomed to power and privilege. They are accustomed to pews filled with people who can understand complicated sermons and donate large sums of money.

Attempts to revitalize or start new churches are trying to woo those with power and privilege to “come back” to church. This can be subtle- “leaders” within a specific race, education level or class inevitably attract others who are like them. This can also be overt, as when organizations focus on planting new churches in communities where the average income ensures they will eventually be “self-sustaining.” The end result is that these churches are often places where people who are rejected by society at large end up feeling rejected as well.

There’s nothing wrong with spreading the good news of Jesus among people of power and privilege. However, we must remember that Jesus himself ministered among the poor and the sick and focused on feeding and healing those in need. He taught the rich, like Nicodemus or the Pilate, when they sought Him out.

For our fresh expressions of Church to be truly Jesus-like communities, they must have a clear focus on those who need to receive God’s love, without any expectation of how those people will be able to respond.

The end result is that these churches are often places where people who are rejected by society at large end up feeling rejected as well. Click To Tweet

Display Undeniable Credibility

Vanier said in Community and Growth that “a Christian community should do as Jesus did: propose and not impose. Its attraction must lie in the radiance cast by the love of brothers.”

It only takes two minutes on Twitter to realize Christians in the West have a problem. Voices from both Christian and secular society are questioning the moral authority of churches and Christian institutions. While there have always been scandals, three particular painful issues are rightfully discrediting the broader church: the overwhelming numbers of leaders who have covered up sexual offenders, the relationship in America between Christians and their political parties, and the number of high profile pastors who have been forced to resign in recent years over various scandals.

No Christian and no organization is faultless. But Christian leaders are called to be above reproach. What better way to stand apart than to eschew power and prestige and focus on loving those who are at risk and abandoned by our society?

Vanier goes on to say that “Community is a sign that love is possible in a materialistic world where people so often either ignore or fight each other. It is a sign that we don’t need a lot of money to be happy—in fact, the opposite.”

Community is a sign that love is possible in a materialistic world where people so often either ignore or fight each other. It is a sign that we don't need a lot of money to be happy—in fact, the opposite. Jean Vanier Click To Tweet

In a world that has reason to be skeptical of churches and Christians, seemingly full of greed, misogyny and the hunger for power, L’Arche displays a love that cannot be denied. If fresh expressions are going to reach those who aren’t already a part of a Church, they’ll have to do the same.

Revel in Your Small Scale

Vanier was hesitant to let the work of L’Arche be called a movement. He was much more interested in doing small things. In fact, the famous saying “we cannot do great things, but small things with great care” has been credited to both him and his friend Mother Teresa of Calcutta.

Churches in the West have no great love for smallness. Since Constantine converted the old pagan temples to cathedrals, the Church has constantly worked to demonstrate itself as “big.” Steeples were invented to make it clear that the Church was the largest and highest structure in a town.

For the past few decades, the church in America has been enamored with the idea of megachurch. It’s hard to deny the draw of the massive one-stop-shops with age specific ministries, upbeat music, dynamic speakers and plenty of parking. While some excellent work has come out of the megachurch, there is an unfortunate side effect of “low self-esteem” for smaller churches, who can’t pull off the productions of the megachurch.

The fact is that you’ll never out-entertain the surrounding world. Your worship gatherings will never be as exciting as the latest Marvel movie. Your speakers will never be as rehearsed as those giving the latest TED talk. Your music will never keep up with the latest Spotify playlist.

Jean Vanier said that he strongly believed “that God is hidden in the heart of the smallest of all, in the weakest of all, and if we commit ourselves to him, we open a new world.”

Fresh expressions must relish in their smallness. As Brian Sanders has pointed out, Jesus loved small things. Jesus invited the little children to him. Jesus celebrated the widow who could only give a little. Jesus proclaimed the power found in the smallest seeds. A fresh expression is a simple form of church. It thrives on laser focus and may only last for a season. But in that small space, new people can encounter God’s kingdom and be transformed.

Fresh expressions should proudly live by Vanier’s words that “we are not called by God to do extraordinary things, but to do ordinary things with extraordinary love.”

An Accidental Movement

In his interview with On Being’s Krista Tippett, Vanier expressed reticence toward his work being a movement. However, there are no other words to describe how thousands have been inspired to dedicate their lives to living in community with the poor and handicapped.

Perhaps the power that has enabled L’Arche to become a movement is precisely this kind of reticence, not from a false humility or sanctified self-loathing but from focused, credible work done on a small scale. If those seeking to start and lead fresh expressions approach it with the same reticence, perhaps a movement is possible here, too.

But it can never be the goal. As Vanier said in Becoming Human, “Let us not put our sights too high. We do not have to be saviors of the world! We are simply human beings, enfolded in weakness and in hope, called together to change our world one heart at a time.”

Chris Morton

Chris works across the organization to help get new projects off the ground and into the world. He also helps to manage our email, social media and other digital communications. He helped plant Austin Mustard Seed, where he served for five years as Community Developer. He also works with several other non-profits and businesses to tell their story with content and social media. In 2012, he graduated from Fuller Theological Seminary with a M.A. in Global Leadership. He lives in Austin, Texas with his wife Laura.


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