The first thing I read by Sam Wells was back in 2004, an essay he wrote for a festschrift in honour of Stanley Hauerwas. I quickly came to the conclusion that here was someone worth listening to and later that year I came across his book Improvisation. Wells has so far not written a bad book and these two new ones are among his best.
In 2015 Sam Wells published A Nazareth Manifesto, which sought to describe the theology of being with, the argument that at the heart of the Christian faith is God's commitment to be with, revealed must clearly in Jesus Christ, who while he spent a week in Jerusalem working for us, and three years in and around Galilee working with us, he spent 30 years in Nazareth just being with us (hence the title A Nazareth Manifesto). Wells' conviction is being with is the heart of the gospel and the Christian life. A Nazareth Manifesto set out to demonstrate why theologically. The book was subtitled Being With God. While no book by Sam Wells can ever be described as just academic, A Nazareth Manifesto is at least on one level, a foundations book, its making a case and seeks to defend it.
Wells' two new books, published within 6 months of each other, build upon the earlier work and, in what might be called playful ways, explore the implications of a being with theology for ministry and the church and mission and the world. Incarnational Ministry is subtitled Being With the Church and presents the read with what discipleship might look like and pastoral care might look like if we taking being with over working for as the central call of ministry. Incarnational Mission does the same but in terms of the world, those outside the church.
What both books helpfully outline and explore is that no conversation pastorally or evangelistically is ever the same and part of being with a person is to pay attention to whether the person before us is called, troubled, hurt, afflicted, challenged, dying or lapsed, seeking, of no faith, of another faith, hostile. Each of these is given a chapter to uncover what being with might mean in Wells very readable style. The Ministry book begins with what it means for us to be with God, with ourself, with creation and with the gathered - we are disciples before we are pastors or ministers. The Mission book ends by opening up what it means to be with organisations, institutions, government and the excluded.
In no way does Wells offer the last word on pastoral care and mission, but he helpfully positions those involved in ministry and mission in the right place. Too many of us habitually position ourselves in a working for direction and Wells draws us to a better, more faithful position of being with. Being with is just as demanding as working for, perhaps more so, because it will often take more time and involve more trust (especially in God). Its not that there might sometimes be the demand or need to work with or even occasionally work for, but they shouldn't be the default. There is pressure on the pastor or minister today to inhabit a whole range of roles, and Wells reminds us first and foremost that those who are church ministers are pastors called to be with.
There are too many books on pastoral care and mission, which make them seem uninviting tasks, Wells lead us to see afresh the gift, the delight, the opportunity that can be found in a conversation. Highly recommended.