Serving one another is at the heart of who we are. It was the heart of our Savior. When the disciples were having an argument over who was greatest and who deserved the seats of honor, Jesus said, “For the Son of Man came not be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.” And when each of us begins to view ourselves through that lens – that I came not to be served, but to serve and to lay my life down for others – it will transform this congregation. And when every one of us in this congregation sees ourselves as a church who came not be served but to serve and to lay down our lives for others, it will transform this city and this valley.
In one sense, service is a bottom-up process, a grassroots movement. You can’t create servants by mandate from above. You can keep people busy, and create lots of tasks – but there is a world of difference between doing a few acts of service and being a servant. Creating a church of servants begins with a change of heart, and that’s something every individual one of us must come to terms with.
I can’t preach you into being a servant. I might be able to guilt trip you into giving a few hours to do something you wish you didn’t have to do, but that wouldn’t make you desire to be a servant. But I can model it in the way I live and I can share with you the joy that I get in imitating Jesus as a servant. Our shepherds can model service and invite you to join them in living lives of serving others.
So, while you can’t create a church of servants by mandate, you can create an environment where servants can develop and grow and be nurtured. And that’s our goal – to be a church where everyone can come and learn to be a servant in God’s kingdom.
Ephesians 4:11-16 – “It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.”
This is perhaps the most definitive statement Paul makes concerning the character and dynamics of the life of the church. He speaks of the inter-connectedness of every member in the body – the role of serving, the strength of shared faith, the necessity of every member’s involvement – and the resulting growth and health of the body. One very central piece of this description of the body is that we are a church of servants.
What he is saying, in its essence, is that we are the sermon. Our lives are the living demonstration of what good news looks like when it takes up residence in a person’s life. Our lives speak louder than words ever could. Earlier in Ephesians 2, Paul wrote about the life of faith that we live because of the gift of God’s grace, and he punctuates that thought by showing us what that looks like when it is lived out in the real world: For it is by grace you have been saved through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works which God prepared in advance for us to do. (Eph 2:8-10).
Some people think grace means that you’re off the hook, that nothing matters, that God doesn’t expect anything out of you. But that’s not what he’s saying at all. The gift of grace doesn’t release you from obligation, but frees you to live the kind of life God created you to live. You were created for good works. In fact, before you were ever created, God knew what he wanted you to do.
Make sure you understand what Paul is saying, because it makes all the difference in the world. You don’t do works so that God will save you, you do good works because God has saved you. If you think you can somehow do enough good things that God will give you eternal life, you are living a lie. You can never earn or deserve eternal life. God gives it to you freely as a gift. And out of your gratitude and appreciation, you begin to pour out your life in grateful service to him. Motivation makes all the difference. It is the difference between joyless servitude motivated by guilt, and a joy-filled outpouring of life in giving back to your Savior.
Listen to how Paul saw grace affect his own life: But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them – yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me (1 Cor 15:10). Paul’s understanding of grace didn’t encourage him to stand on the sidelines, but compelled him to pour his life back into serving the one who had given him back his life.
How about you? What are you involved in that serves God’s purpose, that increases his kingdom, that brings him glory?
I said that we can create an environment where servants have the freedom and the encouragement to grow. What kind of environment are we talking about? Where do servants grow best? How are new servants developed?
Christ is Exalted
It must begin with Christ. Only in a church where Christ is exalted can we develop servants. A servant’s heart is a reflection of our Savior’s heart. Perhaps the most visible expression of being transformed into the likeness of Christ is as we become servants. That is the quality that comes through again and again in the Gospels. When Jesus finished washing his disciples feet on the eve of his crucifixion he said, “Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. I tell you the truth, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him” (John 13:14-16).
As we lift up and exalt Christ, those who are drawn to him will become more and more like him – and you cannot become more like Christ without becoming more of a servant.
Leaders are Servants
A church that desires to be a church of servants without a leadership full of servants might just as well desire to have an outreach to Eskimos in Florida – it isn’t likely to happen. You can talk about a servant Savior all you want, but if your flesh and blood leadership isn’t modeling that, it will never be more than an ideal.
I’ve ministered at congregations where the elders saw themselves as a board of directors – they sat in their board room and made decisions, but when it came time to serve they were nowhere to be found. That wasn’t their job, they had more important things to do, they were too busy to be bothered. People imitate what they see modeled.
And what does that mean? That means that leadership by delegation only goes so far. Yes, we need to be involving all of our members in ministry – and being a servant leader is as much a matter of enabling others in ministry as doing the ministry yourself. But when there’s snow being shoveled on the sidewalks, when dishes are being washed in the kitchen, when food is being delivered to the poor, when classes are being taught in our Bible school – you will see the faces of elders and ministers and leaders’ wives among those. We’ll be getting our hands dirty and giving up our Saturdays and giving our money to serve – not just alongside, but out in front of the rest of this congregation. And anyone who thinks being a leader is about position and power and prestige is in the wrong place. Leadership at the Glenwood church is about a basin and towel and washing feet.
Servants are Equipped
Did you notice in the passage we read in Eph. 4, that when Paul talks about ministry/service it is not the apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers who do ministry – they are “to prepare God’s people for works of service” (RSV – “to equip the saints for ministry”). The Bible very passionately insists that we are a priesthood of believers. The church is not only led by servants, the church is made up of servants. But servants need equipping – you don’t drop somebody in a classroom full of 6 year olds and say, “teach them God’s word” without providing training and mentoring. Somebody who has never been a servant needs to work alongside somebody who is a veteran servant. We need leaders who see it as their job to mentor others in ministry.
Serving is Valued
A corollary to servant leadership is that serving is valued and servants are honored. You can tell pretty quickly how a congregation feels about serving by the things that are said about and the appreciation that is shown to people who serve. Do we recognize and appreciate the people who serve? Are the servants among us held in high esteem and given a clear message that what they do is important to this congregation?
Illustration – Caring for people
Nancy Ortberg was at one time an emergency room nurse. One night she witnessed an astonishing leadership act: It was about 10:30 p.m. The room was a mess. I was finishing up some work on the chart before going home. The doctor with whom I loved working with was debriefing a new doctor, who had done a very respectable, competent job, telling him what he’d done well and what he could have done differently.
Then he put his hand on the young doctor’s shoulder and said, ‘When you finished, did you notice the young man from housekeeping who came in to clean the room?’ There was a completely blank look on the young doctor’s face.
The older doctor said, ‘His name is Carlos. He’s been here for three years. He does a fabulous job. When he comes in he gets the room turned around so fast that you and I can get our next patients in quickly. His wife’s name is Maria. They have four children.’ Then he named each of the four children and gave each child’s age.
The older doctor went on to say, ‘He lives in a rented house about three blocks from here, in Santa Ana. They’ve been up from Mexico for about five years. His name is Carlos,’ he repeated. Then he said, ‘Next week I would like for you to tell me something about Carlos that I don’t already know. Okay? Now let’s go check on the rest of the patients.’
Ortberg recalls: ‘I remember standing there writing my nursing notes — stunned — and thinking, I have just witnessed breathtaking leadership.’
Paul was especially good at recognizing and affirming the servants who surrounded him in ministry:
Romans – Phoebe, Priscilla and Aquila, Mary, Urbanus, Tryphena and Tryphosa, Persis – how many times did he say “they are a hard worker for the Lord”?
Tychicus “a faithful minister and fellow servant…”
Epaphras “who is one of you and a servant of Christ Jesus – always wrestling in prayer – working hard for you…”
Timothy – “no one like him… takes a genuine interest in your welfare… proved himself, because as a son with his father he has served with me in the work of the gospel.”
Epaphroditus – “my brother, fellow worker and fellow soldier, who is also your messenger, whom you sent to take care of my needs.”
“Welcome him in the Lord with great joy, and honor men like him, because he almost died for the work of Christ, risking his life to make up for the help you could not give me.” (Phil. 2:29-30)
If we are going to develop servants, we need to value serving.
Opportunities are Multiplied
If a church ever gets to the point where someone wanting to serve looks around and says, “I can’t find anywhere I’m needed,” “there aren’t any jobs that aren’t already being done” then it’s time to close the doors. In a healthy, growing congregation there are always opportunities for serving – they may be ongoing jobs that require fresh workers to take the place of those who need a break – they may be new jobs that arise because new ministries are being created – they may be jobs that have always been done by one person, who realizes how much better it is to have several share the load.
But there are always opportunities for serving. And a part of leading a church is in connecting members with opportunities. But it’s more than that. Serving in church- created opportunities is a launching point. We are not just to create opportunities to serve, but lives of service. If the only serving that takes place in this church happens at this building through our programs, we have failed. We’re not just trying to keep people busy, but train people to think like servants, so that when we go out into the world, we begin to respond to those spontaneous opportunities as Jesus would, with eager readiness and compassionate help.
There are lots of things a church can be known for. Think about the churches you know around town and what their reputation and strength is. If I had to choose a strength – something that everyone around Glenwood would look at this church and think – “The Glenwood Church of Christ is a church of….” Wouldn’t it be great to be known as a church of servants? A place where every member was involved and every ministry was active and everybody had a place. That’s my dream for this church because that is God’s dream for this church.
I like how Bruce Thielemann puts it: It all comes down to basin theology. You remember what Pilate did when he had the chance to acquit Jesus? He called for a basin and washed his hands of the whole thing. But Jesus, the night before his death, called for a basin and proceeded to wash the feet of the disciples. It all comes down to basin theology. Which basin will you choose?