Young adults are increasingly spending time in ways that help others and are doing it in a variety of settings. They’re serving in soup kitchens, building houses for families, and caring for orphans of AIDS victims in developing nations.
Suddenly, serving has become cool. And why not? It feels good to do good. But how does service become more than an occasional project pick-me-up or a disappearing fad chase in our lives?
Beyond the hip-factor, servanthood is a lifestyle of allowing God to shape our character into the likeness of Jesus. Serving isn’t something we do every once in a while to check off our list. It’s the way we’re called to live.
A Reason to Serve
When Jesus said that He didn’t come to “be served, but to serve, and to give His life-a ransom for many,” He wasn’t just explaining His mission; He was showing us how to live (Matthew 20:28). That mark and model of servanthood is more than something we do-as Christians it becomes who we are.
Of course, that sounds wonderful in theory, but the problem is, we’re all pretty selfish people. In Blue Like Jazz, Donald Miller puts it this way: “I talk about love, forgiveness, social justice; I rage against American materialism in the name of altruism, but have I even controlled my own heart? The overwhelming majority of time I spend thinking about myself, pleasing myself, reassuring myself, and when I am done there is nothing to spare for the needy. Six billion people live in this world, and I can only muster thoughts for one. Me.”
So maybe the first step toward true servanthood is getting over ourselves. That means no matter how great a thing we do, the focus isn’t being noticed. “It’s not a self-righteous serving. It’s not about choosing, out of the goodness of our hearts, to do periodic acts of service. It’s about choosing to be a servant,” writes Richard Foster in Celebration of Discipline.
Despite a clear call to serve God and others, though, it’s about so much more than rote obedience. According to Siang-Yang Tan, author of Full Service: Moving From Self-Serve Christianity to Total Servanthood, it’s rooted in a passionate friendship with Jesus. Pointing to John 15:15-17, he says our decision to follow Christ has transformed us from mere servants to friends. And this has a profound impact on how we choose to serve others. “Servanthood flows out of a loving relationship with Jesus,” Tan says. “That puts it in a whole new realm.”
According to Tan, that means we have to be sensitive to the Holy Spirit’s instruction for where to serve. “We need to change our mindset from one that wants to do great things for God to one that wants to do things for a great God,” Tan says.
People, Not Projects
True service also comes with no strings attached. “It is when the church gives itself away in radical acts of service and compassion, expecting nothing in return, that the way of Jesus is most vividly put on display,” writes Rob Bell, pastor and author of Velvet Elvis. “Oftentimes the Christian community has sent the message that we love people and build relationships in order to convert them to the Christian faith. So there is an agenda. And when there is an agenda, it isn’t really love, is it? It’s something else. We have to rediscover love, period. Love that loves because it is what Jesus teaches us to do.”
Shane Claiborne is part of The Simple Way, a community of faith in Philadelphia who is “giving it their best shot” to love God, love people, and follow Jesus (thesimpleway.com). In his book, The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical, he tells a story about a conversation with university students he’d been speaking to. When they asked how to choose which issue of social justice is most important, he says, “The question made me cringe. Issues? These issues have faces. We’re talking not only about ideas but also human emergencies. My response… was, ‘Don’t choose issues; choose people.’
“Lovers are hard to come by,” Claiborne continues. “And I think that’s what our world is desperately in need of – lovers, people who are building deep, genuine relationships with fellow strugglers along the way, and who actually know the faces of the people behind the issues they are concerned about.”
A Messy Business
Serving others isn’t supposed to be easy, and that may not be something you’ve heard before. “Most of the messages we receive are about how to make life easier,” Bell explains. “The call of Jesus goes the other direction; it’s about making our lives more difficult. It is going out of our way to be more generous and disciplined and loving and free. It is refusing to escape and become numb to and check out of this broken, fractured world.”
So it won’t always be neat and tidy. “Churches talk about if you do this [serve], you’ll enjoy it, and it will be great – but it’s messy too,” Ray says. “There are two levels: one-time deals like picking up trash-and feeling good about ourselves-and then there’s talking to people and figuring out what their problems really are and how to solve those. And it’s not an easy process. It is fun when you work through it, but it can also be hard.”
To get to the real stuff-the life-changing stuff-of servanthood means going beyond hit-and-run service projects. It means investing on an ongoing basis in relationships with real people who live real lives.
“When you start seeing the same people over and over, they can drive you crazy; but you love them too because they end up being your friends,” Rays says. “You have to work through things together. You can’t snap your fingers and expect to have a great relationship. It takes time.”