Becoming a Servant – a Theology of Ministry

This message from Rev Peter Thomas of North Springfield Baptist Church was delivered at the Commissioning Service for Lyn, a Missionary departing to serve the church in Uganda with Africa Inland Mission. It speaks to missionaries, ministers, evangelists, church workers and everyone engaged in Christian Ministry about the nature of our calling.

A church was looking for a new minister. At their prayer meeting they were asking God for guidance.

“O Lord, please send us a poor humble holy man of God. You keep Him holy, and we’ll keep him humble and we’ll certainly keep him poor!”

 What is this crazy job we do – missionaries, ministers of the gospel, youth workers, pastors, workers in youth organisations and family church? What does it really mean to serve God? What is Christian ministry all about?

 Lyn, you have accepted the call to serve God as a missionary. This is a new beginning for you, a new chapter in your discipleship and your life of Christian service. You’ve trained at All Nations Christian College, the best training any Missionary can get. You’ve read loads of books. You are friends with missionaries and have spent weeks visiting the Mission field! I feel there is nothing I could tell you about being a missionary which you don’t know already. And I feel doubly daunted to speak in the presence of a number of  missionaries with their decades of experience. So I am going to cheat! I’m going to share with you a simple truth which I first learned a missionary back from Africa on home assignment preach 25 years ago – a truth so simple and yet so vital that it has stuck with me all these years.

 Here in John 13 we find Jesus, about to break bread and pass round the cup by which we still remember Him today. His disciples were so busy jostling for position, trying to get the best place next to Jesus, that they had forgotten one simple preliminary – something which you will realise on the dusty roads of Africa is not only polite but necessary. They all still had dirty feet. Nobody had done the slave’s job, physically unpleasant and socially demeaning. Nobody had attended to washing their feet. So we see Jesus Christ, King of Kings and Lord of Lords, in the upper room on the night before He was crucified, doing the job of a slave, washing His disciples feet.

 John 13:13  “You call me `Teacher’ and `Lord’, and rightly so, for that is what I am.  14  Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. 15  I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.  16  I tell you the truth, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him.  17  Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.”

 The simple message this missionary brought back from Africa, which I encourage you Lyn to take out to Africa, is this.

Mission and Ministry are not rendering a service, but becoming a servant.

In fact here is a message we all need to hear. After 20 years as a minister I still need to hear it. Elders and Deacons and Mission Leaders and Bible College Students need to hear it. Everybody who wants to serve Jesus Christ in the church or in the world needs to hear it. Everybody who is seeking to follow Jesus Christ the Servant King needs to hear this truth. Mission and Ministry are not rendering a service, but becoming a servant.

 Not just doing a job. But becoming a servant, becoming a slave. The Bible uses the words servant or slave a staggering 967 times! God even describes some of the most important heroes of faith as My servant Abraham,  My servant Moses, My servant David. The apostles in Acts preached about “God’s servant, Jesus.” Remember these words of Jesus.

“Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant,  and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.  For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Mark 10:43-45.

Two things to think about –  HOW do we serve? And WHY do we serve?

HOW do we serve?

There are so many obvious things I could say here. Of course we need to say that we must always serve with humility. Over the years I have been privileged to meet a number of “great” Christians. Having tea with Bishop now Archbishop of Uganda Henry Orombi was one such special occasion. But perhaps even more memorable than that was a meeting 30 years ago with John Stott. Certainly a great Christian teacher and leader. But more than that, perhaps the most humble and Christ-like man I have ever met. God was able to use John Stott mightily because he was humble! We must always serve with humility. There is always a temptation for ministers and missionaries to become proud of their service. “Aren’t you glad you’ve got me in your church God. Aren’t you pleased you put me to serve you in this place for such a time as this. Aren’t I useful to you!” If ever any of us begin to think like that, remember what Jesus said in LUKE 17:10 “So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.’ ”

The great preacher and pastor F.B.Meyer once said this. “I used to think that God’s gifts were on shelves one above the other and that the taller we grew in Christian character the more easily we could reach them. I now find that God’s gifts are on shelves one beneath the other, and that it is not a question of growing taller but of stooping lower.”

 So we must serve with humility. But in asking “how do we serve?” I also want to ask, “what form will our service take?” Our service takes the form of meeting people where they are, with the needs they bring. To show you what I mean I want to share a story which our missionary friend and guest today John O’Connell told me while I was staying with John and Ann in Goli. It’s the story of a young missionary visiting an older experienced missionary at his work. Through the day, because this was Africa, there was a constant stream of visitors, wanting this, selling that, asking the other. At the end of the day the younger missionary asked, “How on earth do you ever get any work done, with all these interruptions?” The answer was beautifully simple. “The interruptions ARE the work.”

 Not rendering a service – but becoming a servant. How do we serve? Not by particular pieces of work, things we write, administrative tasks we get finished, but by the relationships we build with the people we meet, the people we get to know and who get to know us and who by God’s grace see something of Christ in our weak humanity.

 While I was visiting Matoke Inn in Kampala, the old house just up the road from the new Matoke Inn where Lyn will be working, I was led to a marvellous book by Tim Stafford called “The Friendship Gap”. He points out that in our busy Western lives we put work before relationships. In contrast, the African way is to put relationships before work. Family and friendships matter more than “getting the job done”.

 In Africa, or in England, or anywhere where God is at work, the people matter more than the particular pieces of service. Our projects and reports and emails will not last into eternity. Our relationships with people will! So HOW do we serve? We serve by focussing not so much on results as on relationships! We serve by never forgetting that “the interruptions ARE the work!”

 How do we serve? Now

WHY do we serve?

 In other words, what is our motivation for serving? What motivations could we possibly have which would lead anyone to give up a safe secure comfortable life in leafy Brentwood to go and work in hot damp uncomfortable Kampala? To leave good friends and nice sensible foods behind and be surrounded by strangers living on baked bananas or, even more unimaginable, Kwen! What motivations can I possibly suggest for you Lyn, which will keep you serving God when the going gets tough, and I mean, really tough?

 Let me suggest to you six possible motives why missionaries become missionaries and ministers become ministers. All of these are good Biblical motives. And I want to suggest to you that they are of increasing importance. The later motives will be of the greatest value to you when being a missionary stops being glamorous and exciting and becomes hell on earth! Why do we serve?

Because of the needs of the people

Of course the needs of the people of Africa are enormous. Physical needs: poverty, water. Health needs: AIDS, malaria, malnutrition. And spiritual needs – the needs to hear the saving gospel of Jesus Christ without which anyone is doomed for eternity.

But you don’t just become a missionary because you have seen the needs of the people and think that you could make a difference. That’s a weak motive because however hard you work, however much of yourself you give, you will never ever make a visible dent in that mountain of needs! Yes – we serve in order to meet the needs of the starving and the dying and those lost without Christ. But keeping your eyes on the needs, and looking all the time to see what difference you personally are making, is a recipe for discouragement and depression!

When you DO feel discouraged about the lack of progress you are making, remember the parable Jesus told of the seed growing secretly.

MARK 4:26-29 He also said, “This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground.  Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how.  All by itself the soil produces corn—first the stalk, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear.  As soon as the grain is ripe, he puts the sickle to it, because the harvest has come.”

Don’t rely for your motivation on “seeing results”. We can never measure our “success” or “failure” in God’s work. The nature of the Kingdom is that we don’t see the signs of growth until the harvest. In this life we will never know what needs God has met through us. Seeing the needs of a lost world is not by itself sufficient motivation for serving. So why else do we serve?

Because you care about the people

It is right and good that we care for the people God calls us to serve. The lesson we learn from the bad example of the Pharisees is that it is always preferable to serve out of love than out of duty. But loving people is scarcely enough. Because at time people can be very hard to love! After years as a minister I’m sometimes with Snoopy on this one. “I love humanity, it’s people I can’t stand!” It’s hard enough to keep on loving people when they speak your language – harder if they don’t. Hard enough if they start off with the same world view and the same values as you – much harder if they don’t. When we are serving God, the devil loves to attack that work by bringing division and distrust and disagreement between even the closest of friends. It’s good to start off loving the people! But that won’t be enough! So why serve?

Because God loves the people

Now we’re getting somewhere! Our task is not to love people. Our task is to take God’s love to people! Our service for God has to be based on the fact that God’s love for people is infinitely greater than our love for those people. God’s love for them is greater than we can possibly imagine! When our patience with them is strained, God’s patience is never strained. When our love for the people we are serving and ministering to runs out, God’s love for them will never run out! When we want to give up, God’s love never gives up!

But our Bible passage gives us even better reasons for serving God.

Because Christ gives us an example

John `3:14  Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. 15  I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.

Slavery is not glamorous. Not exciting. Not even pleasant. It’s hard work, long hours with no reward. Just like being a missionary. Or a minister. But we do it because Christ has set us an example which we should follow. And not just missionaries and ministers, but ALL Christians should follow that example of course. The example summed up in that prayer of Richard of Chichester:

Lord give us the grace to serve you as you deserve
To give and not to count the cost
To toil and not to seek for rest
To fight and not to heed the wounds
To labour and not to ask for any reward
Except that of knowing that we are doing your will.

That is what it costs when we stop just rendering a service and really become a servant!

Four reasons down – two to go! Reason five:-

Because God has commanded you to go

You don’t need me to tell you that a missionary does not become a missionary because they want to become a missionary. A missionary is a missionary because God SENDS them. That’s what mission is! Being sent! So we serve because we know God has called us to serve, and commanded us to serve and sent us to serve. Lyn, you are going to Africa because you know that God has sent you there. And we your sending church know that God is sending you there. And AIM has endorsed that call!

But I know from my own 20 years in ministry that you will discover that the hardest part of being a missionary is not hearing the call of God and getting up and going. Just as the hardest part of being a minister is not leaving a comfortable job to work twice the hours for half the money! The hardest part of being a missionary will be STAYING where God has put you – when the time comes that the temptation is so strong just to get on a plane and go home again! I know that temptation so well. How wonderful it would be to go back to a “normal life” and a “proper job”. When everything seems to be going wrong, and nothing seems to be working, and you aren’t seeing any results and it seems that the whole world and everybody in the church and even God seems to have given up on you. When that time comes, being there “because God commanded you to go” won’t seem to be enough of a reason to stay!

 Serving out of duty and obedience will never be enough. And following Christ’s example won’t be enough reason to stay, when you know very well there are plenty of other Christians following that example at much less personal cost back in the comfort of Brentwood. When the going gets really tough, knowing that God loves the people won’t give you anything like enough strength to keep you loving the people. And in that moment all the overwhelming needs of the people will not be a motive for you to stay, but will become the very reason why you need to run away and hide from those needs and those people!

 That darkest hour may come, that time when all the other reasons why we should serve God count for absolutely nothing. So let me give you the most important reason why we serve, why we become missionaries and ministers, why we make the sacrifices and hang on in there when the going has got so tough that the tough have long since packed their bags and gone home. You serve God

Because God loves YOU

 More than any other reason – this is the reason to cling on to. God loves you! Lyn – never forget this glorious truth. God loves you with the love which will never let you go. God loves you so much that He gave His only Son to die for your sins so that He could make you His child. God loves you so much that He has come to live WITHIN you by His Holy Spirit. God loves you – and nothing, nothing, absolutely nothing, can separate you from that love God has for you. That’s why we serve God. Because He loves us. 1 John 4:19 – “We love because God first loved us.”

 We love God and we love others because God loved us first. The love which we have received inspires and sustains us. Why do we go out into the world as Ambassadors for Christ? Paul tells the Corinthians, “Christ’s love compels us!” It is not our love for Christ but it is Christ’s love for us which compels us to serve God! Even a powerful experience of being “sent” is not enough in the hardest of times. Only our own personal experience of just how much God loves us will be sufficient to keep any of us firm serving God through the years.

 So hang on to these truths in the years ahead Lyn. And every one of us needs to hear the same message wherever and however God calls us to serve him, in the local church or on the mission field. Mission and ministry are not rendering a service but becoming a servant. Serving humbly. Serving by building relationships – the interruptions ARE the work. Serving for all kinds of reasons, but more than anything else serving God because we never ever forget just how much God loves us! Christ’s love compels us. We love because God first loved us.

So let us learn How to serve, And in our lives Enthrone Him;
Each other’s needs To prefer, For it is Christ We’re serving.
This is our God, The Servant King, He calls us now To follow Him,
To bring our lives As a daily offering Of worship to The Servant King.
(Graham Kendrick)

Comments are closed.