Start at the Bottom and Work Your Way Lower
"For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many." —Mark 10:45
“If American churches are ready to serve a nation in anguish under the judgment of God, we will have a ministry for the indefinite future.” —Ray Ortlund
The energy industry rules the economy in my city, which means both my church and my neighborhood see a fair amount of turnover. “For Sale” signs pop up on a regular basis as employment assignments and opportunities arrive and disappear as quickly as the prices of commodities shift. In a transient city like Houston, you have to put in some effort to know your neighbors. So what’s a good neighbor to do?
Serve. You bake cookies or extend a dinner invitation. You provide advice on where to shop, which dentist to use, what gym is around. Interestingly enough, when you serve your neighbor, the foundation for a relationship is born.
It makes sense, of course. We tend to immediately gravitate toward those who are kind and helpful. There is something within our genetic makeup that trusts those who serve us in a genuine way. When someone is selfless and kind, we notice. And we tend to trust that individual.
Christians have long employed that sort of mindset with regard to evangelism. Innumerable sermons have been preached extolling the virtues of serving others so that you might have an opportunity to tell them about the love of Jesus. We hear of Jesus healing and feeding so he might present the character of God and teach of the Kingdom.
But what if this strategy is not simply a way to have a spiritual conversation? What if this is actually the best way to present the political alternative of the Kingdom?
We do not tend to think in these sorts of terms with regard to politics. We tend to go after power. We endorse candidates. We create political committees. We lobby. We look for ways to influence. We work within the system so that we can exert leverage. This is what most of our legacy regarding politics looks like.
And, speaking frankly, it looks like the rest of the world—hungry for power.
In 1945, while writing a letter to his best friend from prison, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was envisioning life after World War II. He knew that the Evangelical Lutheran Church—the official church of Germany—had lost much of its credibility by exercising its own version of politically expedient power hunger. The church had officially endorsed and embraced Führer Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich, including its nationalist and racist policies. Bonhoeffer realized that Germans looking to rebuild their nation would not trust the national church, as they had sold their trustworthiness for an opportunity to be in power.
He wrote about how the church would never earn the trust of the nation again—even those Christians who were not complicit in the Third Reich. His conclusion? The best way to gain a public hearing is by doing the things that Kingdom citizens do—serve and pray. He writes:
“Our church, which has been fighting in these years only for its self-preservation, as though that were an end in itself, is incapable of taking the word of reconciliation and redemption to mankind and the world. Our earlier words are therefore bound to lose their force and cease, and our being Christians today will be limited to two things; prayer and righteous action among men. All Christian thinking, speaking, and organizing must be born anew out of this prayer and action.” [emphasis mine]
If Christians faithfully speak truth to power in the prophetic tradition and follow that with a faithful proclamation and embodiment of the Kingdom, those same believers will find that the best way to build is not through making a PR splash. They will find that the best way to build political influence is by serving others and by praying.
I saw a Ray Ortlund tweet that put it succinctly: “If American churches are ready to serve a nation in anguish under the judgment of God, we will have a ministry for the indefinite future.”
Our Lord took up a basin and a towel so that we would understand the power of service. He told us that he did not come to be served but to serve. He told us that since he had served us as our Teacher and Lord, that we would understand we should serve. We know that we ought to serve.
We simply prefer the position of power.
Oh, to find the beauty of service good again!
Most rags-to-riches stories extol the virtues of good work, reminding us that we can start at the bottom and work our way up. But the Way of Jesus seems to indicate that if we start at the bottom, we can continue serving, looking for ways to lower ourselves even further, just so we can demonstrate the love of God.
Jesus serves in order to portray the character of God. When we serve others—whatever the venue might be—we are creating an image of God’s character that the world can understand. They sense that it is different than the power hunger of the world, and they see its refreshing difference and power.
Such service, coupled with prayer, allows us to rebuke and proclaim. Would you rather listen to a rebuke from someone you perceive to be power hungry or someone who recently washed your feet? Would you rather listen to the spiritual teachings of one who constantly name-drops or one who is willing to spend time with the lowly? Yes, yes, there is a ministry to be done in the corridors of power, but we are too quick to run there. We must begin with the towel and the basin. We must begin with dirt and sweat. We must begin with love and prayer. These are tactics that the world does not employ, but they are the primary weapons in the arsenal of the Kingdom.
If you want to rebuild your nation, if you want to turn it back toward the Lord, you must begin by taking Jesus at his word—serving and loving and forgiving.
It is only when the church truly believes that the Kingdom is the best way to live that the rest of the world might stop and pay attention.
As Bonhoeffer says, “Only those who believe are obedient.”
May we resist faithfully, point to the Kingdom, and serve expectantly.
Believe it or not, this is the way to change the world.
This is the way to something entirely different.