Serving Others: An Evolution of Motivation
Thousands of people fill the streets of the city. The mood is festive, the scene chaotic. Music and laughter mingle with animated conversation and the cries of children to create the cacophony that is contemporary society.
Suddenly, Jesus enters the city, riding a donkey. And no one cares.
There are no shouts of “Hosanna,” no waving of palm branches, no hopes that the Messiah has come. No one cares because the setting is not Jerusalem in the first century, but Brussels, in the 1888 masterpiece, “Christ’s Entry Into Brussels in 1889” by Anglo-Belgian artist James Ensor.1
For a long time, that’s all I saw in the painting. A left-wing politician dressed in bishop’s garb leads the procession of thousands away from a miniscule Jesus whose entrance into the city goes unnoticed by all but a handful. The town mayor seems to oversee the proceedings, but the birds-eye view is given to a smug Voltaire, nodding his assent to Ensor’s critique of late 19th century European church-state relationships. The grandiose banner “Vive la Sociale” waves over the painting and catches the eye long before the tiny one, bottom right, that captures my heart: “Vive Jesus, Roi de Bruxelles.”
But now I’m seeing something different. I’m drawn to Jesus on the donkey: a humble Jesus, a serving Jesus, a Jesus who is known by his unconditional love for those in need. The Creator-Sustainer of all that lives entered time not to be served but to serve. If Christ were to enter Brussels in 2006, would he do so in the same way he entered Jerusalem centuries before? What if this was the Jesus presented by his body to the Europe of today?
Brussels is the capitol of a continent, home to 30,000 Eurocrats responsible for drafting the future of its 25-nation confederacy. By some estimates, almost 10% of Brussels claims a Christian faith, but subtracting non-European cultures reduces the number to the 1% consistent with the rest of the country and much of Europe. Surely, the church cannot sit idly by while the best and brightest of a generation pens new chapters of European history. There must be more that we can do besides sing louder or to better graphics.
The Well, a new Christian Associates church in Brussels, has decided to serve others. This was evidenced most dramatically in a July 2005 project called “Serve the City” – a phrase we hope in time better describes our way of life than a single event. Serve the City brought together a group of nearly 100 visiting and local volunteers for ten days to show God’s love in practical ways to people in need. We partnered with organizations, some faith-based and some not, who were already working with the homeless, refugees, orphans, elderly, and others in need. Each day our serving team spread all over the city to serve food, cut hair, teach English, provide clothing, paint, play with children, and demonstrate kindness. We said when we started that we wanted to know by name the people we know only by their needs. By the last evening, we shared a holy moment of lifting up in prayer hundreds of people by name whom we would never have met had we not served them.
Although the Serve the City project was a new concept for all of us, and a formidable challenge for a number of reasons, it felt like an unquenchable passion from the heart of God. That much I knew with certainty. But I didn’t know why. Was it to be a demonstration of God’s heart for the poor to be served or of God’s heart for his Church to serve? Was it to be a prophetic pronouncement of the kingdom of God “on earth as it is in heaven” or the best introduction of the Gospel I could think of to the secular Europeans we are hoping to reach? Before, during, and after the project I could hardly speak of these things because my heart was so full of feelings, passion, enthusiasm, pain, and a desperate need to mobilize everyone within my reach. I feel better able to reflect on it now and the remainder of this paper will be devoted to what I am learning through an evolution of motivations I can now see as I look back on God’s work in my life and ministry regarding the priority of serving others.
I was in my fourth year of leading an evangelistic international community youth ministry in Geneva, Switzerland. My objective was to lead a team to share the Gospel with as many non-Christian teenagers as possible. Our primary methods were relationships and weekly youth groups.
In these days, I understood “sharing the Gospel” to mean a conversation or a presentation during which I conveyed information about the main tenets of Christian faith, potentially expressed in two minutes or less like this:
Unfortunately, it was hard to find people who wanted to hear that. That’s when I stumbled upon Conspiracy of Kindness by Steve Sjogren,2 a Vineyard pastor in Cincinnati, Ohio. His book told stories of remarkable evangelistic effectiveness through surprising acts of kindness. The appendix was replete with suggestions, such as free car washes (no donations accepted), free holiday gift wrap, and Sjogren’s personal favorite, toilet cleanings for local businesses. Whether serving spontaneously or in a project organized by his church, conspirators of kindness were encouraged to answer the “why?” questions with this simple phrase: “to show God’s love in a practical way.”
I was pretty sure this was the best thing since sliced bread. We tried a number of Servant Evangelism projects in Geneva and experienced some success. My motivation for serving at this stage was simple: it was the most effective way I knew to initiate a contact with someone that might turn into a conversation about the Gospel.
I felt like I had tried it all: “The World’s Largest Banana Split,” “Battle of the Sexes,” even “Chocolate Pudding Wrestling.” Attract teenagers with fun and then find a way somehow to tell them that they needed Jesus. Camps, trips, and retreats worked the best, but it’s hard to impress international teenagers whose families live in Switzerland, own a chalet in the French Alps, and vacation in the Canary Islands. Even if we succeeded, the atmosphere and activities were far from an ideal backdrop for my two-minute message.
And then one day it struck me: instead of offering teenagers an opportunity for recreation, what if we offered them an opportunity to serve? Missions trips had been impacting Christian teens for years. What about a service project for non-Christian kids? Rather than sharing the Gospel with the community we were serving, we would do so with those in our group. I found some inspiration for this idea from Pulitzer Prize winner Ernst Becker who wrote, “Youth was not intended for pleasure but for heroism.”3
And what heroes they turned out to be! Scores of teenagers I had never met gave me hundreds of euros to travel 24 hours by coach for two weeks over the Easter break to Poland to rebuild houses destroyed by a flood, to Romania to construct an orphanage, to Croatia to renovate a building for reconciliation efforts in the Balkans, to Hungary to assist a ministry that was rescuing homeless from the streets of Budapest. From the first project of 50 people has grown three separate projects, drawing more than 400 students each spring.
This phenomenon also manifested itself locally. Catching on to the desire we were observing in international teens to make a difference in the world around them, we changed our programming and began offering service clubs. While their parents traveled the globe for the High Commission on Refugees, World Health Organization, and World Trade Organization, not-yet-believing teens at home in Geneva served at soup kitchens, played basketball with mentally handicapped athletes, and befriended the elderly. Accompany this activity was a proportionate interest in the Jesus who served and calls us to do likewise.
I couldn’t put words to what we saw working until I stumbled across a book called Churches with Roots by Johan Lukasse,4 retired director of the Belgian Evangelical Mission. On my way to lead a church planting team in Brussels, I was fascinated to read the advice of an experienced pastor who had toiled long years on Belgian soil.
In discussing strategies he considered effective in reaching secular Europeans for Christ, Lukasse referenced Lifestyle Evangelism by Joseph Aldrich,5 a book I had read long before I was really interested in its content. But now he had my full attention.
Aldrich sketched the well-known triangle of Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (below).6 First proposed in Maslow’s 1943 paper A Theory of Motivation,7 the theory contends that people only experience more advanced needs as their basic needs are met. The pyramid is divided into two halves, “deficiency needs” such as food, shelter, affection, and self-esteem and “being needs,” such as self-actualization and transcendence.
The application to church planting, according to Aldrich, revolves around communicating the Gospel in a way that meets people at their point of need. For people who are living in the lower half of the triangle, the implication is obvious: meet their practical needs and trust that spiritual opportunities will present themselves.
But what about people whose basic needs are already met? They may be less inclined to sense spiritual need as well. This describes much of the international teen culture I was seeking to impact in Geneva as well as Europeans we encounter in Brussels.
Aldrich’s answer is this: in order to reach people living at the top half of the triangle, involve them in meeting the needs of others.
And that’s how I came to want to lead a project like Serve the City. The primary motivation was not for those we would serve, but for those who would serve with us.
But I can feel that a different motivation is beginning to take hold. It’s the idea that serving others isn’t a strategy; it’s the Kingdom of God. Maybe serving is what Jesus did. Maybe serving is how we are supposed to live. Maybe serving doesn’t just give an opportunity to communicate the Gospel, maybe it is the Gospel – or at least contains it in a way I had not previously understood. Maybe one can “share the Gospel” as effectively by serving a cup of hot soup as by drawing the Bridge on a napkin in a crowded McDonalds. Maybe better.
I am starting to believe that the act of serving others speaks prophetically to the world around us. Serving says that in God’s Kingdom, people without legs are just as important as fashion models. It says that in God’s Kingdom, even the smallest needs are met. It says that in God’s Kingdom, people aren’t lonely and isolated and taken advantage of. Serving brings heaven to earth, maybe just for a moment, so we can see Jesus. As the cup of cold water is extended, the Kingdom grows beneath the feet of the servant surprised by his selflessness, and the recipient, warmed by the thought that someone cares. Both feel drawn to the Kingdom and long for it to last. Whether or not it does in that space and time, the Kingdom was there, witnessed by at least two.
I’m starting to think about the kind of serving we’re doing as a community. So far, most of our serving is in simple and small ways and very safe. Perhaps it could be thought of as recreational serving. We’re not meeting any real long-term needs. We’re putting a smile on the faces of the forgotten. In many cases, we’re serving through an existing association, when we want, for as long as we want. We walk away and don’t have to think about whether the practical needs of the sick or hungry or desperate will overtake our lives. They don’t even know where we live. Is that wrong?
It would seem that to be a people who truly “act justly and love mercy” (Micah 6:8), more is required than the provision of food and clothing. There are policy issues to be fought, governments to be opposed, prejudices to be silenced. But the kindnesses shown to “the least of these” (Matthew 25:40) that grants eternal life to the “sheep” were simple acts: water for the thirsty, food for the hungry, visits for the prisoners. I’m left with the feeling that serving is something Jesus wants us to feel like we can do, not something that is a waste of time for anyone who doesn’t have a legal degree. I think Jesus would have us start where we are and serve however we can. As we serve simply, he may show us more that we can do and “more is required from those to whom more is given” (Luke 12:48, NLT).
I have more questions. For instance, is serving for the church or is the church for serving? And how much does the answer matter? One thing I have discovered is this: serving others is my favorite act of worship. I feel God’s pleasure in unselfish service maybe more than anything. Properly understood, I think serving is best enjoyed not because it’s needed or because I should, but because Jesus is worth it. And I think I enjoy it, in part, because I am longing for the Kingdom to come in my heart as it is in heaven.
This last section was headed 2006 because, like the year, this new motivation is coming, but is not quite here. Maybe Ensor imagined something similar when he set Christ’s Entry a year in the future. Since his painting, a hundred years has passed, modernity has run its course, and much has changed. The band in Brussels may still be playing and the party in full swing, but there’s no mistaking the fact that the bishop is no longer leading the parade. Could it be that a stirring in the crowd is causing heads to turn back towards the Servant King? Could it be a rumor you hear that somewhere near the man on the donkey feet are being washed, even as you feel a gentle tug at your feet….
1. Held at the Getty Museum, Los Angeles. More information from http://www.getty.edu/art/ collections/objects/o932.html
2. Steve Sjogren, Conspiracy of Kindness (Vine Books, 1993)
3. Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death (New York: The Free Press, 1973)
4. Johann Lukasse, Churches with Roots (Bromley: STL, 1990
5. Joseph Aldrich, Lifestyle Evangelism (Portland: Multnomah Press, 1981)
7. Abraham Maslow, A Theory of Motivation (Psychological Review, 50, 370-396, 1943). Also available at http://psychclassics.yorku.ca/Maslow/motivation.htm