17. The Way of Service to the World

One cold winter night, I left my office in Bay Village, Ohio to eat pizza with some volunteers. As I walked into Auburn Hall, expecting to see just a few people, I saw over 200 volunteers in yellow T-shirts eating together, having fellowship, and getting last-minute instructions for a ministry called “Respite.” Several times a year, Bay Presbyterian Church keeps special needs children so that their parents can have a break from caregiving. It takes about 200 volunteers to take care of about eighty children for a few hours. The night is designed to include fun activities, movies, music, and a variety of experiences for the guests. There is a worship time led by young people at the end of the evening. This ministry has been a part of building the reputation of the church as a loving place for children and families.

In my former church in Memphis, there is a retired member who is a wonderful Christian disciple. He is at an age when many people are “slowing down.” This particular person, his family, and his small groups within the church are not slowing down much at all. Instead, he is active in an inner-city ministry led by a congregation in another denomination. Every week, at least once and sometimes more often, he is at the food pantry, the clothes closet, the Sunday feeding, or another ministry to the poor of Memphis. Much of the time, a few other members are with him. Very few, if any, of the persons they serve could make the almost twenty-mile journey to attend our church. Their ministry is an act of love and service to the poor and outcast. Their Christian action is a witness to Christ to every person who experiences or knows of the ministries.

We have already had the opportunity to share that post-modern people are cynical. They are cynical about religion in general and Christianity in particular. In such a situation, people are watching to see if we actually live like Jesus, not just talk about him.  This means it is just as important to share the Gospel by deed as to share by word in our culture.

Jesus and Love for the Lost

Jesus did not just preach good news. Jesus was constantly serving others. He healed the physically sick. He cast out demons. He confronted hypocrites. He helped people overcome sin and its effects. He confronted injustice. In Jesus, faith and works were fully-combined in one human life. Near the end of his gospel, Matthew records the following words of Jesus:

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

Then the King will say to those on his right, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.”

Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?” The King will reply, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”

Then he will say to those on his left, “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.” They also will answer, “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?” He will reply, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.” Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life (Matthew 25:31-43).

This parable indicates that a life of discipleship under grace is not a life without responsibilities to serve others. We are saved for good works (Ephesians 2:10). God cares what we do after our conversion. In this passage Jesus is speaking to his disciples, as well unbelievers. He is not giving a teaching for those outside the people of God but for those already inside the people of God. [1] He is warning that God expects something from us—to share the self-giving love of God with others, just as Jesus shared that love for us on the Cross. Service to the “least of these” is a critical part of the life of a disciple.

The Call to Care

In the last part of Matthew preceding Jesus’ arrest, crucifixion and death, Jesus tells three important stories: the Parable of the Ten Virgins, in which he encourages believers to continue to be filled with the Holy Spirit, the Parable of the Ten Talents, in which he encourages believers to put the gifts, talents and abilities they possess to good use, and the  Parable of the Last Judgment in which he encourages believers to remember that, when he returns, the human race will be held accountable for their actions in this world, and especially their actions towards the least, the lost and the outcast.

In the parable, the time between Jesus’ ascension and return is over. God graciously provides time for the human race to care for his creation and grow in likeness to God. Now, that time is complete. It is time for accountability. Jesus is revealed as the Exalted One, before whom every knee rightfully bows and every tongue confesses (Philippians 2:10-11).  All the people groups in the world appear for a final judgment (25:2). It is time for a review of the actual beliefs and behavior of the human race. And so, Jesus separates the peoples of the world who are massed before him as the shepherd separates sheep and the goats (25:32).

When we think of the final judgment, we think of a court of law. During the trial, evidence is presented by both sides. No one is sure exactly what happened, so there is a lot of testimony to establish the facts. The judge must work hard to decide. He or she must sift through the facts, weigh the evidence, determine who is telling the truth, and the like. At least, that is the way I thought of this parable until I learned about sheep and goats.

In the Holy Land at the time of Jesus, sheep were generally white and goats were black. It was easy to tell them apart. Any listener of Jesus would have known that fact. The image is not one of a difficult decision by a judge hearing testimony and weighing evidence. The decision image is of a judge who already knows the facts deciding. You see, God knows our hearts. He knows what we have done and not done during our time on earth. He does not need to ask a lot of questions or review a lot of evidence. He knows.

Jesus begins by telling the sheep, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me” (Matt. 25:34-36). The sheep are those who have done the things that Jesus did while here on earth by loving service to others.

The scene resembles less a judgment in a trial than a reading of a will in a probate court! God is saying to those who behave as his children, “Come right now and collect your inheritance as Children of God.” The sheep, of course, being humble, hardly know what to say, because they can’t even remember what they’ve done and are not sure that they deserve such an inheritance.

Then, Jesus turns to the goats and says, “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.” (Matt. 25:41-43). These people, right away begin to make excuses: They also answer, “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you” (v. 41).

Jesus answers these excuses with the words, “I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me” (v. 45). Once again, God does not need a lot of testimony because God knows. Jesus is saying, “Either you believe and live out the Gospel of Love or you don’t. Either you believe I am God, and try to live as I lived or you don’t. Either you see the world through my eyes or you don’t.”

The World is a Place of Great Need

You see, the world is full of obvious need. There are tens of millions of people, starving, without food, water, without schools, jobs, shelter, adequate income, and hope. There are many people in prison. Those who travel to very poor mission fields see the need in obvious ways in poor nations. But, the need is not just at the end of the earth. There is a lot of need close at hand, right before our eyes. All we must do is read the newspapers, watch TV, look at the Internet, or drive around our city. Everywhere we go, if we open our eyes, we see need. Human need is all around us.

I could pick any city in our nation or around the world, but because we lived in Memphis for a long time, Memphis is a good example. Memphis is one of the poorest cities in America. There are at least 178,000 Memphians who live in poverty. A good many more live pretty close to the poverty line. Fifty percent of workers qualify as “low wage workers”. That is to say, they have family incomes that put them just over the poverty line. These people often have jobs where they do not receive medical insurance and other benefits. Any setback results in poverty.

Despite all the efforts of governments and private charities, over the last few years, Memphis has been getting poorer at a rate of about one percent a year. Poverty in Memphis is not just located in the inner city. Increasingly, it is found in the suburbs. [2] Memphis also has one of the highest crime rates in the United States, and has many citizens in jail or prison. There is a lot of substandard housing. In other words, need is right before the eyes of everyone in Memphis. If you live in a major metropolitan area your city is probably not much different.

Wherever We Go, We See

The problem of human need is everywhere. Wherever we go, we are bound to see it. We can’t say to God, “I’m sorry, I never saw the problem.” Jesus won’t let us off that easy. We just can’t be like the people in the parable who say, “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?” (v. 41). The parable said to those in Jesus’ day, and says to us today, “Don’t believe for one moment that God does not know what we’ve seen and not seen, where we’ve been and not been, what television news we’ve watched and not watched, etc.” God knows everything and is aware of the depths of our hearts. He knows when we are avoiding doing what we know is right. He is not going to let us get away with a lame excuse: “I just never saw it.”

Will we see the World Through the Eyes of Jesus?

The question we face is not “Can we see the world around us through the eyes of Jesus?” but “Will we see the world around us through the eyes of Jesus?” What exactly God calls us to be and to do is largely determined by where he takes us in life. Wherever he takes us, there are needs. Some of those needs involve problems we could, if we would, work on. One of the most important things we can do as Christians is simply be aware of needs around us and respond. In the Parable, Jesus assumes that people see needs and alerts us to the fact that, as God, he is present in suffering love for those in need.

Small Discipling Groups and Mission

One of the most important churches of the 20th century was a small congregation in Washington DC, known as the “Church of the Savior.” The Church of the Savior never had a large membership. It was made up of a series of small missional congregations, which themselves function as churches. Each group had a mission focus. Over the years, the small groups have instrumental in creating, developing, and sustaining many, many important ministries. Its example was so powerful, that there are similar churches and groups all over the nation. Mainline and other churches have studied the Church of the Savior in designing their ministries and missions.

The Church of the Savior was the brainchild of Gordon and Mary Cosby. Gordon Cosby, the founder and pastor of the congregation until his death, was an Army chaplain during the Second World War. By the time he returned home, he had seen how shallow the religious faith of many people could be. He experienced how easy it was for people to behave in non-Christian ways during wartime, and began experiments in discipling the soldiers he served during the war. He also came to believe that the church had failed, not just men whom he served during the war, but also those who remained back home. He dreamt of forming a different kind of church. The church he dreamed of founding became a reality in the Church of the Savior. [3]

Soon after its formation, the Church of the Savior determined to conduct its ongoing ministry through small mission groups. These were originally small groups focused on Bible study and learning about Christian faith and practice. Then, Cosby and the members of Church of the Savior changed their form and intention. The groups at Church of the Savior were groups specifically designed to conduct missions in and around the Washington, D.C. area. These groups formed the core ministry of Church of the Savior for most of the last part of the 20th century. Finally, the Church of the Savior itself became a community of churches.  When Gordon Cosby died, he was lauded by Christians and on-Christians alike for his work. [4]

Building an Action-Oriented Discipleship Strategy.

The founders of American pragmatism famously suggested that, when developing an idea or theory, its truth was to be judged on the basis of its likely practical impacts. Whatever the academic truth of such a theory might be, biblically speaking, there is a great truth in the notion that truth and action are inseparably intertwined. Jesus was the Way, the Truth and the Life. It was not what he taught that was the truth; he embodied the truth. This means that Christ-followers cannot be content with mere head knowledge, nor is it enough for a disciple-maker to instruct a new disciple by teaching abstract principles of Christian discipleship. In the exact words of the Great Commission, we are not just teaching concepts, we are teaching new believers to obey (Matthew 28:20). Obedience is not a concept; it is an action.

Whenever one learns a skill, one learns some information. However, one cannot learn a skill without watching someone else and modeling one’s actions after theirs. This means that disciple-making programs have to be characterized by “learning while doing” and “doing while learning”. The question is, “How do we learn while doing?”  Here are just a few suggestions:

  • From the beginning of the formation of a discipling relationship, it is important to remember that discipling relationships, whether personal or in a small discipleship group, do not exist primarily for the benefit and comfort of the group or its members. The purpose is to reach the world with the love and wisdom of God. Many small groups forget this fact.
  • In meeting the needs of people, the gospel itself, God’s love for the world and desire to draw people out of selfish, self-centeredness and into a relationship of loving community with God and others remains central. As a friend reminds me often, “Keep the main thing the main thing.” The main thing is faith reaching out in love.
  • Take advantage of opportunities that naturally develop to share God’s love. In other words, since the need for God’s love is all around us, our most effective way of sharing God’s love in tangible ways can be that which is closest to us. This requires keeping eyes open where they might be closed.
  • Although God does equip the willing and often uses us in surprising ways, a good bit of the time, God uses the talents and the gifts we already possess. When confronted with an opportunity to serve others, a good question to ask is, “Am I or my group equipped to meet this need?”
  • The value of planning cannot be overemphasized. Occasionally, under the impact of an obvious need, people and groups impulsively reach out without planning and end up doing something that is counter-productive. The best way to avoid failure is to plan.
  • Finally, the leader of the group must personally be involved for the project to actually promote growth of discipleship. People, like children, do what they see leaders doing, not what leaders tell them they should be doing. Leaders do not have to lead mission projects, in fact it may be counter-productive if they do. However, they do need to be involved.

An Example.

As I was writing he above list, an example from the past came to my mind. Our church had an extensive foreign mission’s program. Unfortunately, only relatively few people could be involved. Over time, members of the congregation felt that we should be doing more local mission. In the beginning, a few people looked at supporting a public school in a distant neighborhood. We began well, but over time the distance and danger of the neighborhood became an impediment to success. We simply did not have the resources to meet the need.

Our church was in an area of great economic disparity. There were affluent areas and areas of poverty. One day, some of our members were passing a nearby elementary school. It was in a very nice neighborhood, and the school was brand new. In the beginning, the group felt it would not be a good idea for us to adopt the school because they didn’t need us. Then, we discovered that the vast majority of the children that attend the school came from a poor area included in the district and were receiving various forms of assistance from the school. Many of the students came from an apartment project near our physical worship center to which we had attempted an outreach, but had been rebuffed by the owner. Therefore, we adopted the school to reach children we had already attempted to reach.

I was a part of a group of folks that had the initial idea for the project. Many of the leaders had been in a discipleship class with me. Therefore, as busy as I was, I volunteered on periodic basis, including some of the situations in which it was difficult to get enough help. Often, I spent the morning of my day off with one or more members of the group, and not infrequently with an elder or other leader of the congregation. These were great opportunities to build on an already existing discipling relationship. [5]

The project was a success. Many more of our members participated. Several small groups under took various projects to help the school in areas as diverse as reading to children, repairing and building facilities for certain programs, participating in science fairs, helping with annual testing, and other activities. We had been concerned that there would be resistance to a Christian organization helping a public school. In fact, there was absolutely no resistance. They were glad to have us. In the process, a few people that ordinarily would not have attended our church began to attend.

This mission opportunity reveals the importance of keeping your eyes open, see the need around you, and being sure you have the right spiritual gifts to meet the need. We did not have the right spiritual gifts to meet the first need, but we did the second. We were far more successful because we chose a need we could meet with the resources we had. In our first project, we had bitten off more than we could chew. In our second project, we met a need we had the ability to meet.

Conclusion

In discipleship, there is an intimate connection between learning and doing. Discipleship is a lifestyle not a course we take in order to graduate. The wise disciple-maker never forgets that fact. In the late 1970s I became a Christian. For most of the 1970s nine and 1980s, I was a lay person in Houston Texas. One thing I did was preach at a homeless shelter in the city. In 1991, I went off to seminary. In seminary, I had a small ministry to seminary students. When I left seminary, I went to a poor town in West Tennessee. On the first day I was introduced to an extremely poor, violent, and drug infested neighborhood. Eventually, we helped begin a community center in that neighborhood with other churches.

Then, I went to Memphis. Eventually, our church became involved in an international mission project called “Living Waters for the World.” The project began in an interesting way. A small group of which I was a member was praying that God would open up the door for us to do a foreign mission in the agricultural area.

One day, a man from another city that I knew slightly called. This was not a person I knew well, and we had been on different sides of disagreements in the past. He asked if our church would help with a mission project called, “Living Waters for the World.”  Be honest, I didn’t really want to get involved. I was unnecessarily afraid becoming involved would harm the project at one of my closest friends wanted to begin. However, I didn’t feel like I should say “No,” and so we invited him to come to our Session and give a presentation. To my great surprise, the Session was enthusiastic, and many people became involved almost over-night.

Our church became deeply involved in the ministry. One of our members, without being asked, gave substantial funds to underwrite many of the expenses. My friend eventually went on and led mission projects in Africa, Mexico, Honduras, and the Philippines. He, his wife, and many other members became national leaders in the ministry and helped train people to install small water treatment facilities. It was a Holy Spirit adventure from beginning to end.

One evening just before dusk, sitting on the top of a small mountain in the middle of Ghana in West Africa, I stood looking at an installation our congregation had just completed. I was thinking about Jesus’ last word, “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). Suddenly, as I stood looking at that project in the center of a West African nation, I thought to myself, “Son of Gun, you made it.” Chills went through my spine, chills I remember to this very day. God had taken me from Houston to the ends of the earth.

The life of a disciple is to be a life of action. Nothing in this world can be more wonderful and joyful than those moments when we join in God’s mission to the least and the lost with other disciples of the Risen Lord. He may take us a few blocks away or to the ends of the earth.

Copyright 2020, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] This parable is a part of Matthew’s gospel that contains what is often called his eschatological discourses. The section contains a series of stories and parables designed to encourage faithfulness among his disciples, including the lesson of the fig tree (24:32-35) and the description of faithful and unfaithful servants (vv. 36-51),

[2] Eyewitness News, January 20, 2008. www.myeyewitnessnews.com/news/local/Memphis-Povery-Level-Rises (March 17, 2010); Poverty Rate Up in Shelby County www.commercialappeal.com/news/2008/aug/27 (March 17, 2010).

[3] The story of the formation of Church of the Savior is told by Elizabeth O’Connor in her Book, Call to Commitment (New York, NY: Harper & Row, 1963). My trip to see the Church of the Savior, meet Gordon Cosby, and tour the school of servant leadership that Church of the Savior created as well as many of their ongoing ministries was a highlight of my pastoral life.

[4] This essay is not the place to tell the entire story of the Church of the Savior, which in any case would take a historian with a great deal more talent and time than I possess. For those who wish to know more and study the church and its ministries more deeply, a good place to begin is Call to Commitment, previously cited. However, Call to Commitment is only one of many books and monographs published about Church of the Savior. There are also a wealth of articles and other information about the church, some of which is available on its website.

[5] It is important to note that I did not attend every event or every weekly program. That would have been too much for my schedule. But I did attend when asked and available to show support and build relationships.

One thought on “17. The Way of Service to the World”

  1. Hi Chris,

    Reading your message, including this great picture, brought back a flood of memories. We had so many experiences together. I am grateful for all those times we spent searching for our purpose. These are interesting times we are living in now, a challenge for sure. I hope you and Kathy are well and being safe.
    Peace in Christ,
    Susan J

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