Several years ago there was a popular Public Television series entitled Upstairs, Downstairs.” The weekly show depicted the ongoing life of a turn of the century English household with a full complement of servants. While not particularly noteworthy in and of itself and at times a bit quaint, the serial did reveal an important aspect of servanthood: the servants really ran the household and were in control of those they served. While this was not necessari1y the intent of the weekly saga, it did reveal that servants, far from being powerless, exercise a great deal of power and authority.
Servanthood and service have changed in our times. Unlike Upstairs, Downstairs”, domestic servants are no longer the norm in our society but are the rare exception and often seen as status symbols of the wealthy. Servanthood and service have taken on a different meaning from that associated with antiquated domestic servants.
We now have ‘service industries’ and ‘civil servants’ growing at a rapid rate as our smokestack industries close in the face of outdated plants and stiff international competition. We are in the midst of a major vocational revolution, some business analysts tell us, a quiet one to be sure but profoundly significant in terms of its economic and sociological implications.
With the shift away from a production mentality to a service oriented culture, the service professions and industries have become highly competitive, technologically sophisticated and an integral part of our society. From the morning news “service” to the late night pizza delivery “service”, our lives are ordered and increasingly dependent not only on goods but new and expanding services and professional secular “servants.”
In turning our attention to the Church, many persons, both within and without, regard the Church as a service agency. Historically, the Church was for many years the primary service agent in addressing human need. In recent years both government and secular service agencies have usurped many of the servant functions of the Church.
Nevertheless, the Church is still considered by many to be a service agency, alongside other agencies, which seeks to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and serve as an advocate for the powerless and dispossessed.
While there is this general recognition in and identification of the Church as a service agency, a more particular understanding is often lacking. “Christian service and servanthood” are often misunderstood or discussed in such nebulous ways that no one knows exactly what is being referred to. Is it service to the Church; other human beings; social service sprinkled with a little Holy Water and called Christian service? Is such service in any way connected with the worship service? Is such service the primary responsibility of the ordained minister, the professional religious servant?
In short, just what is Christian service?
We might begin to answer this question by dispelling a common myth. The Church is not a spiritual service station where members go weekly to get an “emotional fillup’’, ‘religious oil check’’or minor spiritual tune-up. Nor is the Church just another service agency or religious club that is devoted to the humanitarian causes and needs that fall between the governmental or secular service “cracks’,
The Church at its best is not a service station, religious club or self-serving organization. Nor is Christian service one of many activities that describes what happens within the Church. To view Christian service in these ways is to miss the most basic and fundamental, understanding of Christian service and servanthood.
We read in Scripture that our Lord came not to be served but to serve. He came as the long-promised ‘Suffering Servant” to free God’s people and to establish a new kingdom here on earth.
Frequently we read or hear these words without realizing the depth of meaning and servanthood being described. The service that our Lord calls us to is a life of servanthood initiated at Baptism. As such, servanthood is not an avocation but is our primary vocation. We promise in our Baptism and reaffirm at Confirmation to ‘seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves.”
Such service and servanthood are at the core, not the periphery, of our life together in the Church as a covenant people who have been given our identity and vocation by a loving God. As such, Christian service is not simply one activity of ministry; it is the basis of all ministry.
Said differently, ministry can be defined as a life of Christian service empowered by God’s grace. In viewing servanthood and service in this way, we begin to see the relationship of our worship “services” and Christian service as the way of life that we call ministry.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer perhaps said it best: “In Jesus the service of God and the service of the least of the brethren were one” Worship and service are united in that they are both forms of “work”, the work of God’s people. In separating the two, the Gospel is fragmented our service lacks rootedness and our worship becomes offensive to God.
An overlooked fact is the power that comes with the vocation of being a servant, as mentioned in the example from ‘‘Upstairs, Downstairs’’ it is of more than passing interest to note that Christian notions of service are described with words like ‘Lord’’, ‘‘kingdom’’ and “power”. These are hardly neutral terms in that they seem, at first glance, to be the very opposite of servanthood and service,
However, the kind of service that we are exploring, Christian ministry, needs to reclaim the power and leadership contained in these descriptions of Christian servanthood. Service and servanthood as Christian ministry means freeing ourselves from self-serving and being possessed by our possessions, it means dying unto self so that we might be truly free and open to the service of God in others.
Such a regal and noble understanding of Christian service is perhaps best understood in recognition that the designation “servant” was commonly applied to the king in ancient Near Eastern cultures.
During Epiphany season it is my prayer that the high, exalted and noble vocation of Christian servanthood might be made manifest to us in a new and powerful way. Whether by conscious design or not, Service represents the first ‘‘S’ of SWEEPS. It is first because all the other component parts of SWEEPS are grounded in our primary identity as Christian servants and our high calling to a life and vocation that we call Christian ministry.