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Christ-Like Service


“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 2:4). At the center of
holistic ministry is Christ—our Lord who commands ministry, the Suffering Servant who
modeled ministry, our Friend and Shepherd who leads us forth in ministry. We present to
the world a “unique and profound combination of Jesus as message and Jesus as model,”
as Ray Bakke points out.

Jesus was himself the message, in a way that we are not. But there is a sense in
which the same is true for us. We cannot separate our ministry deeds from our character
as doers of ministry. Holistic ministry “must be compatible with the ministry and character
of Jesus Christ,” declares the New York theologian Rev. Luis Carlo Caban. “Such service
advances the Kingdom of God and bears gospel fruit. Service of this kind is motivated by
the Holy Spirit to bring the rule of God to every aspect of human reality in the world.” Both
in our outreach programs and in our daily lives, we are the ambassadors of Christ to the
world. The reputation of Christianity has been grievously tarnished over the centuries and
around the world by “missionaries who went in Christ’s name, yet without his nature.”
What is the character of Christ we are to imitate? Here we highlight four attributes
essential to holistic ministry: Incarnational servanthood; abiding submission; visionary
compassion; and grateful joy.

Incarnational Servanthood
Christ, “being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to
be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in
human likeness” (Phil. 2:6–7 NIV). God incarnate took his place among humans, identifying
fully with human needs (Heb. 4:15). Jesus served not with resentful obligation or
condescending pity, but in gracious love for those whose lives he willingly intertwined with
his own. Both in life and death, Jesus ‘did not come to be served, but to serve’ (Mark
10:45). He spent much precious time tenderly ministering to the physical needs of hurting
people. He went out of his way to bring love and dignity to socially marginalized groups like
lepers, tax collectors, bleeding women, blind beggars, and even a guilty adulteress.
As we stoop to wash another’s feet—whether by serving a hot meal, teaching computer
skills, or lobbying for third world debt relief—we imitate Christ. It is no good proclaiming the
gospel of Christ the risen Lord unless we are willing to live like Jesus the humble servant.

Abiding Submission

In John 5:19 Jesus declared that he did only what he saw and heard from the
Father. In John 15:1–7, Jesus tells his disciples that they likewise can do nothing unless
they abide continually in him. To abide in Christ means to trust him, to draw strength and
sustenance from him, to center our lives around him. The goal is not to develop our
ministries to the point where we can say, “Thanks, God, we’ll take it from here!” Jesus
depended daily on God for direction, and did not hesitate to pause in his activities to pray
and prepare himself spiritually for what lay ahead. His power flowed from his intimate
relationship with his Father. If we abide in Christ, we too have the promise that we shall
bear much fruit (John 15:5).

Abiding in Christ also saves us from “the tyranny of the urgent.” The need around
us is not our primary call to holistic ministry; it is the love of Christ which urges us on
(2 Cor. 5:14). “If we are need-driven,” cautions Ray Bakke, “we can become manipulated,
even co-dependent on our ministries for identity, for security, and not the least of all, for
funds.” Jesus could easily have become overwhelmed by the sheer volume of needs
around him. People tried to manipulate Jesus for their own ends, and to coerce him into
performing miracles on demand. But his bond with the Father gave him a solid grasp on
his purpose. He recognized that “his mission was not to touch and heal every person, but
to be obedient to his Father,” as Jude Tiersma puts it. In the same way, God does not hold
us accountable to meet every need that crosses our path but to be faithful to the mission
he entrusts to us.

Visionary Compassion

Compassion means, literally, to “suffer with”. We enter into another’s pain in order
to bring comfort and healing. The natural human inclination is to get past the “suffering
with” part, and on to the fixing part as quickly as possible. Like the good Samaritan,
compassion moves us to take action to help the traveler lying bleeding on the road.
Americans are naturally can-do optimists who want to believe that with enough resources
and hard work, no one need suffer.

Yet Jesus preaches, “Blessed are those who mourn” (Matt. 5:4). Jesus came to
rescue humanity from sin and suffering; but even as the embodiment of Good News, he
allowed himself to grieve. He wept at his friend Lazarus’ grave. He wept over Jerusalem.
He did not stop the woman who washed his feet with her tears, preparing them for his
burial. But Jesus also knew the difference between mourning and despair. Our sorrow is
like the pain of a woman in labor (John 16:21)—we grieve in the expectation of joy, we
mourn with the assurance of comfort. Tony Campolo captured this tension in his
now-famous line: “It’s Friday . . . but Sunday’s coming!”

Christians who confront the evils and sorrows of the world must be prepared to
follow Jesus into the space between Friday and Sunday. Jude Tiersma asks those in
ministry to consider, “How do we truly embrace the suffering of the cross and still live in the
hope of the resurrection? How do we live in resurrection hope without denying the intense
pain in our world?” One way we follow in Jesus’ footsteps of compassion is through prayer.
Through the Spirit who “intercedes with sighs too deep for words,” we not only claim
Christ’s victory, but share his groans over a broken world (Rom. 8:26). In prayer, writes
Dan Postema, “We suffer with God in Christ for the salvation of the world, for freedom for
the oppressed, for the cessation of war, for the healing of sickness, for the comfort of the
anxious and sorrowing.”

Jesus was not afraid to look suffering in the face. But his compassion was also
visionary in the sense that it transcended the immediate or obvious need in a given
situation. Jesus saw to the heart of human need. He looked at the paralytic man lying on
his mat and surprised everyone with his first words: not “Rise and walk” (that came next),
but “Take heart, your sins are forgiven” (Matt. 9:2–6). He did not let the pressing physical
needs divert him from taking a holistic approach. Jesus also saw the potential lying beyond
the need. He did not just heal a demon-possessed man; he made him an evangelist (Luke

8:27–39). He treated individual women with dignity, giving them unprecedented attention
for Jewish rabbis of his day, while at the same time planting seeds for a revolutionary new
equality between women and men to unfurl in the early church (Gal. 3:28).

Grateful Joy

”Doing holistic ministry is hard,” acknowledges Rev. Donna Jones. “It’s hard, in
general, to work closely with individuals who are going through a lot of pain—and what
makes that more difficult is to have to do that with limited resources.” Jesus faced all the
challenges, frustrations, and weariness of holistic ministry, but without growing
discouraged. Not only did he deal with having other people’s problems thrust at him all day
long, he lived with foreknowledge of the terrible things to be done to him and his
disciples—and yet that didn’t stop him from being branded as a party-lover by his critics
(Matt. 11:19). Rather, “for the sake of the joy that was set before him [he] endured the
cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of
God” (Heb. 12:1–2). Jesus was sustained by a source of joy that nothing in the world could

Like the father who rejoiced at the return of the prodigal son in Jesus’ parable,
Christians are called to celebrate the grace of God at work in the world. Rev. Patrick Hansel
was once asked how New Creation attracts people from the community to become involved
in the church. His answer: Parties! The church uses any excuse to host a potluck meal, and
in the midst of all their hard work tries to maintain a fiesta attitude. “Celebration” is the first
of their four core mission words. Church services are called “celebrations.” The bright
flowers and butterflies painted by children on the side walls of the church sing of the joy and
freedom of life in Christ. In a community where life is often a series of disappointed dreams,
the church’s spirit of celebration is contagious.

Effective holistic ministry also depends on cultivating, as Teen Challenge counselors
like to say, an “attitude of gratitude.” Ten lepers came to Jesus begging to be healed, and
all ten had their desire fulfilled—but only one turned back to fall at Jesus’ feet with loud
expressions of praise. “Was none of them found to return and give praise to God?” Jesus
asked of the other nine (Luke 17:12–18). The ultimate purpose of human generosity,
according to 2 Corinthians 9:11, is to “produce thanksgiving to God.” It is easy for holistic
ministry to become so problem-centered that it loses sight of victories won in the past, or
of God’s quiet mercies that grace each day. Cynicism, burnout, and despair often threaten
to overshadow Christ-like compassion. But if you follow the exhortation of Philippians
4:6–7, “in every thing by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be
made known to God,” then the promise follows: “The peace of God, which surpasses all
understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” With gratitude for
what has gone before, and rejoicing in anticipation of the harvest ahead, God desires those
in holistic ministry to sustain the joy of Christ.

Avoid the Messiah Syndrome

While the previous paragraphs have stressed the importance of following Christ’s
example in ministry, there is one more point to keep in mind: we follow Christ, but we are
not Christ. “One of the greatest dangers we face,” warns Jude Tiersma, “is that we create
dependencies not on God but on ourselves and our programs. We must never forget: there
is only one Messiah.” Our physical limitations, fallibility, and sinfulness will invariably bring
us up short of the hoped for outcomes. Accepting that we can’t meet every need, we must
trust that God is sufficient—not as an excuse for inaction, but as the foundation for peace
and hope in the midst of action. If we expect our church’s ministry to wipe out the problems
of our community, we will be disappointed and so will the community. The church is not the
hope of the world; Christ is.

At a time when the media and social scientists trumpet the good works of churches
(note: we’re not complaining!), this distinction is important to remember. A good test of
holistic ministry is whether it consistently points to Christ, or whether the glory goes to the
church. Henri Nouwen says that we must be showing the way or else we will be in the way.
Thus our prayer should be, in the words of the hymn, “May His beauty rest upon us as we
seek the lost to win, that they might forget the vessel, seeing only Him.”

This is why Richard Foster says that “more than any other single way, the grace of
humility is worked into our lives through the discipline of service.” Holistic ministry requires
us to cultivate a humble, teachable, vulnerable spirit, and to live in a continual process of
renewal. Like Paul, we must acknowledge ourselves to be “chief of sinners” (1 Tim. 1:15).
Rev. Patrick Hansel paraphrases this for his own church’s mission:
God’s power gives us the ability to say yes to two things. One is: Yes, I’m a sinner.
I’m not perfect, I have made big mistakes. I have caused a lot of pain, and I’m part
of the pain in the world. But also: Yes, God through Jesus not only forgives me, but
sends me out to bring the new life to other people.

Holistic ministry does not allow a false hierarchy between the “us” who have it all together
and the “them” who need help. Christ died for all, and invites all equally into his service.
A humble spirit thus allows the act of service to be mutually transforming. Christians
who become immersed in holistic ministry can expect to be changed by the experience.
Involvement in ministry often confronts people with areas within themselves that call for
repentance—prejudice, lack of faith, materialism, hardness of heart. Sometimes ministry
participants come to realize they have unworthy motives for service, such as the need to
be powerful, or the desire to gain “brownie points” with God. The theologian Thomas
Merton asserts, “Whoever attempts to act and do things for others or for the world without
deepening their own self-understanding, freedom, integrity and capacity for love, will not
have anything to give others.” But to those who continually submit themselves to God in
the service of others, God promises “to increase the harvest of your righteousness. You will
be enriched in every way for your great generosity” (2 Cor. 9:11).

Adapted from Ronald J. Sider, Philip N. Olson and Heidi Rolland Unruh, Churches That Make a Difference: Reaching
Your Community with Good News and Good Works, chapter 6. Used by permission of Baker Books, a division of Baker
Book House Company, copyright (c) 2002.

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