My favorite story told by a pastor of a church I attended was of his early days as a believer. Within the first year of becoming a Christian he knew he wanted to go into the ministry. He studied the Bible, he had a regular “quiet time,” and he volunteered around the church at every opportunity. Before long, he began to look for ways to fast-track his Christian experience into greater responsibility and influence. He developed a strategy to make sure his pastor and church leaders noticed his service. One warm Saturday morning, when church leaders were meeting, he decided to sweep the church parking lot in full view of the mirrored, solar reflective glass window pane where his service could be viewed from the fellowship hall. It was well know that’s where church elders met one Saturday a month to discuss church business.
The young man, Mike (Pastor Mike now) did a fine job sweeping the parking lot under a hot sun, often casting an eye on the big mirrored pane of glass where he knew leaders would see him diligently “serving God.” Around noon, one of the assistant pastors passed Mike on his way to his car and said, “Hey, Mike, let me hold that dustpan for you.”
“Yeah, I’ve just been out here sweeping all morning,” Mike said, stretching, cracking his neck, and wiping sweat on his sleeve. “You guys probably saw me out here working all morning. It’s a pretty big job.”
“No, I don’t think anyone did. Pastor decided to have the meeting in the auditorium this morning. The air conditioning isn’t working in the fellowship hall, and that huge window makes it even hotter this time of day. All the guys left for lunch in the church van parked on the other side of the building. Have a great weekend. Thanks for sweeping the parking lot, though. I hope I run into you at church tomorrow.”
This experience reveals more about a would-be servant’s heart to himself than it does to anybody else. Mike was probably remembered to be someone who saw a need and took initiative, but the day did not unfold according to Mike’s plan. Mike was doing this for an “attaboy.” He shared that as God dealt with his heart, it was very clear that Mike wasn’t trying to make anyone’s life better but his own.
Serving without taking a selfie
This story predates the era of social media where every chance we get, we take a selfie and show the world what we’re doing. Every good deed done is the backdrop for selfies and now we’re hooked on likes, comments, and shares. Contrast this reality with the heart of those Jesus describes in Matthew 25, verses 37 through 40: “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.’” These days, for us to get the point, Jesus would have to say, “Whatever you did for one of the least of these unloved, un-influential, impoverished, marginalized friends of mine without taking a selfie and posting to Facebook, you did for me.”
And then we would say, “But then no one would know how spiritual I am.”
To which Jesus would say, “Now you get it.”
What to neglect?
As the early church grew, the book of Acts highlights growing pains the young Jesus Community was going through. The issue is the care of widows which the Apostles knew held a special place is Jesus’ heart (see Mark 12:40 and Luke 21:1-4).
In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Hellenistic Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. Brothers and sisters, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.”—Acts 6:1-4
The crisis that emerged around serving widows would require wisdom, the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and true servant-hearted men and women to solve. This was a test for the whole community. Widows were normally taken care of by their own families. But being baptized into this new Jesus family quite possibly meant that the widows in question were now disowned by their own natural families. How was this community going to mobilize around those who society rejected?
The ministry of the word of God could not be neglected. Preaching and teaching take diligence and commitment. The human energy put into it needs to be bathed in prayer. The ability to expound God’s Word – both it’s sweeping narrative and minute details – accurately takes work continually engaged with the grace of God. This is the task the Apostles are assigned in the Body of Christ. Under the apostles stewardship of it, according to Luke, it increased. The Word of God was increasing. This can’t stop.
Just as Moses was faced with an administrative crisis in Exodus 18, the Apostles must delegate. It was time for church leaders to do what Jesus did: teach, test, and train servant-hearted men and women to care for the least of these without expecting an earthly reward or accolades from the mouths of men.
What is a servant?
Acts 6 is where churches turn to establish what it means to function as a deacon or deaconess. Deacon means servant. It means more than that in many places, but that’s the original meaning. Same with minister. In Latin, minister means servant. The root word is minus which, of course, means less. Ministers in the church are not necessarily missionaries, but all missionaries are ministers and need to understand the implications that come with being this kind of a servant.
Stephen was the man chosen to lead this new group of deacons. As Stephen’s ministry unfolds, we learn that he is a powerful preacher of the word of God when the opportunity presents itself. He was known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. These are traits the most effective missionaries we know exemplify.
Here’s an interesting footnote about Stephen’s ministry: he always preaches to a hostile crowd. It’s one thing when a preacher faces a crowd that loves him and pays him a salary. It’s entirely different when the best case scenario is that the preacher gets to live after his sermon is over. This is why in the early days of a missionary’s ministry, his or her heart must be developed as a servant.
Bringing people into this new life and encouraging them to live their lives within the life of Jesus is serious business; it’s Kingdom work. This work begins with being a servant who can lay aside ego, fast from accolades, and not live for “likes”.
You’re not getting anything from your ministry but changed lives. The reward is people living in community with each other under King Jesus.