Servant Formation: Not Nice, but Good

When I asked the young adults in my college class on adolescent development when they had that first epiphany that they were, in fact, not very nice people, they talked among themselves for a few minutes. In the discussion that followed, Heather (a very nice person by most measures) reported that she first came to this startling realization when she was about fifteen years old. The words, “I am by nature sinful and unclean,” became personal for her during a conflict with friends. In this conflict–nothing traumatic, just the usual squabbling among teenagers–she took stock of her own contribution to the problem and arrived at the self-recognition that she was not really the nice person she had imagined herself to be. The conflict with the friends passed. Her disturbing insight did not.

One important goal we work toward with young people is developing in them the servant posture incarnated in Jesus for His disciples: “For the Son of man came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). The obvious image for this posture and goal is Jesus washing the apostles’ feet in John 13. But before reading on, consider what you believe is the rationale for developing a servant attitude in the Christian. (No fair merely answering “to be Christ-like.”)

From a Biblical perspective, the goal of servant formation is not to create a nice person. As Heather realized, we Christians are not always especially nice people (and neither are several exemplary servants from Scripture: John the Baptist and Jeremiah come to mind). But the aim of discipleship is not to instill in us proper etiquette, chivalry or civility. Of course, being nice has its place, and we could learn to be nicer when we need be. In fact, Paul offers us useful menus of good traits, such as Colossians 3:12-17, that often characterize the Christian life. But being a Christ-like servant is better reflected by C. S. Lewis’s observation that, “God is not nice. He is good, but he is not nice.” And so should we and our young people be as servants: not so much nice as good. But good at what?

On the night in which He washed the apostles’ feet, our Lord Jesus Christ also gave them the reason for taking on such servant-hood. The reason is not for us or the young people we work with to become nice, compliant, servile, cooperative and acquiescing people, but rather, to portray God’s goodness. At the beginning of that evening’s meal, Jesus washes their feet and says, “I tell you the truth, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them…. I tell you the truth, whoever receives anyone I send receives me; and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me” (John 13:16, 20).

At the end of the evening, Jesus concludes with His high-priestly prayer, saying, “As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world. For them I sanctify myself, that they too may be truly sanctified. My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (John 17:18-21).

And now we have the reason for our servanthood and for fostering that servanthood in our young people: not so that others can see how nice Christians are (though their being nice can sometimes help!) but that others may believe that the Father has sent His Son into this not-so-nice world. Jesus didn’t wash the apostles’ feet at every meal they shared. He wasn’t trying to be a good role-model for character formation. He did it once at the meal before his crucifixion as a vivid demonstration that, in conjunction with what they would witness the next day, the apostles would come to believe that God is for us, not against us, and that He will go to great lengths to convince us of this.

In like way, our servanthood is not an end in itself–nice for the sake of being nice, humble for the sake of humility, service for the sake of serving. (That would be the self-serving inverse of Christ-like servanthood: “See what a good person I am through my nice, humble service.”) Servant-hood, in its many variations, is servanthood only insofar as it serves to alert others to what God has done for us in Christ. Depending on circumstances, that alert may be direct or indirect, immediate or delayed. What remains constant is its ultimate purpose of signaling others that God’s word to us in Christ is Yes and not No (2 Corinthians 1:19).

Consider how difficult this servanthood may be for adolescents. Perhaps some who have a certain temperament or disposition come to it more easily than others. But most of us sinners are up to our ears in the sin of the devil, the world and the self, and we’re clever at disguising that sin and our motives. We all hesitate at Jesus’ invitation, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me” (Mark 8:34). Here are five complications for us to keep in mind about young people as we, in Christ’s stead, encourage them to deny themselves, take up a cross and commence a life of service to neighbor.

First, adolescents are exiting a lifetime of childhood in which they have been taught that being approved and loved is the reward of being nice. Even when parents do not intend this lesson, children make this concrete connection on their own, and it’s a hard lesson to move beyond when growing into Christ’s kingdom.

Second, adolescents are also exiting a life of being dependent, and appropriately so since they were children after all. Though they have, we hope, acquired a set of skills for becoming capable people, they have had years of practice at being served their food, shelter, clothing, education, entertainment and most of the rest of their life’s needs and wants. Old habits die hard.

Third, they are just now coming into their own physical maturity and personal capabilities and the independence this brings. We may recall our own early adolescence and the sense of freedom from childhood dependence that we gained (and likely over-estimated). Kids tend to assert this new independence first to love and serve themselves since they perceive this new, independent self as their closest “neighbor.” (And besides, you are to love your neighbor as yourself!)

Fourth, the exit from childhood and the developmental complications of adolescence (physical, cognitive, sexual, social, emotional) demand a reorganization of that young person’s sense of self. We can call this identity crisis and task “The Me Project,” and it’s a critical project to conduct and complete. Unlike a traditional culture (such as in Biblical times), our culture has comparatively few traditional roles and demands for young people, and identity has to be reinvented for each person, a task that seems to take several years. The Me Project is by its nature a project that chiefly serves the self rather than others. But imagine the consequences if the person never completes that project.

Fifth, our culture not only lacks a traditional set of roles for young people to assimilate, it also complicates adolescence with endless alternatives, distractions and temptations. The adolescent faces the daunting task of sorting through styles, fads, images, personas, expectations and possibilities that are now literally at their fingertips. They have few filters of their own for sorting all these options, and if they short-circuit this task by defaulting to our prescribed set of answers (identity theory calls this “foreclosure”), then they don’t complete The Me Project, they don’t pass identity, and they don’t collect the experience, failures, successes and skills they will need for a vocation of service in a sin-complicated world.

Adolescence is a great, joy-filled time with family, friends, church, new experiences, laughter, hopes and dreams. It’s also a pain in the drain for most everyone, and maybe especially for the adolescent.

Toward the end of Luther’s Treatise on Christian Liberty he turns his attention to youth, a population close to the heart of this great Christian educator. This treatise, among his most important writings on the Gospel and ministry, sets out the Biblical themes of Christian freedom and service. He begins the book with his famous couplet, “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none; a Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.” After he establishes these themes and explains how both must be sustained in tension with each other, he acknowledges we do best to inculcate these dual modes of Christian living among the young:

Youth need to be restrained and trained by the iron bars of rules and regulations lest, in their unchecked ardor, they rush headlong into vice after vice. On the other hand, it would be death for them always to be held in bondage to these rules, thinking that these justify them.

Sounds pretty Lutheran, doesn’t it? If we want our young people to gain a servant’s heart that beats to show others the love of God in Christ and not their own piety, sanctity, and nice-ness, we will train them under the Law with the Father’s loving discipline, and then release them from the bondage of the Law to live under the Gospel in grace and freedom. With the Law’s training always present and running in their background–not dictating their service but guiding it (Galatians 3:23ff)–they gradually learn to orient their life and activities toward the well-being of their neighbor, confident that God himself has already promised them, “Hey, I’ve got your back.” (Jesus phrases this a little differently in John 6:35-40.)

This movement from the iron bars of rules and regulations to the freedom of Christian liberty where, secure in God’s promises, I can love and serve my neighbor is a life-long developmental process. Scripture describes it in many places, perhaps most succinctly in 2 Corinthians 3:18, “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord [that is, beholding Christ’s suffering for us] are being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another, for this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.” What’s more, this movement isn’t linear as in getting progressively better at servant-hood each step of the way. Rather it is cyclical, sort of like our church calendar during which we have to revisit truths and practices that the old Adam and old Eve seem to forget. But we can, in time, get better at this servanthood.

Luther describes this development as a continual return to the cross of Christ where the cross both exposes our lapses in servanthood and our self-service, but also reassures us of His love and service to us. This reassurance empowers us to go out again into the world of others who need to hear this same Good News and devise ways to alert them to it. So, around we go, getting a little better each time at our call to care for others as a way of signaling to them the goodness of God in Christ. We see this sin-judgment-grace cycle throughout Scripture, including the first four stories of Genesis, the rebellion-to-rescue sequence of Judges and the entire history of Israel. Luther saw this cycle especially in the letters to Galatia, Corinth and the Hebrews as those Christians struggled with their lapses and problems, yet received and retained the grace of God and continued in their ministry to others.

Notice how the cross also ups the ante for servanthood from the foot-washing the night before. And notice how this three-steps-forward-two-backward movement into servanthood is different from a commitment to good behavior, living only for others and assorted versions of moral purity. And notice how it takes sin seriously but the need for and power of God’s grace even more seriously.

Adolescence is not the only time, but, because it is our initial reflective encounter with life’s turmoil, it may be the prime time for this iron-bars-to-freedom development of Christian servanthood and liberty. Young people are at a point of development that can be acutely responsive to this pattern of faith formation that Luther detected and documented. In their Sturm und Drang, teens pay close attention to matters of justice, infidelity, betrayal and just plain stupidity, including their own. We can point them to similar experiences for Luther, Paul, Mary, Peter, Tabitha and, most significantly, Jesus. Luther particularly liked Jonah as an example because the story so plainly describes God both afflicting Jonah and saving him in order to provoke the prophet’s compassion and service to his enemies, the Assyrians. We find these themes throughout the Biblical stories. Try, for instance, exploring God’s “left-hand” and “right-hand” activity in the stories of casting out the Legion demons (Mark 5:1-20), raising Jairus’ daughter (Mark 5:21-43) and the Syrophoenician woman (Mark 7:24-30).

Much is already available about teens and servant events, so no need to review that strategy here. Along with the Biblical content above, we can also explore with them events and choices in their own lives that put them in this servant/sinful-self tension. These events are “spiritually loaded incidents,” though young people may need a little help in recognizing the spiritual significance of ordinary life. Here are five examples for considering this spiritual tension for kids and their movement to servanthood. Some suggested Biblical starter content is included that may help shift the focus from serving oneself to care for others.

1. Mom’s boyfriend is moving in. Our adolescent may have to struggle with themes in the fourth commandment and sixth commandment, and with trust toward the parent (see Ephesians 6:1-3), all of which will challenge a servant posture.

2. It’s always those lousy officials that blow the game for us. In these events, young people often seem to assume some notion and standard of justice and how justice (in this case, rightly calling the game) is violated. Here we can explore with them the nature of a fallen creation and how to respond to other sinners in an unjust world. We might begin with Jesus’ words in Matthew 23:1ff (though this is not to imply that game officials are today’s Pharisees–or are they?!).

3. Dress codes are part of many high schools, and kids perennially dispute the written codes and their own unwritten standards and expectations about clothing. Why are folks so concerned about textiles, anyway, and does our dress have anything to do with learning servant-hood? Two texts that can reveal spiritual content in dress codes are 1 Corinthians 8 and James 2:1-7.

4. Ask kids to comment about awards assemblies, honor role and national honor society, and you’ll have a discussion on your hands. These practices to which we expose nearly all our young people raise some issues about fostering servanthood. Texts to begin with include Mark 10:35-45, Philippians 2:1-11, Luke 14:1-14 and Luke 17:7-10.

5. Coming to terms with cheap grace is disturbing. At the beginning of this article, we heard from Heather who arrived at the unsettling realization that she was not as nice as she had considered herself to be. Suddenly God’s grace became much more valuable to her when she recognized her genuine need for it and that her love for neighbor was lacking in lots of ways. And that same grace impelled her to more reflectively consider and serve her neighbor, in this case, her own friends. Soon she will continue that service in a DCE ministry where she can help young people explore such texts as Luke 7:36-50 where he or she who is forgiven much, loves much.

As you develop these Biblical themes for your young people, and these themes find their mark in the lived experiences of kids, you can expect some resistance and distress. Our confrontation with the sinful self is disturbing and a lot harder than building good character. The faith formation of tension and distress drives us not to the good works of character development but back to the cross of Christ and the development of an increasing trust in Him and His Father that comes only through the Holy Spirit (recall 2 Corinthians 3:18). When this trust begins to take hold of a sinner (young or old), then that sinner gains the confidence to direct her or his energy not to doing the good works of a good and nice person but to compassion and to serving fellow sinners. For when we receive God’s goodness and kindness to us in our struggles, we can then serve other sinners who also struggle with their own tension and distress. And we serve them by alerting them through our works to God’s goodness and kindness in Christ for all of us.

Additional Sources:

Treatise on Christian Liberty by Martin Luther

“What American Teenagers Believe: A Conversation with Christian Smith”

“Using Spiritually Loaded Incidents” by Russ Moulds

“Adolescent Spirituality: What Can We Expect?” by Les Parrott III

“The End of the Mission Trip as We Know It” by Jeff Edmondson

About the author

Dr. Russ Moulds serves as a professor of education at Concordia University-Nebraska.
View more from Russ

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