When my wife and I (Brandon and Kristi Wellcome) moved to Dublin to begin discovering how we might participate in God’s Kingdom, we were introduced to the work of Serve the City. As we sat in the kitchen of Alan and Sheryl McElwee (the legendary couple that launched Serve the City in Ireland) and heard story after story of their first experiences serving local Dubliners, I could feel the tugging of my heart to get behind what they were doing.
During our 6 years of working with Serve the City in Ireland and seeing the Serve the City International movement spread, I developed an intense passion for simple acts of serving. I’ve come to appreciate the power of demonstrating God’s Kingdom through community service. Here are a few things that I’m learning, even as we look to launch Serve the City in Denver.
1. Serving is a spiritual discipline. Just like any other discipline, serving on a regular basis conditions us and helps us do things we wouldn’t otherwise be able to do.
When we’re confronted by Jesus’ words in Mark 10 to go against our natural human inclination to abuse power and authority and, instead, become a servant to all, we can’t go out and immediately become Mother Teresa. It takes a disciplined life of serving to become the kinds of people who embody the character of the Servant King. And a disciplined life of serving has the power to transform us into the kind of self-less, others-centered people that God wants us to be.
As a young teenager, my life was heavily impacted by the teaching and mentorship of my youth pastor, even though I don’t remember much of what he said. What I do remember was the character formation I received specifically from the opportunities that he gave us to serve the needs of others. Whether it was trips to Mexico to help fix an orphanage facility or events to raise money for a local paraplegic’s new wheel chair, those experiences helped me realize the joy and privilege of servanthood. For a self-absorbed 14-year-old, the timing of these lessons in servanthood couldn’t have been better.
2. Serving is participating in the transformational nature of the Gospel. The whole Gospel that we read about in scripture is not only meant to redeem my soul from a Godless eternity. It’s meant to bring redemption to everything in creation that has been affected by sin. This includes the forces of poverty and disease and injustice and environmental abuse and…well, anything else that might fit under the “all” category in Colossians 1:19-20 (see also Ephesians 1:9-10). The mission of God in Jesus was not only a rescue operation to whisk people off into the heavenlies. It was a transformational mission meant to bring God’s Kingdom to earth. His missionary people are called to participate in that mission today.
In Serve the City, we sometimes talk about “improving quality of life.” While this statement addresses the quality of life for people who are being served, often it applies even more profoundly to those who are doing the serving. When people give of their time and energy to serve, it helps them experience the joy of Kingdom values like selflessness, charity, and altruism. And when they discover that joy, they typically want to serve more. One of the deliberate strategies that Serve the City leaders around the world are encouraged to implement is the simple act of inviting those we’ve served to join us in serving.
For several summers in a row, Serve the City assisted the youth ministry networks in Dublin with a 3-day youth event called Urban Soul. Hundreds of young people were sent out across the city each afternoon to paint walls at old folks’ homes, landscape at drug rehab centers, pass out lunches to the homeless, clean up parks, and a host of other activities. One year, I heard reports of young people being so touched by their serving experience, that they gave up the rest of their summer to volunteer with inner city homeless shelters and other charities. Not only were those teens engaged in transforming Dublin in small ways during Urban Soul, but their lives were also being transformed, which in turn lead to more transformation in the city.
3. Serving is a prophetic activity. When Ezekiel laid on his side for 390 days and baked his food over manure (one of those Bible stories your momma never told you – Ezekiel 4), he wasn’t just cooking over a cow patty fire. He was illustrating God’s disgust for Israel’s sin. When Hosea took a prostitute for a wife, he wasn’t just starting a dreadfully dysfunctional family that would make modern day reality TV producers blush. He was living out a picture of God’s unrelenting love in the face of his people’s tragic unfaithfulness.
Often in Serve the City, we’ll say things like, “We weren’t just re-landscaping a single mom’s back yard to make it safe for her kids. We were demonstrating God’s desire for children to have a healthy, secure home life.” Or, “We weren’t just visiting the elderly. We were expressing God’s heart to see older people treated with dignity.” Or, “We weren’t just collecting socks for the homeless. We were announcing that the God of compassion pays attention to the smallest of needs of seemingly ‘forgotten’ people.”
When Christ-followers, indwelt with God’s Spirit, serve the needs of people from a motive of selfless, supernatural love, they’re not just doing a service project. They’re demonstrating the in-breaking of another reality on earth that’s different from the natural order of things.
In John 13, Jesus gives a rather lucid challenge to his disciples to follow his foot-washing example, lest they assume a position greater than that of their Master. His example (also reflected beautifully in Phillipians 2:1-11) was a profound picture of the mission he was sent with. That mission continues today and it’s our privilege to be invited along.