Limitations of a Service-Oriented Missional Self-Identity

Congregations operate almost exclusively from the position of wanting to serve. We organize ourselves around this understanding, establish practices to enhance this understanding, and speak openly about the ways in which we serve our communities. Serving our neighborhoods is often at the heart of our missional self-understanding. Our theological perspective bears this out; our understanding and view of scripture justifies this starting point. We speak of Jesus entering the world to serve the world, even to the point of dying for us. We, in turn, understand our role—our identity—in a similar fashion. We exist to serve the world, and in so doing hope to reveal Christ through our service. We are much more articulate about the nature of our  theological identity than we are about the nature of our relationships within our neighborhoods.

Missional self-understanding is then the starting point for the development of our deliberate, missional relationships with our neighbors. We ask who in our context needs help, who is hurting, who needs to be served? The answers to these questions are largely the basis for launching into relationships—relationships that allow our congregations to serve. We  seek out the poor, the hungry, the homeless, and the disadvantaged. We  support, supply, and partner with agencies and institutions in our  communities that share their concern for the needy people in our  neighborhoods and communities. We do what we need to do in order to serve those who need our help.

As good-hearted as this orientation of service is, it is extremely limited. Starting with a service-oriented missional self-understanding requires that congregations attempt to acquire the resources necessary to serve. If they serve the poor, they must have financial resources to accomplish this. If they serve the hungry, they must have excess food to share. If they serve the spiritually searching, they must have their theological resources ready to articulate (at least by rostered staff). Consistent with and informed by an American cultural context of self-sufficiency and consumerism, the beginning point for all the relationships within the neighborhood is almost always the congregation’s acquisition of resources. They feel a need to make sure there is at least enough to sustain themselves and those they seek to serve. Serving requires the acquisition of resources with which to serve.

This starting place of serving has noble attributes, but is limited. One of the theological foundations for this research is the perichoretic Trinity, a God in three persons whose very identity is derived from mutual self-giving. Authentic relationship, as the Triune God reveals, is not defined in service only, but through reciprocity. One must not only serve, but be served. To serve only is to enter into relationships from a position of power, rather than mutuality and reciprocity.

Rather than trying only to serve the community, congregations need to consider how they can embrace reciprocity in their relationships with the culture, rather than merely endure it. The church can serve the culture from a position of power, but at the same time must be served by the culture in a position of vulnerability and need. This reciprocal view of the church-culture relationship runs counter to the cultural preference for dominance, a view that congregations who seek only service-oriented relationships exhibit.

Jesus models this reciprocal relationship with his culture by serving and by being served. Anthony Gittins points this out, “For Jesus, the solution to the problem of hierarchy and dominance was to be both master and servant, both one up and one down, both host and guest, both stranger and host.”[1] Several biblical stories reveal Jesus welcoming—even requesting—service from those around him. The woman who anointed Jesus with the expensive ointment of pure nard (Mark 14:3-9), the boy who offers his lunch of fish and loaves (Mat 14:15-21), and Jesus’ request that his three closest disciples stay awake with him during his most difficult hour at Gethsemane (Mat 26:36-45) exemplify this.

In short, seeking only to serve is a limited perspective on mission. The relationships that develop from this perspective within the broader community will be necessarily limited as well. A missional self-understanding that emphasizes only one side of a reciprocal relationship is a less than complete missional perspective. Congregations which understand themselves primarily as serving agents are approaching their relationships within their neighborhoods from a desire for dominance, rather than an embrace of reciprocity. This supports their service-oriented missional self-understanding while inhibiting their relationships. These obstacles stand in the way of these congregations fully living out their God-given missional identity.


[1] Anthony J. Gittins, Ministry at the Margins: Strategy and Spirituality for Mission (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2002), 147.

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Categories: Church in Context, Church in Transition | Tags: , , , , , | 2 Comments

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2 thoughts on “Limitations of a Service-Oriented Missional Self-Identity

  1. Another great post! In our community, several churches band together to feed the hungry each week. Each of the churches have a weekend a month where they make a goodie bag with a sandwich, a drink and a snack. Toiletries are also brought along and given to those who request. I attended this and enjoyed it but it only seemed like we were going through the motions just to make ourselves feel better. We would go to 4 different sites within an hour and a half time – with travel time, we spent maybe 10-15 minutes at each site. Hardly enough time to try to build relationships and really get to know the people we were trying to serve. I would have much rather have just adopted one particular site and spent the whole time there consistently.

    • Thanks for posting. Feeding the hungry is never really be a bad thing, but I believe you’re right in wanting relationship to become more central. The risk of relationship, of course, is that the community has equal influence on the church as the church does in the community. I believe that’s the point–God is already at work in the broader community, and the church needs to find ways to see it and catch up with that. It’s not that the church has all the answers; it’s that the church knows where to point for answers. We have credibility and trust when relationships are authentic. And we are much more apt to see God at work “out there” through authentic relationships as well.

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