The Distinguishing Characteristic

Recently my wife and I moved into a new home. We don’t quite know what to call it. It is a 1 1/2 story house and defies all of the categories I have searched through on the internet.

People who know a lot about home construction could look at our house, any house, and tell you exactly what type of home it is — Cape Cod, Colonial, Bungalow, or even a McMansion (I had no idea there were so many types of homes or so much variety within each type of home). Each of these have a defining feature (or two) that immediately identify it as that type of home. When you build a home, you choose those traits at the outset. Of course I am going somewhere with this analogy.

In the ministry, we are in the people building business. What traits do people have when they are being properly formed as disciples of Christ? Make no mistake, this is the job. The apostle Paul said it this way: “My dear children, for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you…” (Gal 4:19).

I am using that phrasing (Christ formed in us) to point to the characteristics or traits that we have as Christ followers. To that end, I have starting wondering whether or not there is a distinguishing characteristic of Christian maturity. Have you ever thought about that? If so, what would you say is the defining characteristic of Christian maturity?

What’s the point of this?

Let me address three potential objections to this thought experiment:

  1. Why try to boil it down to just one? Aren’t there a variety of traits that make us like Jesus? Knowledge of the Word, humility, compassion, time spent in prayer, and well, the biggie — love.
    So why just one?
    I’m suggesting that there is a characteristic that demonstrates we have moved from the receiver to the giver, from it being about us to about someone else.
  2. As noted above, isn’t the defining characteristic simply love? Sure. We can say that, but what does that mean? Love covers everything. Love must be at the root of all Christian ministry. That’s Paul’s point in 1 Cor 13 after all. Without love, ministry is pointless. I guess you could say I am examining what form that love takes, that we could see in the life of another, that let’s us know they are developing Christian maturity — that Christ is being formed in their life.
  3. There’s a danger here of promoting gifting or preference. You may think I’ve done that. Maybe I have. I would appreciate push back if so, but I maintain that I am on to something.

I have found this search to be a fruitful endeavor as I have been able to pull from a variety of streams of thought to try to distill Christian maturity to a defining feature.

Let’s get into it

Consider these two passages of scripture and I believe a defining characteristic of Christian maturity will leap off the screen.

“Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”” ‭‭Mark‬ ‭10:42-45‬ ‭NIV‬‬

Jesus doesn’t define greatness in the kingdom as knowledge, faith, prophecy, or even love. He defines the supreme value as service, and uses Himself as an example.

“In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross!” Philippians‬ ‭2:5-8‬ ‭NIV

Here Paul does a similar thing.  In addressing the right mindset for Christ followers, he hones in on service. Jesus’ primary movement was from “being in very nature God” to “taking the very nature of a servant.”

I know this may not seem very revolutionary, but it is. Those of us in the technical area, often describe ourselves as the first in and last out. We get this area of service.

 Service is the distinguishing characteristic of Christian maturity.

I realize that we can interpret these passages through a filter that looks at the totality of Jesus life and not the day to day. That’s fair. But here’s my question, if there was work to be done (cleaning up, putting away, sweeping) do you think Jesus would have watched others do that, go home and leave them to finish, or engage and join in?

And I do understand there are differences in calling (I’m thinking of John 6 and the feeding of the 5000). There is no indication that Jesus helped literally pass out the meal to the people (which would have been challenging since he was breaking the bread) or gather up of the leftovers. But I can also assume from the passage that He did a tremendous amount of work that day and was in the thick of it the whole time. The point I’m making, if you’re hearing it, is that it’s not only the behind the scenes people who are serving, the people on the platform, and other roles, are serving as well.

Some big ideas

A lot has been said about leadership and leadership development. Many Christian colleges have adopted the phrase servant–leader to acknowledge the inherent challenge and oxymoron of “Christian” “leadership” because of these verses and others. Some of what has sparked my own delving into this is my church’s desire to improve in our leadership development. We’re talking about that, and this stuff matters because we must know the goal of our efforts or we are wasting time and resources.

True service is something you do for someone else, not yourself.

Though we all have different roles and responsibilities, we must watch the temptation to use the ministry as an avenue that leads back to us. This is a danger for behind the scenes people, too. If you see someone not serving others, but serving themselves, you have to confront that as a leader in the people building business. Another way of saying that, of course, is that all of us will need to be confronted from time to time. Which leads to the next idea.

True service involves engaging in situations and personally paying the cost.

We all grow weary of well-doing and have our moments. We don’t get this right all the time. First, we must engage when we see a problem. In that sense, true service is about allowing your personal agenda to be interrupted. Sometimes those problems are messes that take many forms, including relationship tensions or abuse. We serve others by getting involved. And you better believe that getting involved, when there is a problem, will cost you something! One great definition of customer service is that good customer service is making the customer’s problem, your problem. There’s an application here. There is physical trash and relationship trash, stopping to pick it up and taking responsibility for it — not leaving it for the next person — is an act of service.

True service is often unseen and unnoticed. Accept it.

This is a big one. Part of this is not tooting your horn to make sure people know the cost you are paying. That can mean both the platform person choosing not to brag that they spent 80 hours on the sermon, or the tech person choosing not to brag that they worked 80 hours getting ready for Easter. Let your service stand before God as worship.

Concluding thoughts

Service is the defining characteristic of Jesus’ ministry as noted by Jesus himself and the Apostle Paul. Any leader who is using the ministry to be served is in the wrong job or atleast, not doing the job as Jesus did.

We help people move to this distinguishing characteristic by modeling it and confronting immaturity. We all need that from time to time. My team is sometimes quick to point this out in my life, too.  I’m not saying I’ve mastered it, but forgetting what is behind, I press on to obtain the goal. I know I’m obtaining it when I’m not just nurturing a life of service, but when I am being remade into the very nature of a servant.

May God help us all to that end.


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