Defining Cross-Cultural Servanthood

Serving others in a cross-cultural setting provides an opportunity for those around us to experience the love of God in a tangible way. But how can we serve in a way that is culturally relevant and helpful? Before answering this question, let’s try to define what biblical servanthood looks like.

It is an Identity…

When God chose to connect with humans, he did so as a servant. There is only one reason Jesus would present himself as a servant – it is the very nature of God to serve. While it may run counter to our natural desire, if we are Christians then we have no choice. We are never more like Jesus than when we serve others. It is the calling of every person who wishes to follow Jesus. If we set out to become a servant, it can become mechanical and appear artificial or forced. However, If servanthood is seen as our deepest identification with Christ and inhabits our being, then serving others will be a natural, often unconscious, expression of our faith. At this point, servanthood is not only what we do but also who we are. This is an often-overlooked point of Matthew 25:31-40. When confronted with their actions toward those around them, the righteous answer, “Lord, when did we do these things for you?” It’s not their righteous deeds that earn an inheritance in the kingdom of God. Just like an earthly inheritance, it’s about who your father is.

characterized by Humility…

Humility expresses itself in so many different ways because humble people are gifted differently and express those gifts according to their unique personalities. Humble actions are difficult to define, but consider any gracious act offered with no thought of returned favor or desire to announce the good deed an act of humility. Such deeds, born of a humble spirit, are usually unconscious because they are embedded into our lifestyle – a natural expression of who we are – much like those noted in Matt. 25:37.

Cross-cultural evangelism is all about relationships, and humility is essential for strong relationships. Pride has no place in our lives. Everything we have is by God’s kindness. This perspective will transform relationships. If we enter into relationships with locals for selfish reasons, we are doomed to fail. Focusing on your own self inevitably leaves little room for attention to others. We serve people by entering into a relationship of love and mutual commitment.

“If you ask me what is the first precept of the Christian religion, I will answer first, second and, third, Humility.” – Augustine

that provides an avenue for the Gospel.

God took on the lowly form of a human and lived a life of service and humility. He was mindful of the needs around him while also remaining true to the work of the Father. Whoever we serve, we must carefully enter their cultural landscape while remaining true to the commands of scripture. Humility is a mandated attitude for all believers everywhere; however, the way humility is expressed takes on a cultural face. When Jesus demonstrated servanthood to his disciples, he took on the role of the lowliest servant and washed their feet. In our day and culture, the full meaning of this act is lost, because – let’s be honest – it’s weird in our context.

People cannot see our motives, only our actions. Consequently, the responsibility lies on us to serve people in a culturally appropriate way. The hope is that through genuine humility and informed actions, we can live out the good news within their cultural framework.

The language from the 1978 Lausanne Committee summarizes this well…

We believe that the principal key to persuasive Christian communication is to be found in the communicators themselves and what kind of people they are. … We desire to see…“the meekness and gentleness of Christ” (2 Cor. 10: 1). …There is the humility to take the trouble to understand and appreciate the culture of those to whom we go. It is the desire which leads naturally into that true dialogue “whose purpose is to listen sensitively in order to understand.”… We repent of the ignorance which assumes that we have all the answers and that our only role is to teach. We have very much to learn. We repent also of judgmental attitudes. We know that we should never condemn or despise another culture, but rather respect it. We advocate neither the arrogance which imposes our culture on others, nor the syncretism which mixes the gospel with cultural elements incompatible with it, but rather a humble sharing of the good news – made possible by the mutual respect of a genuine friendship. – from the 1978 Lausanne Willowbank Report.

Posts on Cross-Cultural Servanthood:

  1. Elmer, Duane. Cross-Cultural Servanthood: Serving the World in Christlike Humility. Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Books, 2006.
  2. Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization and Willowbank Consultation on Gospel and Culture, eds. The Willowbank Report: Report of a Consultation on Gospel and Culture. Wheaton, Ill.: Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization, 1978.
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