Servanthood Without Star Power

By Jim Herbst


May I suggest another cable channel (since we don’t have enough already)? Let’s call it The Extreme Compassion Channel; its slogan can be, “Total Compassion Reality 24/7.”

The catch with all reality shows, of course, is that they have little to do with reality.

Like others, I’m moved every time Ty Pennington shows a homeowner his brand new home on Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. Afterwards, however, I begin to wonder why my life isn’t more sensational. My life is reality, after all. And I am compassionate.

But no one applauds, cries, or hugs me when I get called to the church building to fix a spraying toilet. There are no cameras when I pick up litter or marshmallows ground into the carpet at the church building. Why isn’t my life an ongoing pep rally?

Our ministry has certainly benefited from the big-idea, high-visibility compassion projects so popular these days. The preacher in me, however, is reminded of Jesus’ warning: “Be careful not to do your ‘acts of righteousness’ before men” (Matthew 6:1). The big-idea projects have a valuable place in drawing positive attention to Christ, but they sometimes make everyday servanthood seem like a letdown.

In the reality shows I see on TV, as well as in my life, I sense a discouraging gap between the emotional highs of one-time projects and the emotional lows of everyday servanthood. It becomes a challenge to find contentment in smaller expectations, when there is no star power, and things aren’t so glamorous, and the project doesn’t warrant a press release.

Neighborhoods like mine in inner-city Pittsburgh sit languishing. They are damaged by relentless apathy that, oddly enough, is fueled by idealism gone sour. Big dreamers come in regular cycles with flashy visions for change, but leave a short time later when things don’t move fast enough.

For all the hype, little really changes. Once-popular political pet projects such as playgrounds, picket fences, and greenways sit in decay because no one provided for the maintenance or upkeep beyond the initial flash of the photo ops. It is often the small, steady dreamers who make the greatest long-term difference. Sometimes authentic reality is God’s way of bringing humility into our lives.

So let me suggest several reality checks for serving without star power.

Compassion Overload 

Anyone moving from compassion projects to a compassionate lifestyle will face overload. Ask veteran social workers, law enforcement officers, teachers, nurses, and ministers. I’m thankful for the “What Would Jesus Do?” movement, but I’ve found a fatal flaw: I’m not Jesus.

I can’t heal children of asthma. I can’t raise the dead. Jesus could instantly cure the alcoholics, addicts, chain-smokers, and mentally ill on my block and give them “their right mind” like he did the man in the Gerasenes.

Jesus could; I can’t. Rarely does someone move overnight from severe addiction, chronic joblessness, severed family relationships, and transitional housing to freedom from addiction, meaningful employment, renewed responsibility toward family, and stable housing. I now plan on it taking between five and 10 years in most cases. The hungry, often homeless schizophrenic who talks to our refrigerator refuses the professional help that we and other social service organizations have offered. We give her food but there is nothing else we can do. She and many others refuse the help they need.

I’ve enjoyed my life much more since throwing off the guilt complex that comes with trying to be Jesus. Hopefully I can become more like Jesus, but I can’t be Jesus. I don’t have to take on all of the world’s brokenness. He already has.


Faith and Finance

When I entered urban ministry I wanted to believe faith was all it took. In retrospect, I’d choose faith and strong financing. Faith is still a first priority, but I wouldn’t make it an either/or choice. After finishing grad school, I moved—on faith—into an expensive Chicago neighborhood to help the church I was serving. I lived there for six months and spent the next six years paying off the debt I accumulated during my short stay.

With our nonprofit, I still step out on faith, but I step out with a strategic plan, a business plan, a break-even analysis, and multiple planned fallback options. The reality of compassion is that resources are tight and competitive. Most of us do not have the star power of Ty Pennington or Oprah Winfrey to call up corporate America, or even churches, and get instant help.

I’ve tried with little success.


Compassion Triage 

Because resour-ces are limited, anyone involved in a lifestyle of compassion will be forced to make difficult decisions. Church planting agencies used to frustrate me for almost exclusively targeting wealthy neighborhoods . . . at least until I found myself doing the same thing on a different scale.

I spent a considerable amount of time in my first several years of ministry here as personal taxi driver, bank, food pantry, manual laborer, and confidant to the poor and addicted. I wanted an ideal egalitarian approach to church growth.

I discovered what should be an obvious truth—if you have more people needing help than providing help, you have a sinking ship. It is very difficult to grow a healthy church with people who are neither healthy nor dependable enough to hold jobs. Out of necessity I became more deliberate about targeting our programming and leadership development to people who could give back to the church mission.

The egalitarian spirit of Acts 4 didn’t last long. That church ran into the same thorny issues we face today. By the time he wrote 1 Timothy 5, Paul developed some pretty strict restrictions on who could be helped. In the words of Christ and the apostles, there is an expectation of fruitfulness. While grace is always in order, I’ve come to believe that resources have to be weighted toward fruitfulness.


The Extent of Evi

A fourth reality check to a servanthood lifestyle is that evil is everywhere. There is much recent talk about ending poverty. It is indeed a noble goal, but one that is unlikely until the return of Christ. My intent is certainly not to discourage anyone from trying, but instead to caution against contributing to more apathy by setting unrealistic expectations.

Poverty is too complex an issue to be permanently sorted out by humans. The rich are sinful. People in the middle class are sinful. The poor are sinful. There are a great many causes we are not going to solve. I must remind myself that ending poverty isn’t the biblical mandate—making disciples is.

I see firsthand oppression by the rich. I see corruption in government. I see Christians blinded by materialism. I watch as the rich and powerful take over poor neighborhoods to build temples to the sports and retail gods.

But I also see the poor held in bondage by their own sin. I watch with heartache as many ignore opportunities to escape sin’s deception. I feel guilty on occasion because I don’t see the same innocence in the inner city that Shane Claiborne and others do. From my vantage point, sin is equally distributed across the economic spectrum.

Even the simplest acts are complicated by sin. To help with a litter problem during my first year here, a senior from the church and I set out a big garbage can at the edge of the yard. It did very little to help with litter. In fact, it became the dump site for neighbors who neglected to set out their garbage for city pickup every week. We scrapped that idea after my driveway became a garbage dump.  

Each intended good deed or program must adapt to its abuse. New playgrounds get torched or ruined by vandals. I sometimes feel like a failure because I’ve found ministry far more difficult than some of the high-minded books and sermons I’ve heard.

Start a nonprofit and be prepared for a mountain of government paperwork. Why? Because for every legitimate charity there are scores of fraudulent ones trying to make money; the wealthy scheming to hide assets from taxes; and politicians exploiting them for political gain. A great many ideals are ruined by man’s sinfulness. It can be very de-motivating.

The good news is that God has a network of other help beyond what any individual servant can see. He has people sprinkled in government offices, corporate boardrooms, schools, police stations, hospitals, and elsewhere who aid in the battle at just the right time. Herein lies the beauty of serving without star power. No one person, church, or organization can take credit for turning around a life, neighborhood, city, or country. It is always much bigger. It is thousands of people making small contributions. You can only look in awe at God’s brilliance.

Compassion projects that are meant to turn heads have their place, but we learned in Iraq “big-splash” projects can’t replace the steady, everyday presence of feet on the ground. It can’t replace the security, training, grunt work, and hope that smaller-scale, close-quarter servanthood provides.





Jim Herbst ministers with Hazelwood Christian Church in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

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