The upside-down Kingdom: Leaders as servants
- Jesus demonstrated servant leadership. By washing the
feet of his disciples he challenged traditional notions of leadership and power.
- The Kingdom Jesus preached is characterized by a reversal of
societal norms, where the first shall be last, and the last shall be first.
- Christian leaders, including missionaries, should emulate Jesus'
servant leadership and not expect worldly privileges or status.
- By adopting a servant role, missionaries can foster Christ-centered movements and allow
Jesus to reign as Lord and King.
Missionary ministry that reflects Christ
Jesus approached leadership far differently than many people do. Think, for instance,
about what Jesus did the evening before His arrest and crucifixion. With the excitement of the
"triumphal entry" into Jerusalem a few days before still in the air, Jesus stunned His disciples by
washing their feet. Peter protested, no doubt thinking of the status and privileges usually
accorded leaders. Leaders, and especially messiahs, didn't do menial tasks like washing
Peter and the other disciples should have caught on much earlier to Jesus' servanthood
approach to leadership. During Jesus' three years of ministry, there was nothing pompous or
self-promoting or power-seeking about Him. Jesus did not expect the best seat. He almost seemed
more comfortable hanging out with poor people than hobnobbing with the wealthy and
powerful. He never sought headlines. He never "tooted His own horn." Indeed, on more than one
occasion after healing a sick person or casting out a demon from someone, Jesus said, "Don't tell
The Kingdom that Jesus talked about is an "upside-down kingdom." At least that is how
Donald Kraybill labeled it. Kraybill used that phrase as a book title, saying it captured the
essence of Jesus' words like, "The first shall be last and the last shall be first" (Matthew
Sadly, Christian leaders sometimes fail to digest what Jesus said and did. Some assume
that church leaders (including missionaries) are owed certain privileges and the "finer things of
life" because they are "ambassadors of Christ" and "children of the King." That's not true. We
represent the king of an "upside-down kingdom" in which the ambassadorial privileges and
trappings of this world are out of place. In the upside-down kingdom, leaders (and especially
cross-cultural missionaries) must emulate Jesus in assuming a servant role like He did that
long-ago night in the Upper Room.
Being a servant leader doesn't come naturally. It requires a conscious effort. However,
missionaries who consistently follow Jesus' model of servant-leadership will foster and shape
Christ-ward movements in which Jesus does truly reign as Lord and King.
- In what ways did Jesus challenge traditional notions of leadership and power by washing
his disciples' feet?
- How does the concept of the "upside-down kingdom" challenge the prevailing societal norms
and expectations of leaders?
- What are some potential outcomes when Christian leaders, including missionaries, expect
worldly privileges or status rather than embracing servant leadership?
- How can adopting a servant role contribute to the development of Christ-centered movements
in missionary ministry?
- What are the potential difficulties or barriers that Christian leaders may encounter in
practicing servant leadership? How can these be overcome?
-- Howard Culbertson,
This 500-word mini-essay on Christlike attitudes and actions that need to be present in cross-
cultural missionary service is one of a dozen articles in the
"missionary mionistry that reflects
Christ" series published in Engage, an online magazine.
Why is it an "upside-down kingdom"?
The kingdom Jesus talked about is radically different from earthly kingdoms led by human
beings. Here are a few reasons why:
- Reversal of Values: In the Kingdom of God, values and priorities are often reversed what is
common in earthy kingdoms. Foir example, Jesus taught that the first shall be last and the last
shall be first (Matthew 20:16), and that the greatest among his followers should be servants of all
(Mark 10:43-45). Those words run counter to the world's emphasis on power, wealth, and
- Emphasis on Humility: Christianity lifts up humility as a virtue. In the Kingdom of God,
humility rather than carnal pride is the expected norm.
- Concern for the Marginalized: The Kingdom of God is inclusive and embraces those who are
marginalized, oppressed, or overlooked by society. Jesus often ministered to the outcasts of his
time, such as tax collectors, sinners, and the poor. He clearly demonstrated that in God's
kingdom, all are valued and welcomed.
- Transformation of Hearts: The upside-down nature of the Kingdom of God also refers to the
transformation it brings to individuals and societies. In God's Kingdom, people are challenged to
allow the Holy Spirit to reshape their priorities, attitudes, and behaviors.
- Focus on Spiritual Realities: Rather than emphasizing earthly power and material wealth, the
Kingdom of God focuses on spiritual realities and eternal values. Those who want to follow
Christ are challenged to seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness (Matthew 6:33),
trusting in God's provision and sovereignty.
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