The upside-down Kingdom: Leaders as servants

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 someone's!

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 anyone."

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 20:16).

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.

Discussion questions

  1. In what ways did Jesus challenge traditional notions of leadership and power by washing his disciples' feet?
  2. How does the concept of the "upside-down kingdom" challenge the prevailing societal norms and expectations of leaders?
  3. What are some potential outcomes when Christian leaders, including missionaries, expect worldly privileges or status rather than embracing servant leadership?
  4. How can adopting a servant role contribute to the development of Christ-centered movements in missionary ministry?
  5. 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"?

Some afterwords

The kingdom Jesus talked about is radically different from earthly kingdoms led by human beings. Here are a few reasons why:

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