Sometimes a significant conversation sneaks up on you when you least expect it. On a brisk fall evening, I sat on a back porch in the middle of Indiana with my good friend Matt discussing whatever random topics came to mind. Somehow the conversation turned toward a recent conversation Matt had with the executive pastor at his church.
Matt was a key volunteer in both the youth and college ministry, so he was approached by the executive pastor to help solve a crucial problem that the church was facing: parking.
It seemed that everyone wanted to park in the lot closest to the building, which meant there were some who had to make the dreaded ninety-second walk from the farthest parking lot. There was concern that a visitor might not want to make the walk and would either just keep driving past the far parking lot and go home, or they might not come back again. The staff logically turned their attention to the youth and college ministry and decided to ask Matt if he could tell these younger drivers to park in the far parking lot.
After giving me all the details of this crucial problem, Matt leaned in close with excitement and told me, “It would be easy for me to tell the kids that they have to park in the far parking lot, but I’m … just not going to do that.”
I asked, “What are you going to do?”
“I’m going to stand in front of the group next Sunday and I’m going to hold up a sign that says … far is the new close.”
“Far is the new close?” I repeated.
“Yeah, for those who belong to Jesus, far is the new close. Think about it, the first shall be last and far is the new close.”
On more than one occasion, Jesus was asked if He would let everyone in on the keys to success. The people closest to Him wanted to be great and they assumed He knew how to make that happen.
Every time this conversation came up Jesus responded, “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all” (Mark 9:35). According to Jesus, the way you become “all you can be” is to intentionally take last place and serve everyone.
Like most pastors, I’m constantly trying to engage people in ministry opportunities, missions trips and service projects. I’m easily convinced that if they’d just sign up, show up or get involved, their faith would be strengthened, they would grow in spiritual maturity and we would make progress as a ministry. Sometimes that’s exactly what happens, but if we were to be honest with each other, more often than not it doesn’t work out that way. While someone may be more involved in some sort of ministry opportunity or missions project, oftentimes we find there is no real change to the rest of their lives.
What’s the problem?
It seems that we’ve missed Jesus’ point all together. It’s not about the service, it’s about the heart. Jesus is not just encouraging people to take more opportunities to serve others—He’s calling them to take a position that we naturally avoid at all costs. Jesus is calling us to be last-place people.
At the core of mission and service is humility. By intentionally taking last place, we give up any rights we have and see others as better than ourselves. When we see ourselves in this, light we are driven to serve everyone we come in contact with.
If the core of mission is humility, as church leaders we must start looking at our church’s ministry opportunities and missions projects in a different light. Instead of seeing them as an end in themselves, we have to start wrestling with how they can become a means to an end. After all, the point is not that these people would get involved in another program or project.
We don’t want people to serve meals at the city mission because it’s our church’s most popular service initiative; we want them to serve meals because they see the homeless as better than themselves.
We don’t want students to park in the far parking lot because they’re not allowed in the premium spots; we want them to park there because they’re taking last place.
What Matt understood about the parking project was that this wasn’t just a task to accomplish or a program to create. This was an opportunity to help students think and live in a new way.
Nobody is going to remember how many volunteers I was able to recruit in 2008 or how many bottles of water your ministry handed out in a park. However, when someone sees the humble heart of a Christ follower—intentionally taking the last place in everyday life—they will get a glimpse of the heart of God.
This article originally appeared in Volume 2 of Neue Quarterly.