Grenz Ricoeur Shelf

Grenz Ricoeur Shelf

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Servantship by Graham Hill - A Review

Hill, Graham (ed). Servantship: Sixteen Servants on the Four Movements of Radical Servantship. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2013. 324 pages.

It is perhaps an understatement that pastors and church leaders in North America (and those in other parts of the world influenced by the exporting of various North American contemporary ecclesial models) have suffered for some time with an identity crisis. In the attempt to leverage the offerings of the business world, the social sciences, and contemporary culture for the missional calling of the church, pastors and church leaders run the risk of becoming religious versions of upstart entrepreneurs rather than church planters, CEOs of non-profit franchises instead of pastors, or purveyors of therapeutic inspirationalism rather than distinctively Christian spiritual directors. This is not to say that interdisciplinary tools are not helpful to pastoral theology and ecclesial mission. In fact, they may even be vital in a globalized and pluralistic context. But without sufficient wisdom, discernment, and formation in a distinctively ecclesial theological grammar, pastors and church leaders can easily forget who they are. Eugene Peterson puts it well when he laments,
North American culture does not offer congenial conditions in which to live vocationally as a pastor. Men and women who are pastors in America today find that they have entered into a way of life that is in ruins. The vocation of pastor has been replaced by the strategies of religious entrepreneurs with business plans [or substitute the other maladies mentioned above in reference to Peterson’s lament]… I wanted my life—both my personal life and my working life—to be shaped by God and the Scriptures and prayer. (The Pastor: A Memoir, 4)
Into the malaise of the situation Peterson describes, Graham Hill presents us with a much needed paradigm change with a collection of essays entitled Servantship: Sixteen Servants on the Four Movements of Radical Servantship. This edited volume by Hill aims to challenge top down and pragmatic ecclesial leadership structures and reorient them towards the call of Jesus to servanthood and ‘servantship’ as the imitation of Christ and therefore participation in the missio Dei – the mission of the triune God. Below are four of the things that I think make this a must read resource for church leadership (as servantship and hence a much needed change of pace) literature and missional ecclesiology in general.

First, the introductory chapter fulfills its job well of setting the tone and direction for the rest of the essays but in addition it does more than simply serve as a simple introduction in my opinion. Along with the emphasis on servantship, Hill’s chapter presents one with a good and accessible introduction to the wider subject of missional ecclesiology as well (a theme that runs through the book as a whole). On pages four and five he sets forth his definition of servantship as follows:
Servantship is essentially about following our Lord Jesus Christ, the servant Lord, and his mission—it is a life of discipleship to him, patterned after his self-emptying, humility, sacrifice, love, values, and mission. Servantship is humbly valuing others more than yourself, and looking out for the interests and wellbeing of others. Servantship is the cultivation of the same attitude of mind Christ Jesus had: making yourself nothing, being a servant, humbling yourself, and submitting yourself to the will and purposes of the triune God. Since servantship is the imitation of Christ, it involves an unreserved par­ticipation in the missio Dei—the trinitarian mission of God. Servantship is the movement from hierarchical leadership to radical service, from shallow pragmatics to dynamic theological reflection, from abstract theories to coura­geous practices, and from forgetfulness to transforming memory. Servantship recognizes, in word, thought, and deed, that “whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (4-5)
And then he expands more on the purpose of the book as a whole:
This book seeks to make clear some of the important connections between leadership (I prefer the word servantship), servanthood, church, culture, and the mis­sion of God. Although I have been in ministry for close to twenty-five years, it has only been recently that I have begun to appreciate the deep connections between our theologies of church, culture, servanthood, and the mission of God and his church. Lesslie Newbigin made these connections explicit. He understood that discipleship and witness are about partnership with Jesus in his servanthood and mission. “To share in the servanthood of Jesus means also to be his witness.” (5)
From there Hill elaborates well on what he calls “the four movements of radical servantship” which comprise the organization for four main sections of the book (click on the ‘look inside’ feature at Amazon to see how the chapters fall into their respective sections):
  • From secular, hierarchical, and unbiblical notions of leadership to biblically based, self-emptying, downward missional, and outwardly focused servantship;
  • From shallow leadership and ecclesial pragmatics to life-giving, dynamic theo­logical reflection;
  • From abstract theories to community-formed, locally-shaped courageous prac­tices and stories;
  • From historical amnesia and spiritual forgetfulness to transforming memory, wit­ness, and imitation.
Second, many edited books suffer from uneven quality among the chapters. While some of the chapters are better than others, the disparity between them is not wide, and all remain strong offerings that cover a breadth of material that will be valuable for churches in a great variety of contexts. A timely essay contributing to the breadth of the volume was the chapter by Paul Winch on mission among “digital natives” entitled ‘Challenging Cyber-Spaces.' Similarly, the essay by Jamie Freeman, ‘Exploring Servantship and Cultural Shift’ is a much needed discussion of the opportunities that await the church in post-Christendom as cultural privilege continues to dissipate and the church finds itself on the margins.

Third, in line with his four movements of radical servantship, the combined effect of the essays presents the reader with ample theological reflection that yet remains connected to real life practice grounded in local ecclesia. This is probably helped by the fact that all the contributors have pastoral experience in various missional contexts, giving the book more than just the feel of theological theory, but a practical missional theology as well. The book really does a good job of neither sacrificing ‘thick’ theological reflection on the one hand, and ‘thick’ ecclesial practices on the other. Hill is to be commended for his skill as an editor and adeptness at pulling these essays together and making the book ‘work.’

Fourth, as the husband of an ordained wife, and as one doing my doctoral study in ‘Church, Gender, and Mission,’ I was heartily pleased to see chapters offered by three women each involved in pastoral ministry. Christine Redwood offers chapters on ‘Participating in God’s Mission,’ ‘Nurturing Missional Modes of Servantship,’ and a very good chapter on ‘Cultivating Narrative and Storytelling.’ Lynette Edge offers chapters on ‘Responding to the Missional Context’ and ‘Disturbing the Present in the Status Quo.’ Finally, Christine McGowan offers an excellent chapter entitled ‘Welcoming Multiculturalism.’ These offerings I think stand as testimony of the contribution of women as missional practitioners in their own right as well as the essential need of the missional conversation and movement to make space for the missional and ecclesial practice of ‘male and female’ alongside each in all aspects of the missio Dei.

For those willing to be stretched by the paradigm change Servantship offers, I highly recommend this book. For those not willing to be stretched by the idea of Servantship, I recommend the book to them as well (but for different reasons probably).

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Note: I gratefully received a PDF copy of Servantship from Graham Hill in exchange for an honest review.

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