Servant-Leaders Are Distinguished by What They Serve

These days it’s not uncommon for leaders to overpromise and underdeliver. When those in positions of influence make guarantees and don’t follow through, it’s typically referred to as “lip service.” Israel’s leaders in the Old Testament were guilty of this, and Jesus indicted the religious leaders of his day as hypocrites for doing the very same thing: 

“This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me” (Matt. 15:8; cf. Isa. 29:13). But notice, their hypocrisy was not simply saying one thing and doing another. Rather, they also touted themselves as God’s spokesmen but replaced his message with their own. Jesus thus chastised them, “For the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of God . . . teaching as doctrines the commandments of men” (Matt. 15:6, 9). They were spiritual frauds who were guilty of perpetrating a bait and switch. And if we’re not careful, we can become guilty of the same thing when it comes to our ministries. As heralds of the King, our service and our leadership will be measured by what we serve—the message we deliver. 

Overall, true service is always evidenced by the corresponding actions it performs. Jesus didn’t just describe himself as a servant but actually followed through by serving others. He traveled great lengths and went out of his way to minister to those in need. He prayed over the bread and fish and distributed the multiplied portions to thousands of hungry people. He took the towel and the basin and washed his disciples’ feet. He laid down his life for his friends and his enemies, carried the weight of sin on his shoulders, and endured our punishment by dying on the cross. 

When it comes to preaching, our service will also be measured by its substance. In the same way that Jesus served, we must meet people at their point of need, break the bread of life for their spiritual nourishment, kneel in a posture of humility to address the ugly realities of their lives, and point them to the cross of Jesus as their only source of hope and salvation. This is how we serve God’s people from the pulpit and lead them to deeper faith and trust in him. 

In order to exert this type of servant leadership, we are called to deliver God’s word. The nature of Scripture and our role as God’s spokesmen means that the biblical text must be the source and substance of our messages. But our role as servants also requires textual exposition because it provides the only remedy to meet people’s needs. This doesn’t mean that we’re advocating for preaching to felt needs in a way that compromises the truth of Scripture for the sake of relevance or emotional support. It simply approaches the sacred task with an awareness that we are preaching to broken people who live in a broken world and need a loving Savior to heal their wounds, strengthen their weaknesses, and free them from the guilt and shame of sin. 

As we lead our people with a servant’s heart, our commitment to preach God’s word allows it to accomplish its intended purposes. The Bible uses a variety of metaphors to describe itself, its life-changing purposes, and the effect it has when we faithfully proclaim it. Each of these scriptural images provides greater insight into how our preaching serves our hearers and meets their needs. For example, our preaching must scatter the spiritual “seed” that converts lost souls and gives new life through “the living and abiding word of God” (1 Pet. 1:23; cf. Luke 8:11). We must bring the spiritual “fire” and wield the spiritual “hammer” that melts and breaks the hardest of hearts that is full of pride (Jer. 23:29). When we faithfully preach the sacred text, we are also sending spiritual “rain” into the lives of our people that has the power to refresh their souls and yield spiritual fruit (Isa. 55:10–11). 

Serving our people through the ministry of the word is also pictured as holding up a spiritual “mirror” that reveals their sinful imperfections and provides the healing remedy (James 1:22–25). Further, the “living and active” word of God will penetrate to the depths of our people’s souls and dissect their spiritual condition by “discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb. 4:12). This work of conviction and correction is essential for their progress in sanctification. In addition, serving them the “pure spiritual milk” of God’s word provides the spiritual nutrients necessary for their personal growth (1 Pet. 2:2). Faithfully preaching “the word of righteousness” helps them to “mature” by providing them healthy portions of “solid food” that satisfies their spiritual hunger, develops their spiritual discernment, and trains them to live in obedience (Heb. 5:12–14). 

When our people are lost and looking for guidance, textual exposition will serve as “a lamp” for their feet and “a light” for their path (Ps. 119:105). As they fight their spiritual battles, our preaching equips them with the “sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (Eph. 6:17). And, when we serve them by expounding Scripture, we are dispensing eternal riches that are more valuable than gold, “even much fine gold,” and satisfying them with savory morsels that are “sweeter also than honey and drippings of the honeycomb” (Ps. 19:10). Overall, the nature of our servant leadership must be distinguished by our faithful delivery of God’s word. The divine nature of Scripture and its supernatural effects will meet our congregation’s greatest needs, and through faithful exposition we can present timeless truths through timely messages that minister to God’s people as we faithfully serve and lead them. 

It’s also important to recognize that the transforming power of Scripture will be personally experienced by our listeners through the life-changing truth of the gospel. This means that as we serve God in delivering his word, we are called to deliver good news. This reality should affect both the tone and the telos of our preaching. As fervent as we should be in declaring the truth, it’s still good news. As faithful as we need to be in preaching justice and judgment, it’s still good news. As direct as we may need to be in identifying and addressing sin, it’s still good news. As honest as we must be in confronting cultural influences that may have crept into the church, it’s still good news. As difficult as it may be to address hurting people in hard circumstances, we are still delivering good news.

The effectiveness of our servant leadership from the pulpit will be directly related to the level of gospel saturation in our preaching. As we highlight the redemptive truths of every preaching passage and apply the text through faith in the completed work of Christ, people will recognize our sermons as sincere efforts to serve them. Our preaching will be characterized by the truth, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” (Rom. 10:15; Isa. 52:7). The gospel will satisfy their souls and quench their spiritual thirst: “Like cold water to a thirsty soul, so is good news from a far country” (Prov. 25:25). 

Overall, directing the hearts of our congregants toward the gospel will not only be our greatest act of service but also our greatest form of leadership. The apostle Paul makes the declaration for all of us as preachers when he says, “For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake” (2 Cor. 4:5). In a culture and a context that was all about personal notoriety, Paul made it clear that his ministry and mission were all about serving others by preaching the gospel. He clearly recognized that the gospel was not about him, and he explicitly stated as much: “we [preach] not ourselves.” Thus, as true servant-leaders, our declaration of the gospel is not meant to draw attention to ourselves, to gain followers, to impress others, to entertain, to promote an agenda, to spotlight our giftedness, or to stand on our favorite soapboxes. We are not some kind of hero to be celebrated. Rather, we declare the gospel to point people to Jesus. 

Too many times in the church, we have elevated celebrity pastors, preachers, leaders, teachers, writers, and speakers. We have created a culture that looks to platform those with magnetic personalities, those who are gifted, and those who have a hip persona. In 1 Corinthians, Paul cautioned the church against this temptation when he heard they were debating whether they were of Paul or Apollos or Peter (1 Cor. 1:12). Sadly, living in the midst of the me generation and the age of social media, preachers are often found promoting themselves rather than promoting Jesus. We must be honest and ask ourselves, Are we more concerned with how many people know who we are or how many people know who Jesus is? Paul wanted nothing to do with a self-centered mentality; he wanted everything he did to be from a Christ-centered mindset. He didn’t want to do anything that would interfere with or distract people from the gospel. He viewed himself as one who was at their disposal, simply there to deliver what they needed most, the gospel of Jesus Christ. If he fancied himself as anything, it was as a slave to Christ and a slave to others (2 Cor. 4:5; 1 Cor. 9:19). 

So, what did he preach? The phrase used in 2 Corinthians 4:5 has been described by some as the gospel in shorthand: “we proclaim . . . Jesus Christ as Lord” (cf. Rom. 10:9–10; Phil. 2:9–11; 1 Cor. 12:3). Simply stated, he is “Jesus,” the Savior of the world; he is the “Christ,” the crucified Messiah, and as a result, he is the risen and reigning “Lord.” Our submission and surrender to him, by faith and repentance, grants us freedom and forgiveness in him. This is the good news we proclaim. Our preaching ministry and leadership should be defined by this truth—we are “servants for Jesus’ sake” (2 Cor. 4:5). We give our lives for the sake of others that the gospel may go forward. As servant-leaders we should be distinguished by what we serve, delivering God’s word and the good news through faithful exposition of the biblical text. 

Excerpted from Expositional Leadership by R. Scott Pace and Jim Shaddix, ©2024. Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.