I heard a sermon by Tim Keller the other day that has stuck with me. He was talking about personal growth. He said that material growth is easy: if one has a pile of bricks, and one wants to make that pile bigger, one simply brings a wheelbarrow or dump truck full of more bricks, piles it on your original pile, and bingo: material growth. Organic growth is different, though. When one wants to grow a tree, a plant, or a human being, that takes time. It is not an overnight process, but one measured in years.
I think one of the reasons we have so many bad leaders in our culture is that we often apply our “fast-food” mentality to leadership. We think that by reading a book, or attending a seminar, we’ll emerge as a better, more confident, more effective leader. And, while all of these things are helpful, adding water to the soil (or, in the case of some of the stuff I’ve read, fertilizer), growing as a leader is not an overnight process. It takes years of maturing, of molding, of shaping. It’s organic growth.
Which is why I think one of the most important things we can begin to teach our kids is how to lead and influence well. I’m not one of those people who believe that everyone is a natural-born leader, or that they even become a leader over time, at least not in the sense we think of it in our culture: I think a lot of that is in the sovereignty and gifting of God. But, I do believe that everyone leads in the sense of exerting influence over others. And, doing that nobly and well, for God’s glory, is one of the true callings on all our lives. After all, isn’t the Great Commission, making disciples among the nations, one big, lifelong act of influence on our part?
We all know that teaching is spoken and lived, and that both are important. God calls us to a certain kind of leadership, a certain kind of influence, one that is important for us to teach and model in our children’s lives: a life of servant leadership. You know the story: the disciples are mad because James’ and John’s mom has asked that her boys sit on Jesus’ right and left hand of power when He comes into His Kingdom (they’re mad, of course, because they didn’t think of asking first, and now risked getting “one upped”). Jesus gave them a whole new way of looking at leadership: “the Gentiles lord it over them, and the great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many.” Matthew 20.
Servant leadership means teaching our kids at least three things about leading and influencing others in their lives, teaching that begins first and foremost with how we treat our spouses and our kids. First, and most obviously, servant leadership is about service. The basin and the towel, Jesus washing the disciples’ feet, is one of the most powerful scriptural images. In practical terms, modeling service means taking on the role of a servant in our homes. For dads, servanthood is most evident when we walk in the door after work. When we want to plop down in front of the TV with a plate of nachos and Chris Berman, that’s when what Matt Chandler calls “second shift” begins. For dads of little ones, it’s bath, play, reading, and bed. For dads of older ones, it’s taxi service to kids’ activities, homework help, clean up the kitchen, bed. “Me time” consists of brushing your teeth before collapsing into bed. That’s it. The glory of servant leadership is to go to bed tired and satisfied that you’ve served your family well.
Servant leadership is also about representing the cause of Christ. It’s about inviting your kids into the hard decisions that you make as a family: decisions like job changes, new ministry opportunities, family illnesses, and caring for loved ones. It also includes tossing them in the car or truck when you run errands on Saturday, so they can watch how you live out your faith in how you interact with others: the people at Home Depot, the folks at church, the guy or lady at work you’ve been trying to help. Representing Christ means letting them watch you pray and seek God’s will for your life and for direction, how you do that as a couple and as a family. Further, it means letting them see you struggle: when you speak harshly, act selfishly, or blow it in some other way, leading out in repentance, letting them see that Mom or Dad isn’t perfect, and isn’t trying to be. In so doing, we teach them that the gospel isn’t about perfection, but about organically growing in Christ to look more and more like what He has made us through His blood and resurrection–holy, pure, and acceptable to Him.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, servant leadership is about sacrifice and suffering. To lead as Jesus led means being identified with Christ, and Christ led through suffering. This lesson is crucial in this world, where even among Christians they’re bombarded with the idea that your “best life now” is a sign of God’s blessing and favor. The default is for them to expect leadership to bring with it respect, attention, and the admiration of others–in short, being the object of hero worship. But, that’s not how God prepares servant leaders, whether Moses, David, Jesus, Paul, or you in your home. Scripture tells us that God uses life to prune His leaders, then lets them grow, then prunes them some more. To be a servant leader is to suffer- to enter into the suffering of others, to be misunderstood, criticized, rejected, and ignored.
You won’t have to manufacture God’s pruning hand. Life will happen to you, and to them. It already has. But, again, invite your kids into that suffering. Help them understand its meaning, its purpose. Help them see that this is how God gets His people ready.
Ultimately, the last two chapters of Revelation tell us that we are kings and queens of the New Jerusalem, co-rulers with Jesus for eternity. Russell Moore describes this world as an “internship for the eschaton,” meaning, those last days. If this world is our internship for ruling well in that Kingdom, shouldn’t your home be your kids’ internship for leading well in this one?