Posted by: Philip Rushton | August 6, 2011

Shirker Christians

On Monday night we finished up our summer discipleship series on counter-cultural spirituality. I’ve been away for the week speaking at a kids camp so I did not have a chance to update the blog with the notes from our session. I’m using this cloudy Saturday afternoon to play some catch up!

Our focus on Monday had to do with moving from a life of self-interest to a life of service. The dominant pattern in American culture emphasizes the pursuit of personal gain. The so-called ‘American Dream’ is defined on as, “A life of personal happiness and material comfort as traditionally sought by individuals in the U.S.” The trajectory of the American way (and Canadian way!) is very self-focused.

This individualistic lifestyle creeps into our spiritual journey as well. David Goetz describes this trend by using the image of a shirker elk. The male elk with the largest antlers are called shirkers because they shirk their biological duty by refusing to pursue in the rut. As Goetz summarizes, “The shirker bull, avoids fighting other males and thus pours all his caloric energy into ‘growing exceptionally large antlers.” Goetz then applies this to the Christian life saying, “In the suburban wild, Shirkers are religious folk who inadvertently disengage from the suffering of the world and who unwittingly collect to themselves every available religious experience.” In other words, shirkers avoid the call to engage with our broken world and instead see religion as a means to self-fulfillment. To be sure, Jesus promises us abundant life if we follow him; however, he reminds us of the paradox that to gain life we must lose our life.

In Luke 9 Jesus’ disciples are clearly self-focused. They are bickering about who is the greatest, which suggests that they see Jesus as a means to moving up in the world. These raggedy fishermen are in with a popular Rabbi, which gave them a rare opportunity to climb the social ladder. They had a Galilean form of the American Dream – a Galilean Dream, if you will.

Jesus responds to their bickering by calling them to a life of service, and a very menial form of service at that. Jesus says that if they want to be great they should care for children. This would have thrown off the first disciples. Children were considered insignificant in this culture. They would probably have been glad to sign up for a major social action campaign that could produce good results and get noticed by others in society. Jesus, however, calls them to a type of servanthood that permeates their mundane everyday relationships.

As such, we concluded our discussion on Monday by looking at how we can make this transition from self-interest to service. One of the things we explored is the distinction between self-righteous service and true service. Richard Foster provides some helpful insight in this regard. Foster suggests that Christ-like servanthood is the least glamorous of the disciplines. He writes, “Radical self-denial gives the feel of adventure. If we forsake all we even have the chance of a glorious martyrdom. But in service we must experience the many little deaths of going beyond ourselves. Service banishes us to the mundane, the ordinary, the trivial.” Servanthood is something that is costly and it plays itself out in the mundane aspects of everyday life.

Foster provides the following criteria to help distinguish between self-interested service and true service:

In essence, Foster reminds us that true service is not self-seeking. It is not something we do only because it will get noticed or because it will be self-fulfilling. It is something we do out of faithfulness and in response to a genuine need.

Some questions for us to consider as we move from self-interest to service are as follows:

What sort of things prevent us from being open to serving God wherever he calls us? What would it take to remove those barriers?

Where are you finding service to God difficult (i.e. in marriage, at work, with aging parents, a needy friend, other?)

How do we balance this call to service, with the call to contemplation? What is the right balance between taking care of yourself (ie not burning out) and putting others first?

Buechner says that we find our calling when “that which gives us great joy meets a great need.” How have you been uniquely equipped to serve in God’s Kingdom?

How could we better use our time, talents and treasures to care for those in need?


  1. Wow, that’s a lot to digest…thankfully we have grace as we struggle along. An initial thought about what we do is that we need each other in community to be asking each other the questions, offering suggestions and solutions, holding each other accountable, and working with each other to provide balance and strength.
    I think my problem is when I try to move from self-interest to service by myself. It may work for a while, but I can’t sustain it.

  2. In our discussion group following Phil’s teaching Ron Naff offered an insight that has really stuck with me. He said that people have a 10 degree comfort zone. We are usually comfortable between 68 and 78 degrees. He applied that to a social setting/spiritual service setting asking what is our 10 degree comfort zone in these areas and how can we get comfortable outside that “zone”. We talked about that a bit as a group and challenged each other to explore outside our comfort zones.

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