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Service, living for others rather than self, received new emphasis and importance for Mennonites and Brethren in Christ people in the 20th century, especially since 1950. In that year, the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), which had understood itself primarily as a relief (food and fiber) agency, added a second emphasis -- service. The challenge to give not only things, but also oneself, in glad service to others, met a ready response as hundreds of volunteers left home to serve the needy through special organizations: TAP (Teachers Abroad Program), Pax, Voluntary Service (VS), and others.

Inevitably there followed a flood of literature, mostly articles in denominational periodicals, on various aspects of service (educational, medical, agricultural, social, etc.) with all having in common the emphasis on motivation and following the example of Jesus who "went about doing good" (Acts 10:38). Then came the concern that Jesus might be regarded merely as a good example to be followed rather than as Lord and Savior of life. As more persons entered service assignments one heard it said that "there is no greater treason, than to do the right thing for the wrong reason." There was some call for the development of a theology of service.

In time it was recognized that motivation for service might start at any number of places, e.g., an awareness of world needs, especially the plight of people in countries of the "Two-Thirds World"; a vision of Jesus and his call to be like the good Samaritan (Luke 10:29-37); or a desire to be obedient to Scripture and "go into all the world." It also became evident that in the process of service the motivation frequently changed, motives were upgraded or purified. One might enter service simply to help the poor but end up realizing one's own poverty and thus take a significant and often first step to authentic self-awareness and spiritual growth.

For Mennonites in the 20th century service became a restatement in rather tangible and practical ways that God is a God of life, not death. "Say to them, "'As I live,' says the Lord God, 'I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live...'" (Ezekiel 33:11). Jesus confirmed this in his teaching and ministry saying, "I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly" (John 10:10). Whether thus articulated or not, service came to be identified with the will of God for his people. In service men and women confirmed God's abiding principle of life and also pointed others to God, the source of life. Service became a new way of saying that the gospel is indeed good news, it is a message of life. It was a way of making visible outwardly what was felt inwardly in conversion, a way to put flesh on the sometimes dry bones of theological statements about being born again.

Service for others in a consumer-oriented, narcissistic and self-destructive society was perceived as a clear message of liberation from the enslaving powers, a proof that Christ had indeed made all things new. Instead of insisting on one's own way and instead of dominating other people, for whatever reason, the emphasis on service was a way of saying that just as "the Son of man came not to be served but to serve" (Matthew 20:28), so his 20th-century disciples also seek the welfare of others above their own.

Somewhere along the road of service 20th-century Mennonites discovered that people often resist, or at least resent, being served and thus Mennonites were forced to rethink Jesus' statement as quoted by the Apostle Paul: "It is more blessed to give than to receive" (Acts 20:35). It was a humbling experience for a people eager to do good in the name of Christ. It was an experience that pointed up the cheapness of paternalistic service, the need for less sympathy and more empathy, and a calling for the highest degree of identification with the recipient of the service. It was, therefore, no academic question to ask how an affluent people like North American Mennonites could bring wholeness and healing to poverty-stricken people around the world. A seemingly insuperable gulf separated the two. Whenever this question was raised in the printed page, at conferences, or at seminars, numerous possible solutions were offered but never the radical step suggested by Jesus to the rich young ruler to "go, sell what you possess and give it to the poor" (Matthew 19:21). Instead the call was for the practice of good stewardship rather than for divesting oneself of all possessions and thus standing on an equal footing with the poor. That was left for the idealists like Francis of Assisi, Waldo (Waldenses), Leo Tolstoy, and Jesus.

A major shift in service emphasis came with the careful articulation of the marriage between word and deed. It became increasingly clear that bread and the bread of life belong together, that mission boards and MCC, for example, are basically engaged in the same task of serving God by serving humans. This was made clear, for example, by the appointment and funding of workers for Botswana by mission boards and MCC serving together in one agency known there simply as Mennonite Ministries (MM). It is an attempt to do what used to be called the "comprehensive approach," an attempt to unite "diakonia" and "kerygma," service and proclamation.

However, just when it appeared that the pieces were coming together with the fusion of word and deed, and the joining of mission with service, various Muslim countries, as well as Communist countries like China, permitted Mennonite service but did not permit the spoken word. This raised the question about the validity and value of what is called "Christian presence," a silent service without proclamation.

Meanwhile in the North American Mennonite churches, emphasis was placed on service as a lifestyle. The service motif was to permeate all of life. At the same time an attempt was made to go to the root causes of hunger, violence, and despair. As the linkage between militarism and poverty, for example, became evident, as structural evil was seen as the "powers and principalities" that the Apostle Paul talked about (Romans 8:38; Ephesians 3:10, 6:12; Colossians 1:16, 2:15), service began to take on ever new and specialized forms.

Service, the speaking, writing and doing of it, has energized the church and provided it with a clear biblical mandate to "be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord" 1 Corinthians 15:58). Emphasis on service has helped to make eschatological hope visible. It is being understood as rooted in salvation history which looks two ways, back to the "finished work" of Christ, and forward to the fullness and completion by the return of Christ. Because Mennonites believe that the kingdom of God is already here, that the believer is already in it and is to "occupy till I come" (Luke 19:13), he goes about his work, serving with the gifts given him, carrying something of the greatness and solemnity of eternity into his daily routine. She knows that her service is contributing to the completion of Christ's triumph, when "He shall reign forever and ever."

See also Development Work; Health Services; Humanitarianism; Mutual Aid; Relief WorkWork Camps, AsiaWork Camps, Europe


Dyck, Peter J. "A Theology of Service." Mennonite Quarterly Review 44 (1970): 262-80.

Kreider, Robert. "The Impact of MCC Service on American Mennonites." Mennonite Quarterly Review 44 (1970): 245-61.

Additional Information

Mennonite Central Committee

Author(s) Peter J Dyck
Date Published 1989

Cite This Article

MLA style

Dyck, Peter J. "Service." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1989. Web. 25 Jul 2024.

APA style

Dyck, Peter J. (1989). Service. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 25 July 2024, from


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 5, pp. 812-813. All rights reserved.

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