Why every leader must descend to greatness

In business, music or sports, greatness isn’t that hard to define. For example, the statement that Michael Jordan was a great basketball player is hardly contestable. His six championships, Olympic gold medal, MVP awards, appearances on all-star teams, scoring records and game-winning shots prove it. His actions and awards place him above all his competitors. Boxer Muhammad Ali, football receiver Jerry Rice and golfer Tiger Woods have accomplished in their own sports similar feats that demonstrate greatness.

But how do we define greatness in the realm of Christian leadership? Can checking attendance sheets, number of baptisms or the size of the yearly budget provide a clear standard for evaluating greatness? What are the true marks of a great leader when it comes to ministry—and how do we mimic those characteristics?

It’s easy to get sidetracked by our own arbitrary ideas of what great leadership looks like or what standards we use to measure it. Yet because the greatest leader of all has already defined greatness for us, we would be wise to learn what He says. Just as golfers pay thousands of dollars for instruction from Butch Harmon or computer software engineers listen intently to every word from Michael Dell, we should drop everything and tune into Jesus’ approach to greatness.

This Is What Greatness Looks Like?

Jesus knows—and has always known—of our need to look to Him for a definition of greatness. And by our account, He had numerous prime opportunities throughout His life to show us the meaning. Yet His way of modeling greatness wasn’t exactly what we thought it would be.

For starters, it seems fitting that He would have started off His time on earth with a grand entrance. Christmas morning should’ve been more like the Fourth of July, with fireworks coming out of heaven to light up the whole earth. Jesus should’ve flown in like a comet whose blazing light dwarfed the radiance of the sun, so that every human would have been awakened by His arrival and overwhelmed by the warmth of His presence.

Then He could have ordered His seraphim posse to start up a universal chant and shake the atmosphere with their shouts of His holiness. The ensuing light, heat and earthquake would certainly have moved all the people on the planet to cover their eyes, tremble in awe and instantly acknowledge that someone greater than all others had descended on their world.

He could have been born in a palace to a great king and queen, had silk diapers, cashmere blankets, the purest baby food, gold teething rings—the whole nine yards. But nothing of the sort happened.

Instead, the Son of God came out of Mary’s womb to an audience of animals in a small Judean town called Bethlehem. His earthly parents were from a town in the Galilean backwoods with a reputation for producing nothing good (see John 1:46). His adoptive dad was a blue-collar worker struggling to make an honest shekel, and His mom got pregnant with Him before she was married. That had to have had people talking—a pregnant girl “showing” before the wedding.

Jesus came on the scene like just one more illegitimate child, born into a poor backwoods family, with little hope of doing anything great in His life. Why would Jesus, the Son of God, come to earth that way, birthed around smelly farm animals and dung droppings? Sure, a few angels showed up to make a special announcement to a group of local shepherds, and some rich men from the Far East came to pay homage. But aside from these exceptions, the world went on essentially undisturbed.

That just doesn’t seem to communicate greatness.

Waiting for the Grand Finale

If Jesus’ greatness wasn’t revealed in a big way at His birth, surely it would come during His adult life. Yet the friends Jesus made and the people He touched showed no signs of this. Throughout His ministry, He became known as a friend of lowlife Jews who collected taxes for the oppressive Roman government. He spent time with drunks and prostitutes in His effort to call Israel back to holiness. He didn’t wine and dine at fancy Roman parties or get chummy with the priests who controlled the Temple and ran the Jewish law courts. His compatriots were anything but great, and He did more to make the famous and powerful leaders of Roman Palestine angry with Him than He did to win their respect and honor. He certainly didn’t teach us how to be great by working His way up the ancient corporate or religious food chain into a place of authority and prominence.

So if not at His birth and not throughout His life, shouldn’t Jesus have displayed His greatness during His final entrance into Jerusalem? That would’ve been a great time to show us. I imagine a Jewish army of 500,000 soldiers and an angelic army of 1 million, with other followers dressed in fancy robes and carrying banners. All of these could have descended on the city in full battle array with 1,000 chariots and great stallions leading the charge. Now that would have been great!

But no such rise to greatness occurred during the Triumphal Entry. Instead of a parade of chariots, stallions and soldiers proclaiming His kingship, Jesus came waddling down the Mount of Olives on a young donkey. Instead of a band with music echoing through the valley, a crowd of ordinary people came out, shouting His praise and throwing branches and clothes on the ground in front of Him.

Jesus did not show us how to unleash greatness and ascend to status and prestige at just the right time in one’s career. He came to a city where influential people plotted His death.

In our search to find where Jesus teaches us how to become great, we seem to be running out of options. He certainly had a ministry full of great acts, yet He spent most of His time with the poor and rejected elements of the Jewish population instead of working His way up to the top. In fact, it was among those down-and-outers, with only days left until His death, that He gave us the most obvious clue. Do you remember? He broke up a conversation among His disciples about who was the greatest, and He dropped a huge bombshell: The last will be first. The humble person is the greatest.

Jesus had actually been showing us the entire time! From His birth all the way to this point. He had saved a special final lesson for the night before His death—yet for those who had missed it being displayed throughout His life, Jesus would plainly show us how we could also become great.

Getting Down and Dirty

In John 13 we find Jesus around a table with His disciples for the Last Supper. They have all just come in from a day of ministry in the dusty streets of Jerusalem. Their feet are dirty, and there is no servant to wash the filth from them. So Jesus picks up a towel, gets some water and decides to be the humble servant among His disciples.

The men in that room knew how inappropriate it would be for any of them to touch one another’s feet, much less the one who had angels created to praise Him. The job of foot washing was saved for the lowest of the low, the servants of the servants. Only the least important, most underprivileged people—in other words, those who had been born poor, among a bunch of farm animals—got stuck with that duty. In fact, rabbinic documents show that rabbis and Pharisees in the time after Christ would force their disciples to serve them in every way that slaves would serve their masters except for one thing: They were never, ever to touch anyone’s feet. That was simply too demeaning for any “respectable” human being to endure.

The statement Jesus made by washing His disciples’ feet was profound. He had said before that greatness came from humbling oneself (see Matt. 18:4). He had said, “The last will be first, and the first will be last” (Matt. 20:16, NIV)—but now He was showing it. He was getting down and dirty.

While others worked their way up through the political or religious ranks, or schmoozed powerful people into giving large amounts in the offering, or gathered the masses to rise up against the establishment ... all the while Jesus was declaring His greatness as He went out of His way to serve the everyday people around Him.

Improving Our Serve

About 15 years ago I spent a couple of years as an intern under Adrian Despres, an itinerant evangelist with Kingdom Building Ministries and the current chaplain for Steve Spurrier and the University of South Carolina Gamecocks football team. I was under the impression that the internship was designed to help me improve as a speaker. I traveled with Adrian to different speaking events all over the world to see what he could teach me about effective communication.

To my chagrin, I found myself attending a bunch of events for my “speaking internship” but never actually speaking. Adrian finally carved out a one-minute opening spot where I could share a story before sitting down, but that hardly gave me a chance to warm up before taking my seat.

As I kept tagging along to different events, I became more and more bewildered about how I could learn to improve my communication skills. Instead of speaking and getting Adrian’s feedback, I got to participate in his strange “rituals” before and after his presentations on stage—offstage actions that I thought had nothing to do with speaking.

Sometimes we would arrive early at a Christian convention or a church, and he’d have me set up tables and chairs, maybe even vacuum or volunteer with the food/merchandise tables. Adrian was the kind of guy who picked up trash and put away shopping carts that other patrons had left scattered around the parking lot. I tried to remind him that “people get paid to do those jobs,” but he didn’t care. “I know,” he’d reply, “I just want to help ’em out!”

Those “rituals” were part of his approach to life and ministry. Maybe somehow these things were linked to Adrian’s powerful speaking ministry.

One day, about a year into my internship, Adrian asked me if I thought my internship was going OK. On the inside I was thinking: Not really! How in the world can I get better at speaking if I don’t speak? Doesn’t practice make perfect or something like that?

I didn’t come out and say those things, so I just answered his inquiry with an affirmative and waited for an explanation. That’s when he said something I’ll never forget: “Before we started this whole thing, I knew you could speak, but I didn’t know if you could serve.”

Adrian’s comment changed my life. I wanted to be a great speaker. Adrian wanted me to be great spiritually. He wanted me to be a great leader.

Our culture presumes that being first, richest, biggest, happiest, most liked and well known is the key to finding joy and contentment, the key to being great. Even the church, in some instances, mistakes a blessed life with an easy and unchallenged life. But Jesus calls us to give up our pretensions of greatness defined by fame, carefree living or accomplishment. Contrary to popular opinion, greatness is defined by the humble and often hidden actions of a person who has given up on coming out on top. It’s consistently putting Jesus and others first. Living a life of greatness is actually walking a difficult path of self-sacrifice and inconvenience, driven by a greater concern for others.

A truly great leader doesn’t need to be served, but is bent on serving others. Jesus said it Himself: “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve” (Matt. 20:28, NIV). This is what makes a great leader. So as leaders aiming for that higher standard, let us begin the seemingly backward journey of descending to greatness. Let’s be last!

Jeremy Kingsley is a Christian speaker, president of Onelife Ministries and author of Be Last: Descending to Greatness. For more information, visit jeremykingsley.com.

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