Serving the "nobodies" and the "shut-outs" is how a church can really serve God, Baylor University social work dean Dr. Diana R. Garland told Samford University students Tuesday, March 6.
"If we want to be a great church, then our biggest concern ought to be making service to the smallest in our society the central organizing function of our life together," said Garland, presenting the second annual James A. Auchmuty Congregational Leadership Lecture at Samford.
She cited a passage from the book of Acts, in which the early church designated Stephen, Philip and a few others to care for the poor so that the church leaders could spend their time praying and preaching the word.
Jesus had already tried to teach the disciples that to be great, to welcome God into their lives, they should be servants and seek out and care for the nobodies. But as was demonstrated when they tried to shut out little children from receiving Jesus' blessing, they missed the point.
"They didn't that understand that greatness for Jesus was reaching out for the shut out," said Garland "They flunked Jesus' class. And he was a great teacher!"
While the head disciples were looking to experience and talk about God, Stephen and Philip, as they ministered the community, were serving the nobodies and blazing mission trails.
"They were the first to live into the fact that Christianity was for everybody, every child of God, no matter how powerless or poor or different from us," she said. "And while they were about that work, they were seeing God face to face."
In the end, it was Stephen who stood and preached, and while he did, his face glowed because he had seen God.
"He had been with God's presence because he had been with the little ones, with the needy in the community," said Garland.
Stephen just was running a soup kitchen for poor folks, encountered God there, and ended up being the first martyr of the church, she said.
"And when he did, he saw Jesus stand up to call him into the kingdom," said Garland, noting that the disciples argued about who would be great and would get to sit beside Jesus.
"Will Jesus stand for us?" she asked her audience to consider.
Garland, inaugural dean of the Baylor School of Social Work, was previously professor of social work at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, where she taught for 17 years and was dean of its Carver School of Church Social Work.
She is the author of 17 books, including her newest, Flawed Families of the Bible: How God Works through Imperfect Relationships, which she co-authored with her husband, Dr. David Garland.
The Auchmuty Lecture was established in 2004 by Birmingham's Shades Crest Baptist Church in partnership with Samford's Resource Center for Pastoral Excellence to honor the church's retired pastor. Dr. Auchmuty, who served the church for 27 years, is a 1957 Samford graduate.