Solid theology, prioritizing love, and humbly valuing individuals are all part of a foundation of genuine service.
Serving others is a noble pursuit, and many Christians are passionate about reaching the marginalized in their communities. However, sometimes this desire to help can turn into a type of work that has been coined with the phrase savior syndrome. This mentality has some of its origins in questions like, “What Would Jesus Do?” This question, often shortened by the acronym WWJD, rose to great popularity in the 1990s. While the phrase seems like sound advice on the surface, there are deeper theological implications at play.
In this article, we’ll dive into the roots of WWJD culture and explore why it can lead to a toxic savior syndrome mentality in urban ministry.
The Origin of “What Would Jesus Do?”
The concept of WWJD has roots in the 1890’s when Pastor Charles Monroe Sheldon faced low attendance at Sunday night services in his Topeka, Kansas church. Seeking a solution, as explained in Bible Study Tools:
“Sheldon acknowledged the challenges of imitating Christ while living in modern society. So, he came upon the idea of composing a string of what he called “sermon stories” to address this point in his late Sunday meetings. Each week, he presented an episode that depicted a moral dilemma someone might face. The messages all ended with a cliffhanger, and the question, “What would Jesus do?” Attendance at Central Congregational quickly surged.”
Inspired by the positive response, Sheldon wrote a book in 1896 titled In His Steps, which explored the theme of making choices aligned with Jesus’ values in daily life. Due to a copyright oversight, the book was published by 70 different publishers in the United States and beyond. It became a bestseller and was eventually translated into multiple foreign languages.
One particular story from the book caught the attention of the Topeka Daily Capital editor, who invited Pastor Sheldon to take over the newspaper for a week. During this time, the paper featured reports on social reforms, missionaries, and fundraising efforts for India instead of its usual content. The experiment was successful, attracting subscribers from around the world.
Though In His Steps became a classic in the 1890s, the phrase “What Would Jesus Do?” from his sermons gained popularity among a new generation many years later. Janie Tinklenberg, a youth leader in Michigan, transformed the phrase into the acronym WWJD and created bracelets for her students to wear as a daily reminder to consider each choice in light of Jesus’ ways.
This idea spread to other churches and eventually became mainstream, appearing on various merchandise and even making its way into the Oxford English Dictionary. Several movies, books, and articles were inspired by Pastor Sheldon’s messages, giving a contemporary application to his ideas.Serving others is noble, but we must be cautious of savior syndrome. The phrase "What Would Jesus Do?" (WWJD) gained popularity in the 90s, but has theological implications. Let's serve with humility and understanding. Click To Tweet
Avoiding the Savior Syndrome
As a result of the mainstream popularity of WWJD, many Christians embraced WWJD as a way to guide their decisions. However, the problem with this approach is that it assumes everyone knows what Jesus would do in any given situation. In reality, the Bible provides a complex narrative of God’s interactions with his people. There are few clear-cut answers, and sometimes the Christian response to a problem is not immediately apparent. Relying solely on the question “What Would Jesus Do?” can lead to oversimplification and misguided choices.
Moreover, if a person is motivated by the desire to “be like Jesus” or “save” others, they may slip into savior syndrome. This is especially true in urban ministry, where the needs of the community can be overwhelming. Someone may think they are doing good work, but in reality, they are acting out of a desire to feel like a kind of hero rather than genuinely helping others. This mentality can be destructive, both for the individual and the people they are trying to serve.
The only way to truly avoid savior syndrome is to cultivate a deeper understanding of the Gospel. Urban ministry requires a solid theological foundation, a willingness to learn from community leaders, and a heart for serving others without expecting anything in return. Helping the marginalized should not be about checking off boxes or boosting one’s ego—rather, it should be a reflection of Christ’s love for all people.
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5 Ways to Build a Solid Foundation of Genuine Service
If you think the savior syndrome might have crept into your heart, do not despair! Your desire to serve the urban poor can reflect Christ’s love when you commit to building a solid foundation of service. Here are a few suggestions:
1. Connect personally with those in the community.
One example of avoiding savior syndrome in urban ministry is by approaching it with humility and a genuine heart for service. This could involve engaging in ongoing dialogue with community members, listening to their needs and perspectives, and collaborating with them to develop sustainable solutions.
2. Cultivate a deeper understanding of the Gospel and its applications.
To truly avoid savior syndrome, it is crucial to cultivate a deeper understanding of the Gospel and apply its teachings to urban ministry. This means having a solid theological foundation and actively seeking to learn from community leaders who possess firsthand knowledge and experience.
For example, consider World Impact’s Urban Church Planting program. The Evangel School of Urban Church Planting is a specialized training program for Christian workers aiming to establish thriving churches within underprivileged urban areas. With a focus on the Gospel message and its relevance in today’s society, the school equips students with the necessary skills to effectively reach and serve disadvantaged communities.
Through coaching and guidance from experienced urban church planters, prospective church leaders learn how to create sustainable church structures, plan services, conduct outreach initiatives, manage finances, foster discipleship, and develop leadership abilities. Graduates emerge empowered and ready to fulfill their calling, planting churches and sharing the transformative message of Jesus Christ within their own communities.
3. Focus on long-term impact rather than short-term fixes.
Another example is focusing on long-term impact rather than short-term fixes. Instead of providing temporary relief that may inadvertently perpetuate dependency, it involves investing in initiatives that empower individuals and communities to become self-sufficient. This could include partnering with local organizations to offer job training programs, educational opportunities, and resources that promote economic stability and social mobility. Although this approach eliminates quick, feel-good service experiences, it provides sustaining help in the long run.
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4. Remember that every person you encounter has been created in God’s image.
Furthermore, avoiding savior syndrome requires acknowledging the inherent dignity and worth of every individual, regardless of their socio-economic status. It means treating others with respect, compassion, and empathy without expecting anything in return. This could involve advocating for social justice, challenging systemic inequalities, and working towards creating inclusive spaces where everyone feels valued and heard. Every single individual you encounter is made in the image of an Almighty God, and your efforts will be greatly impacted if that fact can be recognized and embraced. When we acknowledge the inherent worth and dignity of each person, it transforms our perspective and approach to serving others.
5. Take the approach of a servant.
Ultimately, by anchoring urban ministry in a deep understanding of the Gospel and embracing a servant-hearted approach, we can avoid falling into the trap of savior syndrome. The results are in God’s hands, and we, as His servants, may never see or understand His plan. But it’s through these loving acts that we can authentically reflect Christ’s love and make a meaningful impact in the lives of those we aim to understand and serve.
Building a Foundation of Healthy Partnerships
True service to others requires a theological foundation and a willingness to learn from those we aim to help. It means moving away from a hero mentality and focusing on Christ’s call to love our neighbor. By recognizing the worth of every individual and embracing mutual support, we can develop meaningful relationships built on trust and empathy. Engaging in true service involves addressing systemic challenges, advocating for justice, and promoting equity. Ultimately, it leads to empowerment, change, and a more compassionate world.True service requires a theological foundation, learning from those we help, and moving away from a hero mentality. Let's embrace Christ's call to love our neighbor, recognize worth, and build trust. Click To Tweet
At the core of our commitment to service, we look to the cross. Consider these words sung by Paulette, the women’s director at an addiction recovery ministry in South LA called the House of Hope:
At the cross, at the cross, where I first saw the light
And the burden of my heart rolled away
It was there by faith I received my sight
And now I am happy all the day…
At the cross for everyone
And at the cross for me