The group of teenagers spoke with passion — some even had tears in their eyes as they shared their stories. They had spent time among some of the poorest of the poor in a large U.S. city. They had even gotten themselves in several dangerous situations, one scary enough that one of them ran away leaving a shoe behind. They laughed about the shoe — saying they would pick up the shoe the next year when they re-visited the people and the places on their return. However, they were deadly serious when one of them said:

"It" just felt as if Jesus was there with us. We knew we were doing the stuff that Jesus would want us to do. I don't think I will ever be the same!

Over the years, I've heard similar comments from older folks who have served in the slums of Methare, Kenya, and felt "it," expressing their conviction with deep emotion. I've experienced "it" with a group of "Internets"* who spent a week in the slums of Kampala, Uganda, working with Compassion International. I've felt "it" myself while serving with all different ages in a community of over 800 orphans in Peru. I was touched by "it" when loving on a group of older people at a leprosarium in Bangkok, Thailand — people who had lost fingers and toes and ears to leprosy and were now pushed to the fringes of society.

I've heard about "it" and experienced "it" when serving communion to a young man dying of AIDS in a hospital, visiting a small church service for folks in a retirement center, listening to a 100+ year old woman tell about her days of teaching Bible class, and reading scriptures as an aging godly woman with no living family took her last breath.

The "it" to which all these experiences point? Experiencing the tangible presence of Jesus in a moment of serving others who can never repay you! The "it" is this deep, emotive, conviction that in serving in these ways, Jesus is somehow really present. This "it" is not a pretend thing. The "it" is not just in our imaginations or in our hearts. Somehow in these special moments of selfless service when we lose ourselves in doing the kinds of things that Jesus did, we realize that we have been part of a "Jesus moment" and the Lord was really present in that moment.

For many of us, these "it" moments forever changed us. Our eyes were opened to a new reality. Jesus is now more real to us — not someone "up there" and "far away" or "long ago," but here with us now in these special moments where we live beyond ourselves. There is no arrogance or pride in the "it" experience, but a profound and humble sense of being in the presence of the Savior.

We shouldn't be surprised by the emotion and personal transformation these kinds of experiences bring. This "it" I've been describing is the third Immanuel promise** of Jesus. It comes from a series of parables Jesus told about the end times (Matthew 25:1-46). These are the words of Jesus as he promises to be Immanuel in such "it" moments:

"When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

"Then the King will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.'

"Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?'

"The King will reply, 'Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me'" (Matthew 25:31-40).

For us to experience Jesus as Immanuel, for Jesus to be more than a long ago and far away Savior, we need to lose ourselves in service to others. Yet we don't serve to find Jesus — that is a by-product and blessing; we serve to bless others in the name of Jesus because they need it. Then, by the grace of God, many of us experience the "it" for which we hunger. Jesus is real to us. The life the Lord calls us to live matters. We begin to see the world through different eyes and our hearts are never the same.

Most of us realize that we need to experience more of Jesus!

As we live in the shear of generational change and in the shift of what may be epochal change from modernism to postmodernism, God's people need to experience the reality of Jesus in their lives. Church leaders, parents, mentors, and servants of God need to experience Jesus as real and be able to invite others to serve with them if we are to hold the hearts of young adults.

For some us, church can come to mean sitting in rows while looking at the cowlicks in the row in front of us while we sing hymns we cherish and hear a sermon from a well-prepared preacher. For others of us, church can mean having worship done to us in a multimedia sensory overload of experiences done by highly talented people as we sit with hundreds of folks we do not know. For some of us, church can be the predictable, yet comforting, participation in a set order of events with people we know and love, as we seek to hear God's Word and be convicted by God's truth. We don't denigrate any of those experiences. But for most of us, and especially for the younger ones among us, none of those experiences is enough! We need to experience Immanuel.

No matter how important and precious these worship events and experiences are to us, something in our hearts goes away empty craving something more. We yearn to know, we hunger to experience, the presence of Jesus in undeniable and life-altering ways. That is one of the reasons, I believe, that Matthew wrote his good news story of Jesus for the church — for disciples longing to know Jesus long after the Lord ascended back to the Father.

Matthew gave us four Immanuel sayings** — four promises that Jesus would be real and would be present in the life of his people until his return. One of these four ways may resonate with your heart more than the other three, but we all need to experience each of the four. And I can't think of a better place to begin than in acts of service and compassionate care to those in need. As we do, and we experience the "it" for which we long, we hear the voice of our Savior tell us why this matters so much to us:

Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.

It is, for Jonathan, an act of worship.

From Partner
Tim Woodroof

Phil, my son is a good example of "the younger ones among us" who want more from church than liturgy and ritual. Jonathan, being my son, was raised in church, taught to value church, taken to church at every opportunity. Yet his most profound expression of his faith and experience of Jesus does not occur in a church building on Sunday mornings. Every Saturday morning, Jonathan and a few of his friends make the rounds of area restaurants, gathering up their leftovers and expired-dated foods. They take this bounty (It’s amazing what Americans throw away!) to a community center where they spend hours peeling potatoes, dicing celery, and grilling chicken. Then they take the food they’ve prepared downtown where every week they feed 35-40 homeless people, visiting with them as they eat.

It is, for Jonathan, an act of worship. It is where he connects with God. It is the single, most selfless moment in his week and for that reason the most holy to him. I have such respect for Jonathan. I suspect my own experience of Jesus would be enhanced by a few less Sunday services and a few more Saturday mornings dedicated to "the least of these."


Tim, there is really not a lot that needs to be added to Jonathan's living testimony to meeting Immanuel through his loving and consistent care. Jesus taught us that true ministry is incarnational — immersive involvement in the lives of others in their world and on their terms. I fear that we have forgotten is that when we do true incarnational ministry, Jesus is there doing it with us and receiving it from us!

The challenge, as I see it, is to get our church folks — young, old, and in between — involved in all four of the ways Matthew calls on us to experience Immanuel.** I think we all probably have a primary and maybe even a secondary channel, but I believe we need to be involved in all four. We should focus on our primary, absolutely, but encourage each other to open ourselves to fully experiencing Jesus as Immanuel in all the ways Matthew presents to us. In fact, I've found in research on missional communities that are effective, all four are nearly always present. I believe we miss something precious, and the people in our pews miss something precious, when we don't provide the opportunity and the challenge for them to experience all four!

Comments, Reactions, and Questions from the Partners:

From Partner
Mark Frost

I have a friend who has served as a county commissioner, a state representative, and a state senator. He is at home among the rich and powerful. He is on a first-name basis with many of the movers and shakers in our state. Yet on weekends, you will find him in dirty work clothes, laboring and sweating along with other volunteers as they rehabilitate crumbling houses in the very poorest neighborhoods of metropolitan Detroit. You don't have to be around him long to hear him explain why he does this. It’s for "the least of these." Every time he repeats that phrase — and he says it often — his face lights up and his eyes sparkle. He has experienced the "it" Phil describes in his article. His example reminds me that so many of the strategies that people pursue in life — seeking power, recognition, and wealth — still leave them hungry for more. Only an experience of the resurrected Jesus can satisfy, and my friend has found that satisfaction in humble service to "the least of these."


Mark, I love the way you phrased the essential truth of this whole Immanuel series: "Only an experience of the resurrected Jesus can satisfy." That's the core point. I still remember as a university student — many years ago — Landon Saunders talking to a Chinese student about the story of Jesus. Her excited response was this: "So if Jesus is risen from the dead, then I can know him!" Unfortunately, we settle for less. Your statesman friend has reminded us that we can meet Jesus and "know him" when we serve "the least of these." My friend Paul Faulkner says it this way: "Jesus hung out with the least, the last, and the lost. If we are going to be around Jesus, then we'd better hang with the folks he likes to be with!"

From Partner
Greg Anderson

Phil — the article is wonderful, but the contrast between the two pictures: Jesus surrounded by his disciples and you surrounded by children made your words so very real to me. Jesus is "God with us" and many others will only realize that when "we are with them." If Christ is in us, then the presence of Christ is made incarnate once again anytime we are in community. I am reminded of these insights from James Bryan Smith in his book, "The Good and Beautiful God":

God the Son enters our world in the lowest of all conditions, lives an utterly ordinary life for thirty years, experiences everything we experience, points the world to his Father in his teaching and in his life, and then willingly performs the ultimate sacrifice: he gives his life for all the world, the Lamb of God taking away the world’s sin. 'I will sacrifice myself for your good' is the sentiment of God. And we, in our small moments of sacrifice, feel something of what God feels (freedom, release, exhilaration, purpose, meaning), if only for a few moments... We were made in God's image, and he willingly sacrificed himself for others. The more we come to know this God, and the more we understand our true nature, the more natural self sacrifice will become for us.


Thanks Greg. My last five years with the little girls (3-7 years old) in the Peru Community of Children has been all encompassing — wonderful and wild, exhilarating and exhausting, tender and tough, as well as hope-filled and heartbreaking. Yet there is something, or better yet, Someone I find in the middle of laughing, fussing, runny-nosed, excited, loving, bunch of special ones. Each year at the end of a very hard week, I wonder if I will go back next year. It is expensive, I always come home sick, I bump up against the reality that there are important things I can't fix for little ones I love... but before I get halfway home, I always hear the invitation of Jesus to come back and join him in the place called Sagrada Family — Sacred Family. Now that a church is planted among these children, the older ones are not just precious to me, they are my brothers and sisters in Jesus. Yes, I find Jesus in a place where the director told us, "This will be the best week in your life that you have caught lice." So far, all that has been caught is my heart! For more on the kids in Peru, I point you to "Compass Point" and "Why Go?" — follow the links in those articles or go to Sagrada Familia for lots of information. By the way, the top picture is my wife Donna in a transformational moment for a closed-off little girl under her left arm and the next picture is Boo Mama in a slum in Uganda. As blaring speakers called adherents to one of the world's largest mosques, while children swarmed this little church because they knew they were loved there.

* "Internets" is the word one of our Uganda Compassion International bloggers, Sophie, better known as Boo Mama, uses to talk about bloggers and other Internet traveling types.

** Here are the four Immanuel sayings in Matthew and their focus. This is part three of a five part series that also appears on the Interim Ministry Partners blog.

  • Matthew 1:23 — Know the real Jesus through His Story.
  • Matthew 18:20 — Live as Genuine Spiritual Family.
  • Matthew 25:40 — Invest in Others through Acts of Compassion.
  • Matthew 28:20 — Reach and Mentor others to live like Jesus.