The Most Important Question for a Missionary

by Chris Lautsbaugh on October 1, 2012

This may be the most important missionary message I have ever shared. It certainly is one I must apply the most frequently.

The longer I am in missions, the more I gain a sensitivity to a perceived sense of superiority. It is not intended, but it is the message we often communicate.

I hear it with new, zealous missionaries who are convinced they have something to offer the poor helpless souls of such and such nation.

If I am honest, I still hear it from my own mouth after twenty plus years.

CC on Flckr by by babasteve

Well meaning, willing to serve; of course
But dripping with an unintended superiority complex; yes

Duane Elmer, in his book Cross-Cultural Servanthood: Serving the World in Christlike Humility,  interviewed countless people on the field, asking them about the experiences they’ve had with missionaries. A common response was one which causes us to think.

“Missionaries could more effectively minister the gospel if they did not think they were superior to us”.

Elmer, in his book , raise the questions of attitudes. As missionaries, do we minister from a desire to serve or a sense of superiority.

He defines servanthood as “the conscious effort to choose one direction and one set of values over another.”

This is difficult in normal life, but when we cross cultural barriers, the choice becomes much more difficult; but perhaps even more essential.

Elmer goes on to state, “Many missionaries are like me: well intentioned, dedicated and wanting to serve, but also naive and in some denial about what it means to serve in another culture.”

Desire to serve is not enough, we must guard against ministering from a place of superiority.

Here are some beliefs or statements that may help us gauge how we are doing:

  • I need to correct their error (meaning I have superior knowledge, a corner on the truth).
  • My education has equipped me to know what is best for you (so let me do most of the talking while you do most of the listening and changing).
  • I am here to help you (so do as I say).
  • I can be your spiritual mentor (so I am your role model).
  • Let me disciple you, equip you, train you (often perceived as let me make you a clone of myself).

“Superiority cloaked in a desire to serve is still superiority”


The Bible calls this pride.

Jesus himself came to Earth as a suffering servant. “even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:28) Although superior, He did not cling to that, taking the form of a servant. (Philippians 2:7)

Whether you serve cross-culturally or domestically, we must ask ourselves if we are ministering from a sense of superiority.

Take a good, hard look. It might be painful, but your effectiveness will benefit from it.

When is the last time we learned something from the people we are serving?
What aspect of the foreign culture have you implemented into your life?
Can we receive from those we serve, or do we always have to be in the place of power as the giver?

– Chris Lautsbaugh, Missionary teacher and author with Youth With A Mission, living in S. Africa.
Blog:  NoSuperHeroes  Twitter: @lautsbaugh      Facebook:  NoSuperHeroes


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About Chris Lautsbaugh

In missions for 20+ years currently in South Africa as a teacher and leadership coach. He serves side by side with wife, Lindsey, and two boys, Garett and Thabo. Blogs at on grace, leadership, and missions. Wrote Death of the Modern SuperHero:How Grace Breaks our Rules.
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  • Fenny

    I am serving the undocumented in my own country (the Netherlands) – meeting people from many different cultures, which is interesting and challenging. My struggle is that I am always in the position of the one helping our visitors, so by default there is, what I would call, a authority-dependency relationship. I am the giver – they are the receiver, which makes the relationship out of balance.
    Having respect for the one I am helping and leaving every choice up to them is a vital part in how I (we) work and how we can prevent ourselves from being or feeling superior. Of course I sometimes feel and think I know what is best for them – that is the superior part. The antidote if you will, is I think, to empower people and give them the tools to make their own decisions knowing the consequences of those decisions and supporting them in whatever choice they make.

    It works best when we gather them in groups – like our ladies group – where relationships among themselves start and they become helpmates to one another. I’d love to be their friends, but have come to realize that is not possible because of the way the relationships are by default.
    Am I learning from them? Heck, yes!! This work has allowed me to grow as a person and to look at the hard questions – like why do I want to help? for my own good or theirs? Am I really helping them? How can I be of real help to them? Why do i get mad at some people i.e. if they get under my skin it is my problem and not theirs – and struggling to find the answers.
    I have also worked over ten years abroad as a missionary in a people group who by default looks up to foreigners and leaders. That irked me as I don’t want to be looked up to. But since I was pioneering a work that I envisioned, again I was the leader. In those years I have learnt a lot – including the struggle to deal with the feeling superior part that I did not like to identify in myself at all. Prideful much? 🙂
    How are others dealing with this? Being a leader/visionair/pioneer and not being superior? I understand there is a difference of course, but sometimes it seems to me there is a very fine line.
    sorry for rambling on…

    • Hi Fenny! How wonderful that you are serving such an important people group. I appreciate your honesty as you grapple with the ideas of superiority and inferiority.

    • Here are some thoughts that may or may not relate. I shared it with my friend a little while ago.

      “It is a convicting article, isn’t it? I’m guilty of all of those thoughts. But, although he addressed the question and the heart of the matter, I think he failed to point out the solution. People do need to be corrected when in error, new Christians do need to be disciples, etc. How exactly does one serve without superiority? I think it’s when we realize that we’re all equal as Christians, regardless of how long we’ve been saved. A baby Christian has just as much to offer as a mature Christian, just in different ways. Also, we’re all equal as people, whether saved or unsaved. Having the truth should not make us feel superior, only grateful, desiring to share it out of obedience and love. It’s a heart matter. And the only solution is changing your heart to be like the heart of Christ. Trying to follow His example of servanthood isn’t really going to work if you haven’t asked Him to give you the heart of a servant…”

      As for the “default” relationship with people, I sort of understand what you mean. It is difficult to get away from your “label” as a missionary, foreigner, etc. and just be a sister-in-Christ. But God has you in that place for a reason, and sometimes, you can’t help if people will put you on a pedestal. You can try to explain to them that you’re just as sinful and human as they are, but people will think what they think. I think the main thing is not to lose sight of the priority: your walk with God. When you’re a leader and have a lot of people telling you how great and spiritual you are, it’s easy to just “cruise.” But the fact is, every day, every one of us are fighting pride, frustration, confusion, and in general, the flesh. And when we keep in mind that we are sinful humans serving an almighty God, it’s easier to keep the superiority complex at bay.

      Being a young and new missionary on the field and working with established missionaries had helped keep me out of the “spotlight,” so to speak. It’s easy to be a learner. And I look like the people, physically, so that helps. But, in your case, I guess one way to try to break through the “hierarchy” is to intentionally put yourself in humble positions. Jesus cleaned the disciple’s feet. When the people see us cleaning the bathroom, changing diapers, bringing them a glass of water, etc., it helps change the idea of missionaries being suitable to only teach, while the members are suitable to only listen.

      Concerning the “authority-dependency relationship,” although it may start that way, I’m pretty sure that as you grow in your relationship, it won’t continue that way. They’ll learn to give back in their own unique way. Yes, there are some people who are there just to see what they can get out of a relationship, but for the most part, brotherly love has a way of balancing relationships between people of completely different backgrounds, personalities, etc. It’s a beautiful thing. 🙂

      In short, there is no “formula to a becoming a successful servant-leader.” But we do have an example in Christ. And we can be sure, in His sovereignty, he can clear the gray areas of thoughts and action. It’s a struggle, not knowing for sure what the right path is. But I do believe that as long as we walk in what we DO know, God will take care of the rest.

      Your sister in Christ,

      • Atalie, thank you for your thoughts and insights! You are right there is no formula, rather it is a journey. Thanks for inputing in the discussion

    • I think a lot of the key comes in our heart. Perhaps positionally we are superior, but the way we treat people can be one of walking together.

      Even with unbelievers. We are superior in doctrine, but this is no cause for pride. In fact, the more we understand the gift we have been given, we desire others to receive it as well.

      Great thoughts!

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