How to Serve Abroad Without a Savior Complex (an interview with Craig Greenfield)

by Rebecca Hopkins

Are you cautious about being a “white savior” but still feel called to be involved in mission work in other cultures? Craig Greenfield’s newest book, Subversive Mission: Serving as Outsiders in a World of Need offers five categories—catalyst, ally, seeker, midwife, and guide—for the outsider who wants to be sensitive to pitfalls such as power, money, and complicity that can trip up the most well-intentioned global worker. I recently sat down with Craig to talk about his new book. Before we get to that interview, here’s a bit more about Craig, for those of you who are unfamiliar with his work:

Craig Greenfield is the founder and director of Alongsiders International, a fast-growing movement mobilizing and equipping thousands of young Christians in 25 countries to walk alongside those who walk alone – vulnerable children in their own communities. Craig is the author of The Urban Halo (now available free on Craig’s website), Subversive Jesus, and Subversive Mission: serving as outsiders in a world of need. You can take a Missional Types test at www.craiggreenfield.com/missionaltypes to find out your unique gifting for cross-cultural ministry.

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I really enjoyed your book. I felt like this was the book I was missing a few years ago when I was really wrestling with this very issue. There was so much discussion about what wasn’t working in missions. And then there was this whole other conversation of, “Oh, nothing’s wrong.” But your book bridges that gap for people who see that some things aren’t working but who still want to be engaged and who wonder if there’s a different way to do things.

With the generation coming up, there’s a lot of paralysis. Many people still have a sense of being “called” and wanting to be connected with the wider world, but “missions” is tough for people to see themselves in.

Why is it important to continue to engage with the world?

Whether they’re across the street or across the oceans, Christians are called to love their neighbors, serve them, point them towards Jesus. A lot has changed, but that hasn’t changed. So how do we do that? That’s the question. In the past, we’ve sometimes done that in ways that were not so healthy or not so helpful. We need to try to do better and find ways that will be more healthy and helpful.

What problems were you solving with this book?

I wrote this book for two quite distinct audiences. I wrote it for those who perhaps are interested in engaging in mission but have not reflected deeply on some of the pitfalls, blind spots, or dangers of going cross-culturally. Often that’s not any fault of their own. There are just not that many books that go very deep into examining some of the systemic issues or that reflect on our own complicity in that history or even consider the idea that we are part of groups that have been part of colonialism. So I felt like we needed a book that would offer some hopefully healthy critique of how missions has been conducted.

But the flip side of that is that the general conversation in society has been, “missions is colonialism,” and there’s some truth to that. But that can lead to paralysis for people who have a passion or interest in issues of justice. So those people who have a sense of, “God is calling me to love people from another nation or serve or move,” they don’t see any way forward because missions carries so much heavy baggage. So then those people, on the flip side, need to see a way that they could serve and recognize some of the things that we want to leave behind, but offer them a pathway forward.

What do we lose if we just continue with the old patterns? Why have this kind of upheaval? It can feel destabilizing.

I think we would see the death of missions, certainly from the west. I wrote this book absolutely immersed in Asia and Africa during COVID and then came back to New Zealand. Going around talking about missions, it’s clear that there’s a massive downturn. One of my friends, Jay Matenga, who’s the head of missions at World Evangelical Alliance, said that for missions agencies, you can think of the analogy of an airplane. Some of them are massive jumbo jets, so they’re huge. And their trajectory is kind of up here. But it will go down. They’ve got further to go down but they’re now turning downwards. The small little missions, they’re already almost hitting the ground.

I was speaking at a missions course yesterday at a Bible college, and it was a compulsory course. But none of those people, as far as I knew, not one of them, was preparing to be a missionary. They were all preparing for other things in ministry. We are in a massive turning point. Unless we recognize the baggage of the past, deal with it, repent of it, and engage with new wineskins, that’s the end of that as far as I can see.

Do you call yourself a missionary at this point?

I don’t. Honestly I think the word has had its day. It carries way too much baggage. I consider myself a social entrepreneur because I identify with being a catalyst. The calling on my life is to help initiate things that will benefit the poor and the marginalized.

Interesting. Maybe “missionary” has always felt like too big of a term. You can be a doctor. You can be a teacher. You can be an evangelist. You can be a lot of different things without calling yourself a missionary. But the categories in your book (catalyst, ally, seeker, midwife, and guide) can really help people see themselves in the bigger picture.

Two nights ago I was on a Zoom call with 250 tech startup founders. All of them are young and gifted, and their startups are out to change the world. They want to create some ecological alternative to this or empower that group of people. So, these are 20- and 30- and maybe some 40-somethings who want to change the world, who will go through the exact same mistakes that we are pointing out that missionaries have gone through. They will also do it in quite a colonial and ignorant way, no doubt in my mind. But that’s where the energy is.

Something that I probably wasn’t very explicit about in the book is that the generations that are coming, from millennial and Gen Z, and Gen X to an extent, each generation has this major biblical theme that they are tasked with recapturing or are passionate about or energized by. I would say that these last couple of generations are energized by issues of justice. Once they examine missions through the lens of justice, they immediately see all the ways that missions has been yoked together with colonialism – or the empire, which is the biblical theme. They’re easily going to focus on the injustices even though there are many great things that were done historically. I said in my book that my grandfather and grandmother were missionaries who did good things. But they also did it in quite a colonial way. So, we need to learn from that and move on.

So what do we gain by using your new paradigm, your new way of seeing things?

Hopefully, we gain a framework in which people can see themselves that doesn’t hold the same issues of money and power, which are the twin pillars of colonialism or empire. Intuitively, people of these generations know that there are major issues around money and power, so they’re looking for ways to serve that deliberately strip those things away from the relationships we cultivate. So hopefully, it’s a framework for moving forward into cross-cultural service and ministry.

What do we lose if we disengage with other cultures?

We lose perspective, and if there’s anything the western church needs desperately needs right now, it’s perspective. I have just been so discouraged in many ways by what I see as I’m going around speaking in churches. We’re just looking at ourselves. It’s just a very therapeutic kind of faith. “God bring me what I need.” “You’re on my side.” “You will make a way for me.” And none of, “Lord, you love those who are downtrodden.” Or, “How can we walk in your footsteps?”

Anything else that you feel like you want people to know as they consider reading your book?

Hopefully people will also see it as helpful for domestic cross-cultural situations where we want to serve in places where we are not necessarily insiders. One of the things that they were saying yesterday in the missions course that I was teaching was that we could apply this even in our churches because people are looking for a more humble approach to service and leadership.

Very well said.

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Rebecca Hopkins (www.rebeccahopkins.org) is an Army brat, a former cross-cultural worker in Indonesia, and a freelance writer now based in Colorado. She covers missions, MKs, and spiritual abuse for publications like Christianity Today and The Roys Report. Trained as a journalist and shaped by the rich diversity of Indonesia, she loves dialogue, understanding, and truths that last past her latest address.

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A Life Overseas is a collective blog centered around the realities, ethics, spiritual struggles, and strategies of living overseas. Elizabeth Trotter is the editor-in-chief.

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