Servanthood or Superiority?

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

These words come from Duane Elmer, when he interviewed countless people on the field, asking them about the experiences they’ve had with missionaries.

The longer I am in missions, the more I gain a sensitivity to this 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.

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

[amazon_image id=”B001IDYHH0″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Cross-Cultural Servanthood: Serving the World in Christlike Humility[/amazon_image]

I am re-reading Duane Elmer’s Cross-Cultural Servanthood: Serving the World in Christlike Humility . It is hands down the best missionary leadership book I have ever read.

Elmer 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.

He 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”


Coming from the United States these days can be strike against you as a foreign worker. It was not always this way, but poor foreign policy has made it such.

It does not help our servanthood, when the American culture tells us we are most powerful, most technically advanced, the richest, the best educated, and the leader of the free world. Politically, this has been called the Doctrine of American Exceptionalism. Many Christians even think this is something God has done for America.

The Bible calls this pride.

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?


This is hard. I may upset some of you.

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

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.

What have you learned from those you serve recently?

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