Ryan Kuja, author of From the Inside Out: Reimagining Mission, Recreating the World, delves deeply into the “hero mentality” to unearth six unintended consequences of approaching ministry as, in his words, the “‘whole’ condescending to help the ‘broken.’” This is a great summation of how ministry can make someone else seem small while simultaneously making us feel big about ourselves.
We all can think of a time when we assumed the hero role in a community or ministry. It’s easy to spring to action and neglect to examine our attitudes and postures so that before we know it, our hearts have made delineations between “us” and “them.” We write a storyline that goes something like “I had to fly to Africa to help these poor people.” As Kuja puts it, we think “we have the right theology. We have the right answers. We have the expertise.” We cast ourselves as the problem-solver, the one who steps in to make a difference.
But what role does that leave for the people we serve? Are they just the helpless victim saved by our western intervention or is there more to the story?
Here are 6 harmful consequences of this “savior mentality” that Kuja warns against:
- It leads to approaches and methodologies rooted in patronizing charity rather than biblical justice.
- It prevents mission, aid, and development work from being dialogical and participatory; the so-called experts swoop in with their answers and expertise and fail to include the voices of local leaders, organizations, and stakeholders.
- It leads to paternalism: doing things to or for others rather than seeking to empower and build local capacity. It makes us into heroes rather than empowering others to become the heroes of their own stories.
- It robs agency from the economically poor and contributes to a shame-based identity and sense of helplessness.
- It leads to doing things in other contexts that we’d never even imagine doing in the U.S. or Europe. Imagine if twelve of us got on a plane and flew to Stockholm or Dublin and when we arrived, we found all the cutest little children — other people’s children — and we began picking them up and taking selfies and posting them on Facebook. Sounds strange, right?
- It perpetuates… the ubiquitous images of the poor seen in many fundraising campaigns, which objectify human beings for the sake of eliciting an emotional response in order to garner a donation. It labels them as powerless victims who can’t help themselves, implicitly naming God’s image bearers as inept, incapable objects who are passively awaiting rescue.”
As believers, we recognize a grave danger that these attitudes pose to ourselves. When we begin to see ourselves as the savior, we abandon the very gospel that motivated our service. It’s a poison that will infect our relationships with others and with God if left unattended. So, like all unconfessed sin, we repent of the ways we’ve played God and ask for greater humility to see how God is working and how he can use us as his instruments.
These are nuanced and often uncomfortable heart checks to do, but we find that the more often we examine motives and critically evaluate practices, the more we’re able to submit ourselves to Christ and persevere in doing good.
- Which of these harmful consequences have you witnessed or taken part in during your cross-cultural ministry experiences?
- How does your understanding of brokenness inform ministry characterized by the “‘whole’ condescending to help the ‘broken’”? Does defining poverty as spiritual, relational, and physical play a role?
- What is the next step in your own life to rid yourself of sinful attitudes and actively reject “savior” impulses?
- How is the gospel the solution to a hero complex?