Doing mission well: Empowerment

Howard Culbertson
Monday, August 4, 2014

ImageWe often focus on what missionaries “give” people: the gospel, Bible teaching, clean water, health care, disaster relief and many other things.  Actually, good missionary ministry goes beyond giving to empowering people, strengthening them and giving them confidence in terms of exercising their rights and controlling their life’s direction.

Steve Saint is an example of the ways good missionaries empower believers of other cultures.  Steve was five when Waodani warriors killed his missionary pilot father and four other missionaries in an Ecuadorian jungle.

When Steve’s aunts Rachel and Elisabeth Elliot moved into a Waodani village to evangelize, Steve began spending his summers with them, living among the very people who had killed his father.

Steve fell in love with the Waodani. When he was 14, Steve was baptized by Waodani church leaders not far from where his father had been killed by them nine years earlier.  Today, Steve Saint uses the endearing term “grandfather” for Mincaye, the man whose spear took his father’s life.

After Steve’s Aunt Rachel died, the Waodani asked Steve to come back to Ecuador to live among them.  He agreed, and in his book The Great Omission: Fulfilling Christ’s Commission Completely, Steve says that what he saw on his return to the Amazon jungle disappointed him.

Steve said he was “dismayed” to find the Waodani church “less functional than it had been when I lived with them during school vacations.”  The cause of the dysfunction?  Well, besides non-Christian outsiders encroaching on their lives, the Waodani’s self-reliance had been eroded by “all of the benevolence they were receiving from Christian missions and relief organizations.”

Well-meaning but sadly misguided American believers had reduced the Waodani to waiting for handouts from outsiders.  When the Waodani churches began, they were almost completely self-sustaining.  On Steve’s return, he found them waiting around for “stuff” from the foreigners: material goods, church building repair as well as construction, health care, and training conferences.

Determined to see the outsider/Waodani relationships move from domination to empowerment, Steve worked to empower them to take back control of their lives, make decisions on their own and consider themselves equal with outsiders. 

The journey was not always easy.  Habits and mindsets can be hard to change.  Plus, Steve had to deal with well-intentioned Americans eager to do things for the Waodani whom they saw as backward and deprived.

Steve encouraged the Waodani to make their own decisions about whether they would remain in the rainforest and how much of other cultures they would incorporate into their own.  He suggested they explore the use of appropriate technology and he even helped invent a dental office in a backpack for jungle use.

Steve Saint has had success facilitating the Waodani’s return to dignity and self-sufficiency.  One thing he must be very proud of is that the Waodani themselves now evangelize other tribal settlements in the Amazon basin.

Like Steve Saint, good missionaries empower people.