Reflecting Christ: Empowering others

Two brief essays on putting others in control

Are we tempted to stay in charge and call the shots?

Are we doing missionary ministry in ways that reflect Christ?

"God's Way is not a matter of mere talk; it's an empowered life." -- 1 Corinthians 4:20, The Message

When Jesus gave His Great Commission, He wasn't simply assigning a task to people. He was empowering them. Indeed, the verb "to commission" carries some of the same nuances as the verb "to empower."

We must work to create a culture of empowerment. Empowerment means giving people authority and power. Jesus did not hesitate to do that. He did not try to keep followers on a "short leash." Though His earthly ministry lasted only three years, the Gospels mention instances of Jesus sending followers out on short-term preaching/healing/deliverance missions. More importantly, Jesus empowered others for the future when He would not be there. For example, the nightbefore His crucifixion, Jesus said to His closest disciples: "You will do greater things than this" (John 14:12). Because those words exuded trust and gave people permission to dream, the message was empowering.

Jesus certainly knew how fallible human beings could be. Even so, He expressed confidence in His followers. Why? Was it because empowerment tends to result in growth and maturation? Perhaps. Empowerment does open up new vistas for people. It turns people into decision-makers. It fosters the development of previously dormant leadership gifts. Empowered people gain confidence because someone believes in them.

Empowerment does not mean shoving people out the door and leaving them to flounder with no mentoring or accountability structures. Jesus debriefed those he sent out two-by-two. His Great Commission includes the words, "I will be with you."

The Apostle Paul followed Jesus' example of empowering leadership. As Paul made his missionary journeys, he appointed "elders" or leaders for the churches he planted. Then, he kept in touch with these churches, writing letters to them and visiting them. When a pastor/evangelist needed training, Paul turned to a couple from Rome, Aquila and Priscilla. Paul also empowered people like Titus and Timothy by making them "overseers" or superintendents of groups of churches.

Global missionaries dream about reaching lost people (or at least they should!) One potent way of turning such dreams into reality is to empower newly developing churches and their leaders. Among other things, empowering others multiplies the reach and effectiveness of evangelistic and discipleship ministries.

Once in a while, missionaries fall into the trap of staying in charge as they wait and wait for the perfect successor to emerge. Others think they have empowered people when all they have done is give out a checklist of tasks to complete. Jesus did not approach His earthly minister in either of these ways. Missionaries who follow Christ's model of leadership will empower people in the same way as Jesus did.

This mini-essay on Christlike attitudes and actions that need to be present in cross-cultural missionary service is one of a dozen articles in the "Missionary ministry that reflects Christ" series published in Engage magazine.

Doing missions well: Missionaries in the past who shaped today's global outreach efforts

10. Steve Saint and the Waodani people -- an example of empowerment

We often focus on what missionaries "give" people: the gospel, Bible teaching, clean water, health care, disaster relief, and many other things. In reality, good missionary ministry should move beyond giving things to empowering people, strengthening them, and giving them confidence in 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 on a sandbar along a river in an Ecuadorian jungle.

When Steve's aunt 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." What caused the dysfunction? Besides non-Christian outsiders encroaching on their lives, the Waodani's self-reliance had been eroded by "all of the benevolence they received 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 projects, health care, and training conferences.

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

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

Steve encouraged the Waodani to decide for themselves whether they would remain in the rain forest 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 that would fit in a backpack for jungle use.

Steve Saint has had success facilitating the Waodani's return to dignity and self-sufficiency. He must be very proud that the Waodani themselves now evangelize other tribal settlements in the Amazon basin.

Like Steve Saint, good missionaries empower people.

Discussion questions

  1. What does empowering others in missionary work mean, and why is it important?
  2. How did Jesus empower his followers, and what lessons can be learned from his example?
  3. What is the difference between paternalistic missionary work and empowering missionary work? What would be some reasons for trying to avoid the former?
  4. How did Steve Saint empower the Waodani people in Ecuador? What are some lessons that can be learned from his example?
  5. In what ways can empowering newly developing churches and their leaders multiply the reach and effectiveness of evangelistic and discipleship ministries?

    -- Howard Culbertson

Note: Steve Saint has authored a missions study package titled The Missions Dilemma in which he examines the current model of North American missions and compares it to the Biblical approach that Christ modeled for us.

"I have strength for all things in Christ who empowers me." -- Philippians 4:13, The Amplified Bible, Classic Edition


In the context of cross-cultural church planting movements, empowerment refers to the process of enabling local believers and communities to take ownership of planting and growing churches within their own cultural context. It involves equipping and allowing indigenous leaders to lead and sustain vibrant Christian communities within their own communities and contexts.

An environment in which empowerment is the goal will be characterized by leadership development, cultural relevance, outreach and evangelism efforts, holistic ministry, a culture of multiplication and reproducction, and receptivity towards partnership and collaboration.

More mini-essays in the "Doing missions well" series

Can elephants and mice dance together?

animated drawing of an elephant
dancing on back legs

Do you know what you may be leaving behind on the field when you go on a brief mission trip? Do you know how your hosts in other countries may sometimes feel about you and your visit?

Consider the lesson in this fable about a dancing elephant.

When elephants dance: Thoughts on short-term mission trips

A story illustrating the problems which arise when over-exuberant, lets-get-it-done Americans interact with Christians of other cultures

by Miriam Adeney

"Would you like to know what it is like to do mission with Americans? Let me tell you a story," said David Coulibaly, a church leader from Mali, West Africa.

Elephant and Mouse were best friends. One day Elephant said, "Mouse, let's have a party!"

Animals gathered from far and near. They ate, and drank, and sang, and danced. And nobody celebrated more exuberantly than the Elephant.

After it was over, Elephant exclaimed, "Mouse, did you ever go to a better party? What a blast!"

But Mouse didn't answer.

"Where are you?" Elephant called. Then he shrank back in horror. There at his feet lay the mouse, his body ground into the dirt -- smashed by the exuberance of his friend, the Elephant.

"Sometimes that is what it is like to do mission with you Americans," the African storyteller concluded. "It is like dancing with an elephant."

From the Mobilizer

-- Howard Culbertson,

More Ways Missionaries Can Reflect Christ

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