Didn’t Jesus call us to go out into all the world to make disciples and build his upside-down kingdom? Didn’t God call us to bring good news to the poor, freedom for those in captivity, and comfort to those who mourn?
In Ephesians 4:11-13, Paul describes five different types of giftedness for serving God in the world and the church: apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds (pastors), and teachers. I believe that these five types continue to provide a promising framework for how we can serve the world even in our postcolonial era, but we need to examine them through different eyes. We can’t simply transplant them into cross-cultural situations that have deeply embedded power dynamics, or we run the risk of disempowering local people.
For example, perhaps you are a gifted pastor or church planter in Portland. Does this mean you should be a pastor or church planter in Bangalore, India? After all, you will eventually return home, and your foreign ways will be hard to replicate by local people with fewer resources. Perhaps a more effective role would be to come alongside local Indian Christians as a midwife, supporting them as they lead and give birth to what God has already planted in their hearts. During the journey to India, the gifted pastor needs to become a midwife.
Or you may be an apostolically gifted entrepreneur in San Francisco. Does this mean you should initiate new projects among African Americans in inner-city Detroit? Perhaps a wiser approach would be to serve as a catalyst, helping local leaders create new initiatives that reflect their own understanding of their local needs so they will have ownership of them going forward. Sometime during the journey to Detroit, the gifted apostle needs to become a catalyst.
Or perhaps you are a prophetic social justice activist in Toronto. Does this qualify you to lead justice work in Nairobi, Kenya? Perhaps a more helpful role would be to come alongside local activists as an ally, amplifying the voices of those who will continue to live in the local context after the struggle. After all, you can leave at any time, escaping the consequences that local people face after a confrontation. Sometime during the journey to Kenya, the gifted prophet needs to be transformed into an ally.
Each of the five ministry gifts outlined in Ephesians 4— apostle, prophet, evangelist, pastor, and teacher—needs to be reframed for cross-cultural contexts, especially in places of poverty, or where there is a significant power differential. The five-fold ministry types become missional types. Otherwise, we run the risk of playing benevolent gods—taking power away from those who need to be inspired to look to Jesus, the one true Savior. In every context, we need to ask ourselves whether we are ministering as an insider or an outsider.
In the urban hubs of Asia, the slums of Haiti, the inner cities of North America, and the rural villages of Mexico, those of us who come as outsiders with access to resources tend to hold dramatically more power and money. We often wield that power in heavy-handed ways, knocking over the carefully arranged banquet set before us by our local friends. This lack of self-awareness leads to the sins of colonialism and the “white savior” label, no matter what color you are.
By rethinking these five roles from Ephesians with a cross-cultural perspective, we retain the original meanings, which were meant for insiders, but in ways that don’t leave us, as outsiders, hogging the limelight.
Craig Greenfield is the founder and director of Alongsiders International, a grassroots movement of young Christians reaching the world’s poorest children. Originally from New Zealand, he has lived and worked for more than two decades in marginalized communities in Asia and North America. He is the author of The Urban Halo, Subversive Jesus, and Subversive Mission.