The missions world is susceptible to the ‘saviour complex’

The ‘white saviour complex’ hit the headlines earlier this year when Stacey Dooley was in Uganda fundraising for Comic Relief. But is the theory true? Elim missionary Siân Davies explains more in the first of three articles.

During this last decade as an Elim missionary, I have had the privilege of witnessing first-hand some of the most sacrificial and often publicly untold acts of individuals involved in missions worldwide. Elim should be particularly proud of the work being carried out by its missionaries around the globe.

My desire to be involved in missions started in childhood after I heard stories about the missionaries serving in Uganda during the brutal reign of Idi Amin. My father had been working there as a missionary doctor with the Christian Mission Society and was the BBC correspondent when reporters could not enter the country. Mission work can be physically dangerous, isolating and under-reported to those at home, but this is not the only reason mission is a dangerous calling.

Recently the concept of the ‘saviour complex’, or more specifically the ‘white saviour complex’, hit the headlines. Stacey Dooley was accused of perpetuating ‘unhelpful stereotypes’ after she posted a picture of herself carrying a Ugandan child during her work with Comic Relief.

The white saviour complex refers to when a Westerner travels to a poorer nation holding an unquestioning belief that simply their presence, and some money, can save people from their struggles. They may have no understanding of the country’s history, the root cause of its issues, nor possess the relevant skills.

The Westerner is portrayed as the educator, and the receiver as impoverished without them. The giver overestimates their impact, whilst benefiting from an accolade of praise from the receiver, who may also believe in the Westerner’s supremacy.

As Christians, we have been instructed under the Great Commission to spread Christ’s teachings to all nations, alongside caring and defending society’s most vulnerable.

We understand the salience of testifying to what the Lord has done. There is, though, the conflicting need to report success to secure future funding for the mission. The missions world is susceptible to the saviour complex, and it has become one strategy used by the enemy to negate its impact.

Satan fell because of pride and his desire to divert worship away from God. What better way to undermine mission than to get those leading it to engage in aspects of self-glory, even if subtle. The consequences are devastatingly far-reaching. It is detrimental to the condition of our soul and Christian walk, alongside diverting glory to ourselves and away from God.

We generate problems, not solutions. If there is a focus on an individual or an organisation, we make the receiver and their community dependent on their relationship with us, encouraging poor boundaries and power imbalance.

If we carry out work without understanding its long-term impact, our decisions become emotion-driven, and kingdom funds are used inefficiently. If we unwittingly encourage poor boundaries and reinforce power imbalances, we leave beneficiaries vulnerable to abuse. Oxfam employees sexually exploiting Haiti earthquake victims is an example of how dangerously relevant this complex is to anyone doing missions.

In a further two articles I will detail some of the warning signs of the saviour complex, as well as practical steps we can take to safeguard against it.

Siân Davies - The Biojemmss Organisation

Siân Davies is the founder and CEO of The Biojemmss Organisation, as well as an Elim missionary. She has extensively researched the saviour complex.

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