A Review of
Subversive Mission: Serving as Outsiders in a World of Need
Reviewed by Stephen R. Clark
I own a bunch of Bibles. They’ve accumulated over decades as new translations and paraphrases appeared. After growing up on the King James, which was too often nearly inscrutable, reading familiar passages in the new versions was almost mind-blowing. One of the first non-KJV translations I got my hands on was the New English Bible. It was transformative to be able to better understand chapter after chapter. It felt a little sacrilegious losing the thees and thous, but I was hooked. The result was a shift in how I viewed and lived out scripture. Every new translation brought countless “Aha!” moments as clearer meaning leapt from the pages. It was like seeing a favorite familiar landscape for the first time all over again.
Reading Subversive Mission has had a similar effect on my view of mission. As a kid in our little church in Indiana, my first exposure to mission work was through missionary slideshows: images of white people surrounded by the adoring brown-skinned people whom they’d come to help. These images would align well with what Craig Greenfield refers to as the “white savior” approach to mission. Greenfield’s work in Subversive Mission exemplifies an alternate, more helpful model for mission that is less driven by ego. He puts it like this,
“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.”
Over and over, with example after example, Greenfield exposes these kinds of issues and shows alternate and better approaches. He shows how he has learned to pull back as the “insider” and put the focus on Christ and the work of the Kingdom while supporting the locals as an “outsider.” He reminds himself, “that laying down our lives doesn’t usually happen in a blaze of glory, but in tiny moments as we face myriad choices every day — tiny moments of faithfulness and sacrifice.”
In our own countries, cultures, and contexts, we are the insiders. When we go to a another context, we become outsiders. How we operate must change to be effective rather than offensive. Think of it like this; when you get a new boss at work, who do you appreciate more? The one who comes in clueless about the company culture, guns blazing, imposing their ideas and methods right from the get-go, who demands immediate loyalty and controls all the purse strings? Or, the person who comes in quietly, listens, observes, gets to know you and your colleagues, develops a clear understanding of what’s happening, and then begins to suggest improvements and changes, sharing their authority?
When serving in a foreign mission environment — one you likely will eventually walk away from — it’s important to put decisions into the cultural context and weigh them appropriately, ensuring one’s ego is always set aside and that the focus is placed on those who live in-country and are the true insiders who need support.
The book is an interesting read. It’s a layering of a testimony of overcoming cancer, a process for discovering one’s calling, a journey into mission work, a story of how to and how not to apply the process, also mixed in with a brief history of the Vietnam conflict and a primer on Southeast Asian culture. All of this is peppered with political and philosophical worldview observations, which may be a put-off for some people.
The thrust of the book involves re-envisioning the five roles described in Ephesians 4 of apostle, prophet, evangelist, shepherd, and teacher (often referred to by the unfortunate acronym APEST). Greenfield recasts these as catalyst, ally, seeker, midwife, and guide. He further clarifies that the original titles apply to people who are inside (or part of a given culture) while the new titles apply to those who are outside (not part of the culture). Generally, insiders tend to be more directive and take charge, while outsiders are called to be more subtle and supportive. In short, insiders control while outsiders come alongside.
Here are brief definitions of each of the categories that Greenfield names:
Catalysts (aka apostles) “are wired as entrepreneurs for the kingdom, not just the church…. [they] refuse to build their own empires but seek to help spark something new in partnership with those insider apostles who will lead the movement going forward.”
Allies (aka prophets) “care deeply about justice and mercy and are bold enough to speak truth to power in situations of injustice.”
Seekers (aka evangelists) “search for redemptive analogies and cultural touchpoints as a way of bridging the universal truth of the gospel with local understanding. They are enthusiasts for contextualization, storytelling, and creativity.”
Midwives (aka pastors) “are pastorally gifted leaders who nurture and protect the people of God, helping insider pastors/shepherds birth and care for communities of faith.”
Guides (aka teachers) “are gifted teachers who not only understand and explain truth but guide local people to discover the truth for themselves…. Rather than offering prepackaged answers, guides creatively help people work together to discover solutions for themselves.”
As with the Ephesians 4 roles, there can be overlap. Traits can be shared. And, depending upon circumstances, one type can come to the forefront as the others take a step back. These are not absolute categories, and each of the types can be ours to varying degrees. There is fluidity and flexibility within these roles. As Greenfield explains, “Each of us will find ourselves inhabiting different missional types at different times and in different situations.”
Hopefully, reading this book will spark the process of seeing mission work in a new light. Kind of like when you read the Bible in a brand new translation and the old suddenly becomes new again.
Stephen R. Clark
Stephen R. Clark is a writer who lives in Lansdale, PA with his wife, BethAnn, and their two rescue cats, Watson and Sherlock. His website is www.StephenRClark.com. He is a member of the Evangelical Press Association and a regular contributor to the Christian Freelance Writers Network blog (https://christianfreelancewritersnetwork.wordpress.com/). He also walked on fire. Once.