Voluntourism and the Church

tourists-1161062-mThe “little white lie” in church PR may just be the contrast between how we view the import of our mission trips and the actual impact they might have on the mission field. The word “voluntourism” has been used to describe the market that surrounds the frivolous mission trips that do little to serve the mission field.

An article recently began circulating the internet, written by a “white girl” who lamented over some of the international aid work she had done in the the past. Her main conclusion was that workers may be more productive staying home and sending the money to a local worker or missionary who can make a more substantive impact in the area. Or, she says, the people going to a place should have necessary trade skills to be effective.

She was absolutely right about her experiences and their group’s complete ineptitude. It doesn’t help anyone to just drop off kids in some far away destination for busywork. But how can these trips be done faithfully?

I organized, oversaw and executed mission trips to Philadelphia as a missionary to that city. We have seen many groups from around the US travel to work with me in Philadelphia, doing some necessary work. Now, having accepted a call to the international mission field, I will be serving as a missionary in Lima, Peru. Surely, mission trips will be involved in that work as well. So I would like to offer some of my perspective on the original article.

First, it’s helpful to define the terms. The “mission” of the church is the preaching of the Gospel and the administration of the Sacraments. While mission trips themselves aren’t the “mission” per se, they support the mission through their work. It’s absolutely imperative that a trip from its beginning should be seen as a supportive task of the mission, not an end in itself. I think that “mercy trips” are a better phrase for these supportive trips but, nonetheless, “mission trip” is part of our nomenclature that is likely here to stay. We could retain the phrase’s use, provided that we understand the mission trip work as supporting the proper mission of the church, that is, the proclamation of the Gospel.

So the language we use for these trips isn’t all that precise, and could affect the way we view the two weeks in Guatemala. It’s OK if you’re not the missionary in Guatemala, but someone is. And that someone could surely use your help in supporting the work he is doing there to bring Christ to people. These workers are there to stay, invested in the church in that place. The mission trip helps continue that work and gives permanency to the aid we give others that is to be connected to our altars and pulpits.

And as mentioned in the article, there is the “white savior” complex we sometimes have when approaching developing areas or countries. This can be detrimental to the area, causing more harm than good. There’s no point going to a place where we don’t have a church with someone to keep the work going, unless the trip is purely humanitarian in nature. But as a supportive trip to help the mission of the church, we need altars and pulpits where the care is being provided.

It might have been great to drop off rice to a village in Africa, but a drop-off Christianity doesn’t help anyone. I’ve heard of mission trips that provided free eyeglasses, only to harm the local guy who would sell those same eyeglasses to feed his family. A savior mentality has a hard time considering the larger, long-term ramifications of a trip to a developing area. Seeing mission trips as supportive instead of an end in themselves could help, but not totally eliminate, some of these issues of short-sightedness.

Second, mission trips should do necessary tasks that would not likely get done if the visiting group wasn’t there. Kids coming from Nebraska to the inner city to paint a wall and play with kids might not be necessary. But at the same time it’s important to never discount the value of other Lutherans being present in a new Lutheran church. At the church I had planted in Philadelphia, the members were new to Lutheranism and many were actually new to Christianity in general. It was incredibly valuable for our people to meet Lutherans from around the country, to know that they were not alone. A trip to my church may have painted a wall and played with kids, but it was certainly necessary work.

For example, we purchased some houses in Philadelphia to serve as a traditional home for at-risk men and women. But these homes needed a lot of work. One of our trips to get the houses ready was 41 people from a small town church in Missouri. They did a ton of necessary work very quickly and did it very well. None were from a particular trade that I remember, but they were able to accomplish many things that would not have otherwise been completed. Having that many hands was crucial, and it was great for our catechumens to meet Lutherans from some other city. It was very encouraging to them and to me. Their presence brought many benefits that were in support of the mission of the church in that city.

Third, it’s OK for a trip to not be all about the mission destination. When I organized trips, I didn’t only want to be on the receiving end of the help. I saw the time the mission trip was in town as a time to teach about city work to the group. I worked primarily with the homeless, and many of our church kids haven’t spent much (if any) time with someone who is homeless. This then opened the eyes of the group to issues that are in their own backyard. I feel a mission trip should make an impact not only on the mission field, but also at the congregation where the trip came from.

In some cases, it would be helpful to recruit skilled people for trips in addition to the extra hands to do menial work. Maybe it wouldn’t be helpful to have the trip there, and the money would go a long way to providing a pastor for the people in a particular mission field. The thousands of dollars otherwise spent on travel could fund a missionary for months. This, I believe, should be considered by every mission trip. The congregation sending the group should ask themselves if their money is better served in providing for a missionary, or, as the article states, if it could be used by local people for local work.

The article that served as a touching point for my thoughts on these trips should give us caution when considering a trip overseas or domestically to serve the church. We should ask, is the trip supporting the local ministry in that place? Is the work necessary and useful in the supportive task? And, we should also consider, what will the trip bring back with them to their congregation? Unskilled people can visit a mission field and fulfill all three of these questions in a faithful and supportive way.

What is the best way to answer the questions I have offered above? Ask the missionary the trip is looking to support. Carefully evaluate the impact your gifts can have. If the trip can be done faithfully and in support of the church, then go. It’s worth the time and expense to everyone.

As a parting thought related to this topic, mercy to our neighbor begins at home. It is possible that your own (literal) neighbors could use your time. Ask your pastor what things around the church and community need your attention. Mission trips may be more interesting, but we should always remember that the necessary things are not always the ones that make for the best stories later in life.

Your dollar may have a huge impact around the world. Click HERE to find a missionary to support.
Want to take a trip that supports Lutheran mission efforts? Contact HERE.
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About Pastor Joshua Gale

Pastor Joshua Gale was born in Danville, IL, and later studied at Illinois State University, graduating with a degree in Philosophy in 2007. He then began his studies toward ordination into the Office of the Holy Ministry at Concordia Theological Seminary in Fort Wayne, IN. Pastor Gale served a summer vicarage at a rural church plant in Hartford City, IN, and later a vicarage in Gary, IN, as an urban missionary to the city. Upon graduation from the seminary, Pastor Gale served as a missionary pastor with Philadelphia Lutheran Ministries, developing urban mission plans for mercy work and church planting in Philadelphia. In 2013, he accepted the call to serve in Lima, Peru, as a mission developer and church planter, focusing on the neighborhood of La Victoria through the recently opened Castillo Fuerte Mercy Center. He and his wife Amanda have two children, Zechariah and Katharina. View his blog here.


Voluntourism and the Church — 9 Comments

  1. I tend to agree with the idea of referring to it as a “mercy trip,” as you are correct that most mission trips really aren’t directly “missionary” trips at all in the sense that those who go are preaching the gospel. And there’s nothing wrong with that: building a new church or renovating homes for Christians in poorer places is a wonderful work. But that’s not the same as missionary work, and that distinction should be made loud and clear. Otherwise, it’s a step in the direction of a social gospel, which in truth is no gospel at all.

    On that same note, it’s important to remember that a mercy trip (boy I like the sound of that!) isn’t necessarily more or less spiritual than a mission trip. We are members of the body of Christ with different functions; therefore, not everybody is called to preach or evangelize in the manner of a pastor or missionary. But at the same time, those who have carpentry skills or plumbing skills and employ them in different places for the assistance of those who do preach and evangelize are fulfilling their vocation and doing their part for the kingdom, even if that part is not directly preaching the gospel. As Paul says in I Corinthians: if the whole body was an eye, where would be the hearing? Some of us preach; others of us make sure that those who preach can do so without worrying about other matters.

    My wife went on a mercy trip in Russia during which a couple of the people really didn’t do much other than go shopping and get manicures while the rest of the group worked on fixing up some rundown homes. Now, I have no problem with a little bit of tourism, as one should not muzzle the ox while it treads the corn. But when that’s all the trip is, then it should be properly referred to as a vacation. And if one wishes to go on a vacation, more power to you. But that’s neither mission-minded nor mercy-minded.

    But back on your point, Pastor Gale, I would encourage you to start using the term “mercy trip” for trips designated as such. It’s very helpful in cultivating an understanding that there is a difference between preaching and employing a vocation to help those who preach.

  2. Another benefit of such mercy trips is the converse of something mentioned under the second point. Those who have sat with others and walked (however briefly) with them return home to become a voice for these (foreign) missionaries in encouraging further and broader support. I have visited a partner church body on “mission” trips three times. The first two were fact-finding delegations, the third we helped build a storage facility and conduct a VBS program. VBS was a new concept to them, so they wanted help from those who had done it before to see how it worked in the US. Since then, those who have gone on those trips have helped acquire grand and coordinate the translation of Sunday school materials and VBS materials for use in the churches of that partner denomination. None of that would have happened had we not “wasted” our money and time on these trips.

  3. Sending laymen out for two weeks may be the Lutheran Doctrine of Vacation (not Vocation), but it sure isn’t Mission Work.

  4. @Tim S. #4
    You’re right; it’s not, and the idea of labeling them as mercy trips because they usually specialize in acts of mercy (building homes, distributing food, etc) is a very good idea.

    And if they don’t do anything but sightsee, then it’s neither mission nor mercy work. It’s (as you said) a doctrine of Vacation.

  5. Great points.

    But, (always a but) I don’t know, I reckon sometimes the missionary would just like to have a visit from someone who is part of his back home culture and who can chat about the everyday things that he used to be involved in back home. Sort of sit back and chill so that the missionary too can recharge his batteries.

  6. One of the problems that I have always had with said “lay mission trips” is the fanfare the congregation, led by the pastor, gives to sending and then receiving the participants back into the fold. My experience has been that during the Divine service the laypeople are “consecrated” for service. Upon their return, an hour or more is spent with personal public testimonies about their service. Then comes the big articles in the local newspaper. (My former congregation loved to flaunt their good deeds to our small town. It may have been the one referred to in this article!) Does this not send a RC message of vocation? Is churchly work more important than changing a baby’s diaper? Not according to Luther. Also, does this confuse the Office of the Ministry even further? Do those participating truly understand their vocation, or does pride creep in because they are now doing “the Lord’s work?” Could this have been part of the slippery slope that led to lay ministers? Properly carried out, skills in certain vocations can certainly be helpful to Pastors in the mission fields. Thank you, Pastor Gale, for a great article.

  7. Need to chime in here. The author is heading to Peru, My congregation is a partner with them. We have had 3 mission (yes, mission!) trips there; English camp, and 2 VBS’s, each a different location. The clear message of Law-Gospel were shared. I do not believe anyone there would say “it’s mercy work. Don’t use the word ‘mission.'”
    I believe we spend too much time splitting the nomenclature hair in the name of orthodoxy. Mission, Mercy – two sides of the same coin.
    Jesus calls us to preserve and enlighten this world (Matt 5). This is mission. This is mercy. It is a both/and.

  8. @Bob Pase #8
    I understand what you are saying, but the “splitting the nomenclature hair” is important; there is a difference between preaching the gospel and doing works of mercy. And I certainly agree that you can do both at the same time (and praise God that such things happen!).

    All I’m saying is that, when you go build something or hand out food, as great as that is, that’s not the same as preaching the gospel. Any secular relief organization can do things like that. That’s mercy, and it’s certainly good. And if you’re doing that while at the same time preaching the gospel, then you’re killing two birds with one stone so to speak, which is wonderful. But if you go in and do relief work with little or no mention of Christ crucified (and this happens in evangelical churches more often than some may think), that’s not a mission trip.

    In 1993, I went on a true mission trip to Mexico City with the Assemblies of God youth, and what we did was truly “mission work.” There were no repairs, no food handouts, no building projects or anything like that; our time there was meant to preach the gospel in the streets and convey it through various media. Granted, the unfortunate corruptions of Pentecostalism, revivalism, and decision theology pervaded a good portion of the proclamation (which even I as a foolish youth was swept up in, which saddens me to this day), but even then the gospel still came forth at times and called people to faith. It was a true mission trip, without any mercy work. And that’s not to put down mercy trips–not at all. They have their place as well. I’m just saying don’t confuse preaching the gospel (missions) with serving our neighbors (mercy)

    And let me state for the record that I’m a little jealous about going to Peru 😀 As a Spanish teacher I’d love to do another trip (mission or mercy or both).

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