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.
Career missionaries are certainly in demand. Click HERE for information.

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