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Has the mission trip become a kind of tourism?

Has the mission trip become a kind of tourism?

Doug Banister wonders if the mission trip has become a kind of tourism for wealthy Christians who want to do good in exotic places.

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Some well-meaning Christians have a theology of mission that seeks to alleviate the spiritual and physical suffering of people far away, but pays little attention to needs here at home.

I know because I was one of them. I spent many years taking mission trips to Tulcea, Romania. We shared the gospel, cared for orphans, and started a medical clinic. It seemed that God moved in powerful ways. Then my friends Jon and Toni moved into one of Knoxville’s marginalized neighborhoods. Jon invited me to go on prayer walks with him on Wednesday mornings. I saw syringes on playgrounds, prostitutes turning tricks, hustlers selling drugs. Our walks led me to volunteer at the elementary school in Jon’s neighborhood. I’d assumed all the schools in our city were pretty much the same. They aren’t. Kids with B averages in Jon’s school score in the 30th percentile on standardized tests. Kids with B averages in my neighborhood score in the 90th percentile….

…I don’t think I’m alone. Martin Luther King Jr. once preached, “All of life is interrelated. . . . We are inevitably our brother’s keeper because we are our brother’s brother. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.” Most Christians I know believe this in a global sense. We feel a God-given burden for the starving child in Haiti. Yet we sometimes lack a similar burden for the Martins back home.

A good example of this imbalanced approach to mission is the exploding popularity of short-term missions. In his book When Helping Hurts, Brian Fikkert observes that short-term missions have become a $1.6 billion annual enterprise in America. Every year, thousands of Christians in our city take short-term trips that cost anywhere from $1,000 to $3,000 per person.

I believe in missions. I also believe in short-term mission trips. Yet the longer I work in the resource-poor inner city, the more frustrated I become with the amount of money God’s

people spend on these brief trips. We seem so eager to spend thousands of dollars sending our people overseas for one week without stopping to ask, “Would some of this money be better invested in my own community?”


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it's margaret

The Diocese of South Dakota cut off mission trips to the Reservation churches from other Episcopal Dioceses for quite a while because of spiritual and cultural tourism. This summer, I have experienced a great deal of religious imperialism by groups that come to the Reservation where I live and work –not from Episcopal groups, but from folks bringing pamphlets with them and wishing to speak about Jesus at every turn –and when I’m asked to speak to a group, some in the group ask if there are any real Christians here. (seriously.)

I serve 10 active congregations in an area the size of Connecticut. Only two of those congregations have both water and power/heat. I live in a county which is consistently one of the top three poorest counties in our whole nation. We rely upon good-hearted people who come and fix and repair and scrape and paint or purchase heating fuel for us. One of the churches has only wood heat. We rely upon the national church structures to pay for a priest to be here.

There is a lot of good done in mission. If not done thoughtfully, there can also be a lot of damage.

Mary is right –building relationships is the most important business of any mission. Not to change others, but come to be changed.

Mario Ribas

I am an Episcopalian/Anglican priest in a rural area of the State of São Paulo, Brazil, and for my own experience, I see that short-term mission trips can be an added blessing for the locals as well for the visitors. In our parish we receive a group of 6 people from Pennsylvania plus one from Cambridge-MA. We didn´t actually overwhelmed them with programs, activities. My intention was that they could ‘just be’ in terms of talking to people, experiencing our way of life, the church life… and it brought new energy and interest of our young people in the church. Some of these local youths also ended up going on a mission trip to Pennsylvania. Short-term mission trips I see as something ‘to be’ and not ‘to do’. If we believe in the holy Catholic Church, it is very important for people from different parts of the World to know each other´s reality, to create connections, share their stories in a way that people in each local change can feel they are not alone, they are part of a much broader family.

Sarah Lawton

I would like to second what Mary Caulfield just wrote about the importance of building relationships.

When I worked at the ecumenically based Share Foundation: Building a New El Salvador Today, one of our most successful projects was our Sister Communities project. Some congregations we worked with maintained a relationship with their sister parish or community across 30 years – long enough for those who were babies when it started to take on leadership roles.

Similarly, my own congregation’s long involvement with Mission Graduates, a local educational organization aimed at our neigbhorhood’s low-income and immigrant families, has been profound over 40 years. From founding it to letting it fly on its own but still serving in Board positions, volunteering in many capacities, raising funds, and providing church space for graduations and other special events — it’s always the relationships that matter and that make a difference.

And in all of this, the difference made is never any less for our members than for those whom we are “serving” – in fact, we are serving each other in profound ways, if there is relationship.

Nathan Roser

One of the things I struggle with is belonging to a church that has a good sense of being close to the poor. I’ve attended churches in the past (that shall remain nameless), where it is a standard expectation that a child receive a BMW convertible upon turning 16. Therefore, their youth group spends a lot of time on the concept of “being grateful.” What shocks me is that, having traveled and lived overseas for several months, I have seen how Roma abuse their own children in order to make them more capable of receiving alms. So the idea of mission tourism strikes me as quite tin-tasting.

Mary Caulfield

This article was very thought-provoking and compelling. A few months back The Lead posted another article from Christianity Today about building houses on mission trips. Both articles bear reading, re-reading, and contemplation – as does the book When Helping Hurts. My concern is that we not immediately jump to the conclusion: “Foreign trips bad, domestic mission good.” To my mind, the biggest dangers in church-based mission are short-term thinking and expecting tangible products rather than relationships.

The fact that foreign mission is expensive and difficult doesn’t necessarily mean it shouldn’t be done. Any international mission relationship is going to have twists, turns, misunderstandings, and frustrations, and I worry about 180-degree shifts that might take place too rapidly. To my mind, it’s more worrying to see projects in the international field that don’t lead to mutual learning and long-term relationships. If a week in a foreign country opens up a desire to learn the language, understand the regional history, and follow the role of the country in international politics, that trip might open up a long-term relationship and profound interest in a culture, even if the person serving doesn’t return to that country. International friendships that are kept alive through social media might lead to shared work in the long term.

In the same vein, if a concern for meeting a need across town begins with great fanfare, but then fades away when paid or volunteer staff changes or when the Next Big Concern eclipses the project, that doesn’t create a culture of mission, and a few months of good deeds followed by a loss of interest / funding could also do harm as well to the community being served.

I think that any effort at mission has the potential to do long-term good if there is support for long-term relationships that might emerge after the trip is over or outside of the official project. Creating long-term relationships, whether on the other side of town or the other side of the world, takes a great deal of patience, persistence, and self-knowledge

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