Christian Altruistic Tourism – Mission as Adventure
We come to a third paradigm/framework/approach to Mission.
In the immediate aftermath of the 2010 Haiti Earthquake, a guy in Haiti that I know wrote on his blog (I’m paraphrasing): “Not to be rude, but we really don’t need Christian backpackers looking for a meaningful experience.”
Mission/Aid/humanitarian organizations in Haiti were overwhelmed by well-intentioned people desiring to get in on the action (I know the phrasing here seems harsh, but…). Lots of random people trying to show up, with no plans, no connections, looking to “help” or “serve.” Because of my connection to Haiti, I was contacted by lots of these people. When I proposed other ways to get involved, these people balked.
“I just know I’m supposed to be there right now. I just know it. I’ll find another way. But thanks, Mr. Busby.” I heard these comments over and over and over again. Secular commentators have labeled this line of thinking, “disaster tourism” or “volunteer tourism.” Just Google these terms. There’s a lot of stuff out there on this.
It extends beyond epic disasters, however. I think much Christian engagement in Mission — particularly Short Term Mission Trips — may be a manifestation of this line of thinking. Bottom line reality: It’s somewhat trendy to travel to third world places, to serve the poor, to participate in Mission. This is true in the Christian culture. It’s also true in American culture at large. Celebrities are engaged in humanitarian causes. For Christians (young ones, particularly, but older ones too), it’s almost a rite of passage, to go on a “mission trip.”
I know it’s may be harsh, but I’m going to call this unhealthy phenomenon, “Christian Altruistic Tourism.”
Christian: It flows from a perception that following Jesus requires an engagement in “Mission.” It comes from a Great Commission impulse to involve oneself. It’s considered a certain kind of tier within Christian discipleship to do this kind of thing. Opportunities for involvement are usually given by churches or Christian organizations.
Altruistic: Merriam-Webster define this as “unselfish regard for or devotion to the welfare of others.” These Christians engage out of a well-intentioned desire to help, to look out for, serve, etc. the people in need (in need either physically or spiritually). In other words, these folks mean well. They’re trying to do good. At least from their perception, it’s “unselfish regard.”
Tourism: The perception is that following Jesus, engaging God’s work in the world probably requires travel to a place. Surely those in material or spiritual need tend to live in other places, right? Often those places are places we’d like to travel anyway. At least doing this Mission thing is more effective or more fun, or more exciting if it involves a trip, right?
There are some truths here.
However, if we’re not careful, our Short Term Mission experiences become merely opportunities to display our budding Christian growth. These adventures can be no more than glorified photo-ops for Facebook. Mission trip travelers notoriously try to squeeze in some vacation and sight seeing. I mean, while we’re at it, why not “experience the culture?”
Let me be clear. I’m not saying that traveling on a Short-Term Mission experience is necessarily bad. I lead college students on a trip to Haiti every year. I believe in these trips when handled with care and wisdom. Sometimes, these trips are a fruitful next-step in engaging the Mission of God after Christian compassion is awakened. Many, many, many people who do very fruitful things long-term began with a week-long trip. When led rightly, these endeavors can be helpful. I really believe this. As of now, I’m not a “cancel-all-your-short-term-trips” guy.
But we need to be wise and ask some good, hard questions. I’ll propose a few.
1. If Short-Term experiences are primarily about the goers (debatable, I know), about their crossing a tier within Christian discipleship (dangerous thinking, I know), should we talk about them, evaluate them and promote them differently?
2. Can we have these conversations? Make trip goers aware of this phenomenon?
3. In our training, can we include content on how to appropriately use a camera on a trip? Can we talk about how to appropriately share the photos and videos from trips via social media?
4. Can we always, always, always, always insist that the folks on the ground lead us, set the agenda, set the parameters? Can we follow their lead?
5. Can we ask hard questions before we spent the token day sight-seeing or relaxing? Our hosts will often desire to extend us this kind of hospitality, but can we think really carefully about it first?
6. Can we institute NMTSPs? That’s right, No Matching T-Shirt Policies. Just saying.
Again, let’s lead, push, challenge, prompt, shepherd, encourage.