The line between mission trips and tourism is becoming blurrier. Embarking on a journey to foreign lands inside and outside the country sparks a call of adventure. Unfortunately, most mission trips—particularly, short-term trips—focus on the touristic aspect rather than serving people in the community.
Aminta Arrington, associate professor of intercultural studies, stated, “I think they’ve always been blurry and maybe there’s just a little more awareness of it now, but to me the blurriness is coming from the structure that is set up, and I don’t think that has really changed.” Arrington highlighted, “You’re sending people who have money to go do a task for which they are not really trained. So what is that? Is that missions? To me, it sounds like tourism.”
The dilemmas of short-term mission trips stem from their short duration, relative lack of communal engagement, evangelistic conversion and touristic attraction for participants. Unfortunately, mission trips build the “White Savior” mentality for participants who see themselves as the saviors for impoverished communities.
In his book “Toxic Charity,” published in 2011, Robert Lupton wrote, “Contrary to popular beliefs, most mission trips and service projects do not empower those being served, engender healthy cross-cultural relationships, improve quality of life, relieve poverty, or change the lives of participants [or] increase support for long-term mission works.”
These flaws addressed by Lupton give heed for self-reflection in churches to recognize the necessary improvements for realignment with what scripture commands Christians to do.
“If we go to the great commission in Matt. 29, it says to ‘make disciples,’ so that should be the point. We could also look at the great commandment which says, ‘Love God and your neighbor,’ so I think that is also a good point,” Arrington said.
To achieve discipleship with communities, many institutions are striving to educate participants about a community’s culture or language prior to their visit for greater awareness.
Andy Olson, writer for Christianity Today, mentioned The Global Immersion Project, a Christian peacemaking organization that incorporates a large curriculum for participants before their visit to the destination. This standard education grants the opportunity for people to understand a culture and see their trip as experiential learning rather than evangelistic.
Kat Caldwell, senior intercultural studies major, said, “If it is a short-term mission trip, it should really be more focused in that realm of either learning or serving missionaries that are already there.”
Caldwell participated in John Brown University’s Atlanta Refugee Trip and expressed her impactful experience to learn from refugees about their stories and understand their culture. “It really focuses on loving and understanding versus trying to get something out of it,” she said.
Churches are recognizing the value in educational and transformative experiences through mission trips. The shift from teacher of the gospel to learner of God’s creation should not come as a surprise because it forces Christians to grow in their faith and perspective of the world. This transition, however, should not neglect the spreading of the gospel, which should still be presented when necessary during the trip.
“Despite all of the inherent flaws, God still works in short-term mission trips,” Arrington said.
Caldwell agreed, saying, “God can do whatever He wants and He can still create opportunities for people to hear the gospel even if the overall purpose for why people go on a short-term mission trip was not of the best intentions.” She stated that these opportunities are significant for both those who may and those who may not know the Lord and to see His work as beneficial for both parties to grow in their spiritual journey. Reformation for mission trips continues to occur across the U.S., as many are realizing the potential harm it can bring to communities. Now, be encouraged by the imitation of Matt. 28:19-20: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them, to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
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