|Rev. Matt Lacey|
UMVIM, SEJ Executive Director
Voluntourism is a word that has been getting some buzz in the last several years. If you
haven’t heard it before, type it into your favorite search engine. Some use it as a pejorative to describe Christians who go on “mission” trips as an excuse to add another stamp in their passport.
I have been guilty of that, as well as thinking that travel makes you a more interesting person. Critics of the term—and some critics of mission trips in general—have rightly pointed out that sometimes the most economically effective way to help a community in need would be to take all that money you pour into a plane ticket, visas, travel adapters, etc. and instead use it to make a long term impact: pay for community based medical staff, make a donation to an already established and trusted NGO, or designate it for training for community members. Economically speaking, they are correct. Most of the time the expense of getting on a plane, getting a visa, and making a mission trip t-shirt with your church’s logo on it pales in comparison to the cost of community-based sustainable aid.
I have led mission teams that seemed more interested in taking photos than serving with those
they came to visit. I’ve seen team members rushed to foreign clinics and given treatment for
dehydration while a pregnant woman who was afraid she would lose her baby continue to wait
in line. We should never prioritize our experience at the expense of another person.
All of us do need to ask: why are we going and what do we hope to get out of it?
My very first international mission trip was when I was 20. My primary motivators were the
romanticism of a foreign country, the great photos I would take, and the cute girls on the team I
wanted to talk to. Oh, and because I wanted to evangelize. I went for almost all the wrong
God took my flawed and arrogant motivations and turned them into something else: a life-
changing experience. Some of us go on mission trips expecting to “save souls,” and in reality the only soul that gets saved is our own. I know from experience.
God really messed up my life because of that trip. I started understanding a little more of what
it meant to serve (I still haven’t fully figured it out). After returning home, I started noticing
needs and opportunities all around me that I hadn’t seen—or that I ignored—before. I started
reading scripture in a different way, and I started to feel God calling me to do more.
Mission trips may not be economically effective, but it was effective in how I started
understanding the message of Jesus. Much like farm land that has to be scorched in order to
set the stage for future growth, God sees right through our misguided intentions and
completely destroys them in order to make way for growth in one’s faith journey.
Yes, mission trips are still worth going on, because no matter where we go or why we go, we
will eventually see God in a new way, and learn that the trip really isn’t about us but instead
about how we see and interact with the rest of God’s children. However, we should not learn
that lesson at the expense of those we are serving with.
To all the friends I have met all over the world during a mission journey: thank you for putting
up with my arrogant intentions and expectations in order to let God work in my life.
May we all go forth and serve one another by listening more than we talk, learning more than
we teach, and seeing God in each and every person we meet.