Saturday, August 2, 2008

Missionaries or Tourists?

Where to start...

Short-term missions to developing countries are simply church-paid vacations. There, I said it. Now that's out of the way and you are appropriately warned, let me look at why I think this.

The way I see it, there are two reasons people choose to go on short-term missions.

a) To help the local people.
b) To gain valuable personal, life-changing experience.

Both seem to be valuable reasons for missions. As Christians we are called to help others less fortunate than ourselves. And many of us have such an insular view of our little bubbles that a lesson in poverty would do us good. And yet, I don't think short-term missions accomplish their goals, or at least not as efficiently as they could.

My biggest problem is with reason A. If you really want to help the people there... send the money you fund-raised, not yourself. Say you spend $1500 on flights, tack on accommodations, food, souvenirs for the family back home and then, as most groups do, the cursory day or two off to go see the local tourist sights. Most groups want to maintain their standard of living in their host country. Let's say $3000 a person, which is a low average I would say. You arrive, you build a new house for an orphanage, you play with the kids, you hand out balloons, you see what your $35 a month is accomplishing, whatever you do. Yes, you have helped and you can go home happy with what you have accomplished for those less fortunate people. That's not missions. That's Volunteer-Tourism. Look it up, you can pay that same amount to a company to do the exact same thing. It's tourism, plain and simple.

You really want to help? Send those thousands of dollars to the local missionaries and organizations. They can hire local help at fair rates to build that extra house or clinic, which injects money into the families and local economy. They can buy local goods to give out to kids and families. And they've still only spent 10% of that money. $3000 goes a LONG way in most of these countries. So say you have a team of 10 people come, that's $30,000. That'll buy more than a new church building. It'll buy the building, all the furnishings, a local minister's salary and start a new feeding program. Do you really want to help or do you just want to go visit PeruZambiaNicaraguaIndonesia?

Now to reason B. Sure, visiting places like PeruZambiaNicaraguaIndonesia gives you a new perspective on poverty, life, etc... Most people come back shocked at what they have comparatively and complain at least a little less. I firmly believe in world travel as a valuable experience (I just don't believe in the Church paying for it, I mean - that's a sweet gig!) The thing is that there is lots of poverty and life changing experiences to be had a lot closer to home. You want to see poverty and desperation, go visit your local First Nations reserve. You want to help the helpless, go visit downtown VancouverCalgaryToronto. Helping in places like this will change your perspective just as quickly as a visit to the other side of the world... and for a whole lot cheaper. And guess what you can do with that extra money? Send it somewhere! Or go travel, just don't pass it off as helping others.

I add a caveat to all this. Some people have extraordinary skills that are not readily available in the developing world, such as Doctors, Economists... you know the kind. These skills are needed in Africa as it tries to play catch-up in a developing world they've been thrust into. If you have these skills, go teach them. And if you have these skills, you likely have the money to pay your way and don't need to rely on fund-raising or your local church. All the power to you.

Now I know this goes against all the Church has built up in the past decades. We have pushed short-term missions and business such as YWAM have become famous in evangelical circles. Again, I have nothing against you doing YWAM, just don't ask me to pay your way and don't pass it off as doing your best to help others. It's volunteer-tourism, plain and simple. Nothing wrong with that and it might even change your life. But my question is, how many more lives could you change with that money?

1 comment:

Jen said...

Wow Eric. Never really thought of it that way but now that you shone that light on it, I think I agree.

I wouldn't be interested in a short- term missions trip but will admit that I've done some online searching about going on a volunteer vacations. I think that would be something up my alley if I plan on being away on holidays and spending that $$ anyways.