Religious Tourism

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“They’re turning my people into beggars!” It was a painful accusation for Juan Ulloa to make. He was a churchman, after all. An elder. With loyalty to the household of faith. But when asked the question directly, he could not lie. I had pressed him on the relationship of his micro-lending organization to the churches of Nicaragua. Juan was the executive director of a Christian micro-finance ministry that made many thousands of small loans to Nicaraguan peasants. It seemed to me a reasonable inquiry to understand how they worked together with local churches. Hesitantly at first, Juan explained that there were entire sections of the country where his loan officers could not make any loans at all. These were the regions where a concentration of churches from the U.S. conducted their mission trips. “People say ‘Why should we borrow money when the churches give it to us?’” The people were right, of course. What peasant scratching out a bare existence could refuse suitcases bulging with new clothing for his family? What struggling pastor could resist the temptation to accept a steady salary and generous church income in exchange for hosting visitors, organizing volunteer work, and staffing funded programs? What village would borrow money to dig a well or buy books for their school library or save money to build a church if these things were provided for them free of charge? If all they had to do was make their wish lists, show up for the schedule arranged by the donors, and smile graciously until their benefactors head back home, who would blame them for accepting this easy charity?

No, Juan was not blaming his people for becoming beggars. He was faulting the affluent, well-meaning U.S. church for its unexamined generosity. His accusations, now pouring forth with considerable force, were directed at naïve “vacationaries” who spend millions of dollars traveling to his country, perform work that locals could better do for themselves, and create a welfare economy that deprives a people of the pride of their own accomplishments — all in the name of Christian service. The unintended consequences of such mission work was undoing the very vision Juan had given his life to — helping his people emerge from poverty through training, entrepreneurship, saving and hard work.

For some reason U.S. churches, filled with results-oriented members, seem oblivious to the abysmal outcomes of many if not most mission trips. Perhaps because it feels so good to be giving to those so much worse off, or because unconditional serving seems so Christ-like, the Western church embraces with great pride an unexamined form of charity that our nation as a whole rejected with the passage of the Welfare Reform Act of 1996. We know that welfare creates unhealthy dependency, that it erodes a work ethic, that it does not elevate people out of poverty. Yet, in the name of Christ, we perpetuate this very welfare principle in the way we do missions. And the trend is growing!

A Princeton University study found that in one year (2005) 1.6 million church members took mission trips — an average of eight days — at a cost of $2.4 billion. And the number has grown every year since. “Religious tourism” as some call it has become a growth industry. The web is full of agencies (denominational and para-church) ready to connect churches to a “meaningful mission experience” in an exotic location rife with human need. The Bahamas, for example, receives one short-term missionary for every fifteen residents.

More scornful critics point to the make-work nature of many missions trips. Like the wall built on an orphanage soccer field in Brazil that had to be torn down after the visitors left. And the church in Mexico that was painted six times during one summer by six different missions groups. And the church in Ecuador built by volunteers that was never used because the community said it was not needed.

But in fairness to our U.S. churches, many of our motives are noble. We want to excite our members about missions. We want to expose youth and adults to the needs of a hurting world. We want to engage our people in life-changing experiences. We desire deeply to obey the teachings of Christ to clothe the naked, feed the hungry, show compassion to the oppressed and spread the Good News. But because we view missions through the lens of our church — that is, what will benefit our people the most, what will be most rewarding for us, what will appeal the most to our members — we neglect to consider what is in the best interests of those we would serve.

How we serve is equally important to who we serve. Take the well that my church dug for a rural Honduran village. The remote peasant community needed water. The obvious solution: dig them a well. There was great celebration when the first water was pumped to the surface and villagers filled their jugs with cold, pure water. But when our missioners returned the following year the pump was idle and locals were again carry water from a distant supply. We repaired the pump. But by the time we returned the following year it had broken down again. This happened repeatedly year after year. The village simply waited until their benefactors returned.

Compare this experience to the remote mountain village in Nicaragua where a different strategy was employed. A community developer, recruited from the U.S. and supported by Juan’s micro-lending organization, assisted the residents in creating a plan for a much needed well. She arranged financing conditional upon villagers investing their own money from their meager savings. She then connected them with a reliable Nicaraguan engineer, and helped them organize a water commission to set fees, collect water bills, manage finances and maintain their new utility. Village men provided all the labor, digging trenches, laying water lines and setting 250 meters. When the pump was switched on and water surged to the homes, the village erupted with pride. Their water supply, they soon learned, was abundant — sufficient to allow them to sell water to the adjacent village. They now owned and managed a wealth-producing asset. The lesson: never deprive people of the satisfaction of doing for themselves.

“Above all, do no harm.” It’s the bottom line of the Hippocratic Oath that has guided the conduct of physicians for centuries. It is time for the Western church to apply the same principle.

PS: Some believe that short-term missions trips whet the appetite for long-term mission involvement. Research does not support this claim however. In spite of all the moving testimonies of “life-changing experiences” by returning short-termers and the occasional example of full-time missionaries who point to a mission trip as the catalyst for their calling, there is no evidence that missions as a whole has benefitted. As a matter of fact, while short-term mission trips have increased dramatically over the past two decades, support of long-term missionaries has declined. Strangely, the correlation seems to be inverse. Perhaps because we have spent so lavishly on “religious tourism” we feel that our financial responsibility to missions has been discharged. Or is it that long-term missionaries do not serve the immediate self-interest of our church?

Bob Lupton

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