Is Your Trip Actual Mission Work or Just Tourism?

In the early years after its founding in 2004, Hands and Feet Project was climbing a steep learning curve as it sought to help vulnerable children in southern Haiti. Founded by then-members of the popular Christian band Audio Adrenaline, the Franklin, Tennessee-based group was, in most other ways, a typical upstart missions organization. It was grappling with the ins and outs of running a nonprofit, navigating government bureaucracies in two countries, raising funds to build children’s homes, and figuring out how to care for the abandoned kids who would occupy them.

Like many organizations, Hands and Feet Project brought in short-term volunteer teams. Twenty people might fly from the United States to Haiti to dig a ditch and paint some buildings on the ministry’s property, while equal numbers of Haitians stood outside the gates looking for work. Visitors stayed on the same property where sponsored children lived and could spend hours befriending and playing with the kids.

After the earthquake that leveled much of Port-au-Prince and surrounding communities in 2010, the ministry began reevaluating its approach to helping children. In particular, leadership asked what they could do to address the root causes of child abandonment, such as poverty, joblessness, and broken families. At the same time, the missions community in North America was being roiled by critiques of its poverty-fighting efforts and, in particular, of the short-term missions industry—due in large part to the success of the bestselling 2009 book When Helping Hurts. Those critiques reached the ears of Hands and Feet’s leadership.

“It took us a while to get our head up out of the sand,” said executive director Andrea McGinniss.

Eventually, the ministry launched an ambitious plan to rework its short-term missions program into one that poured more into the local economy and emphasized experience and learning over trying to “do” something tangible. It secured generous help from a church in Alabama to build a “guest village” with a boutique hotel feel, boasting ocean views and hammock-strung balconies and manicured lawns. It restructured its team itineraries to downplay service projects and give equal, if not greater, weight to rest and exploring Haiti’s culture and natural beauty. It made sure visiting teams were eating—and eating well—at local restaurants, employing local tour guides to scale Haiti’s mountains and snorkel off its Caribbean beaches.

“There are really gorgeous places in Haiti, and you can rest here. You can retreat and Jesus is here and you can spend time with him,” McGinniss said. “It doesn’t have to always just be this mentality that I am going to go and suffer; I’m going to keep my head down and stay in this facility and sacrifice and work and martyr.”

Significantly, Hands and Feet Project chose to put some distance between travelers and the at-risk youth by locating its new guest village down the road from the children’s homes. Frequent visits from hundreds of yearly volunteers were disrupting the children’s lives and were confusing children who already struggled with attachment issues. “It really wasn’t healthy,” McGinniss said. The new arrangement still allowed teams to interact with the children but in more structured and limited ways.

The change was not well received.

When Ikondo, as the guest house is called, opened for business in 2017, “a lot of really passionate supporters left,” McGinniss said. “They weren’t going to get to spend every day with the kid they had gotten to know.” She estimated that as many as 25 percent of the ministry’s regular visitors stopped coming. “It challenged the mentality of, ‘I want to come down. I want to hold babies. I want to have a feel-good moment.’ ”

Short-term mission trips (STMs), both domestic and international, elicited controversy well before their boom in popularity in the 1980s and 1990s. Many in the missions community saw them initially as little more than a recruiting tool for full-time missionary service. But in their rapid growth—various estimates place the number of short-termers around 2 million per year in the US alone—STMs suddenly appeared like a threat to longer-term work and were eventually embraced as an alternative missions strategy altogether.

Then something shifted about a decade ago, as a single chapter in When Helping Hurts, a book by Covenant College professors Brian Fikkert and Steve Corbett, became the first of a wave of popular critiques implicating STMs as causes of harm in the materially poor communities they aimed to help. (Bob Lupton’s Toxic Charitywas also among them. Ahead of the curve and somewhat overlooked was David Livermore’s 2006 book, Serving With Eyes Wide Open.)

Ever since, the debate and self-flagellation surrounding STMs has been particularly loud. Critics have called on churches to cancel trips, to make a matching investment in local ministry before taking more trips abroad, or to sap the self-importance from trips by rebranding them with names like “vision trips” or “listening trips.” Churches and missions organizations, of course, have responded in kind, publishing listicles and memes and articles on the enduring merits of STMs—albeit often qualified now with phrases like “when done right.”

But after so much debate, what does a trip done right even look like anymore? McGinniss believes that for most people who travel on mission trips, “their hearts are really good” and they do care about their impact. But “if you want to measure your trip by impact,” she said, “is that the impact for you or for the nation or for the organization you’re coming to serve?”

Organizations like Standards of Excellence in Short-Term Mission (SOE) have made noble and influential efforts to establish best practices in an activity that, by conservative estimates, American Christians alone spend billions of dollars on per year. But if Hands and Feet Project’s experience is an indication, there is far from agreement about which kinds of one- or two-week travel experiences deserve to be elevated as something other than run-of-the-mill tourism. If anything, there is a growing willingness among some evangelicals—long afraid of short-term missions being confused with tourism—to embrace virtually any kind of travel as a tool for the kingdom.

From their vantage point in the Rio Grande Valley, the Moya family has seen the shift in local and foreign missional travel firsthand. More accurately, they’re helping to drive it.

Their South Texas church has received short-term mission teams for 25 years. Many of them hopped over the border into Mexico, a popular and low-cost option for groups wanting to serve abroad.

“I grew up in the short-term mission world, but I was on the receiving end,” Yonathan Moya said. Missionaries regularly visited his parents’ church in Pharr, Texas, and even built his grandparents’ church in northern Mexico. He often served as a Spanish translator for the teams. “I had this really glamorous view of what being a missionary was.”

While studying missions at Bethel University in Indiana, Moya took a study trip to China, immersing himself for weeks in the language and culture. There was little emphasis on projects, he said, and he left with a respect for the country.

Moya moved to the Midwest, but the visit to China informed him and his brother, Jordan, when they took a road trip together in 2017 along the Texas-Mexico border to rediscover where they had grown up. The brothers were shocked at how much they learned—and at how their experiences hosting short-term teams had shaped their perception of themselves and of the region as somehow deficient, rather than as a place where God was moving.

So last year they joined with their family to found Border Perspective, a Christian advocacy organization that brings church groups and individuals to the border to see for themselves an American experience starkly different from their own. It put the Moyas back in the role of hosting short-term volunteers. But as immigration and the harrowing stories of asylum-seekers have come to dominate political discourse in the US, these trips have taken a new form: visitors wanting to spend more time on their own side of the border to better understand the complexities of challenges in their own country.

“I didn’t want teams to come into a region and just repair a roof or do a service project,” Moya said. “I wanted to engage them in the realities and the difficulties that people on the border are experiencing every day.”

The Moyas host service-learning trips that blend activities like volunteering at immigrant shelters with educational components like lessons about the region’s commerce and Latin American cultures, and tours of border crossings and the harsh regional terrain. They also run shorter, more immersive trips that include meetings with border officials and ministry leaders.

Yonathan Moya, right, began leading Christian groups on educational trips along the Texas-Mexico border after he and his brother traveled there in 2017 to rediscover the region where they grew up.

Image: Jon Stegenga / Border Perspecitve

Yonathan Moya, right, began leading Christian groups on educational trips along the Texas-Mexico border after he and his brother traveled there in 2017 to rediscover the region where they grew up.

Christian border exposure trips are not new. They first appeared in the 1980s, sparked by interest in the Sanctuary movement, which joined hundreds of congregations across denominational lines to advocate for Central American refugees fleeing civil war. Such trips, run by organizations like Tucson, Arizona-based BorderLinks, drew heavily from mainline Protestants at the time.

Today, the flood of mostly Central American asylum seekers at the border—and its accompanying humanitarian crisis of separated families and overcrowded detention centers—has captured national attention. Public figures and media personalities of all stripes have flocked to the border to portray it with their respective spin. Evangelical pastors, church groups, and other leaders—torn between dueling commitments to the rule of law and to compassion toward the sojourner—are seeking to sort through the complexities themselves by traveling to the border on immersive “vision trips” or “border encounters.”

When Shon Young took the job four years ago as pastor for missions and outreach at City Church Del Rio in Del Rio, Texas, things were slow. Mexico’s reputation for violence was keeping church teams away from the border. Then came 2018 and 2019, when recordings leaked of children crying at immigrant detention centers and apprehensions by Customs and Border Patrol surged.

Now Young receives requests to host visitors from as far away as the Midwest and the Northeast and as nearby as San Antonio. People want to see what’s going on, he said. Some come ready to help; others are skeptical of what’s actually happening at the border. He takes volunteers to visit an immigrant shelter his church helps run, where visitors meet migrant families who are often receiving their first showers in days, their first bed and hot meal in weeks.

“By the end you see a change” in the volunteers, Young said. Some ask how they can continue to help. On a day when CT visited Young in Del Rio, a Spanish teacher from Illinois was asking how he could connect with immigration lawyers back home to volunteer as a translator.


t is a decades-old criticism that STMs do more for the participants than they do for the host community. But the argument is so widespread that it has come full circle, becoming a marketing mantra itself for short-term travel.

Brian Howell, an anthropologist at Wheaton College, noticed that many of his students spoke of their trip experiences in similar ways no matter where they had traveled. (“They ministered to us more than we ministered to them.”) Howell began researching the culture of short-term missions and published his findings in a book, Short-Term Mission: An Ethnography of Christian Travel Narrative and Experience.

From the smallest ministries to large organizations like the Southern Baptists’ International Mission Board, proponents unabashedly tout the power of STMs to change travelers’ lives and equip them for further kingdom service.

But if one of the chief goals of STMs is a changed participant, just how that participant should change is far less obvious. STM proponents and leaders emphasize to varying degrees the value of travel to generate passion for evangelism and missions or to strengthen spiritual disciplines. What’s the desired change, however, if a trip includes very little service or if language and cultural barriers preclude any serious efforts at evangelism? Or what if the trip is a “vision trip” in the most traditional sense, where nonprofits lead major donors and influential church leaders on a tour through their programs with the explicit aim of securing investment?

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Source: Christianity Today