Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Matt Lacey: Theology of Mission and Voluntourism

Today’s post is by Rev. Matt Lacey. Rev. Lacey is the UMVIM Coordinator for the Southeast Jurisdiction. This post is the fourth in a series about short-term mission in The United Methodist Church.
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 books. I myself have been guilty of that motivation, as well as guilty of thinking that travel makes you a more interesting person.

Critics who use the term to describe mission trips—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 continued 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 reasons.

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 had 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 this trip was effective in starting to shift how I understand the message of Jesus. Much like farmland 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.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this Matt, and the critical personal view. The critical ingredient here is being able to make transformation intentional and overt, which may mean reworking just what happens on a "mission trip." To your observations I would add this question: what do our partners to whom we travel hope will happen through our engagement? An important part of the transformation of mission teams comes with the empathic listening by the team once it arrives. I learned an incredibly important lesson 45 years ago on a youth mission trip with the Appalachia Service Project. Our leaders had us spend (waste we thought) a full day sitting on the porch listening to the family talk about their farm, their house, and their experience. The next day we learned from the father how to drive a nail through hickory, how to cut with a hand saw faster than a power saw, and which colors of paint did and did not attract critters. We worked. We also learned a lot.