The Dangers of Mission Trip Voluntourism

When I was 14, I went with my high school youth group to Tijuana, Mexico, on a short-term mission trip. This was the first of several mission trips I went on with my youth group, all partnering with the same congregation through the same mission organization. These trips, while brief, left a lasting impression on me—not only did they give me a more global perspective as far as faith and life experience goes, but they also taught me the value of targeted service and the necessity of building relationships with those I came to serve.

Although my experience as a high schooler was positive, youth workers have a difficult balance to strike when planning a short-term mission trip. Often, this is reflected in the competing priorities of such trips—not only do youth workers want to see their young people stretched outside their comfort zone, youth workers also want to see the community they serve benefit. Both goals are commendable and necessary, and to neglect either can result in serious consequences.

Ignoring the Community

…to serve locally without partaking in God’s work internationally risks ignoring needs we could meet. It also risks missing out on what those who live in the majority world could teach us. While the problems are real and the conversation about how to serve well is important to have—please, don’t let this stop you from serving, both domestically and internationally.

There is a clear and present danger in mission trips focusing mainly on those who are serving instead of those being served. We see one manifestation this danger in the rise of “voluntourism,” in which well-meaning (typically white, typically upper-middle class) volunteers travel to a majority world country in order to spend a couple weeks doing medical or construction work along with sightseeing. Of course, there’s nothing inherently wrong with altruism—Jesus himself said “everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). But are we really loving one another through voluntourism?

In many ways, short-term youth mission trips often resemble voluntourism. Young people, who likely have very little skill or experience building a house, go to a foreign land for a week to build a house for a family. Typically, at the end of the trip, a family will receive the keys to this newly built house, and the young people will pile their grimy bodies back into 15-passenger vans to drive home. Profile pictures will be changed, pictures will be posted on Instagram, but rarely will any lasting relationships be formed between the young people and those they serve. Perhaps the best case scenario after such a week-long trip is a reality check for young people—having seen how others live, they might be more thankful for what they have. However, at what cost does such a reality check come? How does this reality check affect those we are aiming to serve?

Not only does such “service” risk reinforcing an institutional divide between rich and poor, western and non-western—it can also be profoundly unhelpful for the specific community being served. As one woman recalls:

Our mission while at the orphanage was to build a library. Turns out that we, a group of highly educated private boarding school students were so bad at the most basic construction work that each night the men had to take down the structurally unsound bricks we had laid and rebuild the structure so that, when we woke up in the morning, we would be unaware of our failure. It is likely that this was a daily ritual. Us mixing cement and laying bricks for 6+ hours, them undoing our work after the sun set, re-laying the bricks, and then acting as if nothing had happened so that the cycle could continue.

Ignoring the Need

It can be tempting to look at all these potential issues with serving in majority world countries as insurmountable. Some youth workers choose to do just that, restricting their service projects to domestic, or even local, communities. However, the fact that there are risks in serving internationally doesn’t mean we shouldn’t venture beyond our borders. We are called to be God’s witnesses “in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).

Short-term mission trips suffer when the needs of the community served are ignored. But avoiding international short-term missions doesn’t solve the problem—that still ignores the needs of the community. One solution proposed by an organization called People and Places is to match needs with skills. To do this successfully, an organization must start by developing a relationship both with the community serving and the community served.

When I served in Tijuana, my youth group did lots of work beforehand to ensure that our focus would be on the community we were serving, not on ourselves. Even after having done all this, we still had elements of what some call the “White Savior Industrial Complex” baked into the work we did. It was ultimately our testimonies and our stories we sat down and listened to, not theirs; our agenda we followed, not theirs; and our work we focused on, not theirs. We still thought of them as the objects of mission, not as human subjects, bearing the image of God just as we did.

However, God was still at work in this community. Our church had been in partnerships with the congregation in Mexico for something like 15 years. We maintained relationships, and they were able, throughout the years, to articulate their specific needs. We served the church as volunteers for a VBS-type program which the church—not us—initiated. One year, we planned a block party for the entire neighborhood at the request of the pastor. In short, we did imperfect work. But we did not ignore the need.

So… Where Should I Serve?

There are other options for youth workers who don’t feel comfortable serving internationally. In fact, if we restrict our service to the majority world, we risk ignoring needs in our own communities which might not attract as much interest. It can be much more glamorous to cross a border than to volunteer at the homeless shelter down the street. To encounter another culture seems more exciting than learning about poverty in our own community. And an alien landscape in another country makes for better pictures than the industrial skyline of a local city. For this reason, while traveling and serving internationally is important, we must also focus our service locally.

But to serve locally without partaking in God’s work internationally risks ignoring needs we could meet. It also risks missing out on what those who live in the majority world could teach us. While the problems are real and the conversation about how to serve well is important to have—please, don’t let this stop you from serving, both domestically and internationally.

To paraphrase what Dumbledore said to the students after Lord Voldemort returned in The Goblet of Fire, we need to make a choice between what is right and what is easy. Good service, done well, is not easy. But it is right.

 


JoelJoel Moody is an M.Div. student at Princeton Theological Seminary and is working toward ordination in the PC(USA). He believes not only that young people are the future of the church, but that they also have an integral role to play in the present. A native of the San Francisco Bay Area, he loves any excuse to play sports or board games, particularly with his wife, Kate.

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