Before I start with this post, I think it’s important to note that this blog is not meant to bash Christianity in any way, shape, or form. It is simply meant to call to attention a topic that is not discussed enough. This is a very intricate and nuanced topic with a lot of different angles to it. I also want to say that I loved both of the missionary trips I went on; they sparked my love for travel, introduced me to new cultures, and allowed me to create amazing memories with my friends. I didn’t know any better at the time, as I was a teenager when I went on these trips. But once you know better, you do better, and it’s time for me to reveal a side of missionary trips that most people are probably unaware of.
While well intentioned (most of the time), Christian mission trips almost always do more harm than good to the communities they claim to serve. I went on 2 mission trips, in 2012 and 2014, respectively. At the ages of 15 and 17 at the time, I was definitely the prime example of a wide eyed, naive teenager who had no idea what to expect from these experiences. My school organized and participated in these trips both times I went, with roughly 25-30 students travelling and 5-6 adults accompanying us. We built and painted churches, as well as conducted bible studies with the local churches. Coming away from both of those trips, I thought I had really made a difference in the lives of those communities we “served.”
We travelled authentically in chicken buses instead of coach buses, and ate beans, rice, and plantains instead of fast food. We interacted with locals and helped in community projects instead of sight seeing (though we made a little time for that, too). I thought we were “real travellers,” unlike all those useless families and couples vacationing on the beaches. We were so much better than them, right? Because we were making a difference. At the end of the day, though, we were no better than them, and the things we were doing were not helpful at all.
My first moment of realizing these trips might be toxic happened in 2014, in Panama. We visited a resort for a day trip to relax after several days of back breaking work. We ate amazing food, and relaxed in the beaches and pools. This is a small moment, but it was a bit of a breakthrough for me. At the buffet breakfast, we were all told the sausages we wanted to eat were beef. Growing up Seventh Day Adventist, pork and seafood were considered “unclean” foods, and were not to be eaten (this lifestyle shares vague similarities to Jewish Kosher, but is not the same thing by any means). Upon learning that the sausages had pork casing, all 28 other students jumped up and ran to the trash, scooping their sausages into the trash as if they had ingested poison. I remember thinking that throwing away perfectly edible food in a country where people were starving seemed pretty disrespectful. This was not a popular opinion. I figured that since I had made the mistake, and taken this food at my own discretion, that I would eat it. That was an eye opening experience.
With the introduction out of the way, here are some reasons you should avoid mission trips.
1) Spiritual self fulfilment. One problem of mission trips is that they are ALWAYS flashy. You need pictures with lots of smiling orphans for the church bulletin boards. You always need a group photo in front of the church you built so everyone on your Facebook can tell you how great of a person you are, and how God is using you to do wonderful things (even if you stood around to pose for pictures the whole time and did no real work, which was the case for at least a handful of participants on both trips). This shows that many people are doing these things solely for the clout and praise, and less to help others. I’ve also heard many people say, “this trip has changed me.” “God has opened up my heart.” “This has made me so grateful for all I have at home.” It is NOT the job of this trip, or the job of the locals, to make participants feel grateful or happy that they have it so much better than the people they decided to serve. It’s okay to feel gratitude for what you have at home after seeing how others live. However, context is important, and the context is always with a hint of condescension and superiority.
2) White saviour complex. This one is slightly more subtle, but mission trips tend to reinforce the white/western saviour complex. It’s the idea that the white plane full of Christian evangelicals has swooped in to save the day for the helpless, impoverished people of colour. The white saviour complex is rampant with these trips, and it is often belittling to the communities that are being “helped.” It is often more about satisfying the egos of the individuals participating than anything else. I saw this a lot with both of my trips. It was very clear that many people enjoyed “saving” these poor and helpless individuals, without understanding how their actions could actually affect those communities negatively.
3) Mission trips do nothing to stop poverty. These trips often treat the symptoms of poverty without realizing that it is a nuanced and complex problem that requires much more than a bunch of white 15 year old kids to solve. Individuals who have grown up in these areas know what the local needs are and understand how to best serve those needs. These needs are often ignored by the mission groups. Professionals who are in these locations to help for urgent matters such as medical care, engineering, or construction can (but are not always) much more helpful than taking a bus load of kids there to have a hybrid work/vacation/spiritual trip. It would actually be much more helpful to simply travel to these countries, spend money on local guesthouses, food, and activities. Putting money directly into the economies of these locations can do wonders, because these individuals know what to do with this money and can use it to generate more for their communities.
4) Used to evangelize. These trips very often are used as a way to “spread the gospel,” or “spread the word of God,” to the people of whichever country is being visited. The community projects are often just a way to entice (or even worse, guilt) locals into showing up for the evening spiritual talks that the group would put on. While this is well intentioned, it makes 23 year old me cringe. 15 year old me thought we were saving the world. At the end of the day, it is always made clear that converting people to Christianity is the most important goal of the trip, and all else is secondary. Instead of building a medical clinic, dental office, or community centre, we always built churches, even if the locals did not necessarily want them. Often, church members donate the land to the project to have said church built. Sometimes, church bodies themselves purchase land from locals so they can get mission trips to build the churches, often for free or at a much smaller cost than usual. In either case, building a church does not mean that’s what the locals want or need. On both trips, I don’t remember ever asking (or listening) as to whether churches were even what these communities wanted or needed.
5) It is often insulting. Teenagers showing up to your town wearing clothes that cost 25x what yours do, building and painting a church on your street that is not needed or wanted, and then having the nerve to evangelize to you and guilt you into going to bible study to convert you to their religion, could be pretty irritating. This can cause some communities to reject future help that could legitimately have a positive impact on the locale. The first mission trip I went on to the Dominican Republic cost $1,700 CAD per person, and my second one to Panama cost $2,000. Imagine if we just sent $51,000 or $60,000 (assuming a total of 30 participants per trip), to these places directly. They could afford to hire local contractors to do the work they both need and want; they know where their money needs to go. But instead, we show up and decide on their behalf what they should have in order to satisfy our own egos.
These five reasons account for just a few reasons mission trips can be toxic. I haven’t even discussed fraud, abuse of power, putting these communities at risk of further poverty, or many of the other multitude of reasons to avoid mission trips. “But what if I’m doing it for the right reasons?” I understand that so many people have a desire to help those less fortunate than them. And I applaud that. But it’s important to help in the right way, and not in just the way that we’ve been told is right through our churches and Western media sources. Take it from me; skip the mission trip each and every single time.
So, what’s the alternative?
Luckily, there is an alternative, and it does so much more help for the locals of whichever country you visit. It’s also much easier (and cheaper) than doing a mission trip, which works out for you as well. Simply travelling the country authentically is all it takes. I touched on this earlier, but I should highlight it more. Staying in locally owned guest houses, eating at local restaurants, and participating in locally owned and operated transportation services and excursions is a great way to travel. This employs the people who live in the area, allows them to work for a living wage, and allows you to travel and see things in a new light. It’s not as flashy as a mission trip, and if you’re in an evangelical church like I was at the time, you may get back handed or passive aggressive questions or comments about it, but pay them no mind. It’s none of their business, and if they want to waste their money on trips that harm the locals but makes them feel good, that’s exactly what they’ll do. I still remember saying to someone I knew when I was in college that I wanted to travel to Asia, and then learning of a trip to the Philippines that was being organized. At that time, I had luckily learned of the harm of these trips, so I knew to decline and travel authentically and with purpose.
It’s sad that the first thing that comes to so many peoples’ minds when they think of travel is “mission trip,” as if that is the only way to see the world. It really is like a spiritual vacation for some evangelical Christians. It’s a buffet of people of colour who need saving, a chance to inflate one’s own ego, and an opportunity to feel like you’ve done something while actually doing nothing at all.
To end on a positive note, I don’t regret going on the mission trips that I did. After all, I didn’t know any better, and those experiences are still extremely valuable to me. There is a bit of a bad taste in my mouth when talking about them, since I didn’t understand the world or my place in it at that time in life. I’ve taken the good things from those trips and applied them to my life, and the bad things I have learned from, which should always be the goal.