Religious Tourism?

The following is an email from Bob Lupton of FCS Ministries (article published with permission). While not specific to house churches, it is a convicting word about taking an honest look at the current western approach to missions in poor countries.

After reading this, leave a comment with your thoughts. How can house church partner with locally-led economic development?

“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?


Religious Tourism? — 3 Comments

  1. Oh man… talk about a fatal strike at the heart of our motives and efforts… God give us the wisdom and understanding to know what is truly best for those we aim to serve!

  2. Woo… this article is too real…”turning my people into beggars…unexamined generosity…a welfare economy that deprives a people of the pride of their own accomplishments …undoing the very vision…”
    We have experienced some of this in the last six years while working in Asia, Africa and Central America. When in Cuba three years ago we were told to give no more than a few dollars to those who were hosting us. This came from a man who knew how the “well-meaning U.S. church” can hindered the work of God. Without our support they were multiplying house churches (into the 1000’s last count) under a cruel dictator. Not all of us heeded the admonition to give only a small portion and some of the problems caused were not only immediately apparent but in one case has become long term
    In Africa we saw how a some had become professional beggars for the Lord and we were told by those who hosted us that many of those in ministry were shipwrecked spiritually by funds from the states. Some were buying cars while their fellow believers rode bikes. The only time we felt led to send funds was for refuges during all the killing and destruction during the national crisis this last year. The money was used wisely to give clothing and food. In all things we have to hear the Lord. In general we could learn a ton from the famous missionary (early 20th century) Rolland Allen in his book “Spontaneous expansion of the church”. He saw how we hinder the work of God in the way we do missions.
    One of the things that most people don’t know is that some six months before the national crisis in Kenya there was a smaller tribal warfare going on in a mountain village where many house churches were started after we left. Because of the return of love for hatred by the believers the fighting stopped. And as for those who were in need of food. Dawson, who was our host in a near by city, gave up funds given to him to come to the states, to feed those who were victim of that crisis. He and others rose to the occasion.
    I could go on about stories in Asia where some missions which depend greatly on America funds have stopped the spontaneous expansion that is taking place in other pockets that have no outside support.
    Lastly the new term “Religious tourism” wipes me out when I think of all the money, time and energy. I have been part of many of these “religious tours”. They sound so good and feels so right and now I wonder what it has produced.
    Meanwhile there seems to be a great contradiction in that the average believer in the states gives 2.5% (see article Stop all your giving) and what seems to be generosity to missions. Not sure what to make of that.

  3. Brother thank you for talking about an issue that many people will not dear address. Most third world countries are heavy dependent on the affluent western countries for handouts because they have been made to understand that they do not have what it takes to take care of themselves. The west is presented as a land flowing with milk and honey as such many people associate westerners with plenty. This misconception is reinforced by the actions of some of the short term missionaries. Who in most cases feel that since they have money, consulting with the locals and rendering services within their context is not necessary. this reinforces another misconception ” the wealthy westerners know all and have all the solutions”
    I remember sitting in church and watching pictures of a short mission trip that members of our church carried out in Mexico city. The members of the team,provided free medical consultations, gave out free supplies etc some inhabitants of Mexican slums. The question that was running through my mine was, why are these people living in the slums? What can be done to get them out of the slums permanently? For the efforts of the short mission trip though commendable is nothing short of window dressing. In the short team it looks good, but in the long run it is not sustainable and is doing nothing to solve the problem from its roots.
    The better option is to solve the problem from its root. Teach the people to fish and not give them fish. After all we serve the same God. How come that Christians in the west seem to have more while those in third world countries barely go by. Handouts from the west reinforce the feeling of helplessness, ingratitude and dependency that plagues third world countries. For this vicious circle to be broken, indigenous initiatives must be supported and all who go out there to help must acknowledge that the locals have something to offer and make sure their ideals are honored and celebrated.