Christian Tourism

19 06 2017

christian_tourism

Every year, thousands of Christians go on “mission trips” to exotic locations all over the world. They love to come back touting big numbers of those that responded to a call to salvation, show off pictures of them loving on a kid in front of a mud hut, and bragging about the weird food they ate. The vast majority of these “mission teams” go to places that are already reached; that is, they have an indigenous church capable of making disciples of every person in the people group without the need for cross-cultural witnesses. For example, a number of years ago I flew to Honduras to go and work with a wonderful orphanage that our church has been partnered with for many years. The plane was full of mission teams! I could tell because everyone had team shirts on. According to the Joshua Project there is one people group in Honduras that is considered unreached, and that is a group of 1600 Muslim Turks. Now, I will clarify that our church continues to partner with the orphanage in Honduras, but it is our only partnership of its kind that is specifically not reaching an unreached people group.

What Is Missions?

We really need to understand what missions is in order to understand what a mission trip is and to differentiate it from Christian tourism. Missions is birthed out of Jesus’ commissioning statements, most popularly out of Matthew 28:19-20 where Jesus said that we are to go and make disciples of all ethne (people groups). Later we see the apostles, most notably Paul, flesh this out by going to people groups that had never heard the gospel and establishing indigenous, reproducing churches among them. Once the church was established, he would move on to the next people group knowing and trusting that the church, through the power of the Holy Spirit, was capable of reaching their own people. This is missions, pure and simple. If we do anything other than that, it may be good, but it is not missions. Caring for orphans is good and Biblical, but it is not strictly or technically missions. Going to a people group that is reached and doing VBS, sharing your testimony door-to-door, encouraging the existing church, discipling pastors, etc. is a lot of things good and Biblical, including ministry, evangelism, and discipleship, but not strictly missions.

Categorizing Our Trips

Every believer and every church ought to take time and evaluate what partnerships and trips they participate in by categorizing them by purpose. For instance, our trip to Honduras to work with the orphanage is called a mission trip, but in my mind, as a mission pastor, I know that this is a “ministry trip.” I might go to Kenya to train pastors as a mission trip, but I categorize that in my mind as a “discipleship trip.” This is an important exercise to work through because the priority should always be missions. Yes, other things are important, but the most critical thing is to make disciples of unreached people groups. If I only led my church to work with orphans, I would be leading my church to do good ministry but not missions. If I only went on one trip per year to train pastors in Kenya, I would still need to ask how I am making missions a priority in my life.

At this point, many people that are passionate about a particular ministry get upset because of the challenge that their ministry is not the critical priority. I am personally passionate about orphan and foster care. I have led our church to continue our work at and support of the orphanage in Honduras. We support foster care in our area and celebrate it publicly. We have an adoption fund at our church to help members offset the cost of adoptions. My family has personally adopted an orphan! I am passionate about this ministry, but I understand it is not the most important thing on planet earth. Getting the gospel to people groups that have no access to the gospel and seeing indigenous, reproducing churches planted among them is God’s priority, Jesus’ final command to us, and should be my burning desire.

The reason that I categorize what I do personally and what we do as a church is to make sure that my and our church’s priorities match up to God’s. As a church we certainly participate in orphan care, disaster relief, training pastors, etc. but these things come second to the mission of God.

The Tricky Part

You may be already thinking this, but can these good things like pastor training, disaster relief, or construction projects be one and the same with missions? The answer, of course, is yes. The key is long-term strategy. If the goal is indigenous, reproducing churches among unreached people groups, there are thousands of good, strategic ways to get there. A key thing to remember about long-term strategy, though, is that it should be generated from the field. This means that a cross-cultural missionary or a trustworthy national partner that has spent the time to research the people, learn the language and culture, and understands good missiology has developed the strategy. Problems come when well-intentioned churches and/or short-term teams dictate the strategy.

With all of this in mind, if I am leading a short-term team to do missions, I want know that whatever we do it is moving the cross-cultural missionary further down the road toward an indigenous, reproducing church. If the long-term, cross-cultural missionary or national partner determines that it would help them to have a team put a new roof on a church, I will bring a construction team. I should, as a caring Christian and mission pastor, question any strategy for accountability reasons, but in the end it is the call of those that will be there in the long run.

When determining mission trips versus just tourism or good works trips, the first thing that I am looking for is a long-term strategy to get to an indigenous, reproducing church. If a trip is not a part of that strategy, then it is not a mission trip.

Encouragement

If we can increase the longevity of our missionaries on the field, then we can increase the work to get to indigenous, reproducing churches. Another often neglected form of mission trips is “encouragement trips.” I certainly categorize these as mission trips! As stated before, to reach unreached people groups we have to have cross-cultural missionaries. The job of a missionary is difficult in the best of circumstances. The turnover rate is huge. These are people that are the vanguard of the greatest fight in history, and the front lines always have the highest casualty rates.

If we believe that we need these cross-cultural missionaries, we need to be willing to support them. One of the greatest ways that we can support our missionaries is to go visit them. These encouragement mission trips are difficult for churches that like to dictate the strategy themselves or like to boast about big results, because most of these trips do not have visible, short-term fruit. Churches that are able to do these types of trips are churches that know how to take the long-term, more healthy approach of making disciples.

Partnerships

The long-term, more healthy approach to making disciples as missions happens within partnerships, not one-shot trips to an exotic locale. Many churches participate in 3-5 year partnerships, but there have been very few unreached people groups reached within that time frame. As a matter of fact, statistics show that the vast majority of missionaries to pioneer areas do not even see their first converts until after seven years!

I have been a mission pastor long enough to know that interest in a mission partnership lasts about 3-5 years. That length of time is about the amount of time that it takes to get everyone interested in that locale the opportunity to go. Once interest in the partnership wanes, it is time to move on to the next opportunity. This is Christian tourism! The purpose of the partnership is not reaching the unreached people group or supporting the missionaries. It is getting your congregation interested enough to go, and everything else is second. This is the consumerism that we must be fighting in our churches, but instead we buy into it and call it missions.

Our church does not do 3-5 year partnerships. All of our partnerships are open-ended and evaluated continually. We have one partnership with an unreached people group that has gone for more than 15 years and multiple long-term missionaries. Most of our 16 partnerships are going on 7 years now. It is difficult to maintain interest and get people on trips, but that is not the primary focus. The priority is to see an unreached people group redeemed.

Conclusion

We, both corporately as a church and personally, need to look hard at our motives for going where we are going and why we are going. Long-term, open-ended partnerships with indigenous, reproducing churches among unreached people groups as the end goal with strategy dictated from the field is the ideal. Anything less than that is simply Christian tourism at best and could potentially do long-term harm to future mission efforts. Of course, God can use a random short-term trip to an exotic location, but that gives us no excuse to not work towards the best.








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