By REMI MERHI
KENNESAW, Ga. — Victoria Layne felt called to South Africa to show “the love of God” to all the people she could. Her passion for sharing and teaching love was apparent in her excitement for her mission trip, and there are many who share her excitement for these and other religious missions; however, there are others who feel there has been a change in the motives of religious mission trips.
Noel Becchetti, former president of the Center for Student Missions said he believes that mission trips have been tainted by the misdirected approach of missions, the possibility of ulterior motives and the lack of knowledge of cultural differences that can prevent Christians from fully helping. Some of these aspects have affected Layne’s trip in regards to her contribution, bonding experience and purpose.
The purpose of Christian mission trips can vary based on the specific needs of the people. However, the purpose of mission trips originates from and intertwines with sharing the word of God. Missionaries used to travel to reach people of different or no faith. Now, the norm has become missionaries preaching to other Christians.
“Ninety-eight percent of mission work is done with Christians,” said Becchetti. “It’s not mission work at all. It’s people working with churches, bible schools, etcetera, and all they’re doing is talking to other Christians.”
Layne was a prime example of this phenomenon since she taught in a Christian-based schooling system where the children already went to church and were taught scripture.
“I was trying to show them the love of God, not necessarily teach them about it, but just let them know that God loves them so much,” said Layne, in response.
Despite the positive outlook, the question then becomes, if the time, effort and money spent on this trip is worth reinforcing a religion that, in many cases, the children already have. Some may argue that this should not matter since missionaries do more than spread religion by also helping those in need; however, helping others in need with no religious motivations or teachings seems to be closer to the definition of social services. Mission trips, on the other hand, are meant to include the teachings of God.
Becchetti maintains, however, that the mission trip industry as a whole seems to have shifted.
“A mission trip, unfortunately, nowadays—it’s an industry. It’s a billion dollar industry,“ he said.
When missionary coordinators focus on profit instead of helping the community, a missionary may end up doing “busy work.” Becchetti said some signs that show missionaries may not actually be there to help is when you are put in a position of power, asked to preach your beliefs, given unnecessary construction tasks or asked to help the church with “outreach.”
Layne says that prior to her trip, she did not do much research but says, “I knew people who had gone the year before and they were like ‘you’ll love it.’”
She further disclosed that she did not actually know if she contributed anything with the actions she was asked to do, but she said, “I was just happy to give them my presence and just to love on those kids and be with them.”
Christians with good intentions, like Layne, do not usually see a reason not to trust the missionary coordinators asking for the type of work Becchetti warned about.
The missionary partners in other countries can add to this ineffective system as well. Becchetti describes many of the non-Westerners as usually differential, people-oriented individuals as opposed to Westerners who are task-oriented with a want to control the situation. Because of this, the missionary partners commonly allow the missionaries to do as they please as opposed to actually help, sometimes in hopes that if they do, the missionaries will become long-term donors.
However, missionaries want to help people, so why should this want to control be an issue? Becchetti said he believes that, if what is needed does not fit into the missionary’s vision of what it means to help, they may attempt to change the situation. He suggests honoring what their culture prioritizes which, in most cases, is developing relationships.
Some mission coordinators attempt to relay the message to not let the missionary’s bias get in the way of helping people. In fact, Layne was able to go into the experience with an open mind and develop close bonds with the children after taking a preparation class that instructed her to have no expectations.
Despite these challenges, Becchetti said that missionaries who want to help can strive to find missions that reach individuals of different or no faith, focus on what is important to the culture of the people and research the missionary coordinators and the nature of the trip.