I first encountered Bob Lupton almost twenty-five years ago while in graduate school at Eastern University. Over the years, my appreciation for his insight into community/economic development has only grown. He has written two very important and engaging books in recent years that I recommend to everyone. First, is his book, Compassion, Justice and the Christian Life: Rethinking Ministry to the Poor. It offers important insights into destructive ideas we often have about poverty and the poor. Second, and my favorite, is his recent book, Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (And How to Reverse It). This book goes a little deeper into the same topics but also offers some important tips on how to improve our charitable impulses. I recommend it for every pastor and congregational leader.
Lupton also writes a monthly newsletter for FCS Urban Ministries called Urban Perspectives. I get it each month by email. In his October installment, Saving the World, he talks about the idealism of his youth and disappointments he encountered. Today, the church routinely organizes mission trips, especially for idealistic youth, that are marketed as opportunties to "help the poor." He writes of a woman named Alison who organizes mission trips to Haiti. She emailed him a few months. Lupton writes:
Alison from Colorado who coordinates mission trips to Haiti emailed me recently with these very questions. She was painfully aware that the service her volunteers performed was largely make-work and their suitcases stuffed with free gifts only perpetuated a hands-out mentality among Haitians. She asked for my advice.
Here is Lupton's response. If his response resonates with you, then I highly recommend you get a copy of Toxic Charity and begin thinking about new ways we can do this work better.
From: Bob Lupton [firstname.lastname@example.org]
Sent: Wednesday, April 25, 2012 12:44 PM
Subject: mission trips
I understand the demand to do mission trips and the pressure you feel to continue planning them. Here are a few suggestions that may make them more redemptive.
Exposing young people (and adults) to the needs of the world and the amazing work of God in harsh environments is important ministry. It opens their eyes, stirs their hearts and draws them into compassionate action. That’s why mission trips can be important in the spiritual development of our youth. And that’s what mission trips should be about – spiritual development, not pretending that they are about saving the world. Not immediately anyway. They are about saving us. Preparing us. Once that is clear, we can venture into Haiti and other places of need with integrity.
We go to learn, not to save. The mindset of learners is very different from that of servers. Learners listen to others, servers do for others. Learners ask questions, servers offer answers. Learners marvel at the faith of the poor, servers pity the poor. Learners see ingenuity, servers see poverty. Learners affirm the worth of people, servers diminish their dignity. You see where I am going with this?
So how do we structure a mission trip that appeals to the innate desire to make a difference in the world, an experience that deepens the spiritual lives of our youth but doesn’t create false expectations? And of course, is truly helpful. First of all, our marketing has to have integrity. The trip is primarily about us, not them. And that’s OK. This is an insight trip to expand our spiritual horizons, see how faith works when resources are severely limited, discover how God is at work among culturally and theologically diverse people. Such insights can be transformative. They can become the very catalysts that ignite a ministry calling.
Secondly, we are not on a mission to help the poor by distributing suitcases full of give-away’s or performing meaningless make-work or assuming roles that can better be handled by locals. We do not promote beggary. We engage in exchange – economic as well as interpersonal. We enjoy the hospitality that is extended by our hosts, and we contribute to their economy by participating in the legitimate enterprise of tourism through fair payment for food, lodging , local transportation and preparation time. And we buy their products.
Thirdly, we prepare our youth for the learning experience by reading books on effective service (like Toxic Charity and When Helping Hurts) and articles on the country, the history and contemporary issues. Learning the language honors people, at least some key phrases. “Appreciative inquiry” techniques, note-taking and journaling can also be useful. Regular group reflection times during and following the trip will help youth assimilate and internalize what they are experiencing.
It goes without saying that on-the-ground connections with seasoned, in-country practitioners is essential to understand the context, scope and impact of the work. Visiting with several different ministries will broaden the perspective. They are the ones who can arrange discussions with residents as well as fun – like a soccer game with local teens. They will be relieved that they don’t have to set up work projects for your group. Remember, their mission is not to be tour guides. Generous compensation for the valuable time they spend with your group hosting and coordinating schedules would be most appropriate.
Hope this is useful.
Does this resonate with you? What would you think about dropping the name "mission trip" for "insight trip"?