How Going on Vacation Might be Better than Going on a Mission.

The other day someone asked if we have any big plans for this summer, and El Chupacabra and I looked at each other and smiled because we do have big plans for this summer. We have really big plans…
WE’RE TAKING OUR FAMILY TO AFRICA! WHAT?! I KNOW!!! 
I CAN’T BELIEVE IT EITHER!!! SQUEEEEE!!!!!!!!
When we shared our big news, we probably should have expected her response, but it still caught us off guard when she said, “That’s amazing! Who will you be working with?”
We glanced at each other, “…Working?”
“Yeah. Like, what organization are you partnering with? What are you goingto do there?”
And then it got awkward, because we were all, “Ooooooh. Oh. Yeah. No, it’s not like that. We’re not going on a mission, we’re going on vacation… You know, just for fun. Entertainment. Relaxation. Adventure. That sort of thing.”
She blinked and looked confused.
I guess that’s understandable. I can see how it might be counterintuitive to imagine a Missions Pastor and a writer who has the word “missionary” in the title of her blog taking their kids to Africa and not going on a mission. But that’s exactly what we’re doing. We’re going to fly all the way across the world, and then we are notgoing to dig a well, we’re notgoing to hold any orphans, and we’re notgoing to treat anyone’s parasites (unless, of course, they’re our own). We will not be seen in matching T-shirts or praying in a circle at the airport, and you won’t catch us “loving on” complete strangers with sweaty hugs, zealous high fives, or bullhorn street-corner evangelism.
The habitual short term missionary (the one who collects passport stamps crossing the planet on the support-raised dime of the Church to participate in safely organized service opportunities) will have a stroke if they read this, so maybe don’t send it to them. Or do. But, for sure, choosing fun over field will have some people questioning my love of God, my commitment to Jesus, and my very salvation.
Behold, she chose a family vacation over a Christian mission
and, lo, there was a great clutching of pearls.
Here’s the thing. I’ve lived abroad, traveled a bunch, willfully participated in and happily hosted short term teams, crossed paths with people from all walks of life and faith and culture, broken bread with the wealthy elite and the poorest of poor, and conversed with some of the most educated and experienced leaders in the global church movement, and it’s all led me to this conclusion:

Going on a kickass vacation can be healthier, more productive, and more beneficial
 to both the traveler and the world than a short term mission.
I’ve come to believe my money is better spent in the hotels, restaurants, shops, gas stations, parks, monuments and attractions that provide legitimate jobs and dignified work to the very same locals I would otherwise be “blessing” on a short term mission trip. Tourism is a gross domestic product, an industry that creates layers and layers of real, sustainable jobs for a countries workforce. I’d wager that it’s far kinder and more generous for you to leave a tip and a favorable comment for the woman who cleans your hotel room each day, than for you to show up on her doorstep with your selfie stick and a bag of rice once a year (#blessed). When you vacation somewhere, you’re contributing to a healthy demand for everything from the edible goods of the rural farmer who might otherwise sell his child, to the administrative services of the urban student who might otherwise sell herself. When you vacation in the places you’d usually mission, you’re engaging people’s pride and joy without exploiting their shame.
I know, I know – What about all the other stuff? Like, what about showing our kids how other people live? And what about exposing our pampered teenagers to poverty? What about getting uncomfortable? What about learning to serve others? Every single time I speak on missions at churches or universities, these questions come up. And every time this is what I say:
  • I have an intrinsic desire to see the whole entire world and to show as much of it as I can to my kids. I believe this is inherent in me as a human, because we are drawn to the work of our Creator. I believe it can be a form of worship and I believe it can have value. BUT. It is not the Church’s responsibility to send me or my kids all over the world for the purpose of “exposure”. If you think it’s that important, you should sign your kid up for a foreign exchange program and pay for it yourself, or with grandma’s help or whatever. As much as you and I both want it to be, crossing boarders is it is not crucial to your child’s development as human or as a Christian. It’s cool, but not crucial.
  • Using poor kids to teach rich kids a lesson about how good they have it is just gross. It’s ineffective at best, and incredibly harmful at worst. Plus, it’s ICKY.
  • You will never get more uncomfortable than in the intimacy of meaningful relationships with the people to the right and left of you, so go love your actual neighbor. Short term missions are more of a relief from the depth and discomfort of real life and real love and real relationship than a true dip into discomfort. 
  • An attitude of service should be learned at home and applied in the world, not the other way around, so if learning to serve is your end goal, there’s no need to hop on a plane to do menial tasks for strangers. I promise, not a day of your life has gone by that wasn’t chock full of opportunities to serve others – that’s true of vacation days, too – we all just need to be looking.
    omg. I KNOW. I just like the way it sounds. Jeez.
So we are going to South Africa, Botswana, and Mozambique, and we’re going there on vacation. And that’s it. Who we’re going with is each other. Why we’re going is for fun. What we’re doing is cool shit. Oh, and? Who’s footing the bill is our own damn selves. We are going to stay in mediocre hotels, visit beautiful national parks, and eat cheap local food. We’re going to do touristy things and less touristy things. We’re going to see cities and countrysides and all the sights in between. We’re going to try all the beers and taste all the fruits and make all the weird noises at all the animals. We’re going to get lost once or twice along the way, because that’s what we always do on vacation, and we’re probably gonna be ok. 
This two week vacation will most likely be the last major trip we get to take with our three grown/growing sons. They’ll be marrying and blasting out babies in no time, so this is our nuclear family’s last hurrah. It won’t be extravagant – we are literally saving pennies to make it happen – but I have no doubt it will be amazing. We’re going to immerse ourselves as best we can in the culture and history and people around us. And, yes, we will be on vacation, but we won’t turn a blind eye to the poor. And yes, we will be relaxing, but we’ll also be doing some hard work in our relationships with our boys and with each other – some investing, and some reassuring, and some healing. We’re going on Safari, because HOLY SHIT IT’S AFRICA!!! And we’re going with humility, because it’s our privilege just to be there.
I fully expect to see this EXACT scene.
I hope that we come home changed somehow, better, wiser, closer. And I hope that you’ll ask me how our trip to Africa was, just so I can say something like, “OMG. It was AMAZING! I learned way more from Africa than Africa learned from me.” And we can LOL. 
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Also? No lie, I’m kinda pissed that Dax and Kristen beat us to this, but we’re still totally gonna do it…

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8 Comments

  1. Amy Henss on April 1, 2018 at 4:57 pm

    Dax and Kristen are my spirit animals. How was your trip?? I just discovered you from your podcast interview with Jamie Ivey, ohhhhh a million years ago. (I’m late to the party) I want to read your book now. You seem to be the EXACT badass Christian gal this world needs!!! Much love, from Texas! ❤️

  2. Tami on April 4, 2018 at 7:44 pm

    Yes, yes and yes!!!!! Most short term mission trips = ‘Voluntourism’. Gross. I literally just suggested to someone that it would be far more beneficial to send the $2k their STM trip cost straight to the trusted organization they were partnering with and skip flying around the globe to take selfies. I mean serve.

  3. Brian Miller on April 10, 2018 at 12:24 pm

    I really appreciated this. A lot.

    Born and bread a good ol’ Christian boy, and after serving in “missions” for years, I’m pretty exhausted of it all – not the Jesus part of course, but for sure the Christian part.

    This post, and your thoughts in general, are clever and challenging.

    Thanks for sharing, openly and honestly, your thoughts and struggles.

  4. Asha Emmerson on May 1, 2018 at 12:45 am

    From an African woman leading a development organisation who fights the long term effects of the “short term” saviour mentality every day-because it does affect people’s perception of their own value directly, AMEN! Come and see our nations for all they have…you will gain and impact far more & everyone will have more fun😊

  5. Bonex Makoha on May 1, 2018 at 10:43 pm

    What a blessing this is a great idea to learn about opens mind and brings a great perspective as a growing minister it brings a practical exprience to me and i ask God for wisdom in all
    Thanks for sharing
    Bonex Makoha in Uganda Africa

  6. Paul Olson on May 30, 2018 at 7:29 am

    Highly recommend reading “Game Lodges and Leisure Colonialists” by Njabulo S Ndebele. Fine Lines from the Box: further thoughts about our country (Roggebaai:Umuzi, 2007)

    In July of 1997, while holidaying on the north coast of KwaZulu-Natal, I struck up a friendship with a family of American tourists. As we exchanged experiences of life in a game lodge, one of my new friends commented, ‘Now I understand what it meant to be a colonialist’. I was intrigued by this comment because it seemed to ring true of my own experience of game-lodge living. Does the game lodge not represent the ultimate ‘leisuring’ of colonial history that has remained relatively untouched in the discourse of freedom. In essence, the game lodge impedes the emergence of an image of Africa and its diverse cultures as transforming historical phenomena.
    But how did it feel to be a colonialist? There I was, having secured my own space through an advance booking in a game lodge that promised relief from the accumulated stresses of professional life. It promised isolation, unobtrusive personalised care, campfire camaraderie and pre-dinner drinks with a small number of fellow guests in the evenings, a dinner presided over by the managers, and late-night or early-morning game drives. Much of the lodge was built on stilts so that it would be environmentally friendly. This, I thought, was a slight departure from the usual style where you felt that you were entering a precious cleared space in the middle of a frightening, threatening forest. To make up for the loss of that sensation, this particular lodge, raised up on its wooden posts, allowed you to enjoy the illusion of being lifted protectively above all the ‘creeping things’ of the earth. But wouldn’t those things still come creeping up the stilts? Soon I learned to put this niggling anxiety aside and got down to enjoying myself.
    There are some interesting features common to game lodges. There is the clearing in the middle of the bush, signifying civilisation. This clearing will have neat green lawns, which contrast with the dense, chaotic bush just beyond their trimmed edges. That clean-cut edge is crucial. It indicates the perimeter of civilisation. In the precious clearing you ‘unexpectedly’ yet gratefully find all the modern conveniences. Although they were promised in the promotional brochure, it is most reassuring to confirm the presence of comfortable, elegantly decorated bedrooms, each with its own bathroom containing toilet, shower and bathtub, hot and cold water. The towels and toilet paper, the rugs, the bedside reading lamps never fail to convey a sense of hospitality warmly offered, ‘far from home’. Thank God there is no television set! Its pervasive absence enhances the general silence. This occurs especially at night when you finally lock the door and turn off the light to sleep, vaguely grateful that there is a key.
    The pleasure of the game lodge lies in its ability to provide personal conveniences and luxuries far from home. These conveniences are an essential link to the home base. Signifying the success of conquest, they are the concrete manifestation of the movement of the dominant culture across time and space, and its ability to replicate itself far away. Of course, in the case of the contemporary game lodge, the violent bitter history of conquest is long over. So you visit the lodge, the secured space in the bush, not to administer the threatening wilderness that presses in on all sides, but to participate in the continuing enjoyment of the fruits of conquest. There is nothing ’out there’ to subdue and control. Whatever it is out there, it is guaranteed to stay at bay.
    The contemporary tour of duty in a game lodge is of a special kind. It is to reaffirm and celebrate a particular kind of cultural power: the enjoyment of colonial leisure. For is it not true that relaxation comes from the uncontested simulation of hardship in the bush, enduring the chill and the bumpy tracks on night drives, sweating through walking trails, living by the light of the campfire rather than the television screen? The sense of stimulation is enhanced by the ease with which escape is possible. In case of trouble, or in a bout of weakness, the telephone at the bedside is within arm’s reach. Keeping the hand away from the phone is the measure of the leisure colonialist’s discipline and determination to be isolated successfully. After all, you could simply drive away. Moreover, finding in the morning that your car had been miraculously cleaned, and every trace of the bush removed, you could drive away feeling overwhelmed by the greatness of small gestures, thinking: how thoughtful they can be! So, whether you succeed or fail in your simulated enterprise, you will be rewarded with care. Colonial leisure is the pleasure of risk without danger, or risk with the guarantee of safety.
    Guaranteed safety? Not quite. If there is any guaranteed safety it is safety from the past. But if the past is gone, there can be no safety from the future. The thought occurs to me that the game lodge has become a leisure sanctuary where moneyed white South Africans can take refuge from the stresses of living in a black-run country. Once, the game lodge was an extension of their power: now it is a place where those who have lost power go to regain a sense of possession. Everything there is still in place: the measured conveniences, of course, but also the faceless black workers, behaving rather meekly, who clean the rooms, wash the dishes, make the fire, baby-sit the children, and make sure that in the morning the leisure refugees find their cars clean. Living somewhere ‘out there’, beyond the neatly clipped frontier, the black workers come into the clearing to serve. And then they disappear again. In their comings and goings, they are as inscrutable as the dense bush from which they emerge and to which they return. The servants, in their coming and going, trigger off among the leisure refugees a low-intensity anxiety. Who knows what the potential of these ’servants’ is for turning into the unknowable nightmare, so frequently reported in the newspapers, in which a white farmer and his family are brutally murdered by killers, most probably black, who appear out of nowhere and vanish back into it again?
    After all, they have political power on their side these days, they can join trade unions and come and go as they please. …

  7. Vicki on June 17, 2018 at 6:58 am

    I am a librarian, and I have over 400 vacation hours saved up. I don’t really want to just blow my vacation hours at a random beach. I thought I might go on a “Libraries Without Borders” service trip maybe, not this year since the application deadline has passed, but maybe next year. I have an MSLS in library science and an MA in Spanish, so probably it would make sense for me to build a library in a Spanish speaking country (or territory! I’m sure Puerto Rico still needs help). I am also a board member of a local organization that advocates for undocumented immigrants and refugees. I know that short term missions organizations are more plentiful and might have more opportunities year round to go and build a library. Libraries Without Borders only had 2 trips this year – one to Guatemala and one to Ghana, and I missed both. Because I work in a public library, I can’t take a big vacation in the months of June and July (summer reading time), so that limits when I can go somewhere. Also, if I do a service vacation, I might be able earn contact hours to recertify in my home state of Kentucky (my library requires the librarians to be state certified, so the library gets a discount on insurance for that I think). Are there any organizations you know of that use volunteers/”missionaries” to build libraries? I’m a lapsed Methodist, and I’m only very loosely affiliated with a local CMA church. I’m thinking of joining a local Episcopal church, but I don’t know if they do much in terms of “missions” the way evangelical churches do (or if their “missions” are as much of a dumpster fire as evangelical missions are). I’m open to suggestions…

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