Posted by: Titus Presler | November 3, 2010

Voluntourism critique should be heeded by Christian missiotourists

National Public Radio’s Nov. 2 report on the drawbacks of what is being called “voluntourism” should be pondered by Christians involved in what are widely called short-term missions. These are ventures by groups of people from Global North churches going typically to Global South societies, usually in relationship with churches there, to carry out projects ranging from painting buildings to evangelism to working with refugees and orphans.

Arresting in the NPR report – “In S. Africa’s Orphanages, Is Doing Good Really Bad?” – is the focus on the very relationships treasured by so many short-term missioners, in this case relationships formed with AIDS orphans at the Masasini children’s home near Cape Town in South Africa.  Voluntourists go there to work with the orphans for periods of weeks at a time.

“You get that gratification of making a difference,” said a young USAmerican voluntourist, prompting the anchor to ask rhetorically what the purpose of voluntourism is – to help others or gratify the voluntourist.

Another young woman, a Norwegian, acknowledged that during her first visit with the AIDS orphans they were asking her if she would be soon be leaving, so accustomed had they become to volunteers coming but departing before the children were ready to say goodbye.

An academic from the University of London spoke about how attachment research indicates that young children need to form strong connections with adults and how the revolving door of short-term voluntourists fundamentally blocks fulfillment of that need.  It was noted that agencies receiving voluntourists are reluctant to turn off the spigot of visitors because the visits usually stimulate continuing inflows of financial donations for the work.

The report looked only at secular voluntourists, not at church groups, but the critique is equally valid for the rising tide of short-term missions that several decades ago began replacing long-term missioners with their deep commitment, abiding relationships and cultural knowledge.

In his 2009 book, Boundless Faith: The Global Outreach of American Churches, Princeton sociologist  Robert Wuthnow estimates that more that 1.5 million Christians from the United States go abroad on short-term mission trips each year, and that the money spent on short-term mission trips constitutes about 30 percent of all funding devoted to world mission by USAmerican churches.  Recently I heard a returned missionary from Honduras recount how all the passengers on a particular plane to that country were members of various short-term mission teams from churches across the denominations.

In the just published Going Global with God: Reconciling Mission in a World of Difference I explore the strengths and weaknesses of the churches’ intensifying reliance on short-term missions, among them this issue of the viability of multitudes of relationships taken up with enthusiasm and then dropped weeks later.  I suggest that resolutely re-conceiving short-term missions under the rubric of pilgrimage may re-center the ventures spiritually and nurture greater integrity in relationship.  The paradigm of pilgrimage is more likely to incline groups toward continuing relationships year to year, even if particular journeys continue to be for ten days or two weeks at a time.  Equally important, the long-term relationship should build in the financing of missional journeys by our global companions to us here as well as by us to them there.

The NPR report reminds us that brief and expensive cross-cultural ventures by the privileged of the world may not only be narcissistic but may actually harm the weak and vulnerable whom we are trying to reach.  This is as true of missiotourism as it is of voluntourism.


  1. […] here for a recent posting on this blog about issues related to voluntourism and […]

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