OPINION: How to add meaning to your upcoming mission trip by stepping away from greedy motivations

As students across the country wrap up finals and the semester, summer plans are at the forefront of most minds. Some are going on vacation, while others are buckling down to work until next semester begins. Some are preparing physically, emotionally and spiritually to take part in mission trips across the world. 

Mission trips usually involve a large group of youths and a pastor/minister with a shared religion that travels to impoverished countries to take part in community service and strengthen their faith. While these community service efforts are usually beneficial to the communities they are constructed for, many participants can cause damage and harm to the same communities they aim to help.

When my family travels to visit relatives in Africa, we always see mission trip groups in their matching t-shirts, cargo shorts and drawstring backpacks. We know that they are volunteering their time and efforts to help a suffering community, but we can’t help but roll our eyes knowing that many of them are fueled by narcissistic intentions rather than religious or ethical motives. It is important that before you decide whether or not to do missionary work, consider your true motives. 

Are you doing it because your friends said it would be a great way to get a cheap vacation or to boast about it on your resume or social media account? If so, a mission trip probably isn’t for you. While it may feel as though the intentions don’t matter, the people you are serving will know if you are just using them as props for a new Instagram post or as an excuse to take advantage of their country.

When participating in mission work, be sure to be respectful of the country you are visiting. Learn some of the local language and customs and don’t be afraid to try new foods (in many countries it is considered disrespectful to reject local cuisine). 

You must also prepare yourself for a culture shock. Many Americans have never gone a day without city comforts and reliable resources, so it can be quite shocking when you discover that you will have to completely change your lifestyle for days or weeks while on your trip. That being said, do not point out to the locals how good you may have it compared to them. Poverty is a complex concept that varies depending on the community. The last thing that the people you are assisting need to hear is that their way of life is backward and that they are ‘poor.’ A mission trip should be an opportunity to help others and connect with your god, not a vacation to make you feel better than others.

Regardless of why you go on mission trips, keep in mind that the individuals you encounter don’t stop existing after summer is over. Your work may affect communities for generations, so make sure that you leave a positive impression, not a toxic one.