Before I discuss the pitfalls of being a missionary tourist, I suppose I should clarify what I mean. A missionary isn’t a tourist just because he takes selfies, buys souvenirs, or has lots of fun while serving. In fact, a missionary tourist’s actions will almost always look good and right. It’s the motives that are problematic.
A missionary tourist participates in missions for self-aggrandizing reasons. She goes on trips to appear compassionate, to “experience” another culture, to improve her résumé, or to feel good about herself. A godly missionary, by contrast, desires to be a sacrifice poured out so that others might receive Christ’s grace.
Of course it’s nearly impossible to discern a condition of the heart, and no one but the individual can know if she is or isn’t a mere tourist. Actions alone don’t turn a servant into a tourist. Every missionary must examine her own heart, then, to ensure her motives are pure and Christ-centered.
Serving God or Seeking Fans
The purpose of missions is to get those throughout the world to focus on Jesus. The senders write checks and pray as the goers seek to make disciples of Jesus the King. But a missionary tourist draws attention away from Christ and makes the experience about himself, elevating his own reputation above God’s glory.
A missionary’s actions should point to God first and always. Whereas a true missionary doesn’t crave credit because of their good works, a missionary tourist relishes the attention of “fans.” Such a posture robs God of praise. A missionary tourist causes others to think, even for a moment, that good things come from man. This is wrong. A missionary’s suffering, hard work, and sacrifice should never be the focus of missions work; instead, the focus should remain on God’s provision, glory, and grace.
Again, we must remember the proof is in the heart. For example, a photograph of a youth group on a mission trip can be used by one person to glorify God and by another to promote himself.
Selfie Sticks Aren’t the Problem
Since so much of the internet trends toward narcissism and self-promotion, some like to cast asperions on missionaries who take pictures, shoot video, or otherwise promote their experience. But there’s nothing inherently wrong with promoting missions work via electronic or social media. If social media posts cause more people to praise God or pray in Christ’s name, then they deserve to be replicated.
Only faithful diligence and prayer will ensure the intentions of the missionary are God-honoring and not self-aggrandizing. Of course, as more and more use the Internet and social media, it shouldn’t surprise us to see sinful distortions of such a potentially useful tool. But a selfie stick does not a sinner make.
Few things run more contrary to the human heart than missions. What could contradict our me-centered culture more than selflessly giving time and treasure to serve those who can’t repay you—and then giving the credit to someone else? As fallen humans, all missionaries are tempted to accept ill-placed praise for their service.
What could contradict our me-centered culture more than selflessly giving time and treasure to serve those who can’t repay you—and then giving the credit to someone else?
In order to avoid becoming a missionary tourist, a disciple of Jesus must grasp and embrace the theology behind missions. The Lord gives sinners the heart and gifts to share his Son’s mercy with others who are equally undeserving. Only when this point is internalized will the missionary tourist begin deflecting credit for God’s work.
Missionary tourism occurs when we don’t comprehend God’s grace and seek self-glory instead. True missionaries, however, humbly and reverently embrace this calling they’ve received. They embrace our Savior’s Great Commission and bring him all the glory—for all of it already belongs to him.