Last week I started talking about the need to rediscover pilgrimage. The first pilgrimage I am challenged to embrace is to see the last, the least and the lost all around me. To see people, not just statistics. The second type of pilgrimage is short mission trips.
I have been transformed by travelling to different (usually poorer) places, meeting God’s people who are serving in astonishing ways, in incredible situations, with very little resource other than faith, hope and love in the power of the Holy Spirit. I come home not overwhelmed by the need, but inspired by the people and challenged over my own lifestyle. I am not alone. Thousands of people, young and old, take these trips. Often they are to the majority world and involve some practical work to support a social action project. Participants go out full of vision and excitement that they are going to ‘make a difference’ and spend a lot of money (and carbon) to get there.
It has become fashionable to dismiss these trips as poverty tourism for the rich. Another leisure experience to go alongside Disneyland and a safari park.
At best, the argument goes, we are sending inexperienced, unskilled people to use up time and energy from hard pressed projects in needy areas to do work that local people could have been paid for.
And clearly we are not going to change the world in a two week trip.
Surprisingly some of the critics of these trips are happy to cross the world to experience ‘revival outpourings’. It is strange that people are prepared to spend time, carbon and money in search of a blessing but criticise those who want to spend time, carbon and money in order to be a blessing.
And it is always easier to come up with reasons not to do something. But I think that the desire to journey to meet with God is a deep rhythm in Christianity.
These service trips only make sense in the context of pilgrimage. We go not to change the world but to encounter God and be changed. By leaving our comfort, exposing ourselves to the poor and the amazing brothers and sisters who work in incredibly challenging situations our own sense of discipleship and mission is transformed. We meet with God. Our duty is to work out this encounter in the rest of our lives. To come home and live differently in the light of what we experienced. But it’s even bigger than that. My experience of helping to make these trips happen through Tearfund over the past decade is that people are transformed and blessed on both sides of the equation. Maybe it is us visitors who receive the most, but when the body of Christ connects across geographical, economic and cultural boundaries, no-one is left unchanged. The body is strengthened and it grows.
I am involved in helping hundreds of people each year experience faith at the frontline of poverty. To find out what is available go to www.transform.travel