No Such Thing as a Free Lunch

Screen Shot 2016-05-23 at 7.25.08 AMBy Michelle Van Loon www.MichelleVanLoon.com and www.MomentsAndDays.org

Precious few of us will ever receive an invitation to travel for free to the Holy Land or to tour with a group of high-level Christian influencers to witness first-hand the stories behind the headlines in places like Rwanda, Guatemala, or Haiti. But the experience of those who are invited on all-expenses-paid educational junkets sponsored by governments, NGO’s, and ministry organizations carries into the words and work of these influencers. This is precisely why these leaders have been chosen to go on these trips.

Journalists, politicians, and high-octane business people have long been the recipients of all-expenses paid junkets. But more and more organizations are reaching out to Christian platform personalities including pastors, speakers, musicians, and bloggers. This isn’t a nefarious thing. But it comes with an additional measure of responsibility for the Christian teacher, pastor, speaker, or writer who accepts an invite to attend one of these all-expenses-paid trips. And it calls for a bit of discernment on the part of those of us in their audience to recognize what is driving these junkets.

The topic of these trips came up in discussion among a group of writers I know.

A couple of those were journalists who had been on trips organized by ministry organizations. They noted that while their employer permitted them to attend the trip, their employer also asked them to inform the trip sponsor prior to the trip that the publication was not expecting them to do any reporting based on their experiences during the junket. Other writers in the conversation noted that this kind of travel can be of great value in helping to broaden their vision of God’s world and the global church. It is a natural byproduct from junket travel for a communicator to stretch and challenge their audience, either by direct reporting or simply by speaking or writing from an expanded experience of the world.

A government, NGO, or ministry organization knows that while their own pictures and stories may have value in communicating to the world their political or social point-of-view, their PR dollars can bring a good return on their investment by getting a group of high-visibility Christian leaders who can share their first-hand experiences with those in their own sphere of influence. As we in their audience hear their journey stories, see their pictures, or maybe even notice a subtle shift in the way our platformed leader speaks about other, related themes such as conflict, justice, or mission after a trip, the sponsoring organization is seeing a return on their investment.

There’s a ministry component to some of these Christian-focused junkets. These influencers invited on these trips often have an opportunity to rub shoulders with government officials and national church leaders. Some on the tour may be invited to speak at a church or two. Others spend a part of their trip in the trenches of ministry, learning from those caring for orphans, providing medical care for refugees, or digging wells. But tour organizers curate these trip experiences first and foremost to advance their own political or organizational goals. Though some Christian leaders go into these experiences with their eyes wide open, it is true that others get swept away by the heady experience of being in the hand-selected company of other influencers, having experiences that the average visitor to that country or location could never dream of having.

A few helpful cautions emerged out of that conversation with my writer friends. First, if a government agency, NGO, or ministry is paying the tab for your travel, it is wise to remember there are strings attached, if only to coax you toward adopting your trip organizers’ point of view. (One example: some junkets to Israel are focused on advancing a pro-Palestinian narrative; others, telling the Christian Zionist story.) If a government or organization is making the investment in this trip, understand that the group you’re with, the places you’ll go, and the people you meet have been curated to give you a specific kind of experience, with the goal of transforming you into an advocate (or propagandist!) for the organization.

Second, travelers need to remember these trips aren’t vacations, even if a day at the beach or adult beverages by the pool at night are a part of the privileged experience. Leaders should work overtime to avoid the humble brag about the tribulations of jet lag or social media shout outs name-checking the awesome people with whom they’re traveling. Invited influencers need to travel with eyes wide open, a heart willing to learn, and have trusted people who weren’t on the trip with whom they can prayerfully process the experience before they write or speak a whole lot about it. James’ yellow flag warning to those in positions of spiritual authority and his words about wisdom in speech aimed at all of us applies to travel junkets, too.

I’m guessing that a teensy-tiny percentage of those of you reading these words have ever been offered a seat on a Christian travel junket. But it is helpful for the rest of us to know something about how some of our influencers are influenced – both for good and for not-so-great – by others hoping to shape their message.

 

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