Last year, I wrote about mission trips in evangelical Christianity–and did not exactly describe the idea in glowing terms. I think even less of it today, and I’ll be talking about why now.
To define some terms, a mission trip is a short trip that a (usually very young, teenage or college-aged) Christian boy or girl does during a summer vacation or a “gap year” between high school and college. The young person goes with a large group of other kids to a foreign country–preferably one that is already very Christian, with a bonus if it’s populated by people who don’t look much like the kids themselves. Fun countries like Jamaica are quite common destinations for these trips. There, the kids will fart around for a few weeks pretending to do charity work while wasting the time and resources of their hosts, who will be a Christian group that already has a strong presence in that country. These trips last anywhere from a few days to a few weeks and cost on average USD$1000-3000 per person.
The group returns with glowing accounts of how “Jesus” totally for realsies worked “miracles” galore–though you may rest assured that the host country is still going to be quite, quite the same as it was when they all got there. Upon their triumphant return, the kids who took these vacations get something nice to put on their college applications, a huge injection of Jesus Power, and a false feeling of having accomplished something meaningful.
Obviously the trip must be perfectly safe, since we’re talking about a gaggle of young, largely-undisciplined evangelical kids who are probably away from their parents for the first time in their lives, and obviously it must feel meaningful even if it isn’t at all. Some of the trips sound like they’re actually trying to do some real charity work, but almost all of the ones I’ve ever looked at have been as I describe to the letter.
A mission trip is quite different from missionary work, and though generalization is difficult with a religion this scattershot I will try here. Missionaries themselves tend to make a long-term livelihood out of their activities and are often sponsored by churches or umbrella denominational organizations. If they need to raise funds, they generally do it through their home church or organization, which also provides them with a living stipend and whatever else they need to have. Often formal missionaries have spouses and children and are mature adults, too, and they are not often sent in large groups. Their time abroad lasts much longer than what the kids experience. Missionaries generally must know (or at least learn) the language of their host country, and that country might or might not be majority-Christian already–and might not be perfectly safe for missionaries. Missionaries are themselves considered ministers and set sometimes on a level with pastors; their job is to increase the size of the footprint of their particular flavor of Christianity in their host countries. They are, in a real sense, salespeople for their religious ideas and exporters of their home church’s ideology, rather than tourists.
Ironically, as Liberty University discovered when they studied the topic, the number of long-term missionaries has stayed pretty stable or even decreased a bit–while the number of the short-term kids’ trips has increased exponentially. About 30% of young Christians have taken this kind of a trip at this point–millions of them by now, with many of those taking more than one of these trips. They’re very popular!
Not for nothing are youth groups’ mission trips (again, not so much actual missionary work, which is criticized for a wholly different reason) criticized as just another variant of ghoulish “poor-ism” in which well-off kids from first-world countries can travel to countries full of brown people and gawk at the natives while getting that very special swell in the breast that can only come from largely-meaningless token gestures of charity. Really, it’s no surprise at all that Christianity is suffering so many losses when one considers how low their standards have sunk. These short-term mission trips are a symptom of the greater disease in Christian evangelical culture, an indication of a people who are well-satisfied with feeling good over doing good, and with appearances over reality.
But like most forms of poorism, mission trips ain’t cheap. Christians certainly don’t want to go to all the trouble and sacrifice of financing their own feel-good vacations by themselves. At the beginning of every summer for the last few years, many of us have discovered our social media accounts brimming with shameless begging from these young people wanting their friends and family to help finance these trips abroad. Refusing to give these kids handouts for their Jesus-flavored vacations can cause many rifts between friends and family alike, but the alternative–teaching these kids that it’s okay to beg from friends for their purely voluntary projects–is distinctly unpalatable to anybody with sense. Christians with slightly more taste turn to panhandling from total strangers using GoFundMe or KickStarter. Hey, it might be “Jesus'” will that they go, but he didn’t hand them the money they’d need or anything. Dude’s really bad with finances, I suppose. On the tackiness scale, begging for money for a totally self-serving vacation trip ranks right down there with couples demanding cash in their wedding invitations, but if there’s one thing young people learn very quickly in evangelicalism, it’s that the name of their savior can cloak anything in a veneer of false righteousness.
Poor-ism and Misery Vacations.
I’m a bit of an Encino (Wo)Man in a way–I deconverted 20+ years ago, so when I look at right-wing Christianity I’m gazing partially through the lens of my own experience. But it’s an experience that is 20 years removed. I can easily see the changes that have occurred in the religion because I have this snapshot I carry around in my head of what the culture was like way back when.
And this might sound shocking, but there was a time when youth groups did not make a habit of poorism in the form of these “mission trips.”
It wouldn’t even have occurred to me, as a young Pentecostal, to do anything like that. We had actual missionaries, and those were the people our church trusted to take our message to other countries. Missions Nights were always a lot of fun at our church, because those were the evenings when the missionaries and their wives would show up with slideshows and heartfelt accounts of their previous year or two abroad. Sometimes their accounts were hilarious and sometimes they were wrenching, but they were never boring. The evening would always end with a “love offering” to the missionaries. These Mission Nights happened every month or two. It was a nice way to keep the congregation abreast of what our church was doing to spread the Gospel (since none of us realized that gang, it’s been pretty much spread by now).
A lot has changed since then. There are still professional missionaries, of course, but now there’s this other whole secondary industry in Christianity catering to kids who want a taste of the exotic-for-Jesus. There are rafts of businesses now that have shrewdly leaped into service providing these vacations in curated misery to legions of young Christians–for a hefty price. Not for nothing do Christians themselves sometimes take stabs at criticizing this new industry–often from the point of view of bitter and hard-won experience. But at this point they are arguing with a billion-dollar industry; one might as well try to block a tidal wave with a dishrag jammed under the door.
All of this brings us to the scandal-ridden Duggar family. Ironically, their current brewing trouble might be bringing Christians’ attention to the topic of mission trips in a way that even they can’t ignore or hand-wave away.
Show Us the Money.
I’ve heard rumblings about this story for months now, but didn’t have enough information to do a post about it until recently. Readers and commenters alike have begun focusing on it–and for good reason.
Shortly after Josh Duggar’s sex-abuse scandal broke in May, his sister Jill and her husband Derick Dillard announced they were leaving the country to go on one of these short-term mission trips starting in early July. At the time I even noted that I couldn’t blame her for wanting to leave for a while, considering she’d just been revealed as one of Josh’s five victims. The pair didn’t even reveal where they were going, only that it would be for a bit longer than these trips normally take.
What was a little strange was that the pair, in their announcement on their own family website, made sure to beg for money for their trip that they refused to detail in any way.
It’s hard to imagine a trip that is more self-serving than this one was. The pair didn’t want to reveal where they were going (it turned out to be El Salvador, another popular location for youth-group poorism mission trips and not exactly a hotbed of non-Christian pagans) or what exactly they’d be doing, but they sure did want people to donate money to the cause simply because they’d called their vacation a mission trip. They wanted people to just hand them money sight unseen to use for whatever the hell they wanted to use it for, trusting that they’d use it for the purpose declared. They asked for the money through their tax-exempt “charity” organization, Dillard Family Ministries.
And unbelievably, apparently tons of Christians actually gave these two money for their trip without knowing one single thing about it.
Weeks passed and the Dillards posted vague updates on their site–by July 18th they’d arrived at their mystery destination and Derick had already seen one old lady who was already Christian switch over to their flavor of Christianity. By August 5th they revealed that they’d been jetting around several different Central American countries performing largely meaningless entertainment stunts and “worked on construction projects” that almost certainly would have been way better performed by locals rather than a sheltered fundagelical guy who couldn’t actually speak the language.
By August 31, they were posting that they’d already been back to the States to attend a friend’s wedding and take part in some sort of television documentary (probably the one about child sex abuse). For missionaries, they sure seemed to have a pretty cushy gig: soccer tournaments, singing exhibitions, language lessons in what must have been an immersive environment, and a little light labor, all broken by trips home when the exotic culture got to be too much. On September 10, they wrote that a second trip home was being spent very enjoyably and comfortably.
But rumblings were on the horizon, and there was a reason why the Dillards chose to shed some light on their trip right then. You see, right before that update, their fans had begun to ask some very angry questions about exactly what this mission trip was meant to accomplish and where their money was actually going. All the sweet Duggar smiles and sweet Duggar platitudes in the world couldn’t mask that something shady seems to be going on here.
That cloak that evangelicals depend on to mask everything they do in Jesus-righteousness has begun to show its wear.
Better late than never, hmm?
Their Facebook page is a total hoot at this point–it’s torn between people being supportive toward them and outraged fans who’ve finally figured out that the Duggars and their entire cult community are apparently just a bunch of performance artists who’ve figured out how to sponge off of a group of enthusiastic victims–an easily-duped flock of fleece-able sheep–to support themselves. In between photos of the happy couple going to Cracker Barrel and artistic snapshots of Bible pages and the talk and photos of Jill’s pregnancy, one can see frequent comments from the increasingly-restive sheep.
One fan asks what they did with all the donated money besides “that stupid interpretive dance thing.” Another wants to see photos of the “hospital, schools and bible studies you helped with.” Yet another asks if the IRS has “gotten in touch with you grifters yet.”
And more than a few are finally noticing that their donated funds don’t appear to be doing much for the “Kingdom,” to use the Christianese–and demanding that the Dillards either come clean about just what that money is going toward or else give it back to the donors who gave them all that money under false pretenses. One commenter simply wrote, “SCAMMERS!” as if that about covered it, which it really sorta does.
Their response was an undated photo of them in an unnamed location with tons of little brown children and a sanctimonious note about how poor those kids are. Oh, and a vague Tweet of a Bible verse displaying their pure arrogance.
In other gossip and news outlets, one can see more of this outrage from fans wondering if their hard-earned money went to plane tickets and fun activities rather than saving Catholics from, um, the Pope I guess?
One thing (among many, let’s be fair here) right-wing Christians aren’t really good at is demanding accountability and transparency from their leaders and idols. Just as they aren’t asking many questions about Kim Davis’ nepotism and her general hypocrisy, or dodging the questions that do make it through their bubbles like Mike Huckabee did regarding his new mascot, they don’t tend to ask a lot of questions about the Duggars. Without even knowing anything about the case, even admitting that they’re willfully ignorant about what they’re talking about, they’ll charge in to defend those idols to their last breath–as we’ve even seen here on this blog on occasion!
But one thing that even Christians respect is money. The Duggars have always been good at sniffing out angles of revenue–it’s probably the only way that Jim Bob’s managed to keep his zoo of children afloat this long and in such high style on a small hick town real estate agent’s commissions. I’m not surprised that Jill’s got an eye for angles as well. It didn’t take long at all for the eldest daughters to start talking about spinoff reality series after the original series canceled–but that possibility seems more remote by the day considering how antagonistic the daughters’ behavior’s been toward the rest of the clan. So unless they want to get real jobs, they’re going to have to figure out some way to get other people to keep paying for their upkeep and lifestyle.
“‘GOD’ called us to a mission trip!” probably seemed like a very safe bet. But now the overly-trusting Christians who financed that trip are starting to ask questions that Christians don’t normally ask, and it’s ruining everything. It might even make Christians look twice at the entire industry of short-term mission trips and how they engage with the young people eager to make these trips.
Because I feel like we’re pretty close to finding an answer to that question.