Occasionally, in the mission field we bump into other Christians serving on various mission trips. Meeting people who shine the light of Christ in their interactions with you, their words, and even the way they look at you is always a blessing. It’s so refreshing to meet people who really love Jesus and are reaching out to the lost with compassion. However, it just takes a few minutes to figure out a person’s genuine purpose and priority, and I can assure you that evangelism is seldom found! Unfortunately, many of the Christian missionaries we encounter on our travels, appear to be little more than ‘Missionary Tourists’.
It may be helpful if I explain what I mean. A missionary is not a tourist just because they take photos, purchase souvenirs, or have a good time while serving. In truth, the behaviours of a missionary tourist will nearly always seem totally upright and honourable. Motives, on the other hand, are often troublesome – and this is my fundamental concern.
A ‘Missionary Tourist’ takes part in missions for the sake of self-promotion. They go on mission trips to look compassionate, to experience another culture, to boost their profile, or to make themselves feel better. A ‘Godly Servant’, on the other hand, desires to be a living sacrifice poured forth for people to hear the Gospel, react favourably to the message, and accept Christ into their life.
Only God knows a person’s true motivations, and only the individual knows whether they are only a tourist. Of course, it was the apostle Paul who said, “It’s true that some are preaching out of jealousy and rivalry. But others preach about Christ with pure motives…Those others do not have pure motives as they preach about Christ. They preach with selfish ambition… But that doesn’t matter. Whether their motives are false or genuine, the message about Christ is being preached either way, so I rejoice…” (Philippians 1:15, 17-18).
I would love to join Paul in rejoicing that the Gospel is being preached today, but the sad truth is ‘Missionary Tourists’ seldom preach the actual Gospel. In today’s culture people seem more focused on the miracle of growing out legs to equal lengths than the miracle of seeing people saved by proclaiming the actual Gospel! Don’t get me wrong, because the healing of these temporary bodies is great, however Luke 15:7 says “…there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents.” As you can see, the focus here is on salvation!
To be as successful as possible, every ‘Godly Servant’ should want to examine their own heart and prove their motivations to be Christ-centred and Gospel-focused!
It might be stating the obvious, but it is more important to serve God than seeking fans. In Matthew 28:18-20, we read what Jesus commanded His followers to do:
“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely, I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
The whole purpose of the Great Commission is to bring people to Jesus Christ through preaching the Gospel, baptising, discipling, and teaching new Christians. If we want to lead people to Christ, we must centre our ministry focus and efforts on Christ, and Christ alone! We cannot afford to indulge in worldly or churchy distractions.
A missionary tourist will always have the tendency to divert attention away from Christ and focus on themselves, valuing their personal renown over God’s glory. The pronoun ‘I’ is constantly at the centre of a missionary tourist’s narrative. “I did this! I did that!”
Many good, religious people are offended by the Gospel because they want to establish their own righteousness by keeping God’s law. But that is impossible to do in our own strength. The law, though good and spiritual, is powerless to save. It shows us God’s perfect standard, but because it is impossible to keep in our own strength, it only condemns.
The deeds of a missionary must first and always point to God. A missionary tourist enjoys the attention of fans and followers, but a sincere ‘Godly Servant’ does not seek recognition for their good actions. God is robbed of glory when we take such a stance. A missionary tourist makes others believe that wonderful things originate from man – but this is not the case. The emphasis of a ‘Godly Servants’ work should never be on suffering, hard labour, or sacrifice – instead, it should be on God’s provision, God’s glory, God’s grace, and God’s Gospel!!!
It is easy to identify a person’s genuine purpose and priority. Matthew 7:16 says, “By their fruit you will recognize them.”
For example, a mission trip photograph can be used by one person to glorify God and amplify the Gospel, and by another to promote themselves.
Please don’t misunderstand what I am saying here, because the issue has nothing to do with taking photos! Sadly, so much of the internet cultivates narcissism and self-promotion, and some missionaries who take photos and publicise their work are sometimes met with suspicion and criticism. However, there is nothing wrong with taking photos and posting them on social media to promote missions work. If social media postings lead to more people hearing the Gospel, and focusing on God, then we need to do a lot more of it.
Only diligent effort and prayer can guarantee that the missionary’s motives are God-honouring rather than self-serving. Of course, as more people utilise the Internet and social media, we shouldn’t be surprised to see sinful distortions of what may be a valuable instrument. A photo, on the other hand, does not equal sin.
Missions are one of the few things that go against human nature. What could be more counter-cultural than generously sacrificing time and money to help people who can’t repay you—and then passing the credit on to someone else? All missionaries are tempted to accept ill-deserved acclaim for their efforts since they are fallen humans.
To avoid becoming a missionary tourist, a true disciple of Christ 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 internalised will the missionary tourist begin deflecting credit for God’s work.
Missionary tourism occurs when we don’t comprehend God’s glory and seek self-glory instead. True missionaries, however, humbly, and reverently embrace this calling they’ve received. They embrace our Saviour’s Great Commission and bring Him all the glory, for all of it already belongs to Him.
This is what the Lord says:
“Let not the wise boast of their wisdom or the strong boast of their strength or the rich boast of their riches, but let the one who boasts boast about this: that they have the understanding to know me, that I am the Lord, who exercises kindness, justice and righteousness on earth, for in these I delight,” declares the Lord. (Jeremiah 9:23-24)