I remember when Orlando first hit our computer screens. I was coming to the end of my time at university, and had lived through three years of the ‘on my gap year…’ conversations. The short video summed up all that was so gloriously wrong with the ‘gap year’ mentality of my generation.



The YouTube sensation, which has now received over 5 million views, features the infamous posh boy Orlando gallivanting about the globe. Wrapped in a bohemian-looking scarf, Orlando recounts to his friend Tarquin the various ‘spiritual, political and cultural’ experiences he has had over the course of the year, before chortling at how he ‘Chundered everywaahh’, spewing chunks all over the planet. Simultaneously impressed by his own selflessness and charitableness, visiting poor communities across the globe, tuning in to a deeper awakening, and living for the next moment of ‘lash’ and ‘banter’ – Orlando is the awful combination of compassionate façade and seemingly unchanged interior.


There are other cultural memes along a similar theme. A recent headline on American satirical site The Onion read: ‘Six-Day Visit to Rural African Village Completely Changes Woman’s Facebook Profile Picture’. In the fictional story, 22-year-old Angela Fisher reports that during her six-day visit to the rural Malawian village of Neno she ‘just knew’ that her Facebook profile picture would never be the same again. Angela says: ‘I don’t think my profile photo will ever be the same, not after the experience of taking such incredible pictures with my arms around those small African children’s shoulders… Honestly, I can’t even imagine going back to my old Facebook photo of my roommate and I at an outdoor concert.’ The Onion report ends: ‘Since returning, Fisher said she has been encouraging every one of her friends to visit Africa, promising that it would change their Facebook profile photos as well.’

Both of these are satirical and extreme, but they tap into something we may be concerned about: that these charitable gap year trips do more harm than good. That these trips see young, unwise, untrained people stumble into another culture with no real clue of what their needs are, feeling that they can save the day with one poorly constructed shack before taking lots of nice pictures and feeling all round good about it.

There are real life horror stories too. I was reading a blog recently entitled ‘The Problem With Little White Girls’, about what the writer describes as our ‘voluntourist’ culture. After six years of working and volunteering in the Global South, she feels that most of the work done by white Brits is actually detrimental. The blog recounts the story of her week long school trip to Tanzania, in which their mission was to build a library. As it turned out, this group of highly educated private boarding school students were so bad at the most basic of construction tasks that each night local men had to take down the structurally unsound bricks laid and rebuild the structure. Each day was the same: the school girls would mix cement and build, and the men would undo and redo all of their work after sunset, acting as if nothing had happened. It would have been more cost effective, more efficient and a boost for the local economy for the orphanage to use the same money to hire the locals to do the work, she says.

I’ve had mixed experiences of short-term mission. When I reflect on my own mini gap trip (I went away for six weeks in the summer between school ending and university beginning) with a Christian mission agency, I can’t help but feel a pang of guilt. I travelled as part of a team of ten or so, and we started off by staying in an English Bible university where we were staying. We did a bit of painting of the library there, visited a couple of the shanty towns nearby, and hosted the odd Sunday school group. We cemented a floor, cleared away some rubbish, and built some steps, before enjoying a nice little holiday at the end. Speaking no Spanish, I was of minimal use to the locals, and whereas I would now throw myself into the cement mixing and heavy lifting, my 18-year-old self was rather less enthusiastic and rather more teenager-y. Really, I’m not sure I contributed much at all. I enjoyed meeting the long-term missionaries out there, I definitely grew in my faith as part of the team and it certainly opened my eyes to the reality of life for many in the country. I had a brilliant time, and loved reporting back to the church and the youth group about my trip. But impact? Contribution? Mission? I’m not sure I brought a whole lot to the table.

I’ve been on the receiving end of short-term mission trips too. In 2012, around the time of the Olympics, we hosted a community festival in our area. We worked together with other local churches to put on the event, but, as we are all small in number, were very thin on the ground as far as volunteers and helpers were concerned. A small battalion of Texans were looking for an Olympic project to help out with, and came over to serve and help us. And I can honestly say that we couldn’t have done it without them. We had over 3000 people at that event, and could never have put on anything of that scale without their support. Their genuine desire was to serve us and be a helping hand wherever they could be – and they absolutely were. They handed out leaflets, cleared away rubbish, welcomed people to the festival and manned stands. They were hard working and joyful. They were a huge blessing. I hope they didn’t leave with feelings of guilt, or feelings that these small blessings hadn’t somehow been ‘enough’. For me this is an example of a short term mission that was spot on. Their intentions and expectations were right, the timing was right, the context was right. They didn’t expect to come over and to save our world in a week, or build something we didn’t need. They saw that we were trying to do something within the context of the long-term work in our area, and offered their hands and feet to help make it happen.

Not all gap year projects are like this and I have no doubt that many organisations have learned tough lessons through such events. But it all begs the question – can Christian gap years and short term mission trips fall into the same trap? Are we just taking a group of (typically) white middle class young people – who can afford the hefty fee – to go and have a nice time, leaving the community no better off?




‘Why shouldn’t it be fun?’



It’s probably true that young people want a holiday. Is that such a bad thing? What else would we rather these young people did? Do nothing? Do something that is completely about them? For anyone who has worked with teenagers, you realise that to get them to think about God in any kind of way is pretty challenging. So if a bunch of teenagers are willing to raise some money, give some of their time to go on something that even has a vague sense of a God focus – I’m pretty chuffed. It depends on the trip, it depends on the experience and it depends on the leader, of course. But I don’t have any problems with a two week long trip, as long as it’s part of aims that are wider. And why shouldn’t it be fun? Is mission not fun? I think it is. It’s like saying: is God ok with us having fun? Or is God playful? It’s ok for it to be fun, because I want these kids to have a rounded experience that is impacting and exciting and broadening of their world-view, but also challenging, also God-centred, that also sees them exposed to missionaries, working among the poor and giving out. All of these things will cause them to want to do it again. If you view short term missions as incremental steps to discipleship and mission then it should be balanced like that, and Christians who are critical [about them] aren’t thinking long term. Because, for us, the two week can often lead to three months, and the three months to three years, and the three years to life, and for most people those incremental steps are really important, because no one jumps from ‘I feel called to mission’ to ‘I’m going to live in Russia for 20 years’. It doesn’t work like that, unless God writes on the wall. For a lot of people it’s an unfolding of experience, and an unfolding of God leading them. So these trips are very important for the individual in them testing out a long-term call.




‘Never underestimate the blessing young people can be to long-term missionaries’



One of the key aims of short term trips is to encourage the missionaries or partners out there. I used to think, ‘Surely these guys don’t need encouraging!’ I thought it was a bit patronising. But I was in Uganda recently and visited a lady called Rachel. We were laughing together and she turned around to me and said: ‘I have not laughed like this for months. Thank you so much for coming and being here.’ I was so taken aback. They said that they felt so blessed, because they knew that we would carry their story. We are now their ambassadors for what they do and why they do it – and that is so important to them. I guess if someone f lew thousands of miles to see my work and to see what I was doing, I wouldn’t find it patronising - I would feel honoured. It really matters to these missionaries, when they see how much people care about them, and are willing to pray for them and work with them. One of the stories Rachel kept talking about was a team of young people who came out to see them, who were so fired up for what they were doing. She was more excited about young people coming than adults going, because she’s looking at this 19 year old and thinking, ‘This girl’s going to care about our work for a whole life…that’s a lot of life.’ She would rather have a 19 year-old who will be an ambassador for 60 years than someone older. Never underestimate the encouragement and blessing that these young people can be.




‘We often think they are the project and we are the answer. Maybe we are the project and they are the answer’



We often ask ‘what good do these young people do for these projects and communities?’ I remember a conversation I had with the guy who runs a Church Army project in Uganda. He said to me: ‘Penny, when I look at the West, I see the problems you are having with engaging young people in church, with alcoholism and divorce, and all these things – and you guys need help in discipleship. Please let us be part of your answer’. He didn’t see himself as a project in need of our help. He sees us all as the global body of Christ who need to help each other out. Some of our partners around the world want to work with us in the way that we want to work with them. It’s not that they are the project and we are the people with the knowledge, maybe it’s the other way around! We try and educate people about what mission is. It’s everywhere to everywhere. All of us are in mission, but mission isn’t just going and saving souls. It’s wider than that, bigger than that. It’s about sharing and learning as we try to make the world better.




‘We try and challenge the expectation that short termers will make a big impact’



I think when people go on these trips, what they want is to be able to make a difference – and to see that in a very tangible way. So, historically, people have wanted to go and build something, because they will have done something and can leave saying, ‘I built that’. What we try and do from the word go is to shape and challenge those expectations about going to make a difference, and going to make an impact. So the way we go about our recruitment is to really challenge those things – saying yes, we want you to go and be a blessing, but in the shorter term programmes the trajectory is that this will be a discipleship and growing experience. BMS has never really done building projects; it’s just not where we’re at. So it’s about challenging those expectations. What we want to do is give them an insight into how things are in another place, and the difference will be in their lifestyle when they return and how they live differently as a result.




‘This generation cares much more about social justice than previous ones’



Looking at last year’s statistics for young people motivations for applying for gap years and trips, the top reason was because they had been before, and the second was that they wanted to use their time for God. The desire to grow themselves was relatively low in comparison – less than ten per cent. So their main motivation was to use this time for God. Perhaps we have underestimated our young people. This generation is more into social justice and social action than previous generations. A Demos report released recently said that young people believe they are more socially aware than previous generations in spite of their frequently negative portrayal in the media, and they are much keener to be involved with volunteering and making an impact. Generation Y is all about wanting to do – they do want to do discipleship – but they learn through doing and being hands on, so we need to nurture their passion in the right way.




‘What these young people bring back with them can be just as impactful’



Many years ago, young people came out to do the internship at Metro in New York. These young people then went back to their own communities and towns and cities in the UK, and modelled what they had seen there, and the curriculum of Metro. You may have heard of Kidz Klubs – they came from Metro in the early 90s. Young people coming back and modelling what they’d seen and experienced in New York. Someone did a thesis on it in Bible College, and there was a huge church in Liverpool in 1994 which decided they would follow the model of the visitation as well. So these kids are going on these trips, and taking it back with them. Because they get the vision, they get the passion, and they catch it, and take it back.




‘We avoid the phrase “making a difference’’’



We do not use that ‘fashionable’ expression ‘making a difference’. The theology is not sound. Who is measuring ‘the difference?’ And on short visits it is really difficult to realise the ‘difference’. This is why most of the volunteers who are honest about their experience testify that they actually ‘gained’ or received more than they gave. That is the issue. You are able to recognise the difference in yourself, your attitudes and your mind-set, before you notice that in the people you encounter. In any case, volunteers are not there long enough. We always, in the preparation stage, highlight the fact that in ‘mission’ if you set yourself to ‘achieve’ either in ‘winning souls’ or ‘completing’ you may actually set yourself to fail because mission is God’s business and things may not happen the way you planned. In any case you are a volunteer, which means you are offering yourself to be used or take part in what God is doing, which have a totally different agenda to your personal agenda.




‘We go to learn and to support’ 



Scripture Union is trying to be very intentional about the work it’s doing with partners overseas. We have a short trip abroad as part of the 10:2 programme. We primarily go to show support to Scripture Union from another country, and to help in any way that we can. We don’t do the traditional ‘we are the West and we’ve got the answers’ thing – we go to learn and to serve and to bless and to support. Last year we went to Ghana and it was amazing to see how they do hospitality, and how badly we do hospitality in comparison. Just learning about how different cultures do things is so fascinating. Christianity in Ghana is all or nothing, and it really impacts your life if you convert; it’s a massive lifestyle change - what you do with their time, what you look at, what you listen to. From each of the places I’ve had the privilege of going to; I’ve been blown away by how big the work is, and how few the workers are. So it’s great to be a part of that, and bless in any way that we can.