Vacations With a Purpose

by Palmer Holt

Six billion dollars! That's one estimate of what 1.6 million American Christians are contributing in labor annually as they travel to remote areas of the world on short-term mission trips.

The catch phrase to describe this increasingly popular phenomenon-"vacations with a purpose."

Gerry and Sylvia Powell, a 60s-something couple from Beattyville, Ky., have spent almost all their vacation time volunteering on trips to help missionaries. To date, they have been on more than 30 volunteer trips with Wycliffe Associates, and they aren't slowing down.

Wycliffe Associates ( was founded in 1967 to support and encourage Bible translators in tangible, practical ways. The ministry provides opportunities for volunteers to use their gifts and abilities in hands-on projects, meeting the real needs of Bible translators on the mission field.

Instead of heading to a resort or a favorite vacation spot, the Powells have found the experience of working in places that don't have resorts, hotels and vacation destinations to be more purposeful and satisfying. Their objective is to help missionaries with some sort of a construction project, a calling that has been extremely joyous and rewarding.

They are not alone. A growing number of Americans are using their time off to help others.

50,000 Churches Participating

Roger Peterson, president of STEM International (Short Term Evangelical, estimates that 50,000 churches in the United States are sending members out on mission trips each year.

Just one example, White Memorial Presbyterian Church in Raleigh, N.C., had almost 200 members go on 15 foreign and domestic mission trips in 2007, according to Danita Morgan, director of missions. The foreign nations were Haiti, Northern Ireland, Poland, Russia, and Mexico. Several White Memorial members took the mission trip to Mexico with their teenagers in lieu of the time-honored spring break trip.

Global Crossroad (, a for-profit firm based in Baton Rouge, La., arranges volunteer vacations in 34 countries. It is one of more than 3,000 nonprofit and commercial enterprises catering to travelers who are more interested in serving than being served.

Mission Maker Magazine, ( with a circulation of 150,000, is another example of just how large this phenomenon is. It is a full-sized, full-color, multi-page magazine whose editorial columns and advertising serve North Americans interested in Christian missions throughout the world.

Back in 2005, David Bernstein of Satisfaction Magazine, quoted Doug Cutchins, co-author of the book Volunteer Vacations: Short-term Adventures That Will Benefit You and Others, as saying "this phenomenon continues to grow."

Disasters Changed Landscape

The September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks brought on a surge of interest in this small, but growing segment of the travel industry, according to Cutchins. The 2004 tsunami disaster that wrecked havoc on Thailand and Indonesia sparked even more attention to service-oriented tourism.

No exact figures exist on the increase in volunteer vacations-also referred to as "volunteerism." But all evidence points to the popularity of the trips skyrocketing, particularly among baby boomers and empty nesters.

The Powells, who have seven grown children, make at least one trip a year for a few weeks up to a month. "These trips are exhausting, and can be emotionally and physically taxing. But the rewards are incredible. We literally have met and worked with hundreds of people, from Peru to Nigeria," said Gerry Powell.

"My children have learned that when we plan for an educational experience,' it will be to help build cabinets in Nigeria or a roof in the Ivory Coast," said Sylvia Powell.

One year the Powells traveled to an exotic South Pacific island paradise to attend a ceremony that celebrated the completion of the New Testament in the Arosi language. Once there, they experienced a celebration that was years in the making; an event that transcended any vacation.

Baby Boomers Lead the Way

Baby boomers and empty nesters have come to the point in their lives where they think less about keeping up with their neighbors and friends by accumulating more material things and have begun pondering more about how to enrich to their lives and the lives of others. Time magazine reported that boomers volunteer at a rate of 33 percent, contrasted with 24 percent for those 65 and older. Last year, 65.4 million people did volunteer work, but 75 million volunteers will be needed in 2010, the magazine reported.

Airlines have recognized this and advertise special rates and packages for "religious" travel.

Wycliffe Associates has recognized this as well. As hundreds of thousands of new
volunteer missionaries rise from the ranks of retired baby boomers, they will challenge the status quo of missions and how organizations will respond to them. Wycliffe Associates is positioned to usher in a new era of Christian service in missions by involving thousands of boomers in the acceleration of Bible translation worldwide.

Advice for Those Who Want to Participate

Kim Hurst, the founder of World Tracks, a national training organization for short-term mission teams, and Chris Eaton, founder and president of Bridge Builders (, an organization that assists colleges, churches, schools, and other organizations in developing transformational service experiences, have written a book entitled Vacations with a Purpose.

They suggest:

Before the trip-Read your Bible and Vacations with a Purpose to prepare your heart, your suitcase, and your expectations.

During the trip: Record your discoveries, thoughts and feelings.

After the trip: Use it to debrief, evaluate your experience, and pursue further study on missions.

You can mix fun with a visit to a mission program.


To "truly encounter the secrets of the land and its people is to serve them. By incorporating a short-term volunteer service or mission component into their vacation itinerary, travelers-in-service' can transform an ordinary excursion into a deeply meaningful travel adventure," wrote Dale Painter in Discipleship Journal.

"Don't limit your assessment to your professional skills-often a change of pace from employment-related duties is important," Painter wrote. Manual skills or interests in gardening, building, outdoors, or writing may represent valuable resources to service organizations.

"We can use anyone overseas or here domestically. Every skill is needed in the mission field and is especially valuable to Bible translators, who want to spend most of their time actually translating Scripture into languages. Folks should not worry if they have had no formal missionary training. They are welcome and invited to come use their skills God has given them," said Bruce Smith, president and CEO of Wycliffe Associates.

Dale Painter did raise the question of whether it is it worth it to "waste" money on a trip, when you could be spending the money on missions. "Most people agree that visiting a developing country changes you for life. You have real images in your mind: kids sharing beds; a home with cardboard walls; wires hanging from the ceiling with one light bulb powered by an extension cord stretched from another building. When you hear someone say that God supplies all our needs, you think a little harder about all that entails. You have more of a sense of partnering with God in bringing Good News to the world," he said.

The Powells, who have traveled to so many places with Wycliffe Associates, are a model for others wanting to use their talents. For them, their vacation time spent going to help Bible translators is much more than leisure or adventure. It's the opportunity to experience life in a bigger perspective.

Palmer Holt, who has 25 years experience in journalism and public relations,
is president of In Christ Communications, Inc.

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