How to protect your mission trip from abusers

April 23, 2018

In 2014, Matthew Durham arrived in Kenya from Oklahoma to serve as a summer missionary in a Nairobi orphanage. Today, he is serving a 40-year prison sentence. Why? Matthew Durham sexually abused four children multiple times in the month he spent in that Kenyan orphanage.

But Matthew Durham is an exception, right? Isn't he just one evil individual among the 2 million American Christians who participate in short-term mission trips annually? Unfortunately, Matthew Durham probably isn't an exception. In fact, evidence suggests that not only does sexual abuse happen during international mission trips, but that pedophiles are targeting your church's mission trip as an opportunity to access children.

How big is the problem?

We can't accurately gauge the severity of the problem. Sexual abuse is a hidden crime and often goes unreported, whether in the U.S. or internationally. However, the research conducted by the Global Study on Sexual Exploitation of Children in Travel and Tourism (a joint project of academic researchers, the United Nations, law enforcement agencies, and NGOs) is alarming, to say the least. For example, data from Dutch police demonstrated that out of 85 cases where Dutch nationals were convicted of abusing children abroad, 13 occurred through volunteering opportunities at orphanages. In the wake of the scandal involving the British charity Oxfam, over 120 workers for British charities (both Christian and secular) have been accused of sexual abuse.

Examining the phenomenon of volun-tourism (short-term volunteer trips, of which Christian mission trips are a significant part), the Global Study demonstrates that volun-tourist activities give pedophiles the direct-access to children that they need under a minimal amount of scrutiny. Most organizations have little-to-no screening or training of volunteers before or during volun-tourist trips.

We would all prefer to believe that sexual abuse has never occurred on one of our church's mission trips and that it never would. But we should know better. The truth is that short-term mission trips are a way that pedophiles can gain access to children, and many of our mission trips have lower standards for volunteers than our church nurseries.

What should your church do to protect children around the world?

If you send volunteers from your church to proclaim and demonstrate the love of Christ to the world, then you have a duty to adequately screen and train those volunteers. A failure to do so risks undermining the gospel message that you are committed to proclaiming. So, where do we begin?

We must begin by changing how we often think about mission trips. If our mission trips are primarily about our own self-fulfillment, then we dehumanize the people we serve as a means of inflating our own self-worth. We hurt those we serve when we are the focus.

So, we can start by determining that going on your church's mission trip is not a right. It is a privilege and a responsibility. It is a privilege to travel around the globe and serve those made in the image of God. It is a responsibility to safeguard the dignity of the people we serve and the integrity of the long-term missionaries that we partner with. Therefore, your volunteers should expect to be screened and trained for the privilege of service, especially if it involves serving children.

Here are seven actionable steps that you should take:

  1. Only work with organizations that prioritize the safety of the children they serve. Evaluate the missionaries or mission organizations that you partner with, and ask them hard questions about how they protect children. Some organizations like the International Mission Board have child protection policies, but many organizations do not.
  2. Perform criminal background checks. Criminal background checks have become standard procedure for volunteering in children and youth ministries in U.S. churches. They should also become a minimum standard for mission trip volunteers. While criminal background checks can never guarantee that your volunteers are safe since many sexual offenders have never been convicted, they do serve as a deterrent to those with prior convictions.
  3. Give basic training to your team of volunteers. Most of us need to be reminded that you can't spot a sexual offender by looking at them. There is no profile. But we can learn to recognize the grooming process utilized by offenders to gain the trust of potential victims. At the very least, such training signals to a pedophile that your mission trip is not the easy-access opportunity that they are searching for.
  4. Have common-sense rules about volunteer-child interactions. Team members should not be alone with children. They should not sleep in the same room as children. Volunteers should also know the difference between appropriate and inappropriate touch.
  5. Be aware of peer-to-peer sexual abuse. This is especially important on mission trips that involve teenage volunteers. Sexual abuse is not a crime perpetrated by adults alone. Kids also abuse other kids.
  6. Understand the power imbalance. Sexual abuse always involves the exercise of power of the offender over the victim. When Americans travel to other countries, we signal wealth and power. At the very least, we possess the immense wealth necessary to travel to another country. In many countries around the world, corrupt judicial systems means that our wealth also signals legal immunity.
  7. Understand and accept the legal consequences of committing a crime overseas. Make sure that your team understands that if they commit a crime on your mission trip then they will face the legal consequences in that country. Your team is not above the law. If a member of your team commits a crime, report it to the local authorities or seek the assistance of the U.S. embassy in reporting the crime.

By doing these things, we can impede those pedophiles who target short-term mission trips as opportunities to access children. We must protect those we serve, and we must defend the integrity of the gospel we proclaim.

Joshua Hutchens

Josh Hutchens is the Founder and President of Gospel Life Global Missions. Previously, Josh pastored two churches in Kentucky and served for two years as a missionary in Moldova. He holds a Ph.D. in biblical theology from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he also earned his Advanced M.Div. Josh received his B.A. in … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24