What is it about traveling church groups that makes them stand out? Over the years I’ve lost track of the amount of time I’ve spent in airport terminals. I’ve seen countless travelers – alone, in families, in small and large groups of all sorts.

But church folks, bless their hearts, stand out for their herding instinct. Like many other first-time or infrequent flyers, their traveling clothes are newly store-bought and they overpack. But unlike the focus of business travelers and other professionals or the curiosity of most tourists and travelers, church people stay among their own kind. They’re sheep trusting their shepherd, who may not be traveling with them but is waiting for them after they clear customs and immigration. Their gait is different, almost hesitant, even when they appear to be moving at normal speed.

For many, it appears that it’s their first time out of their comfort zone. Fear – or at least nervousness – has replaced curiosity. So they huddle together for the warmth of their herd. I see their lack of situational awareness because they’re focused inward – or at best – to the edges of their group. So when something untoward – but preventable if they’d been paying attention to their environment – happens, it magnifies they’re herding instinct. When a wolf picks off the weakest antelope, it makes the herd stronger. It makes these herds weaker.

I think it’s wonderful they’ve left home. I think it’s fantastic that most are on a mission they believe is helping others. In reality, this illusion may hurt them. If they return home having learned respect – knowledge that people living with different customs and lifestyles are their equals – they’ve learned. Overhearing their conversations, I think it’s good that many recognize the bubble that’s middle class America [an actual phrase I heard one shocked Fox-viewing church-drapery-sewing woman use when calling home to her husband]. But if they just return home with pity for these poor people and stories of “cute” communities, their shepherds have failed. But many times these shepherds share the same messianic myopia of their flock.

Yes, I’m people-watching. We all do it.

People-judging, too.

We’re all watchers – other people in public places, the new people in our neighborhoods, our organizations, our “crowd” – as well as little kids wandering too far from their parents. Even when you’re away from your native environment, if you’ve hung around a place long enough to become a watcher with the locals instead of the locals, you’ll see what may be invisible to you at home. While I may be more attuned to American groups, African and Latin American locals assure me that things I see aren’t exclusive to Americans.

It’s a universal sign of the ignorant trying to help people not like themselves become more like themselves.

By the time they’ve cleared customs, had a night’s sleep and a long bus or boat ride together, the paunchy, pasty-faced, camera-toting church folk, all decked out in their newest from Columbia or REI are now chatting, gawking and enjoying themselves. They point and talk to each other about the locals standing next to them, oblivious to the fact that most of the locals speak at least three, and usually more languages – particularly those who come in contact with tourists. [One or more indigenous languages, Spanish or another colonial language, along with the English of their newest visitors.]

Most of these do-gooders have been briefed on how to act. But they’re drowned with too much information in too little time for anything to stick. For many of these caring but jet-lagged people, it’s not only their first trip out of the US, it’s their first trip into a different culture, since they may not have traveled much outside of their immediate area at home.

The result, from a local perspective, is that they have no respect for local culture or customs. They clog the toilets. Use valuable local resources for their own projects with no regard for local needs or beliefs. And they make a point of leaving all their old T-shirts and polyester clothing when they depart the tropical climes.

The world’s people need more clean water, education, locally appropriate agricultural assistance, and access to regionally appropriate healthcare. And I’ve seen a lot of worthwhile effort from many groups – including churches – going to these ends.

But I’ve also seen far too many theological imperialists ignore true needs in their myopic goal to increase market share. They build sales offices – churches and parsonages – for their own belief systems.

Isn’t religion’s purpose to serve, rather than sell?