Tourists vs. Pilgrims

October 26, 2017

by Drew McIntyre

During seminary, I was blessed with the opportunity to participate in a program called the Middle East Travel Seminar.  This program brought together seminarians from around the Southeast for a three week journey through the Middle East, including Syria, Jordan, Egypt, Israel, and Greece.  We spent several nights in Jerusalem at the John Paul II Center, just outside the Old City.  Shortly after we arrived, the Irish priest in charge of the Center took us all up to the roof.  It was a beautiful night, and we had an amazing view of the city.  I have never forgotten what he told us: “Remember that you come here as pilgrims, not as tourists. You are here to grow closer to Christ; you should go to bed every night exhausted, and thank God for it.

This remains an important question for me in my ongoing walk with Christ. Am I a pilgrim, or a tourist?  Is my ministry entertaining tourists, or feeding pilgrims? In his classic work A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, Eugene Peterson notes that "religion in our time has been captured by the tourist mindset.”  He describes it vividly:

It is not difficult in such a world to get a person interested in the message of the gospel; it is terrifically difficult to sustain the interest […] In our kind of culture anything, even news about God can be sold if it is packaged freshly; but when it loses its novelty, it goes on the garbage heap.  There is a great market for religious experience in our world; there is little enthusiasm for the patient acquisition of virtue, little inclination to sign up for the long apprenticeship in what earlier generations called holiness.

As a cure to this ailment, he offers two biblical paradigms: the disciple and the pilgrim.  Both images emphasize the long haul over the quick trip, the deepening relationship over the theological fling.  

Peterson’s insight about “selling” news about God is on point.  As moderns, we love novelty; we are all, to some extent, neophiliacs (lovers of the new).  So we respond when we are told this new program or this new method will save the church. The combination of state-of-the-art marketing and the gospel was lampooned ably by the Babylon Bee (a religious version of The Onion) in their recent article, "Archaeologists Unearth State-Of-The-Art Stage Lighting Used During Sermon On The Mount.“  

The point, of course, is not to avoid anything new.  I like Apple products too much to be a Luddite.  Rather, at issue is whether our methods fit our purpose.  If the end is a pilgrim lifestyle that takes discipleship seriously every single day, investing in tourism will not serve our goal.  The purpose of the church is not to draw a crowd but to instill holiness.  For Christians in the way of the Wesleys, this is our very DNA.  C.S. Lewis put it this way in Mere Christianity:

… the Church exists for nothing else but to draw men into Christ, to make them little Christs. If they are not doing that, all the cathedrals, clergy, missions, sermons, even the Bible itself, are simply a waste of time. God became Man for no other purpose. It is even doubtful, you know, whether the whole universe was created for any other purpose.

The church exists to make saints.  Saints are made only over the long haul, shaped by the Spirit through years of following Jesus.  As such, only pilgrims can be saints.  

Are we serving pilgrims, or drawing tourists? Am I able to give myself every day as an apprentice to Christ, or do I just pop in when it is convenient?

I continue to wrestle with these questions.  The convenience of the tourist life is attractive.  On my better days, however, I try to remember that God longs to give me, and give to the church, so much more.

Rev. Drew McIntyre is the pastor of Grace UMC in Greensboro, NC.

Follow Jesus. Make Disciples. Transform the World.