Inviting Spiritual Tourists to become Pilgrims

            Several years ago I made a presentation to the Regional Board of the Pacific Southwest Region of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).    I shared a word about ministry in changing times.  It’s a word worth hearing, even if I struggle to engage it in my own ministry.  When shared I was living in California, so you have to keep in mind that context.  I based my presentation on my reading of what was then a new book by Diana Butler Bass – Christianity for the Rest of Us: How the Neighborhood Church Is Transforming the Faith .  So, what follows is my manuscript for that day.

            Over the past several decades conservative forms of religion have been on the ascent, while Mainline Protestant churches (not all of which are progressive) have been experiencing a heart wrenching decline.  In the minds of many our churches have moved from the center of public life to the sidelines.  That may be changing, but the Mainline Protestant voice remains muted.  But even as conservative religious voices have made themselves heard, much of the broader culture isn’t listening to them any more than they are listening to us.   With this in mind, we must face the question:   Are we ready to engage a spiritually hungry but institutionally wary world with the Gospel of Jesus Christ?  

            As we ponder that question, we must remember that by and large the world outside our doorsteps isn’t paying attention to us.   This is especially true here on the West Coast, where there is no social or institutional pressure to join a church – or any religious entity.  We can no longer expect to set up the tent and wait for people to come to our doors, and even if they do come we must expect them to come either as consumers/shoppers or as tourists/nomads. 

Shoppers and tourists

             We all know the spiritual consumer – aka “the church shopper.”   Church shoppers are in tune with the American consumerist mentality, and they come to us asking the question:   What can you do for me?  Like any good shopper, the church shopper looks for the bargain with the most bang for the buck.  The churches best able to address their “felt needs” will get their attention – and these churches tend to be the large program oriented mega-churches.  Small churches, such as the one I pastor, will likely never appeal to them.  We simply do not have the resources or the people to put together the kinds of full service programs they demand. 

            There is, however, another group of people, who may be just as consumer savvy as the church shopper, but their agenda is different.   This group is often called the spiritual “seeker” (whom we’re supposed to be sensitive toward).  But I prefer the name given to them by Diana Butler Bass.  She calls them spiritual nomads, or better yet, spiritual tourists.  Spiritual tourists are like the visitors I encounter on Santa Barbara’s State Street.  They’re just passing through, hoping to taste as much of the local ambiance as possible.  They’re in search of new adventures.  In fact, the spiritual tourist might even suffer from a bit of spiritual ADD, for they need constant stimulation, and nothing holds their attention for very long.  They stop to admire the view, but they quickly move on to the next spiritual experience.

            At least out here in California, there seems to be a growing number of these tourist types.  We meet them in the religion section of the local book store, at community interfaith services, or maybe at a benefit concert where they sway to the music, light the candle, and enjoy the experience.  Perhaps they may even visit our congregations, but they rarely stay very long.  I understand the attraction of being a tourist, but I wonder if this kind of journey makes much of a difference in their lives.    

            Diana Butler Bass speaks of the tourist in individualistic terms – they’re not necessarily joiners and they’re often content with do-it-yourself spiritual experiences.  They’re not interested in programs – many of them are younger or perhaps older, often without children in tow.  Wooing such a person -- a person who likes to try different types of spirituality but is not really interested in settling down -- is a difficult task.   It is a difficult task, but it is our calling.  Our job as church is to encourage the wandering individual to join with us in pilgrimage.


            Standing in contrast to the tourist, then, is the pilgrim.  The pilgrim recognizes the need to be transformed, to become something new – as Paul puts it , to become a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17).   They also recognize that transformation involves a journey in the company of others.  I will admit that it takes a bit of planning to be tourist, and vacations can be life changing, but at the end of the day the tourist returns home.  The pilgrim’s journey lasts a life time and it requires discipline and commitment.   As pilgrims we place our lives in the hands of others and we adopt their community practices.  Thus, in contrast to the tourist, the pilgrim seeks to go local, to become, “a year-round person, who adopts a new place and new identity by learning a new language, rhythms, and practices” (Christianity for the Rest of Us, Harper SanFrancisco, 216). 

            Pilgrims are in search of not just spiritual ecstasy, which can be fleeting, but they instead seek a new way of living.  They desire to discover the essential practices that will make a mark upon their lives.  Although Malcolm X was not a Christian his pilgrimage to Mecca stands as a good example of a life-changing experience – he came home a different person.

            The spiritual experiences of the tourist tend to be of the cut and paste variety – a little of this and a little of that.  Sometimes in our desire to reach out to the tourist we offer them “a little of this and a little of that.”   The churches that Diana Butler Bass studied were progressive in their theology and in their practices, but they were also grounded in their faith.  They don’t try to be all things to all people, but instead they reach out as followers of Jesus Christ.   What they do is offer Christian practices of prayer, of study, of hospitality, of worship, and of service.  The point is that as we journey together our faith is formed in the crucible of being together.  Now community can lead simply to conformity, but it can also provide a context by which lives are changed for the good.  What the pilgrim finds in the midst of this journey is meaning, purpose, and a vocation of service.  As you read Diana’s books, you will discover that there is no one way to do this.  It isn’t an easy three step quick fix.  To become a pilgrim congregation, something my own probably has yet to become, will take time and commitment. 

            With so many of our visitors coming to us as tourists or nomads, we must recognize that deep within in them is a sense of rootlessness.  What the church can offer is a sense of spiritual rootedness.  And standing at the heart of this calling to bring a sense of rootedness is our sacramental practice.  For instance, Baptism by its very definition offers a sense of identity to those who undergo it.   Diana -- who by the way is an Episcopalian --writes:

Pilgrims find identity in baptism, the sacrament that draws them into the body of Christ and defines the self in relation to God’s story and the story of God’s people. Baptism also calls pilgrims to other practices – things like hospitality, peacemaking, justice, and charity – that deepen a sense of  Christian identity.   (Christianity for the Rest of Us, 229).

            This seems to be the key to becoming a pilgrim – it’s a calling to help people find their identity in Jesus Christ.  To say this is not to denigrate any other faith tradition, but our calling is to help form disciples.  Tim Carson, pastor of University Christian Church in Fort Worth, has written a wonderful little book specifically for Disciple Churches, though it will prove useful well beyond our denominational boundaries.  What this book does is invite the seeker – the tourist -- to settle in and enter the community of Jesus.  Like Diana, Tim suggests that if we’re to experience a truly life-changing encounter with God, we must go local.  We can’t simply cut and paste our way to a truly sustainable experience of God’s presence. Instead, we must make a choice and inhabit a tradition (Your Calling as a Christian, Chalice, 2007). 

            As we begin a new day as church, we have new leadership that will bring a sense of continuity but also new ideas.  As this board comes together to do the work of the church it does so at a time when institutional religion is suspect, which is why so many have chosen the route of the spiritual tourist.  For many it seems not only easier and less demanding, it seems a lot safer as well.    

            We face a dilemma, and that dilemma is simply this – how do we encourage tourists to join us in the pilgrimage of faith?    I’m convinced that the process begins by reclaiming our tradition rather than running from it.  We must explore our faith and affirm it and allow it to form us as a people.   Obviously there are parts of our tradition that must be let go of, but we mustn’t let go of the tradition itself – and that includes the Scriptures that provide our norm and the heritage of the broader church as well as our own heritage as Disciples.  It also means that we learn the meaning of real hospitality and what it means to inhabit the praises of God. 
            And the goal is this that we choose to live and help expand the reign of God in the world.  Yes, the call is not to escape the world but to be part of its transformation.  Diana writes this and I close with this statement:
Transformation is the promise at the heart of the Christian life.  In a single      sentence, Anne summed up what I had heard from hundreds of other churchgoers.  Christianity for the rest of us is not about personal salvation,  not about getting everybody saved, or about the politics of exclusion and moral purity.  Christianity for the rest of us is the promise of transformation   – that, by God’s mercy, we can be different, our congregations can be different, and our world can be different.  (Christianity for the Rest of Us, 281).            


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