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Overseas travel: Missionfield or minefield?

Delphi 2

It was a beautiful sunny afternoon in Delphi. This ancient town, once home to the famed Delphic Oracle, is now one of Greece’s premier archaeological sites. It sits atop a spur of Mount Parnassus and offers spectacular views of the Pleistos Valley, with the Gulf of Corinth visible in the distance between the hills.  

I was spending a few weeks backpacking in Europe, and had just arrived in Delphi. Having booked into a hostel and done a preliminary survey of the town, I had retired to a restaurant where I sipped a drink, read my Bible, prayed, and took in the magnificent views. While there, I met Jackie from South Africa and Alastair from England.[1] We got on well, and ended up having dinner together and talking into the night.

The following morning I was eating breakfast at the same restaurant, when Alastair joined me. “I saw you reading your Bible yesterday evening,” he said. I nodded and explained that I was a Christian. He told me that he was, too, but he’d become a bit disillusioned. The good news was that he was thinking about recommitting himself to God. We had a bit of a chat, and I did my best to encourage him before we parted ways.

I have found this sort of encounter to be fairly common when travelling. Away from home, with all its expectations and routines, people are often more open to chatting about the deeper things in life. This can be true for both believers and non-believers. The experience of a church friend, who recently returned from travelling the United States, reflects my own: “When you meet people travelling, you talk about your life—where you come from, what you do, your hobbies and your beliefs. I was proud to say that I was a Christian. In some ways people are more open to talking, knowing that after a day or so they may never see you again. Back here in Australia, in normal life, it’s harder. Overseas everyone talks about what they believe.”

This brings me to the second thing I have started to encourage people to do when they tell me they are going overseas. After urging them to have a daily quiet time while away (discussed in my previous piece ‘God is the best travel guide’), I suggest that they pray each morning that God would guide them to both believers who could do with some encouragement and non-believers who are interested in talking about spiritual things. This was often my practice when travelling, and God led me into many positive discussions.

A friend of mine from church recently finished university, and decided to backpack for six weeks in South-East Asia before starting full-time work. Before he left, I encouraged him to pray this prayer when away. He took up the challenge, and upon his return I learned how God had answered his prayers. He had met one particular Christian from Scandinavia who was in need of encouragement, and had also had a number of discussions about his faith with non-believers as he travelled about.

Given that most of the people in the world are not believers, the folk we meet in our travels are likely to be of this ilk. As such, for the person open to talking about their faith, travel can provide real possibilities for witness. If we’re walking closely with God, the needs will be obvious, and his Spirit will help us to view the crowds in the same way that Jesus did:

​When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.” (Matt 9:36-38)

As believers abroad, we can be an answer to this prayer.

These opportunities, however, should not blind us to the fact that travelling overseas is no “church camp.” While there are great opportunities for the Christian, there are also great dangers. The usual temptations of, for example, sexual immorality, excessive alcohol consumption, illegal drugs, bad language and gossip can be exacerbated by the fact that we are away from home and our usual accountability structures. It can be easy, when in a group, to let our guard down. Furthermore, we will often hear a small voice in our ear saying: “Don’t worry. Just this once. No one need ever know.” This makes maintaining our relationship with God and finding fellowship where we can while away so crucial.

Travelling overseas can be a real help or hindrance to our Christian faith. (A proper discussion of whether to travel is beyond this piece. For those interested, I consider this issue in my book; see below.) If we do travel, why not ensure that that the time and money spent produce an experience that is a spiritual plus for both us and others? If we remain in Christ (John 15:5) while abroad, and pray for opportunities to encourage and witness, the foreign lands we visit can be a missionfield rather than a minefield.

 

Stephen’s book on Christians and travel—Travelling the World as Citizens of Heaven—has just been published and is available online at www.matthiasmedia.com.

Image: Egisto Sani (flickr.com)

 

[1] Not their real names.

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