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Traveler or Tourist?

March 27, 2012

I am currently reading Your Church Is too Safe (2012, Zondervan) by Mark Buchanan. I want to share a very thought-provoking (at least to me) passage:

Historian Daniel Boorstin documents a momentous shift that occurred in North America in the nineteenth century: we stopped calling people who went on trips travelers and started calling them tourists.

Traveler literally means “one who travails.” He labors, suffers, endures. A traveler—a travailer—gets impregnated with a new and strange reality, grows huge and awkward trying to carry it, and finally, in agony, births something new and beautiful. To get there, he immerses himself in a culture, learns the language and customs, lives with the locals, imitates the dress, eats what’s set before him. He takes risks, some enourmous, and makes sacrifices, some extravagant. He has tight scrapes and narrow escapes. He is gone a long time. If ever he returns, he returns forever altered.

In a sense, he never goes back.

A tourist not so. Tourist means, literally, “one who goes in circles.” He’s just taking an exotic detour home. He’s only passing through, sampling wares, acquiring souvenirs. He tastes more than eats what’s put before him. He retreats each night to what’s safe and familiar. He picks up a word here, a phrase there, but the language, and the world it’s embedded in, remains opaque and cryptic, and vaguely menacing. He spectates and consumes. He returns to where he’s come from with an album of photos, a few mementos, a cheap hat. He’s happy to be back. He declares there’s no place like home.

We’ve made a similar shift in the church. At some point we stopped calling Christians disciples and started calling them believers. A disciple is one who follows and imitates Jesus. She loses her life in order to find it. She steeps in the language and culture of Christ until his Word and his world reshape hers, redefine her, change inside out how she sees and thinks and dreams and, finally, lives. Whatever values she brought into his realm are reordered, ofttimes laid waste, and kingdom values take their place. Friends who knew her before scarcely recognize her now.

A believer, not so. She holds certain beliefs, but how deep down these go depends on the weather or her mood. She can get defensive, sometimes bristlingly so, about her beliefs, but in her honest moments she wonders why they’ve made such scant difference. She still feels alone, afraid, sad, self-protective, dissatisfied. She still wants what she’s always wanted and fears what she’s always feared, sometimes more so. Friends who knew her before find her pretty much the same, just angrier.

You can’t be a disciple without being a believer. But—here’s the rub—you can be a believer and not a disciple. You can say all the right things, think all the right things, believe all the right things, do all the right things, and still not follow and imitate Jesus.

The kingdom of God is made up of travailers, but our churches are largely populated with tourists. The kingdom is full of disciples, but our churches are filled with believers. It’s no wonder we often feel like we’re just going in circles.

What do you think? Is this a fair description of many churches? How about yours? How about you? Are you a traveler or tourist? Comment below.

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