Israel is mentioned more than 2,000 times in the Bible. And yet, most Christians have never visited.
Israeli travel agents specializing in Christian tourism estimate that only 500,000 to 700,000 Christian pilgrims visit Israel annually. By contrast, Lourdes in France hosts six million pilgrims a year, and Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico hosts ten million. Meanwhile, a Lifeway Research survey conducted in late 2017 found a growing ambivalence toward Israel among evangelical Christians ages 18 to 34.
These numbers are unsettling, considering the significance Israel has for members of the Christian faith. The Sea of Galilee, Nazareth, Capernaum, the Garden of Gethsemane – all of these holy Christian sites are located in Israel. It is in Israel that Jesus changed water into wine, raised Lazarus from the dead, died and was resurrected. As executive director of Passages, a program that has taken more than 5,000 American Christian college students from across the denominational spectrum on tours of Israel, I have witnessed firsthand the identity-forming effect of travel to the region.
A trip to Israel should be a rite of passage for every Christian, but for today's young Christians, it is especially important. Christian college students are the next generation of faith-based leadership. This is why Passages was founded with two goals in mind: to introduce students to modern Israel and to strengthen Christian faith and identity. It is important that students be educated in the complex cultural, economic and geopolitical issues facing modern-day Israel and the Middle East in general, so they can develop informed views of their own. But it is just as important that they return from Israel with a deeper appreciation of Western civilization, of the validity of the Bible, and with an unbreakable attachment to Christianity as a spiritual and historical reality.
Moreover, Middle Eastern Christians are experiencing the greatest disruption perhaps since their churches were founded in the early centuries, AD. Positive Christian engagement in the region is vital to maintaining ties between Western Christians and the Middle East and building bridges of understanding between these peoples. Moreover, experiencing the spiritual tension and seeing how people of different faiths coexist in close proximity will help future Christian leaders approach others' views with openness and compassion.
There is a direct connection between appreciating the faith story of ancient Israel and the miracle of modern Israel. Unless the new generation of Christians experiences Israel for themselves, they won't see the full picture beyond what they hear in the news. Media coverage of Israel in recent years has been increasingly negative, focusing largely on the fraught political climate. Rather than the hate-filled war zone they've been told to expect, students traveling to Israel find instead a rich and diverse society searching for a path toward peace. They meet Jews, Christians and Arabs whose families come from many places, all of whom now live side by side. Their stories are deeply moving, and nearly all of the students who take our trips express a desire to return to Israel in the future.
More than just giving students a new sociopolitical perspective, traveling to the cradle of Christianity is a transformative spiritual experience that can cement the faith of future Christian leaders. In Israel, the roots of Christian faith are felt, seen, and heard – roots that go back thousands of years to the stories of Abraham and the patriarchs, King David, the prophets, Jesus, and the disciples. When a Christian discovers his or her roots in a real and tangible way, faith identity is strengthened. In Israel, the stories of the Bible come alive. Many of our alumni have said that traveling to Israel is "like reading the Bible in color." Imagine how standing at the shore of the Sea of Galilee, the same place where Jesus's disciples watched Him walk on water, can strengthen a Christian's belief. Imagine how walking the Via Dolorosa, where Jesus carried the cross to his crucifixion, can help a student connect to Him in an entirely new way. I'll never forget my first trip to Israel when I was in college, laying on the shore of the Sea of Galilee looking up at the stars, listening to worship music. The sound of the water and the realization of where I was overwhelmed me and marked me for life. Thirteen years later, I am still overwhelmed when I visit that same spot.
Visiting Israel can strengthen a Christian's faith in a way that no YouTube video or sermon can. Christians who experience Israel in person don't just become stronger believers – they become educated, informed voices for their faith, with valuable perspective on the nuanced issues facing the Middle East, America and the world today. These are the kinds of voices we need leading our local communities, the Church and our country.