I travel to other countries about four times a year, usually at the invitation of an international publisher of my books. This year, for example, I’ve flown to Japan, Brazil, and Argentina, and have trips planned to Ireland and Eastern Europe (Hungary, Belarus, and Ukraine). The trips are exhausting and expensive, and on return I happily settle back into the solitary writing life.
“Why do you keep traveling?” my friends ask. “You live in the beautiful state of Colorado. Why not just stay home?” It’s a good question, one I ask myself after a grueling trip. Why does anyone travel overseas? We expand our horizons, and in the process gain a new perspective on the world. I have watched the first rays of sun hit the Taj Mahal, and an endless line of wildebeest snaking across the Serengeti; I’ve jogged through Moscow’s Red Square in winter’s biting cold, and snorkeled the Great Barrier Reef off Australia. Colorado has much to offer, but not these sights.
On the road, I also get to test what I write about. My travels have taken me to places where Christians face a refiner’s fire of hardship and oppression. Can grace really transform women who have spent their lives as victims of sexual trafficking? Can “the God of all comfort” truly bring solace after an earthquake or other natural disaster? Can we tribal humans ever overcome the tragic consequences of racism?
Almost always I return from my trips encouraged, my faith buoyed. Only 30 percent of the world’s Christians now hail from the West, and I have been privileged to see remarkable evidence of God at work elsewhere: the miracle of reconciliation in South Africa, the greatest spiritual awakening in history taking place under an atheistic Chinese regime, Indian Christians turning their attention to the most outcast group on the planet (Dalits, formerly known as Untouchables). As a writer I seek to bring that good news to the jaded West, for such stories rarely make the headlines here. Instead, secular media often portray Christians as bearers of bad news.
Ask a villager in India, “What is a Christian?” and although she may not know any theology she may reply, “I’m not sure, but once a week a van arrives with a cross on the side, and doctors and nurses treat all our wounds and sicknesses, free of charge.”
Christians run the best schools in many countries, operate childcare and feeding programs for prisoners’ families, make available micro-loans to help the poor start tiny businesses, provide lawyers to help free women and children caught in sexual slavery—and they do so with little fanfare and not much money because they believe that’s what Jesus expects from his followers.
To witness such activities, of course, one must endure the inconveniences of modern travel. They begin at the airport: long security lines; the hassle of removing shoes, belt, and change from clothing; and extracting phone, laptop, and liquids from hand luggage. On plane trips beyond twelve hours I can actually feel a sore throat progressing cell by cell. Unable to sleep on flights, I try to read or sit quietly as film grows over my teeth and my eyes dry out. Just as I’m feeling sorry for myself, I land and meet someone like my host in the Philippines who rides a motorcycle on muddy roads four to five hours every day to supervise 157 pastors in remote villages. I come away with that new perspective on the world.
I have learned that churches in developing countries often magnify the flaws and quirks of the U.S. church. Missionaries, God bless them, may import a legalism that makes Southern Baptists look like liberals, and church divisions that make U.S. denominations seem harmonious. Sermons fall into two types, either stiff and formulaic or a rollicking Prosperity Gospel message.
I enjoy speaking in “post-Christian” societies such as Europe and Australia, where a scant minority still believe and few worship regularly, although tokens of a religious past abound. Consider the doubters as divorcées, not virgins, cautioned C. S. Lewis: they tried the faith and felt disappointed in or betrayed by it—a pattern I know well.
Even so, Christians in such places seem more serious about their faith than their counterparts in the U.S. When only a small percentage of the population attends, church offers no social advantages. Those who show up do so out of a hunger for spiritual content, whereas in America entertainment rules.
Nothing, however, beats speaking in a place where the audience hangs on every word. On one of my visits to the Philippines, the owner of a shopping mall made available a vacant corner of the mall adjacent to a twelve-screen movie complex. Organizers rented 2,000 chairs and hung some lights in the cavernous concrete area. “Have you advertised this meeting?” I asked. “No, no, we don’t need to. Just start speaking about Jesus, and the shoppers and moviegoers will change their plans and come listen to you.” Yeah, right—I prepared myself for a humiliating debacle. Oh, ye of little faith: as I spoke, row after row of the seats filled with people, and by the end of the evening listeners were standing in the back.
I must admit, my own faith would be much shakier if I knew only the U.S. church, where we tend to hire professionals to do the work. In May of this year I spoke at a conference of church leaders in Brazil. Some forty years ago, a Christian teenager became concerned about the large homeless population in his home town. After a few attempts at charity, he saw that they needed more than food handouts and a place to sleep.
Over time he developed a program that became the country’s largest agency working among the homeless. Missão Vida (Life Mission) gives them a new start, in a lovely camp setting where they receive addiction counseling, education, and training for employment.
At the camp, I listened to a 220-man choir of recovering alcoholics and drug addicts boisterously singing about their newfound faith. I heard story after story from men and women who had once lived in makeshift cardboard beds on the street, now leaders in their communities. Unlike the U.S., the Brazilian church was not relying on government programs or interim rescue missions. Instead, this conference was teaching pastors how to mobilize their congregations in a coordinated effort to wipe out homelessness in their cities.
I felt fortunate even to make it to the conference. Brazil was undergoing a truckers’ strike that nearly shut down the country. Trucks blocked major highways. Airlines had to cancel flights because of a fuel shortage, and 90 percent of all gas stations were closed. A billion chickens died from lack of food. Somehow, the conference went on as scheduled, with only a few conferees unable to attend.
To transport me to the airport for my departure from Brazil, my hosts found an Uber car that ran on propane. When I returned home, I got an abrupt reminder of how isolated we are in this country. The lead story on every news channel was “Rosanne Barr’s TV show canceled by ABC!”
And we think we have problems…
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Hi, Philip! I finally got smart and subscribed to your blog. Just before I hit “see more” for this post, I thought, “Wonder if he’s been to Japan.” Lo and behold, it was the first country in your list. I love Japan, but it’s so hard to win souls for Christ there. I experienced some animosity from a Buddhist, and he was a relative! Also, the tour escort expressed her dislike of Christians because they tried to take over the country years ago. Imagine my shock when she said this to all of us on the tour.
God bless you wherever you go.
Philip, I have many of your books, but more still to read. I list you in my list of favorite authors. I even put you a tad above C. S. Lewis. That is because, though I think I am fairly intelligent, I still find C. S’. books have lots of stuff I cannot get through my head. Thank the Lord there is so much in his books I can still understand and be blessed by his words. But yours are able to be understood easily. One of my favorite of your books was the one with Dr. Brand, “Pain, the Gift No One Wants.” It helped me to understand more of how God made us and how marvelous a job He did.
I cannot afford to travel to foreign countries, but I can help there anyway. Our church has a service called “Children of Promise.” You can support a child with school clothes, food and education for $32 a month. I have kids in Myanmar, Honduras, Zimbabwe, and Uganda. I feel so blessed to do this. The Lord blessed me with a bit more than I figured for old age, so I can do something for His children.
Africa, South America, and Asia–your compassion and love is spreading around the world. We all have different roles in spreading the Good News, and yours is a vital one. –Philip
I’m always enlightened by the perspective and experiences of fellow believers around the world. Helps to suspend me a little from my bubble in the U.S., and serves to remind that God is accessible anywhere on the planet. It’s hard to imagine living in a country as a Christian with out all the bells and whistles of the American church experience, one I’m growing weary of incidentally, but your post gives me a glimpse. I can’t help but think that church in such a wealthy and prosperous country as ours might be diminished because of it, that we’re possibly missing some of Christianities finer but simpler benefits. Like, the power of silence:) All the same, the love and faithfulness of Christ Jesus shines through wherever one finds themselves, and I’m grateful for that.
I wish I could be there with you but the next best thing is you taking me there with your descriptions. May God richly bless you for sharing with us.
I love you’re writing and feel as the others but will add I appreciate the artistry of the language you choose. Blessings…
Thanks Philip for a very timely and insightful blog post! You are still on the top of my list of “Best Authors” I read!
This article is loaded with insights into the “Reality” of the Christian Church today and wish it could go “viral” and all of the Body of Christ can read it!
As usual I have to thank you for all your news – I just love hearing it! I keep re-reading your books, though I am really struggling with Örthodoxy by dear old Chesterton which you recommended so highly! But I will persevere.
Your travels in the world make us look outside our own little worlds where we are cosy and immersed in our own churches.
Continue your good work and books, and with any luck might meet you one day.
Good morning Philip, it is a very happy moment whenever I see your name as the messenger of a note or blog post, and this one is certainly another that stirs my soul to be mindful of the message of the Gospel. I have not traveled to other countries and likely will not as my years are growing short, however I support your heart’s work and your beautiful books of love and encouragement. All of your writing reveal the need for any and all of us Christians to come back the the true church and ONEness as Jesus explained and Paul taught Timothy, among others, to teach the truth of the Word revealed to him, first hand by Jesus and the Holy Spirit during those first 3 years in the desert. Thank you both for your writing and your burden to travel as God leads. Your friend and Brother in Christ Jesus.
You provide perspective on my own North American culture. Thank You!
Thank you for all the work you are doing world wide.
If you are ever in Australia again, there is always a home here in Adelaide for you.
So true. So very true that authentic Christ following is found in places other than the Western churches. Though my travels have been much more limited than yours, Philip, I subscribe to Voice of the Martyrs and other foreign ministries and from my small travels have witnessed the radiance of Jesus in the faces of those in Jordan, Israel and Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
Your description of your travels cause me to hunger to travel, not as a tourist, but as a missionary and just sit and hear the stories of Believers who truly know the peace of Christ and that it surely passes. All. Understanding. God continue to bless and keep you. Keep writing!!
I’m so glad that I was “hooked” on Yancey from “Fearfully and Wonderfully Made” and have a shelf full of subsequent books. Your messages of Christ-centrality and grace touch me often and have helped me into a deeper knowledge of of God as our Perfect Parent, Christ as our Saving Lord, and the Spirit as our Constant Counselor. This entry reminds me of Christ’s ongoing work of gracious reconciliation in spite of the sickening self-absorption of the affluent Western countries. Thank you for bringing the good news on our behalf as we wallow in our opulent comfort here in North America.
Philip, I have read all your books; you still remain my favorite author. I love your intellect, your compassion, the questions you ask yourself as well as your readers. I learn so much through your insight, and reading this blog really helped me understand what authentic faith in Christ..looks like…in other parts of our world. I appreciate you so much, thank you and may you stay safe and healthy in all your travels.
In our “global world” it is still easy to be blinded by a local viewpoint. Thank you for reminding us of how God is not stopped by human boundaries.
Your blogs are so refreshing. I’ve read and shared your books for a number of years now and thankyou for the honest insightful topics you tackle.
May God bless and protect you as you bring reason and logic to the issues Christians face in our western world.
your books are always such an encouragement to me and so inspiring….you write from your heart….
my favourite will always be “where is God when it hurts….when I was told we will never have children of our own this book help me face that challenge not experiencing motherhood….
thank you also for introducing your readers to the late Dr Paul Brand …..busy reading his book you wrote together …In His image…still trying to find …Fearfully and winderfull made….
Thanks for the insight, Philip! I think it’s so easy for me to get stuck in my little bubble and this article reminded that God is working everywhere in all things. I am convicted to put more effort into loving those God has put in my path and how even though, it seems minuscule compared to other things people are doing, to keep my eyes on him and let his light shine through in whatever way he leads me. These stories of what my brothers and sisters in Christ have endured reminds me that we share in Christ’s sufferings too. Sometimes living in the U.S. makes it so easy for me to take our luxuries for granted and give into a spirit of fear, especially when it comes to discomfort. Thank you for encouraging my faith through your writing!
Thanks for this Philip. Very encouraging to read since stuck in my Western world. You have always served as a mentor from afar, being willing to ask questions about what taught if it doesn’t make sense of a loving God.
I am currently enjoying reading your book”Soul Survivor”. I can relate to much of it and can at least empathize with the parts I’ve not experienced. I wish you could meet my sisters who have amazing ministries in their respective cities to the homeless and underserved. One sister gets quite a bit of support from her home
Church while the other had to fight for every scrap of help she could get. She gave up her formal ministry to stay home and babysit her two grandchildren, but she still gets calls from people needing help. She is committed to loving people where they are so that they begin to see God.
Thank you for always making me think, reconsider and sometimes change course.
Thanks for this piece. I have experienced similar highs and lows, mostly highs, in my travels to Africa. I am a minister; in my work, I have made 31 trips to Ethiopia, usually staying one month each trip. I struggle to balance my love for Ethiopia with my often ire and disappointment when I come home. Yet, the folks where I live make my work possible. So. You are right: When folks will walk 2-3 hours to attend a Bible study, then I can surely fly 20 hours to get there. Thank you. Be safe. Blessings.
Thank you again, Phillip for sharing. We could never go to some of the places you have been and seen what you have seen. But though your letters we can see with new eyes. Thank you.
Thank you for this great reminder of what the Church is doing in various parts of the world! Very encouraging!
Thank you, Philip. You are a man “truly alive” as St. Ireaneus claims and you are doing a fabulous job without our USA networks. I think of you as another St. Paul.
Thanks for being a “road warrior” and continuing to bring us reports from the field. Seeing the world through your eyes is inspiring, frightening, and hopeful all at the same time.
Estou pesarosa. Se soubesse que viria ao Brasil iria vê-lo.
Leio seus livros e publicações, que muito tem fortalecido minha trajetória cristã
Thank you Philip for reminding us that we have much to learn from places where we arrogantly believe we need to bring God. I remember many years ago hearing a missionary to Haiti saying how that assumption, which he had the first time he went on a missionary trip, was completely shattered. He said God was and always had been there already. He was humbled by the openness and faith of the people he was there to “save” and was instead ministered to and “saved”, in a manner of speaking, by them. We have much to learn.
You sir philip yancey is one of the very few admirable, authentic Christian speaker and author who entices so many people.to Christ. I havr read.many books of yours and had the privilege of being in the audience when you were speaker in one of the big church here in the Philippines. I forgot what you talked about but will not forget how i was drawn to you as a co pilgrim.