Pilgrims and Tourists

As you look back to your Holy Week experience, I’m sure you recall many visitors to your Church. Some were familiar faces of those parishioners whom you hadn’t seen in a while, but there were others whom you never met. During Holy Week, naturally our Churches are filled with people who do not attend on a normal basis if at all. It offers us a great opportunity to expose others to the Orthodox Christian Faith in the Resurrected Christ. Unfortunately, many of us treat these visitors as tourists rather than pilgrims.

When a tourist visits a strange and exotic place (let’ face it our Churches are strange and exotic during Holy Week to someone who has never been inside before) the experience can be quite overwhelming. Everything is new to a tourist. The language, the customs, even the sights and sounds are different. This leaves the tourist mind thinking, “Who am I in this place?” It doesn’t matter if the tourist has a positive or negative experience; the question is the same. What will be different is whether the tourist ever wants to return. If the visit is quaint and delightful, chances are good for another vacation in the future. If the visit is frustrating, you can bet the tourist will find another place to visit next year. This explains the tens of millions of tourist bureau dollars spent every year in advertisements.

Pilgrims are not tourists. Pilgrims, even though they may never plan to return to the same place, arrive with a different expectation. A pilgrim is on a journey to share a deeper meaning in life with others. A pilgrim is seeking purpose in life rather than a temporary pleasant experience. A pilgrim is changed by the presence of others who share similar goals. A pilgrimage is a religious experience, while tourism is a vacation.

Both pilgrims and tourists evaluate their visit with the same question, “Who am I in this place?” but the pilgrim is interested in knowing if the place can provide contentment in their search for meaning. Holy Week is a natural attraction for both pilgrims and tourists, and we shouldn’t ignore that fact. However, if we treat all like tourists, the pilgrims will be lost forever. If the pilgrim leaves Holy Week with the experience of, “That was nice. I have not idea what all just happened, but it was pretty and fun to watch,” while it was a positive tourist experience, it will have provided no meaning for their search. They are not likely to return.

Holy Week is over, but the opportunity for our churches to welcome pilgrims is not. Every Sunday is an opportunity for our churches to be a place where a pilgrim can find deeper meaning in life, but only if we present a place of meaning. If our churches remain focused only on tourists, though we will continue to see many visitors, we will not see many pilgrims. Pilgrims are looking for a home; tourists are looking for a vacation. The Church should be a home.

I remember growing up in Colorado in the 1980’s which was a time of rapid growth in the state. Many were seeking a new life by moving to Colorado from California. The growth, while financially beneficial to the state, was not welcomed by many natives. A popular slogan back then was, “Welcome to Colorado. We hope you enjoy your VISIT.” The emphasis was clear. What is the emphasis in your Church? Are you treating people like tourists or pilgrims?