In choosing to take a trip to Israel/Palestine, persons need to reflect carefully on what type of tour they wish to join. There are many people who sign up for a trip to “Israel” or “The Holy Land” and return disappointed because it did not meet their expectations. The following are the types of tours that we have noted in our years of leading groups on pilgrimages there:
“The Generic Tour”
We call it this because it is usually one that has been organized under the direction of the Israel Ministry of Tourism. This program is promoted widely to pastors by this ministry and urges them to take members of their congregation to Israel on the motto: “You will never be the same.” Pastors are given free travel for certain numbers of persons who sign up and are promised “you will not have to do anything except promote it and get people to sign up.” These trips are generic in the sense that the Israeli guide does all the teaching and the sites that are visited are the typical “favorites” that have been identified as the sites to see on such a tour. Often these are the “holy sites”, such as churches and other places where biblical events have happened according to tradition. The benefits of this type of tour is that persons get to travel with “their pastor” and persons of their congregation. The drawbacks of it are that it is often generically designed under the direction of the Department of Tourism, with a minimal faith formation emphasis and a strongly Israel perspective on the current situation in Israel/Palestine. Another drawback is that sometimes if a pastor’s group is small, it is joined together with another pastor’s group so that it can establish a full bus.
“The Well-Known Church Leader Tour”
This is organized by a mega-church pastor, a television evangelist, a Christian musician or a Christian radio station. These are usually large scale groups. We have seen one, for example, in our travels, that had 15 busloads of travelers (about 600 persons). The itineraries for these tours are often similar to the “generic tour” with special stops for worship and messages inserted at key places along the way. The benefit of this type of tour is that a person gets to experience large scale events under the direction of this well-known person. The drawback is that travelers spend most of their time touring under the direction of an Israeli guide and have experiences much the same as in the generic tour. One thing to be aware of in joining this type of tour is that often at some point along the way participants are strongly encouraged to make donations or pledges to support the ministry of the sponsoring organization. This can add an unforeseen cost to the tour.
“The Current Situation Exploration Tour”
This tour largely focuses on what is happening in relationships between Israel and Palestine. Often, these tours have a social justice focus and feature visits to sites that are part of current events or past history in the establishment of the State of Israel. Additionally, they often include conversations with those trying to work for peace and reconciliation between the State of Israel and the leaders of Palestine. The best of these have a strongly Christian perspective and help participants reflect on a Christian response to the current situation. These tours may or may not include visits to biblical sites.
“The Academic or Study Tour”
These tours are usually designed and promoted by colleges or well-known teachers. Most focus on understanding the geographical, cultural, and historical background of Scripture. In this, attention is also often given to specific biblical events, seeking to understand them in a fresh way in light of this background. There is a wide spectrum of emphases in these tours. Some have a strong archaeological emphasis and can be quite technical, designed mainly for pastors and others with a strong academic interest. Others are more generally focused and can be profitably experienced by all Christians who wish to enrich their understanding of Scripture.
This type of “tour” finds its roots in the biblical practice of pilgrimage that has its roots over 3300 years ago at Mt. Sinai when God instructed his people to travel three times a year to “the place the Lord will choose”, which became Jerusalem, to celebrate the festivals of Passover, Shavout (Pentecost) and Sukkoth (Tabernacles). The Psalms of Ascents (120-134) are filled with allusions to pilgrimages taken by God’s people in response to this instruction. According to the Gospel of John, Jesus also participated in these pilgrimages. Those who choose a “pilgrimage” for their journey to Israel/Palestine engage in a faith-motivated spiritual discipline of traveling for the purpose of meeting and experiencing God with the hope of being shaped and changed by this encounter. Persons who join in a pilgrimage seek to learn much about the historical, cultural, and geographical setting of Scripture and about the current situation in this land of the Bible. As they do through prayer and personal and communal reflection on Scripture and their experiences, they seek to “see and hear” God in their lives, learning how to be more faithful followers of Jesus Christ.