Roundtable: Travel and Faith—Cultural Tours, Its Implications for Christian Life Growth

Hills (photo:
By Christine Lau November 21st, 2022

For this roundtable discussion, five guests who work as a pastor, laypersons, and scholars were invited by the Christian Times to share different perspectives on the topic of "Travel and Faith—Cultural Tours, and Its Implications for the Growth of Christian Life". These guests have devoted themselves to promoting Christian cultural tours in recent years.

Roundtable panelists: Pastor Zhang (advocate), Mr. Jiang(playwright), Mr. Wang (scholar), Sister Cong (organizer), and Sister Si (participant)

Christian Times: How did Christian cultural tourism/tours (CCT) first get your attention? What did you benefit from participating in CCT and how did the experience provoke your thoughts? What are the impacts of travel on your personal lives and beliefs?

Pastor Zhang: I initiated CCT in the first place because of my two children. I felt the need to take my six or seven-year-old daughter on a trip around the country, which could have a profound impact on her future. At that time, I headed northwest along with my daughter to visit the Terracotta Warriors of the First Emperor of Qin in Xi’an, Lake Qinghai, and the desert. In Lanzhou, we visited the Iron Bridge and the Yellow River, where there is a sharp drop between the upstream and downstream.

My daughter first told me that she liked rapeseed flowers probably because she grew up in the south. After the trip, she was greatly impacted, and her perspectives were changed. Thereafter, I became more aware that Christians should have such opportunities of traveling to places, which could be impactful on their lives. That’s how we started to promote CCT.

Mr. Wang: The first time I participated in CCT was in December 2019. I visited the old church in Jiaxing, the Xujiahui Cathedral or St. Ignatius Cathedral in Shanghai, the former home of Guangqi Xu, and more. CCT has helped me acknowledge the tradition of the Christian faith. As Christians, we have inherited a tradition, which does not appear instantly but has been passed down from generation to generation since 2,000 years ago.

Sister Si: I first knew of CCT from the recommendation made by a Christian friend. I used to enjoy doing all the planning myself, traveling as a family, or joining a group. In the beginning, I didn't expect much. But the CCT at that time set itself apart. It fostered my appreciation for nature created by God. It's more of a "fellowship on the move." Whether believers, seekers, or non-believers, we were fully engaged on the journey.

Sister Cong: It was after I graduated from college that I came to know about CCT. I was fortunate to go on a study tour with Pastor Zhang. During the year, I traveled to most of China, including the Christians in Sichuan, Fujian, Shanxi, and Beijing. I visited and fellowshipped with the Christians in various ministry fields. On my study tour, I explored different ways of life and witnessed God’s guidance and the mission entrusted to everyone's life. It was touching and direct to me.

Mr. Jiang: I have always called CCT "worship on the move." By chance in the late 1990s, I hosted a cultural salon, which I called "Ministry on the Move." In the salon, there was a range of activities every night. Most of the participants were from academia, science and engineering, and technical professionals. I have a background in science and engineering. It is another kind of challenge to talk about the Gospel with those who are in science and engineering. Genesis and Darwinism are at odds in their minds.

Later, I took a group of students who majored in science and engineering to Guangqi Xu Park. They knew before then that Guangqi Xu was a great scientist but realized later that he was actually a devout Christian. And I call him the first native Chinese theologian in the true sense. He started a dialogue between Chinese culture and Christianity. The students remained quite willing to study more about him and learned about Christianity. It was very impactful.

I found the trip productive and started to show my friends around. It did not take long for some churches to ask me to organize activities. I have a better understanding of Shanghai's vicinity, which was originally the main base of Christianity in modern China. There are rich historical and cultural resources pertaining to Protestantism, Catholicism, and the Eastern Orthodox church in Shanghai. Over the past 20 years, many friends and scholars from home and abroad invited me to organize activities for their visits. Later, I expanded the region from Shanghai to the surrounding areas of East China, such as Jiaxing, Changshu, Nanjing, Beijing, Shandong, Wenzhou, Hangzhou, and so on. I like to take seminary students on a trip. We make observations along the way, and I would give a lecture in the field.

Christian Times: When it comes to civilizations, the historian Toynbee mentioned the profound influence of the geographical environment on the formation of civilizations. In some sense, CCT is sightseeing. In another sense, it is to observe the influence and shaping of different geographical and cultural environments on the lives of local Christian groups. What observations and sharing do you have regarding this?

Pastor Zhang: We put forward a slogan for CCT - that is, either the body or the soul has to be on the road. In Calvin on the Christian Life, the knowledge of general revelation is discussed.

After we traveled beyond Jiayu Pass of the Great Wall on our last trip to the northwest, the bleakness of the desert outside the Pass that we saw was drastically different from the urban vegetation. In fact, human beings have been creating civilization in our own way to some extent. This civilization is farther away from God in a certain sense.

At that time, my wife called me one day from East China and told me that there was a power outage. I was worried that everything in the refrigerator would be ruined. This summer was extremely hot, and a young man beside me died of a heat stroke. I was wondering how highly our current civilization depends on external conditions. The setting of CCT has a particularly strong impact on our lives. I want to rethink my way of life - how should people live?

God has a plan to drive us out of our familiar environment, just like how God led Abraham to leave his hometown and be molded in the wilderness. Christians are foreigners, who are away from their home environment in some sense. This is my point of view from a theological perspective.

Mr. Wang: We feel awe when we are in desolate nature. There is actually something that exists beyond our power. Snow-capped mountains and vast grasslands remind us of Him, who stretched out the sky and stopped the river flow. Those who traveled together composed poems and essays to express their feelings after the trip. The comfort we receive from nature comes from God, which is very nourishing.

Sister Si: On a journey to the Great Northwest and a cycling trip around Lake Taihu, I did not have strong feelings for the local Christian vibe. However, we were a group of Christians from different places and were at different stages of life. We learned how to interact with each other in what we said and did. My husband was not a believer. His admiration for Pastor Zhang was really beyond words when he witnessed how Pastor Zhang served everyone on the trip.

Additionally, I did not seem to relate to the characters in the Bible when I read it in the past. But at a later point in time when I got to interact with people or visit different places, I found that these characters live in our daily life. Their words and deeds recorded in the Bible reflect who we are.

Sister Cong: I observed that people are different in the status of their beliefs from region to region. Christians in the coastal area may become believers as a way of self-fulfillment. Tibetans are incredible in terms of their faith. Although they are not rich, they dedicate 70% of their annual income to temples and monks. They are probably used to this concept of offering while we tithe 10 percent with difficulty. That is something we can think about.

Mr. Jiang: I recalled one year when I visited the Catholic church in the deep forests of Mountain Wuyi, which is a nature reserve of the United Nations. I spent more than ten days there. When I came back home, I found that the cars from the city smelled very bad. My sense of smell must have been renewed and returned to its original state. We ought to return to the original of God’s creation, which is devotion. It is crucial for the spiritual growth of our church.

Christian Times: "Culture", in fact, carries multiple meanings. It is a kind of precipitation and accumulation of the past. This accumulation includes changes in local history and culture, as well as the work of missionaries in the local and the impact of modern history. Could all of you share about the impact that history has on a modern day? 

Pastor Zhang: You came to be because of the history of Christianity that spans from the past till this day. If you forget about what Christians did in the past, there would be a risk that Christianity may be lost in the future. We have to be careful about one thing - we are passed down by the world.

When visiting Shuangxi, we heard a story that goes like this. When missionaries first came to Pingnan, Fujian, they were not welcome and could only stay in a small village on the outskirts. They were able to keep on staying there because Western medicine was more effective in stopping bleeding, which helped the local villagers. That’s why the people in Pingnan allowed them to evangelize. For years, life was difficult for many missionaries.

I am also a minister. I have been wronged or disapproved of in my ministries. I was wondering what missionaries were facing in those days. They were excluded and marginalized. Yet they made sacrifices without being noticed until a person was eventually saved. People started to note that missionaries could offer a little help. Many young people are also impressed by this. History teaches us what not to forget. In my opinion, CCT is a good way to explore who you are, where you come from, and how you should live.

Mr. Jiang: Twenty years ago, we simply called CCT the study of Christian history and culture. We explicitly searched for the history and culture of Christianity. For instance, the headquarter of the China Inland Mission was located in Shanghai at that time. From there, the seeds of the Gospel were spread to all parts of the country, especially to remote areas. Virtually all of the old buildings of the headquarters have been preserved. Countless stories happened there. On the diagonally opposite side of the street, there was an English-style coffee shop. The missionaries would drink a cup of coffee from their hometown before heading all over the country. No one knows how many years later they would be able to drink it again. Many have visited and prayed there with tears because that is the root of their village churches in the mountains. Some even commented that the activities of the day are more effective than a week's lecture in a seminary.

Mr. Wang: In my opinion, "culture" can be defined in two ways. One refers to civilization—architecture, cities, and man-made products. All are magnificent. To some degree, they embody a human-centered desire to control nature.

"Culture" is also humanities. There is a saying in China, "Make observations of the humanities to gain knowledge of the transformation of the world." That is humanity, being a real human. In this sense, religion is the manifestation of a person's civilization. Humans’ inner longing for religion is expressed through various forms, such as music and architecture. Through such footprints of civilizations as languages, architecture, and history in the activities of CCT, people can develop a sense of generational inheritance, including the expression of our relationship with God. This is marvelous.

Sister Cong: We might have learned a great deal of history from textbooks, but it doesn’t seem related to me. We once visited Pingnan, which is a restored village in Fujian Province. Its restoration is a process of rising and falling. Seeing it in person makes history come alive for young people. I feel more connected to the place in this way.

Christian Times: Any thoughts and sharing about the encounters among the participants of CCT?

Sister Si: We didn't see differences from the regular tour groups in the first few days of our first CCT. But on one hot sunny day, standing on a rock by Lake Qinghai, Pastor Zhang shared his take on faith with us. It was from this moment that our group started to connect and have an impact on each other. When the trip came to an end, no one wanted to say goodbye.

Once again, we, the same group of people, went cycling together. Ranging from thirteen-year-olds to those in their sixties, we rode nearly 300 kilometers in three days. None of us were professional cyclists. We trusted and relied on each other throughout the trip. A brotherly and sisterly bond was formed among us.

Mr. Wang: What she said about "bonding" resonates with me. This is a keyword. There were many touching moments when I relived our trip to the Northwest. If I was by myself facing the beautiful scenery, I would not have been as moved. We sang together for we had God as our common core, which connected our lives. The sense of being loved and cared for in a group drives us naturally to respond and relate to one another.

Pastor Zhang: The devotion of Catholicism and Protestantism is contemplative. In today's fast-paced life, CCT could be a way of devotion. For instance, mountain climbing is one of our designs for cultivating perseverance. Many breakthroughs in our lives require a context so that we can truly experience what it means to love one another. I think that Christians are willing to love, but there is no opportunity for them to do it.

This type of group devotion means a great deal in today’s context. Often we do not have half a month or a month to meditate on God’s words. One unique feature of CCT is that people work as a group to complete a project, which is a rare opportunity in urban life.

Mr. Jiang: The encounters that I had on CCT for more than twenty years were intense. As Protestants, we tend to keep to ourselves. But I told people that to understand the history and culture of Christianity in a broader sense, one should care about not only the China Inland Mission and the Christian Literature Society for China but also the historical sites of the Catholic and Orthodox Church. This would result in a shock. Protestants and Catholics have been fighting for 500 years since the Reformation. It seems that the fight will continue forever. However, people were touched when I took them to meet the brothers and sisters of the Orthodox and Catholic Church.

I once took Christians to visit the fishermen's Catholic church in the south. They have been standing firm in their faith since the end of the Ming Dynasty till today. We worshiped and fellowshipped with them. When witnessing how much they loved the Lord and learning what hardships they had endured, we were all greatly touched.

At another time, I took some young Protestant friends to accompany an Orthodox professor from the United States to visit an Orthodox church in Shanghai. Many Protestants are strangers to the Orthodox church in the first place. The church we were visiting was closed and not open to the public. As soon as this Orthodox professor walked to the church, she knelt down on the sidewalk and prayed without any hesitance. Tears streamed down her face. For the Orthodox, Saint Nicolas' Church is a world-famous holy place. Any Protestant would be deeply moved when seeing this scene.

Christian Times: What is the current status and area for improvement in CCT? What are your expectations for its development? Or which scenic spots are resources worth exploring for CCT?

Sister Si: I hope that the information regarding CCT can be shared on the internet so that believers and those who may be interested could join. I also hope to see more short-term programs in the city where I live. Programs that are half a day or one day on weekends would be appreciated when it is difficult to find a large block of time to participate. People nowadays don't need to spend much time on housework. They could have some spare time on weekends, which is most likely to be occupied by activities online. This is especially the case for children. They are drifting farther away from the real world. Besides, more people could be trained in leading CCT.

Mr. Wang: There are still many places we want to explore, such as Zhaotong, and Yunnan, where Samuel Pollard stayed. I hope that churches across the board could look for the marks and footprints of the history in their surroundings and have people organize programs like CCT.

Sister Cong: From a professional perspective, we come short of content materials and projects, especially with regard to Christianity. We need to collect more information and dive deeper. Organizational logistics such as food and accommodations could be entrusted to those who are in the business. In terms of promotion, we call on church pastors and ministers to make recommendations, which would be more efficient.

Mr. Jiang: It seems to me that churches have different takes on this. Some are very supportive. I have been invited by several churches to tour their communities on Saturdays. We started with a short prayer early in the morning and visited 2-3 places along the way for prayer and fellowship. When it became dark, we concluded the day in worship.

Secondly, as far as I know, CCT has made great progress in recent years. But people have been doing it in their own way without much collaboration. Hopefully, those who have experience in CCT could implement it in their daily life. Every believer should take the initiative to do it with family and friends. It can be very impactful as a way of personal evangelism.

Additionally, we need to broaden our horizons by exploring Catholicism, Eastern Orthodox Christianity, and even the sound secular culture. As I recall, I once took Christians to the cemetery of Rushi Liu in Changshu. We took a deep dive into Chinese culture through Liu’s research in the late Ming Dynasty—that is an exploration of where the path leads to.

Pastor Zhang: There are two different missionary approaches among Chinese churches, Timothy Richard’s and Hudson Taylor’s. Since Hudson Taylor’s approach which directly shared the Gospel with the common people has been successful, the Chinese church has been following this model for many years. I think this approach is better at preserving the faith. It does not engage much with the outside world, remains relatively closed, and stays out of the public sphere.

However, the times have reached a stage where there are more and more Christians in the workplace. They are confused with their identities in the public sphere because the church does not give enough guidance in this regard. We cannot shy away from this topic. I think the church should be aware of the need in engaging with and serving the public in our day. CCT is a practical call.

I have another thought. The young people who have participated in CCT are not only participants but also researchers. We are advocates rather than initiators. There are many themes in Chinese churches. We now call for more people to join to provide the historical materials of the city, such as the history of Hudson Taylor. Everyone does their own research and contributes their findings to an information pool. 

- Translated by June I. Chen

related articles
LATEST FROM Church & Ministries