Last year a Michigan State doctoral student and “data tinkerer,” Randy Olson, using a sophisticated algorithm, designed an “optimal road trip” through the continental United States. Olson’s perfect road trip makes at least one stop in all 48 contiguous states at such national landmarks and historic sites as the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone National Park, and Mount Rushmore.
As I studied this road trip covering more than 13,000 miles, I was reminded of another road trip—actually, three road trips—that I find in the back of my Bible. Like Olson’s zigzagging lines through the map of America, these three road trips have zigzagging lines through a part of the world we know as western Asia and southeastern Europe.
These road trips, covering more than 10,000 miles, are different from what we might think of as typical road trips. These trips were not for the purpose of seeing sights. They were for the purpose of seeing people, as many as possible; of talking to people, as many as possible; of saving people, as many as possible. What were these three road trips? Paul’s three missionary journeys.
Paul’s first road trip took him predominantly through modern-day Turkey, as did much of his second and third. We know the names of many of Paul’s stopovers: Antioch, Galatia, Colossae, Ephesus. Paul’s colleagues—Barnabas, Timothy, and John Mark—also poured themselves out in this region: Symrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, Laodicea.
Here’s the sobering truth about all the places I just mentioned: Today there are almost no Christian believers left. Almost none. About two per 1,000. This summer Greg King, a religion professor at Southern Adventist University, and I took a tour group here; we were basically the only Christians present. In Ephesus, as we gathered in the same market square where Paul once preached the gospel, we were asked not to sing or pray.
So what happened to the Christian faith in Asia Minor? After all, at one point Constantinople was the leading institutional center of the Christian world. Maybe that’s what happened to Asia Minor: it became institutionalized. Christianity has nearly died in almost all the places touched by Paul’s first road trip.
The good news: Many places on Paul’s second and third journeys maintain a strong Christian presence even today. I know what you’re thinking: What type of Christianity? That’s a fair point. But at least there’s an open door here. At least there’s freedom to worship Christ. When we left Turkey and arrived in Patmos and Athens, we could again express our Christian faith.
Paul’s resolute journeys by land and sea were driven by his desire to share the gospel of Jesus Christ. In Titus 1 Paul identifies himself as someone with life-changing information, claiming that his preaching brings to light the secrets of God promised before the beginning of time. That’s why Paul traveled so frantically, like an overly ambitious dad on a family trip, to tell people the news: God Himself loved them, and God’s Son had died for them.
When we travel, is it only to see sights? Or to save people?
Andy Nash ([email protected]) is a professor at Southern Adventist University. He leads Christian study tours to Israel and other places each summer.