The Lost Art of Pilgrimage

One woman's experience with the Fifth Gospel, and what it means for the rest of us
"And now I am going to Jerusalem, drawn there irresistibly by the Holy Spirit, not knowing what awaits me" (Acts 20:22).

Two Presbyterians, an Episcopalian, a Lutheran, a Baptist, and a rapper named SaulPaul board a plane—sounds like the beginning of a bad joke, doesn't it? And yet my travels with this eclectic band of sojourners may have forever changed the trajectory of my own faith journey.

Representing the "emerging church" community, I joined six other clergy at St. George's College for a two-week pilgrimage to the Holy Land. I ignored my friends' concerns, my own fears and doubts, and my mother's desperate pleas to remain safely in the United States. Like Paul, I was irresistibly drawn by the Holy Spirit toward this adventure, but I could never have imagined what would await me and how the journey would impact my life.

The Lost Discipline

Contrary to popular opinion, pilgrimage is not a lost discipline in our Western culture. Every year, thousands of Americans flock to historical sites, make etchings at the Vietnam Wall, and shoot off fireworks to connect with their heritage, destiny, and the men and women who walked freedom's path before them. Americans can feel patriotic anywhere, but something swells in their hearts as they stand at those shrines and connect with their history and with hundreds of others who have experienced the same feeling in that place throughout the years.

Likewise, baseball fans flock to stadium after stadium on a quest to visit every shrine of their favorite national pastime. Similarly, hundreds of people descend upon Graceland every year to visit the grave of a man who changed history by swinging his hips on television.

Pilgrimage is not a lost practice. But as a tool for spiritual formation, it has faded into the background of our faith history. It's viewed as an outdated activity of odd desert monks, thrill-seeking explorers, or misguided Crusaders.

My own journey led me to a new conclusion: pilgrimage should be resurrected and promoted as an important tool for spiritual formation. Specifically, the call of pilgrimage connects with the inner cravings of emerging generations, who know intuitively that the Christian life is a greater journey than a 100-foot walk down the center aisle of a church.

Emerging generations recognize that faith is a life-long journey, and pilgrimage appeals to those yearnings to enter into outward physical expressions of their inward faith journeys. It gives them a sense of history, context, community and authenticity.


Pilgrimage gives meaning to our spiritual journeys by reminding us that we are part of the Story of God and are connected to thousands of events and people across the centuries. In The Place We Call Home, Murray Bodo says, "There is something of time-travel in all pilgrimage."

The stones and pillars of the crumbling ruins of the Holy Land are bursting with stories of faith, betrayal, mystery, and hope. When we walk around the holy places of Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and Galilee, we are transported back in time and immersed in the story of Scripture.

Emerging generations understand the importance of history and sense they are a part of something larger than themselves. The stones of the sacred places connected me with my roots as a Christ-follower. As I ran my fingers across the Crusader crosses etched into the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, I connected with thousands of pilgrims who walked this land before me.

Everywhere I traveled, I was drawn into the massive adventure that God is writing. I was overwhelmed by the magnitude of the Story, but I was also able to ponder my role in God's epic, and I can pass my own tales of spiritual journey to the next generation.

Pilgrimage gives us the perspective of history.


Pilgrimage brings context to our creeds. St. Jerome called the Holy Land the "fifth gospel." He saw the land itself as another revelation of Christ. Because of my study of this "fifth gospel," I am now in love with Jesus more than ever. Our faith is not tied to a particular place, but I believe that certain environments are more conducive to experiencing Christ. Perhaps he was able to do things in my life in Jerusalem that would have been impossible with feet firmly planted at home in Washington, D.C.

I felt like Christ took me by the hand to personally show me the places of his life. I will never again read the verse "And Jesus went to Galilee" as merely a transitional verse for a Scriptural scene change. Now, I experience that trip with him—aware of the distance, sights, and sounds.

My mind will be forever captive to the images of the land that Jesus called home. I cannot sing about the "blood spilled for me" without feeling the cold bedrock of Golgotha. I cannot read about his rejection without remembering the spit and insults hurled against me as I carried the cross along the Via Dolorosa (Way of the Cross). I cannot read the account of Peter's denial of Christ without hearing in my head once again the cock crowing during the first few steps along that road.

Pilgrimage moves our creeds from an intellectual framework to a description of something we have physically touched and a life we have lived. It draws us into a deeper understanding of Christ and the life to which he has called us.


Pilgrimage gives us a new understanding of community. I have always found great value in exploring other denominational traditions, because they stretch me and spur me to grow. Pilgrimage was a total immersion into the larger Body of Christ. It was baptism.

We are all different parts and we all need each other, just as Paul says in Ephesians. Despite our theological, cultural, and intellectual differences, our diverse team shared the same spiritual path for two weeks. We ate together and swam in the Sea of Galilee together. We argued and hurt one another and forgave and prayed with one another. We shared laughter and tears. We saw Christ together and became the Body of Christ as we worshipped together.

Now, when I think of Episcopalians, Lutherans, Baptists, Presbyterians, and Urban Ministries, I no longer think of a particular creed, theological position, strength, or weakness. Instead, I see the faces of people who love Christ and shaped my spiritual development.

At the Catalyst 2005 Conference, Bill Hybels said, "Most twenty-somethings are impressed with the concept of community, but they are completely incapable of living it." Pilgrimage baptizes us into Christian community in its purest sense.


Discipleship does not happen in the classroom. It happens in the trenches. Pilgrimage breaks down the mirage of Sunday morning Christianity and exposes the raw elements of our faith. In Genesis 32:22-31, Jacob wrestled with God. He named the place "Peniel," meaning "face of God." He came face-to-face with God and walked away with a limp.

For two weeks, I wrestled with God on pilgrimage. Sometimes it was fun, like a father wrestling with a child. Other times, it was a painful struggle. Both types of wrestling are good.

I wrestled with God on the Temple Mount, while remembering Jesus' anger against the money changers and considering the times I have mixed my faith with impure motives for personal gain. I wrestled with God in the Judean desert, trying to out-worship the rocks which cried out in praise as they reflected the majesty of their Creator.

I wrestled with God at Golgotha as I encountered what I can only describe as a near death experience. I stood holding a cross at the rock which should have been the place of my own death and cried at the realization of my helplessness and his sacrifice. I wrestled with God in Gethsemane while trying to pray the most excruciating prayer of all—"Not my will, but yours"—and feeling the first pains of dying to self.

This trip was my personal Peniel. I feel a slight limp, but I have seen God's face and that makes the pain more than worthwhile.

Follow Him

Like Peter, the emerging generation would prefer to jump out of the boat and take the risk of sinking rather than to never experience the momentary thrill of walking on water. As leaders, we need to find opportunities to let them take that leap.

Jesus challenges us: "Come follow me." We can follow him right where we are, but our best attempts often leave us longing for something more.

Emerging generations struggle to find authentic expression for Jesus' call to an adventure that extends beyond the walls of a church building. Pilgrimage conveys the mystery and adventure of our faith better than thirty minutes of our best exegesis and metaphors on Sunday mornings.

It's time to call the emerging church to an exploration of the 5th Gospel.

—Heather Zempel is Pastor of Discipleship at National Community Church in Washington, D.C., copyright © 2009. Used with permission of National Community Church.

Free Newsletter

Sign up for our Weekly newsletter: Regular access to innovative training resources, Bible-based curriculum, and practical articles.


Conducting a Spiritual Self-Audit

Twelve questions to keep your personal accounts in order.
9 Ways to Help Group Members Take Ownership of Problems

9 Ways to Help Group Members Take Ownership of Problems

The struggle is real—and we have to own it if we want to change.
How Is the Bible Changing You?

How Is the Bible Changing You?

Assess how you've grown after completing a Bible study.
Easter Reminds Us God Offers New Life

Easter Reminds Us God Offers New Life

Post-Easter icebreaker--reflect on the new life God has given you this past year.
The Four-Step Discussion Method that Works for Any Study

The Four-Step Discussion Method that Works for Any Study

This simple small-group format teaches disciples to obey God.
Four Keys to Transformational Discussions

Four Keys to Transformational Discussions

Create an environment for life change with these simple tips.