Editor’s Note: What does Christianity look like? Chad Gibbs set out to travel the world and along the way he witnessed how Christians across the globe practiced their faith. In doing so, he uncovered his hidden biases and discovered a clearer picture of and a deeper love of Christ and His People.
We spent the afternoon in the Old City, smelling saltwater in the Mediterranean breeze and strolling down La Rambla, a street whose name literally means “the Boulevard” and figuratively means “the Tourist Trap.” We wanted tapas and perused the sidewalk cafes, comparing the chalk menus until we settled on a place that was serving two tapas and a pasta dish for €5. We sat down, pointed at two tapas each on the picture menu, and both ordered seafood paella for the main course.
The tapas were okay, but the paella, topped with shrimp and mussels straight from the Mediterranean, was so tasty I still dream about it. I was tempted to call it the greatest cheap lunch I’d ever had, but the chalk menu failed to mention we’d be paying an additional €7 for a few lukewarm milliliters of Coca-Cola. Stupid metric system.
After lunch we wandered aimlessly through the Old City, stopping to visit Barcelona Cathedral, an enormous five-hundred-year-old Gothic church. Then we toured the Picasso Museum, to enjoy the works of an artist who occasionally depicts noses with triangles. Then we went to a Bible study. I know, kind of random.
Even though we were visiting Spain only for a soccer match, in the weeks before the trip, I couldn’t resist searching for Christian organizations in Barcelona to see if something was going on that Jordan and I could attend. The first church I found is called the International Church of Barcelona, and their primary goal is reaching out to the English-speaking community of Barcelona, and I thought, Hey, I speak English, so I sent them an email. Turned out there was a young adults’ Bible study the last night we were in town, and the leaders, John and Brandi, said they’d love to have us.
The big white building on the hill looked a lot like someone’s house when we finally reached it, and I hated to knock, because it was unlikely the person who lived there spoke English, but I also hated to snoop around, because the police arresting us for trespassing were just as unlikely to speak English. Jordan knocked and no one answered, but in their defense, he didn’t knock hard. Then we walked down some stairs to the back of the house, where we surprised a man walking outside to make a phone call.
“Uh,” I eloquently began, “we’re looking for John and Brandi.”
“Brandi is inside,” he said and pointed toward the door he’d just exited.
We walked in and stood in the doorway. The study had obviously not begun, as people of all races and nationalities were standing around, drinking coffee, and conversing in various languages and accents, some of which I’m pretty sure are illegal in Alabama. We didn’t know what to do or who to talk to, but then a woman near the front of the room shouted our names and said, “Welcome! You guys come and get your name tags.”
It was Brandi, and she began taking us around the room to introduce us to members of the group. I told her I thought we were late, and she said, “Eight thirty really means nine here, at the earliest.”
Jordan and I grabbed some snacks and sat down, and soon we were talking to Kelsey Beckman, a young American from Kansas. “How’d you end up living in Barcelona?” I asked her.
“Have you heard of El Camino de Santiago?” she asked.
I had. In English it’s called the Way of St. James, and though there are numerous routes, the most famous is the five-hundred-mile trek across northern Spain, from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port on the French side of the Pyrenees Mountains, all the way to Santiago de Compostela, where the remains of St. James are supposedly buried. Pilgrims have been making this journey for centuries, and they still are today. Nearly two hundred thousand of them walked (or biked) the Way in 2011.
“You did that?” I asked, more jealous than anything else, because Tricia said I couldn’t do it without her, and that she didn’t want to do it. But if I were, let’s say, a twenty-one-year-old college student reading this, I’d start researching the Way of St. James for my graduation trip.
“It was, hands down, the greatest experience of my life,” Kelsey said.
“The whole point of my pilgrimage was to have thirty-plus days completely focused on God and His will for my life, without all the stressors and crap that get in the way of that focus daily.”
“Do you think that was why most pilgrims were there?”
“I met some people who were there for the same reasons, but I think more were just doing it for fun. I even met one guy from Australia who said he was afraid he’d meet all these intense Catholics and hardcore Bible thumpers on the Way. I found it kind of odd that people would participate in a centuries old religious tradition hoping not to encounter anything religious. But to each his own, I guess.”
“So you made the pilgrimage, fell in love with Spain, and decided to stay?”
“I met a guy too.”
“Aah. So what’s it like being a Christian in Spain?”
“Way different than I would have imagined,” Kelsey said. “Even though Spain is technically a Catholic country, I have met only atheists. And they are proud to be so. People just can’t understand how I can be twenty-six and a believer. They see Christianity as something ancient and dead. Something that has no place in the world today, especially for people my age. And they don’t just ask if I’m a Christian and drop it when I say yes; they talk about all of the horrible things the church has done throughout history. It can be immensely frustrating, but it has also really challenged me and deepened my faith. At first I was always on the defensive, but eventually I realized that living out my faith and being an example would have way more impact than arguing.”
Cesar, a thirty-five-year-old Barcelona native, told me a similar story. “In secondary school, friends would laugh at me when I said I was an evangelical Christian. Young people here are rather agnostic. They don’t know about God, and they are not really interested to find out.”
Listening to Kelsey and Cesar, it dawned on me that I cannot recall ever being laughed at for my beliefs, never mind facing persecution. In the Bible Belt, it is still tougher to admit you are not a person of faith. Back home, Christianity is our default setting. In contrast, Spaniards my age were born into a dictatorship where Roman Catholicism was the only religion with legal status, so it doesn’t make much sense to compare the United States and Spain, but it does perhaps shed some light on some of their less than positive views on the church.
And as I chatted with Kelsey and Cesar, I wondered about the different reasons a society might turn away from Christianity. Spaniards appear to have revolted against a heavy-handed, authoritarian church.
Will the next generation of Americans turn away from complacent comfortable Christianity? Is this why millennials in America are already leaving the church?
At the Bible study, Jordan and I met more Americans, a guy from Brazil, some Germans, some Chinese, perhaps a Vulcan, and even a few Spaniards. As they spoke that night, John in English, Brandi in Spanish, I couldn’t help but scan the room, looking at faces from around the world. I loved it.
We were not divided by countries or by race, but we were all of God’s children, together.
When the lesson ended, Brandi prayed in Spanish, which I do not speak, but I was nevertheless moved every time I heard her say Señor, a Spanish word for God.
As the group departed to catch the next train back to Barcelona, Jordan and I said goodbye to Brandi and John. I told them how much I’d enjoyed Spain and explained the thoughts behind this book a little more.
“I’m a wired skeptic,” Brandi said. “I joke with John that I often flow in the ‘gift of disbelief.’ In the States, there was enough Christian culture to propel me along. I was in constant church services, Bible studies, girls’ groups, Sunday school, fellowship nights — just constant. This created a dichotomy. I was trapped, and I was safe. I couldn’t deal with the real thoughts going through my head, yet I was in the current enough to be lulled along from week to week to still ‘be good and live for God.’”
“And living here?” I asked.
Living in Europe, all of those safeguards are gone. There’s no one dragging you to church. There’s no commitment to read the Word or pray. There’s no weekly structure that will keep you on the straight and narrow. Here you have to want it, and you have to fight for it. Living here has opened my mind and eyes, and has been shocking and also liberating. I still maintain most of the ‘fundamentals’ I was raised with in the US, but I also recognize that my world is not the world.
I thought a lot about the things Brandi said as Jordan and I waited at Les Planes station for the train to take us back into Barcelona, and I’ve thought about them a lot since then. It’s important to reflect on how much of my faith is shaped by where I live on a map. I’m thankful to have grown up in Alabama, I truly am, but talking to people who have their faith questioned on a daily basis, I felt keenly aware of how complacent my own faith had become. How complacent most of us have become in the comfortable Bible Belt.
I could be wrong here — my next seminary course will be my first — but when I read the New Testament, I don’t see any promises of a comfortable life. I usually see promises of the opposite.
But comfortable might be the perfect word to describe life back home. It’s really only when people make their lives uncomfortable, by giving away possessions or adopting a bunch of children, that we start questioning them and calling them zealots. I don’t want you to think I’m yearning for the days of a post-Christian America, though those days very well may be coming. It’s just that Jesus said the world would hate us because of Him, and I’ve never really felt it.
Excerpted with permission from Jesus Without Borders by Chad Gibbs, copyright Zondervan.
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