New Zealand's Backpacker Phenomenon

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For many young people it's common to take time to see the world. It can be a life-changing adventure and thanks to some ministries in New Zealand, many travelers are also discovering Jesus along the way.

It's known as the back-packer phenomenon.

Thousands of young people, mainly between the ages of 18 and 29, flock to New Zealand to go on a "walk about" as they call it. They see it as a chance to discover the world and in the process, hopefully themselves.

There is a whole culture geared just for backpackers. In Wanaka, a beautiful resort town located in New Zealand's South Island there is even a church dedicated to reaching this very transient population.

On a particular Sunday evening young people from Germany, Japan and Holland are among the visitors to Wanaka's Lighthouse Church.

Lighthouse Church Outreach

But before heading in for the service, a local missionary hosts a BBQ for the back-packers. The offer of free food and fellowship was more than enough to draw a small crowd from the local inns.

"It's quite interesting because the people are really different here and really friendly," German backpacker Markus said.

Yukiko from Japan, a self-proclaimed Buddhist, said she was open to hearing more about Jesus.

"Yeah, I'm not really good at Buddhism," she said with a laugh. "But I'm really interested in many ways of thinking."

Anouk, 26, from Amsterdam said it was the beautiful nature that drew her to New Zealand.

"That's what I really like here in New Zealand, the hiking, the walking trips," she said.

"I'm not a big believer (in Jesus) but it's not that I don't believe," she added. "I'm open minded and I think there is much more."

Jesus said, "Go into all the world and preach the Gospel."

But what do you do when all the world is coming to you?

Seekers Flock to New Zealand

Christians in Wanaka, New Zealand say it is a good problem to have.

"Actually, that's been something that we really love, the fact that we don't have to go all over the world," Natalie Nelson, pastor of Wanaka's Lighthouse Church said.

"We can be right here and they do come in. They're drawn to us. They're drawn to this beautiful town," she added.

Local missionary Scott Brown said Jesus outlined a strategy in Acts 1:8.

"He said start in Jerusalem and don't stop until you've gone to the uttermost parts of the earth," Brown said. "But consider the irony. Here we are in New Zealand, these two little islands floating in the South Pacific, the uttermost ends of the earth."

Brown said New Zealand couldn't be farther from Jerusalem.

"But the world is coming to us," he added.

Heart for Back-packers

Nelson, a 32-year-old California native, felt the call to plant the church in Wanaka several years ago. She said God gave her a heart for back-packers because of her own experience.

"I spent quite a bit of time back-packing myself. I traveled all around the world, and spent months and months with a back-pack on my back," she said. "So as I see each person coming through that feeling of 'Oh, I wish that somebody had taken me in' really pulls on my heart."

Scott says most of the young people he meets are already searching for something deeper in their lives and New Zealand's special beauty often opens their hearts to receive it.

"There's something about being immersed in the creation that is causing this sense of worship to come up," he said.

Scott called it a spiritual connection.

"And my joy is introducing people to the Creator of the creation they're experiencing here," he added.

Scott's ministry also gives out special Bibles just for back-packers.

For some, it's just a seed being planted. For others it's the truth they've literally been searching the world to find.

"And truthfully," Brown said, "these are the change-agents. These are the next leaders, the catalysts. And by touching backpackers in New Zealand, you're actually touching the whole world."

*Originally aired April 30, 2009

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