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Faces of Faith Travel: Mike Nieland

Many people of faith can tell you stories about Bible studies that impact them deeply. But for Mike Nieland, getting involved in a compelling Bible study changed his life.

Nieland is the founder of Blue Marble Journeys, a faith-based tour company based in Ankeny, Iowa. But he hasn’t always been a travel professional. Nieland spent the lion’s share of his career as a schoolteacher. And though he has attended church for most of his life, one specific Bible study opened his eyes to the power of Scripture and, eventually, to the possibilities of faith-based travel.

Finding Inspiration

Though Nieland had been involved with a number of church denominations throughout his life, an encounter with a Bible-teaching ministry in the early 2000s gave him a new appreciation for the importance of Scripture.

“I started going to a Bible study called ‘That the World May Know,’” Nieland said. “It was a series of videos that looks at the Bible in the context, the culture and the geography in which it was written. As I was immersed in that study, I found myself wanting to know more and more. There were so many aha moments with every episode, and it turned me on to being a person who wanted to immerse himself in the Bible.”

That experience was so compelling that Nieland began leading the same Bible study at his local church. After several years, some of his students began urging him to plan a group trip to Israel. After resisting for some time, Nieland finally agreed and worked with a tour operator to set up a visit in 2006.

“It was a rigorous adventure, with about eight to 10 miles a day of hiking,” he said. “We had a taste of what the Israelites experienced as they traversed the desert.”

Two years later Nieland went with his wife on a trip to Turkey and Greece, and by the time they returned, he began to recognize that God was calling him to become involved in Bible teaching and faith-based travel in a more significant way.

“I contacted different travel companies, and some of them had faith-based travel divisions, but they weren’t necessarily immersed in Scripture,” he said. “They went to some places with Christian history, but that wasn’t enough for me. So that’s how Blue Marble Journeys began.”

Building Experiences

Determined to create the kind of faith-based trips that delivered on his own love of Scripture, Nieland took a college course in tour directing and did some work for Star Destinations, a mainstream tour operator based in Iowa. Soon he was able to create Blue Marble Journeys — named for the blue marble that Earth resembles when viewed from space — and begin offering trips to destinations both domestic and international.

Like most faith-based travel providers, Blue Marble Journeys can arrange trips to Israel, Jordan, Egypt and other lands of the Bible. Groups that take those trips will find themselves experiencing the Scriptures in an in-depth way that bolsters their faith through the destinations they visit.

But Nieland has also found quite a few places around the United States that offer moving faith experiences for visitors.

“The Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky, is an incredible place,” he said. “It supports the biblical worldview, and for someone who struggles with that it makes a way for them to see some of the contradictions of evolution and to experience the biblical worldview for themselves.”

Nieland will take two groups to the Creation Museum this year, and those trips will also include the nearby Ark Experience, a re-creation of Noah’s Ark set to open this summer and run by the same leaders behind the Creation Museum.

Blue Marble also helps churches arrange a number of domestic mission trips. This summer, those trips will include an evangelism mission in Utah and two trips to the Voice of the Martyrs headquarters in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, where participants will work to help package and ship materials to assist persecuted Christians in countries around the globe. The trips will also include stops in Branson, Missouri, where passengers will see a musical adaptation of the story of Moses at Sight and Sound Theatre.

Nieland also packages trips that take church groups to the Great Passion Play in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, where they can explore a large living-history area that depicts Jerusalem during the time of Jesus.

Looking back on the adventure that the past 10 years has been, Nieland can see God at work through all the changes and uncertainty in his life.

“Sometimes it felt like wandering, but now I say that God was leading me and equipping me for what he has for me to do now,” he said.

Brian Jewell

Brian Jewell is the executive editor of The Group Travel Leader. In more than a decade of travel journalism he has visited 48 states and 25 foreign countries.