Smethurst targets adults in their 20s because he says they usually feel left out of participating in missions work in the typical local church. In addition, he says church leaders "sometimes battle to release young adults because of their lack of knowledge of travel and geography."
Since the small, nonprofit charismatic ministry began in 1999, Overland has taken more than 130 people ages 18-50 on expeditions. But the average age of an Overland missionary is 23. Smethurst believes God has called him to "resurrect the apostolic ministry in young adults."
"Apostleship basically has been misconstrued. It's not earned, or a title, but a job description," he says, citing Romans 1:5. "It's part of the task at hand. That's why we are raising up young adults as young apostles. We're demanding from them apostleship, not just evangelism.
"We're not asking young adults for one year of their life or for them to live in the Third World. But we're asking them to take responsibility for the Third World. That's apostleship," Smethurst says.
According to the Travel Channel, backpackers make up 60 percent of the tourists worldwide. Smethurst notes that backpackers have been responsible for changing the spiritual climate of a predominantly Hindu island in Southeast Asia, which previously had a strict moral culture.
"Over the last 15 years, backpack tourism has perverted the culture of Bali, Indonesia, with drugs, alcohol and prostitution," he says. "If young adult backpackers began to travel around the world with the gospel, we could impact whole islands and nations."
Based in Cape Canaveral, Florida, Smethurst and his wife, Sharon, primarily get the word out about Overland by speaking at churches, universities and schools. Although the majority of Overland travelers are Americans, citizens from Australia, England and Ireland have taken the journeys.
"Eighty percent of our alumni come back a second and third time," Smethurst says. "Last summer, half of the people who came with us on our two expeditions are alumni, so they really believe in what we do."
Sharon, 32, who was born in Portugal and raised in Brazil by her missionary parents, says that "the same feeling people get from watching Survivor is the same feeling that draws them to us."
"But we differ from Survivor in that we don't vote the people out," she says. "We really want to take as many people as we can to the nations."
The pair, however, are not novice world-travelers. Smethurst has been to more than 40 countries; Sharon to 30.
Besides ministering globally for 12 years and serving in the South African military for two years, including fighting in Angola's civil war, Smethurst is rated in a secular capacity as an "expedition specialist."
"When I was 26, I entered the International Camel Trophy, which is the biggest expedition event in the world," says Smethurst, who talks like a military strategist, using terms such as reconnaissance and pre-reconnaissance to describe Overland trips. "I was selected to train expedition teams for five years, so my expedition experience is not just as a Christian."
Calling All Adventurers
Overland ventures cost half as much as secular expeditions, according to Smethurst. With a price tag of about $2,300, which includes food and accommodations but not airfare, the trips run for five weeks and cover thousands of miles throughout five countries. A typical journey comprises 20 people.
"If we fill the trips with 20 people, it helps pay for the vehicles," Smethurst says. The secondhand, heavy-duty, four-wheel drive overland trucks cost about $20,000 each. Other equipment, such as the Zodiak vessels with outboard motors and boats for the Amazon River, are also paid for with the trip fees.
"The price we charge is very affordable because we do our homework," he says. "Most of the accommodations are tent and camp sites. Even though we have field kitchens on the trucks, we eat very well because we buy fresh meat and vegetables from the local markets."
Although Overland travelers are expected to "rough it" as they encounter rugged terrain and harsh natural elements, they are not pushed to the limit like the contestants on Survivor.
"We only try some local stuff that we know is safe, such as the fried Maponi worms, which are caterpillars found in Zimbabwe and Zambia," Smethurst says. They never have had an incident of food poisoning, he adds. "We avoid things like fried rats on skewers that are sold in the streets of Malawi."
Safety is a top priority, he says. There are no expeditions to Sudan or other war-torn countries, or to nations closed to tourism, such as Angola.
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