I heard this calming voice while sitting in a park, after hours and hours of prayer and contemplation. It was a sunny afternoon on July 14, 2018. My plans after graduation from college had fallen apart, so, unexpectedly, I moved, burdened with sorrows and uncertainties, to the East Coast for a short-term internship. As I heard this voice, my knitted brows became smooth again. I suddenly heard birds chirping around me. I started to see little boys and girls jumping and running with their dogs on the green grass. At that moment, I didn’t know how long I was going to stay in that city, but I knew I had embarked on a journey that was exciting, risky, and full of unknowns.
I was born and raised in a Christian fellowship in China, which was primarily influenced by Watchman Nee, Brother Lawrence, and Jean Guyon. The church had a unique mix of influences from the Local Church and Catholic Mysticism, yet the church did not preach much about theology, so I was not aware of what denomination it belonged to. I was the only teenager among elderly people. I remember my feet would fall asleep because I knelt too long during night prayers. Most of those experiences were dreadful religious practices for me, but there were many moments when I was touched by the sweetness of the Spirit. And, due to the strong emphasis on repentance and endurance in persecution, I knew that I was a sinner through and through, and knew I wanted to serve God with all my life.
My family moved to another city when I was in middle school. We tried an evangelical charismatic church for a year and then decided to settle in a Presbyterian church. It was not until then, as we repeated them every Sunday, that I got to know what the Apostle’s Creed and Doxology were. At that age, I never wondered where the Creed came from, or what was the significance of singing the Doxology. I was baffled by the fact that I had to go through a series of classes before I was officially baptized, even though I had been following Christ since I was very young. When I was about to leave to study in the US, I was told again and again to choose a church carefully based on their doctrine and denomination.
Unexpectedly, some of my previous assumptions were deconstructed when I started school in the Midwest. I read Augustine’s Confessions in a theology course as a freshman and I wept as I read his stories. I deeply resonated with Augustine, one who also struggled with sin as a child and into adulthood, and who encountered God’s grace precisely where he transgressed against God. In the seminar, we discussed theological questions related to Augustine’s writings. My mind was blown as I learned about early church history and how Christianity “evolved” with time. It struck me as surprising when the seminar leader noted that Augustine was an early church father in the Catholic Church, which existed long before the Reformation. It was also the moment when I realized that a lot of church practices I had experienced in China originated from the early churches.
Another interesting thing I found was that my friends came from all sorts of church backgrounds. None of them thought it was a big deal when I said “I am a Presbyterian” as a freshman, or as I said, “I am a non-denominational Christian” as a senior. Why didn’t they treat me based on my denominational tags? I still don’t have a good answer yet.
During those four years of education, I visited churches with various traditions, ethnicities, and social-economic backgrounds as a learning experience. My biggest take-away was that the concept of church is an indispensable part of a person’s faith. I cannot understand or appreciate the body of Christ in a holistic sense without learning more about various church traditions and denominations.
Now, I am writing this essay sitting across from another university. God led me here to pursue further education, and I can never forget how he richly nourished me during that year of internship before school started. It was a year when I walked with brothers and sisters in church more closely than ever before. They were with me while I was facing fear, uncertainties, and pain from the past.
Through that fellowship, I began to value the Bible by studying it regularly, carefully, and joyfully. I also became more open to the Holy Spirit and discovered the spiritual gifts given to me for the work of the gospel. That was when I started to understand more what it means to be in the body of Christ and to “be open.” Be open to truth, be open to challenges, be open to love, be open to disappointments, be open to God and his people.
Now when I sing the Doxology and recite the Apostle’s Creed in Sunday worship, I do not only think about my brothers and sisters in China, nor only about those I met while studying in the Midwest, but I think about all the saints throughout history. I think about the early church fathers, the saints singing medieval chants, the reformers, and Christians all over the world in the 21st century. I long for the day when Jesus comes back and all God’s people are finally united in Christ alone.
I am grateful for these past church experiences. Certainly, my church view will continue to change as I grow, but what remains unchanged is the beauty in God’s church. No matter where I go, I see the passion for Christ and his kingdom in each true believer, and the transparency, vulnerability, and love for one another in the church.
Thanks be to God. Because of Christ’s unshakable love, we, though not perfect, love each other in him forever.
Editor’s note: This post was updated on May 25, 2021.
Image credit: Ryan Sims via Flickr.
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