Today I had the privilege of attending a church service in a language I don’t speak in a country where I have lived for only six months. Not my first such experience and hopefully not my last.
China has offered me the most experiences for worshiping outside of my culture and this morning my mind wandered back to my first Sunday morning there. The extent of my Chinese was a few different names for God and of course the ubiquitous hallelujah and amen!
From my first moment in worship services outside the US I have loved to hear people pray in their heart language. It always hits me—as the ever-struggling language student—that God understands what they’re saying. My faith is strengthened by hearing people call out to God in faith, cry (yes, with tears) for something, praise him, beg him, thank him for I know not what. How had he made himself real to them? What was their story of coming to faith? Even on that day I knew they were using not one but several of his names. Why did I not do this?
Why attend a worship service in a language you don’t understand? I can only speak from the world of a teacher and I realize the world of the foreign teacher in China is changing even as I write.
My students were interested in what I did on the weekend. Many were not only surprised that I attended a church but that one existed in their city. Some were sure it was in English and when they joined me they were amazed that the lesson was in Chinese, as were as the songs and wall hangings. Some were surprised to see other young people attending as well as leading music. Several Sundays I took groups of teachers and as we waited for the first service to exit I admit I silently fretted over seeing so many old people leaving. “This just feeds their opinion of this being a place for the elderly with no hope.” But they saw it as a time issue. “Older people get up early. They must like that there’s an 8 am meeting,” observed one of them.
Over the years reactions were varied. Some first timers were touched by the speaker’s practical applications to his own life and family, his honesty about his weaknesses, and his passion for his faith. Others thought he or she was fooling people into believing something. For some the crying was just drama to get attention. Some returned, some never said a word, and others were full of questions. Some told me later that they now noticed more red crosses in town. All now knew there was at least one church in their town and that it was totally Chinese.
How does one sit for a good 90 minutes when only a few words are understood? Is it enough to be moved by the prayers around you? Clearly, this is up to each individual and how one’s language learning progresses. For some foreigners it becomes their habit and others combine attending expat meeting with attendance at local gatherings. In many places a foreigner’s presence would be dangerous or not permitted. This is hardly limited to China but anywhere one lives cross culturally
But no matter the country or my current situation, the lessons I learned in China’s churches will stay with me wherever I go. Lessons that have little to do with language. When I couldn’t understand the sermon beyond scripture reference there was so much to see. For example?
There’s a middle-aged man with a Bible—just across the aisle. He’s alone—no woman pulling him along. What is his story? Where does he work? Does he have questions as he listens? Who will answer them?
The teary woman beside me—folds and unfolds her tissue. What is she facing today? Why does this place and moment bring her to tears?
A line of college students file in, not sure where to sit. Included in the group is a snickering boy who mimics the musicians and even tries to talk over the singing. The girl next to him keeps nodding her head. One guy gets up and leaves half way through. Another goes to the meeting held for newcomers after the service. What is going on in each of their heads?
In the back is a lady with her son who has Down’s syndrome. They’re there every Sunday and only a few people don’t stop to shake his hand or say hello. How comforting for her but what is the rest of her week like?
In back of me is a fashionably dressed young woman with a leather-bound notebook in which she is furiously writing. Her Bible is full of notes. As we stand to sing she holds hands with two grandmas. Their clothing and hairstyles couldn’t be more different. Where does that woman work? What brought her to a place where she is familiar with this meeting and this Book?
And the pastor himself. What happened in his week? What temptations came across his path? Who can he go to for accountability and encouragement? What’s going on with his kids, his finances, his marriage?
What’s to be done with these observations and questions? Pray! Right there in your seat. No language lessons needed. You’re talking to the Creator of the human tongue. Of course church became more than this but I never forgot these special prayer times. This morning, as before, my mind wandered a bit as a brother taught in a language as yet unknown to me. Once again, I saw people with stories I didn’t know and questions came to mind and I prayed.
Image credit: A friend of ChinaSource.
Barbara Kindschi has been privileged and challenged to teach English in China, Myanmar, Laos, and beginning this year, Mongolia. Her classes have been filled with undergrads, professors, accountants, hotel employees, monks, government workers and beauty pageant contestants. They continue to be both her students and teachers. View Full Bio
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