Blog EntriesWorship

Worshiping in Chinese

Why Cross-Cultural Workers Don't Go to Chinese Church

From the series Worshiping in Chinese


This series of blog entries refers primarily to the question of expatriate Christians attending Chinese services at registered—or at least publicly "open"—local churches. It is assumed that in most cases, the risks to local believers (and to the expat workers as well) are such that it would be irresponsible to participate regularly in unregistered church services. Part one deals with some of the common objections to attending Chinese church services. In part two some of the main reasons why I have chosen to attend Chinese church services will be given. Part three will list some of the ways I have been blessed by my attendance at Chinese church services.

Imagine that while sitting in a café in your passport country reading your Bible, a stranger approaches you. She is obviously from a different country, and she struggles to express herself in your language. She sees your Bible and then tells you that she has come to your hometown to help your church "do better." She has only visited your church once, and in fact she only worships with other foreigners in her own language, but she is very eager to tell you what your church ought to do. How would you respond?

It may surprise those less familiar with the China context to learn that it is quite common to find cross-cultural workers in China who do not attend Chinese worship services. No one intends to avoid going to church; rather, as they respond to a series of one or more seemingly reasonable observations, expatriates quickly find themselves in a situation where not worshiping in a Chinese church becomes an apparently perfectly acceptable habit. Many of the reasons given for not attending Chinese services have been around for so long that they are often accepted as true without consideration, and in some circles worshiping regularly in a Chinese church may even be considered odd. And yet a brief look at some of the more common objections reveals how it is often our own unhealthy attitudes towards China and ministry that are keeping us out of Chinese pews rather than any conditions inherent in the Chinese context.

Objection 1: "I went once, but there is no life in that church."

This is one of the most common reasons given for not regularly attending local services. It was especially popular during the 1990s when Chinese worship styles were far more staid and reserved than they are today. This observation assumes that one's own sense of appropriate form and style of worship is normative. But who is it that determines what a "full of life" church looks like? Applying just a bit of cross-cultural training should remind all of us that people from other cultures may choose to worship God in different ways that reflect the values and priorities that matter most to them. In the Chinese case, local worship services are not designed to cater to western tastes, nor to meet western "needs." If things look "dead" or seem "wrong" at first, then get involved. What seems self-evident at first almost always requires revision as comprehension and experience deepen—as the cross-cultural worker moves through the process of first understanding then empathizing with the values and priorities of his or her new cultural context. Regardless, staying uninformed and casting stones from a distance ("that church is dead") benefits no one and can in fact encourage division and factionalism within the church.

Objection 2: "It is simply not practical for our family at this time."

This reason seems initially to be less theological than the first. Chinese church services are typically longer than we are used to in the west, with the sermons in particular stretching far longer than expatriate churchgoers are accustomed to. This issue of length seems particularly compelling when small children are involved. At the same time, the seats are often uncomfortable, the buildings overcrowded and hence often smelly, and the climate control is just wrong — it is too cold in the winter and too hot in the summer. In the past, one of the greatest challenges was social. The people attending church were older, less educated, and poor—not the kinds of people that most expatriates found it easy to associate with. While in recent years all these demographics are reversing, it is still the case that church can be relationally complicated, as so many people push and pull the too-visible expatriates in and out of various social networks. Add in the mental exhaustion from working in a different language and the physical exhaustion of transporting yourself and whatever family you may have, and attending a Chinese church service can be very tiring indeed!

Is it right, however, to allow our personal convenience and comfort to determine where we worship? While it may function as one factor in our decision-making, surely it cannot be the primary factor. On the contrary, oftentimes we are explicitly encouraged to undertake acts of service that cost us dearly. Unlike the Israelites in Jesus' well-known parable, the Samaritan was "good" precisely because he was willing to inconvenience himself for the sake of someone outside his social world. Surely we ought to be willing to endure discomfort in order to worship with these Chinese brothers and sisters we claim we are here to serve, and inconvenience should never prevent us from blessing our fellow Christians here in China. Moreover, there are many ways to participate in local worship that may decrease the level of inconvenience. Parents can alternate Sundays staying home with very small children, anyone can attend the children's Sunday classes instead of the main service, pinyin hymnals are available, and any of the mid-week young people's fellowships or prayer meetings could be joined as alternatives that may help make worshiping in a Chinese church more accessible. But just because it is hard doesn't mean it isn't worth doing.

Objection 3: "I'm just not fed by what goes on there."

In most cases, this is a straightforward confession of linguistic shortcomings. Far too many cross-cultural workers still find the task of listening to and understanding an entire Chinese sermon to be beyond their abilities. But for some even joining in prayers, or singing along with the hymns and reciting the Apostles' Creed or the Lord's Prayer is just not possible at their Chinese language level. While it seems like a reasonable reason to skip church (I don't understand!), it ought instead to be a strong motivation to redouble efforts in the classroom so as to be able to join the Chinese church in worship as soon as possible. Moreover, attending Chinese worship service is an excellent way to practice and develop one's spiritual vocabulary! It should also be noted that the opinion of those who do have the linguistic ability to understand what is happening in Chinese churches is overwhelmingly positive (this will be discussed more in part three of this blog series).

But regardless of Chinese language skills, is it still the case that if we are not being fed we need not attend church services? Such an assumption reveals the influence of consumerism on the western (especially North American) church, wherein my personal preferences are sovereign, and the church exists to give me what I want. Recalling that worship is itself an act of service, our participation in the local fellowship ought to be less about what we get and more about what we give. Many times I have had Chinese pastors tell me that seeing me in the pews gives them great encouragement, reminding them of the global nature of the church. Others have said that merely seeing foreigners in church changed their attitude towards Christianity, convincing them of the social acceptability and intellectual credibility of the gospel. Even if you spend the entire 90 minutes in quiet prayer, your simple presence may very well bless the people around you; it will certainly expand your opportunities for fellowship with Chinese Christians.

Objection 4: "There is too much corruption in this church."

In most cases this observation comes from someone who has been in a particular city long enough to collect a few stories of shady dealings in their local church. The difficulty here lies in the prevalence of church-related rumors, and the challenge of discerning fact from fiction. It was recently rumored that one team of pastors in my city had embezzled large amounts of money that had been set aside for church building programs. However, talking to the pastors themselves and others in leadership within the church revealed that while the rumors had been so intense as to incite a police investigation, the results of that very thorough investigation revealed that the pastors had not, in fact, embezzled. This so surprised the police, that they began telling other government officials, with great wonder, that Christian pastors truly were different from other people!

Beyond avoiding the pitfalls of trading in rumors, what ought to be our response to a church that is supposedly struggling? If we claim we have come here to build up the church, ought we not to strive to repair fellowships that are broken? After all, our churches back home are full of sinners, and scandals are not a feature unique to Chinese Christianity. A rumor of financial, theological, or moral failure demands verification, and what better way to verify than to enter into the supposedly corrupted church? Once verified, standing on the outside and pointing fingers does no one any good. Far better to jump in, get our hands dirty, and do our bit under God's guidance to clean things up. Even where corruption exists, it is almost certainly not the defining spiritual characteristic of all the people who are worshiping there on Sunday mornings. We would all be lost if God measured our faith according to the faithfulness of our ministers!

Having examined just a few of the more popular reasons for not participating in Chinese worship services, part two of this blog series will state more positively the reasons why I personally choose to attend local church.

Photo Credit: Joann Pittman

Swells in the Middle Kingdom

"Swells in the Middle Kingdom" began his life in China as a student back in 1990 and still, to this day, is fascinated by the challenges and blessings of living and working in China. View Full Bio