This series of blog entries refers primarily to the question of expatriate Christians attending services at registered—or at least publicly “open”—Chinese 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 dealt 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 are given. Part three lists some of the ways I have been blessed by my attendance at Chinese church services.
For many expatriate China workers—especially those newly arrived—going to Chinese church can seem quite intimidating. The service itself often seems “old fashioned” and far more conservative than what most expatriates are used to in their home countries. Linguistically, the lengthy sermons stretch the skills of even the most earnest students. Traveling to and from church can take a long time, and once there the physical environment is often crowded and sometimes just plain uncomfortable. For those with children, all of this seems doubly daunting: long travel, discomfort, and linguistic exhaustion are even less appealing when they must be negotiated with children as well. Is it any wonder that many people early on decide to give church a miss?
Of course, none of these problems is insoluble. Perseverance in study produces growing comprehension in church; and tools like smartphone dictionaries, bilingual and/or pinyin Bibles, pinyin hymnals, and increasingly sermon outlines and service orders projected during services help make church worship more accessible. When language fatigue sets in during the sermon, personal Bible study and prayer are valid occupations until one feels rested enough to reenter the linguistic fray. A mug of coffee, thick wool socks, a hot water bottle (really!) and fingerless gloves can make cold services more bearable, while bringing along a bottle of cold water and a folding fan can make summer service much more pleasant. For those with younger children, joining with your children in the Sunday School program can be a linguistic boon for parent and child alike, as well as providing a natural connection to local believers with whom you already have something in common. If the children are too young, alternating Sundays with one parent attending and one staying home can provide a regular welcome break for one parent while still allowing both to feel some connection to the local Christian community. While Sunday School for the older children is linguistically as challenging as the main service—with the added pressure of class recitation and quizzes!—many school-age children find the early parts of the service (singing, reciting the creed, scripture reading, choir performances) to be quite accessible; during the sermon they can be encouraged to read devotional material or do Bible study in their own language. These are just some of the things my family and I have employed over the last 20 years to facilitate our participation in Chinese church life.
Without denying the challenges, my family and I have found the blessings that flow from Chinese church participation to be essential components of our effective service and witness in China. Our visible presence in the church has rapidly expanded our network of Christian friends. The legality of our attendance has given us boldness in participation and in inviting local people to join us. The churches, through their bookstores, have provided ready access to affordable Christian literature and study materials. And for my children, participating in Chinese Sunday school from a very young age has meant linguistic confidence, socialization with Chinese peers, a burgeoning Christian vocabulary, and a sense of belonging within Chinese Christianity. But besides these practical benefits, there are a number of even more fundamental reasons why I feel compelled to attend weekly services at our local Chinese church.
- In the simplest terms, I have chosen to maintain regular attendance at Chinese worship services because doing so seems inseparable from my calling. If I have come here in order to contribute to the building up of the church in China, then I cannot ignore the churches all around me. If my experiences in those churches should somehow convince me that they are all “broken,” then surely part of my task of building up the church in China involves helping heal and restore those broken fellowships. Simply put, how can I claim to care about the Chinese church when I cannot be bothered to join with them in worship? This observation rings true regardless of language ability; if anything, when I understood less my desire to comprehend made my compulsion and motivation to attend even stronger.
- Leaving aside the theologically charged issue of whether or not the local church is the appropriate context for mission (see point three below), the local Chinese church is certainly the primary location for learning how to contextualize my understanding of the faith for China. Without a rich understanding of what it means for a Chinese person to worship God, I will struggle to make locally appropriate, constructive contributions to the development of the Chinese church. Experiences from overseas Chinese churches, things read in books, and hearsay about what others claim happens in Chinese churches are no substitute for personal experience and observation—especially when considered in light of the tremendous local variations across China. When a Chinese person says God the Father, what does he or she mean? What does Chinese prayer sound like? What kind of worship is meaningful to Chinese believers? Rather than guessing, I can learn these things first-hand and in their proper context through my participation in Chinese worship services. Even without language skills, much can be observed (formality, preferred tunes, importance of various holy days, etc…).
- The numerical expansion of the Chinese church, as well as the growth in the church's human and financial resources means that the days of expatriates leading groups of Chinese believers are receding rapidly into the past. This is fantastic news, an answer to many prayers for a strong Chinese church. But this also means that foreign cross-cultural workers who continue to serve in China will increasingly do so in supporting roles, serving under the authority and direction of local leaders. One practical way to embrace and promote this reality is to worship under the care of a local Chinese pastor. On the one hand, my willingness to sit under the teaching of local pastors sends a message to others in the congregation, encouraging them to be teachable and respectful of their leaders. On the other hand, doing so also serves to remind me that I came to China to serve—that my goal is to build up others rather than to gather my own followers. This physical act of worshiping under the direction of Chinese pastors helps root my ministry in its proper context, placing me under and within the local church, rather than parallel to or in competition with the local church. What they do shapes and controls what I do. Again, this is true regardless of my Chinese language skills.
- At a more practical level, I do not know how I could effectively encourage Chinese people to participate in corporate worship as an expression of their membership in the body of Christ if I myself did not participate in regular worship. “Do what I say, not what I do” is not a foundation for effective mentoring. Certainly, attending English-language services for foreigners only is one way to address this potential problem, but often times this only seems to help justify Chinese people who are unwilling to join in local services (“our Chinese services aren’t as good as your foreign ones;” I have heard this so many times…). While things have improved somewhat in the last few years, it is still quite common to find Chinese people who are interested in becoming Christians, but who for many different reasons (often similar to those mentioned in Part One of this blog series!) do not want to be part of the local church. While this is an admittedly complex phenomenon, the fact that relatively few expatriate evangelists are seen to attend local churches surely does not encourage others to attend. I go to Chinese church because God has called all of us into a corporate identity as part of our witness for Him on this earth; and hopefully my participation encourages others to do likewise. Notice once again that the effectiveness of this witness is independent of language ability.
- My final reason is deeply personal. Though the previous reasons alone are sufficient to draw me into the local Chinese sanctuary, doing so has brought many blessings into my life and ministry in China. Chinese church “feeds” me. Over the years, as personal relationships with the people at the church have developed and my understanding of the language and context of the congregation has deepened, I have increasingly found the music, prayers, readings and teachings of the weekly services to be a valuable source of spiritual nourishment. My ministry, not to mention my own spiritual growth, would be greatly impoverished were I removed from the local church.
For many people, this last point may be the most surprising. Although I have benefited from extensive formal and informal theological training, I still find that worshiping in the inconvenient, uncomfortable, unsophisticated local Chinese church is a tremendous blessing, feeding my hungry soul. In part three of this blog series I will give some concrete examples of some of the ways I have been blessed.
Photo Credit: Pray by allen LI, on Flickr