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 were given. Part three lists some of the ways I have been blessed by my attendance at Chinese church services.
There are many ways in which I have been blessed by regular participation in Chinese worship services. Personally, being part of my local Chinese church’s regular cycle of baptism and communion will always remain one of the greatest spiritual privileges of my life.
In terms of my own ministry, worshiping in the local Chinese church is a constant reminder to me of the vast social and cultural differences that separate my experience and thus my priorities and values from those of the Chinese people around me. At the same time, sitting in the pews while others lead and teach compels me to acknowledge that ultimately it is the Chinese Christians who will play the decisive role in the future of the church in China. Both of these insights are essential to keeping myself and my service grounded and faithful.
Perhaps more intriguing to readers of this blog, as my years in China have stretched on I increasingly find myself blessed and challenged by the teaching and advice of Chinese believers. To give an indication of what this is like, I will describe three recent sermons that are representative of the kinds of things which I have learned while listening to Chinese pastors in the local church.
On the Sunday before the Chinese Day of the Elderly (重阳节/敬老节), the service was centered on the theme of honoring fathers and mothers (孝敬父母). While this patently Chinese cultural theme seems far removed from my western background, the pastor’s sermon on “the secret of and methods for long life” (长寿的秘诀和方法) struck a number of chords that resonated with my personal life. I recall in particular a maudlin story he told of a mother washing her grandma’s feet after coming home from an exhausting day of work. Next, the pastor described watching the five-year-old son splashing his way across the room carrying a basin of water so that he could wash his mother’s feet. This simple, down home illustration of how filial honoring of one’s elders affects other generations touched me deeply, as I thought of how my actions affect my own children. We had recently chatted with my parents on the phone, and I reflected on the ways in which my words about or towards my parents will shape how my children treat me in the future. Was I modeling the Biblical commandment to “honor thy parents”? Conviction, unexpected, came from this very Chinese sermon.
On another occasion a different pastor was preaching from Rev 2:18-29. He emphasized the connection between our right behavior and glorifying God, stressing that he is the Lord and we are to be his servants, doing his will. He then paused to reflect on the frequency with which we invert this order, as revealed in our prayers: we ask God to do what we want, rather than asking him to show us what he wants. Having just come from a recent prayer meeting, this struck me as deeply true. Seek first the kingdom of God, the pastor reminded us, and then everything else will be given to you. Faith is not about getting what you need from Jesus; it is about giving everything to Jesus, because he already gave everything up for you. At the time when I heard this sermon, I was in the middle of a transition period on the field, and much of my time and energy was spent worrying over what I was going to “do” next in ministry. This message provided a timely and helpful dose of perspective, setting me free to focus on him rather than myself, my achievements, and my own delusions of importance.
One final example: during a recent topical sermon on evangelism, a local pastor pointed out that our prayers often focus on how best to employ our own abilities and gifts, looking for earthly means to solve our problems and not really trusting God. He gave the example of someone experiencing difficulty in their workplace and praying, "show me what guanxi (关系) I should rely on to resolve this problem." Do we not believe God can resolve things on his own? Likewise, instead of explaining our faith clearly, in evangelism we like to point to famous people who are Christians, or successful people, or powerful people, as proof of why others should believe. But this is presenting a worldly gospel, one that pushes trusting other people and their wisdom rather than putting our faith directly in the Lord of the universe. Recalling Hebrews 11, and the idea that faith is confidence in things unseen, the pastor pointed to Moses between the Red Sea and the Egyptian army. Moses looked to God and not for some other earthly deliverance. The pastor tempered his exhortation by reminding us that if it seems like God has not answered it may be that he is already working through daily circumstances and our environment to guide and direct us through our difficulties. Nevertheless, I found in his words that Sunday morning a welcome challenge to reconsider precisely where I have placed my faith. Is my faith in God? Or is it in my own abilities to do what God wants?
Next Sunday, when the prospect of trudging across town and sitting in an uncomfortable building with people different from yourself while listening to difficult to understand speech for hours causes you to hesitate, ask yourself what glorifying God by serving his church would look like in this situation.... And get yourself to church, expecting to be used and blessed.
Photo Credit: Joann Pittman