First impression: Well, there’s no mistaking the purpose of this building.
Across the top of the looming structure were huge, bright red letters that proudly spelled “Christian Church” in both English and Chinese. There was no denomination attached, or a vague “unchurchy” name to act as a hook. It was just "Christian Church". China doesn’t deal with the plethora of denominations that the western world does. Apparently, it has only two kinds of churches; the option we attended was an official church, and the other option (which was not an option for us) is the underground church. As far as I understand it, the pastors of the official churches are assigned by the government, which means that sometimes they can be rather… patriotic, rather than Christian. But I didn’t get the sense that such was the case with this particular church.
We filed in, found our seats on some cushioned pews, and put our purses on a neat little ledge thing extending from the back of the pew in front of us. It made a lot of sense. Why do North American seating arrangements not feature this?
About this time, Dave, who tends to use a lot of sarcasm, got a panicked look on his face. “Wait,” he asked our young Chinese hosts, Jessie and Levi, “Is this an English service?”
“Yes,” they replied.
“Is it actually?” Dave questioned again.
“Yes,” we all replied.
“Oh,” said Dave, relaxing. “Ok.” It appears that he uses sarcasm so often that he believes everyone else uses sarcasm all the time, too. And if our hosts had been sarcastic when they agreed to take us to an English service…
Chinese people don’t usually use sarcasm. We understood the sermon.
Second impression: No Hillsong music!!!
The music section of the service began, and it felt very familiar. The worship team was pretty similar in composition (drums, guitar, keyboard, vocals…) and the words to the songs were projected onto the movie-theatre sized screen at the front of the church. I would venture to say that it could have happened in my evangelical home church in Calgary, with one change: the songs were Chinese songs. That is to say, there was no Hillsong influence apparent - or Chris Tomlin or Matt Redman or whoever it is that writes most of the stuff we sing nowadays. There were a few older English hymns, but otherwise the songs were translated Chinese lyrics and tunes. At least, they were mostly translated. I tried to put my pinyin reading skills to use to keep up with the Chinese portions of the lyrics when I could. I’d give myself maybe a 7 out of 10 rating in that endeavor.
Given the tidal wave that is Hillsong and popular Christian artists, I was pretty happy to see that Christians in China sing praises that are a product of their own situations and imaginations and not just ones that are exported from western culture.
Third impression: Female Chinese pastor – wha??
I guess somewhere deep down I had been expecting to find it a missionary church. You know the deal – a white missionary goes to a foreign country, starts up a church, runs the church, and ministers to the locals indefinitely. I know that’s not always what happens, but I had expected to see a lot of white influence in the church, especially given that it was a service being done in English. Not so. Please forgive my ignorance. The pastor was Chinese. Not just ethnically, either. Her accent was pretty strong; it was clear that she was born and raised in China, speaking Chinese. And neither was most of the congregation white. Most of the congregation was as Chinese as she was, though there were some white people sprinkled around here and there. This was literally an English service in a Chinese church, not an English service by the foreigners in China.
The pastor wore the traditional clerical collar, which makes her only the second woman I’ve ever seen doing so. She preached on suffering. The theme was “Opposition brings Opportunity” and was very evangelism-centric. I won’t go so far as to say that I’ve never heard a North American pastor speaking on Christian suffering, but it’s rare. And usually when it happens, it comes out sounding kind of like this:
“We’re Christians, so people persecute us. It’s hard, I know, but that’s what happens when you follow Jesus. People don’t like us and discriminate against us because they don’t like the truth. The very culture is against us, so it’s time to rise up and take back the culture!”
In this service, it sounded more like this:
“We’re Christians, so people persecute us. But, hah ha! The joke’s on them. Because when we’re persecuted, we scatter and spread the gospel to even more people! Hah ha! Chin up! Yeah, it’s hard, but be encouraged – it means God has found you worthy to suffer for him. So go and spread the gospel!”
Ok, I added the hah-ha bits. In truth, the pastor seemed quite emotional and nearly broke into tears when she spoke about wanting to encourage the church – and herself – to stay strong and bold in the face of suffering. I might add that the persecution in China is ramped up a few notches up from what North Americans usually mean when they talk about being discriminated against. The underground church still exists in China.
I was left with the impression that North American Christians (including myself) are kind of wimps sometimes. We may suffer, but one of those things we suffer from is a victim complex. We bewail our situation and think of ways to turn the tables. In this service, there was no woe-is-me aspect to the sermon. No sense that it was anything Christians shouldn’t have to put up with – after all, we are disciples of Jesus, and look at how much he had to suffer!
The pastor broke it down like this:
-It costs nothing to believe Jesus
-It costs something to follow Jesus
-It costs everything to be a witness of Jesus.
Fourth impression: Wow, it appears that the church building isn’t the only thing that’s huge!
This was obviously not a rare theme or a rogue pastor at this church. The congregation must have been pretty keen on evangelism, because the pastor announced that we should celebrate as this afternoon, there were going to be 180 new baptisms in the church! We did cheer. And we all sort of squirmed in our seats and eyed each other sheepishly when, during the sermon, she remarked on how some years ago, when this church had first been rebuilt (yes – “re”built; it appears persecution is a highly personal thing) , it was just a "very small" church of 400 or 500 people. But now it had over 8000 attendees, 15 pastors, and 5 services weekly! It had also recently sent a missionary to the Middle East, which we got to hear a bit about.
That being said, the pastor also announced that next week they would be starting a sermon series on love, relationships and family, which sounds a little more North American standard.
There were some other interesting things that I noticed. There was no offering collection plate passed around, for example. If you desired to give, you discreetly slid your offering into a box on the wall. They had evangelistic tracts to hand out with the sinner’s prayer on them – but the sinner’s prayer was actually the Lord’s Prayer taken straight from the Bible. Announcements came at the end of the service, rather than the beginning (and those were only in Chinese).
Oh, and we were welcomed as first-time visitors by being asked to stand up while the entire congregation and worship team sang “The Welcome Song”, which was a bouncy little song in a vaguely Happy Birthday-ish style. The lyrics were something like “Grace and peace – God bless you!” x10. Then they gave us info slips and church DVDs.
Oh, and Jaynette was preached to by an interesting local she met. He gave her a list of websites to visit so she could be sure of her salvation. Jessie apologized to Jaynette, saying that their church "attracts some strange people".
After church, we went for lunch with Jessie and Levi, who excitedly shared with us a dessert of shaved ice with red bean paste and gelatin. We politely picked at it. Then we went by taxi back to our hotel. That taxi ride was probably the single most nerve-wracking experience of the entire month abroad. When Rachel, Stephanie, Einar and I came out alive on the other end, eyes wide and fists still subconsciously looking for something solid to grip, we could do nothing but giggle.
For me, our visit to Chinese church drove home the fact that North America really isn’t the Christian capitol of the world anymore, if it ever was. There’s a lot we can learn from our brothers and sisters across the globe.
“You cannot just have a comfortable life. You cannot just have a Christian small group. You must go! May God bless all of us!” –the closing line of the sermon