Why would 20 or 30 Chinese stand outside a church in -2 Celsius weather for two hours? Most immediately, because there was no sitting or standing room inside the church. More broadly, because there is a spiritual void in China, and many Chinese turn to God to fill it.
This past weekend, we did some traveling in China to the ancient capital of Xi’an. Since we were there over a Sunday, we went to church. Research done beforehand had turned up a few churches, and we settled on St. Francis Cathedral since it was historic (built in 1716) and there was some English information about it (quite scientific, eh?). Apparently it was closed for 14 years for the Cultural Revolution but made a strong comeback, and even opened up the first soup kitchen for the poor in all of China in 2005. Unfortunately, while our research told us service times, it failed to tell us what language those services were in.
So we showed up at 9:30 for the 10:00 service, and found out it was all in Chinese! We followed along where we could (we understood “Amen” and “alleluia” and “Jesu”. . .and that was about it). All the songs sounded very Chinese, and the girl sitting next to me obligingly held over her songbook so I could “read” along. I tried to sound like I was singing in Chinese, anyways, but it probably didn’t work.
It was amazing, though, to see all the Chinese people who came to the service. The building was completely full–standing-room-only full! Even though we arrived half an hour early, we were still too late to sit in the pews in the nave. We had to sit in the quire. And the people who came after us had to sit behind the priest. There were people spilling out the doorways too, who stood for the whole two hours in the cold.
As we were leaving, we saw on the doorway that they DID have an English service–at 3:00 p.m. So we went back for that that afternoon.
We got there early again, hoping to sit in the regular pews so we could see better what was going on (it’s hard to listen to a sermon when you’re sitting behind and to the side of the preacher!). But no sooner had we sat down than a Chinese lady approached us and asked if we could read one of the readings and the prayers. (They told us they asked foreigners because they’re doubtful about everyone else’s English.) So we put on our vestments and went up to sit where we were before. Thankfully, there was another American there who regularly attended the church, and he explained when we were to read and how to bow and all that.
They never asked if we were Catholic or Protestant. It seemed to be enough that we were there and we were white. In fact, after the service we met a Pakistani who was Catholic. He said, “In Pakistan, nobody cares if you’re Catholic or Protestant, because there are so few Christians. The important thing is that you’re Christian. We have so much discrimination from Muslims that dividing against ourselves would be pointless!” 1.5% of Pakistanis, are Christians, he said, and he went to a church where 10,000 of them (both Protestant and Catholic) worshipped, married, and fellowshipped.
In China, this attitude seems to hold as well. As Evan Osnos shows in his book Age of Ambition, for the last forty years Chinese have sought what Mao denied them: fortune, truth, and faith. Fortune, the Party has done a good job supplying. Truth it tries to counter through censorship (but pure negation is weak). Faith it has tried to supply through nationalism. But nationalism is a brittle and dangerous substitute for true religion, and one that is ultimately unsatisfying. And so Chinese are turning to God.
Mao did his best to destroy traditional China. Then in the Reform and Opening period (starting in 1979–this church re-opened in 1980), Communist China was reformed and has gradually disappeared (even the ugly buildings are slowly being torn down). In the words of eminent historian John Lukacs, “Communism is a wasm.” Now, according to the Economist, China has a quickly growing–to the tune of 10% a year–Christian population. The light persecution offered by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), like taking crosses off of churches and stopping large house churches from meeting, makes Christianity more attractive to many Chinese. The blood of the martyrs (as long as it’s not too widespread, as it was in Tokugawa Japan), is indeed the lifeblood of the church.
So visiting this church, seeing so many Chinese praying and singing to God in their native language, was a reminder of God’s faithfulness. Old farmers, young children (who loved turning around and staring at us, until we winked at them and they blushed), middle-aged mothers and fathers all gathered together to worship God. That’s why people are so eager to come to church that they’ll stand outside in the cold for two hours–because they know that their God lives.
A wise friend of mine once told me that every church offers something different. Some churches are “praying” churches, others are “singing” churches, others are “doctrinally solid” churches. Well, church here is a “we love Jesus” church.
Imagine a room (fancy ball-room style with diamond chandeliers and all hanging from the ceiling) filled with over 300 people from more than 150 different countries. You heard me. 150 different countries. There are people from Germany and Namibia, Hong Kong and Lesotho. Name an African country–and there’s probably someone who’s from there.
But it’s not just the multi-cultural aspect that’s amazing. What’s truly amazing–almost miraculous, you might say–is that anyone is welcome at this church. It’s not restricted to the 12-kids-and-a-15-passenger-van crowd (thankfully, because few expats actually own a vehicle here), nor is it restricted to those who only believe a certain way about “tolerance.” Whether you’re white or black, married or single, have many children or no children, certain of your faith or seeking to understand it, this church will welcome you, because it’s focused on something far more important than outward appearances: Jesus Christ.
This church truly loves Jesus. Its focus is not on convincing everyone that infant baptism should always or never be practiced or that Catholics are always wrong about everything or that homeschooling is bad or homeschooling is good. Because really, those things don’t truly matter in light of who Jesus Christ is and the message he came to bring the world. When so many different nations and cultures and people are represented, it’s impossible to fit them all into one small box. “Reformed” or “Baptist” or “Pentecostal” or “Presbyterian” are simply ways of showing how we’re different from all the other Christians out there. Before we’ve even noticed, we’ve formed an “in-group out-group” mentality.
Christianity in America is full of fears. Fear of the unknown, of the liberal, of the world–and even of fellow Christians.
Yet Christianity in America has nothing real to fear. No one knocks on our doors in the middle of the night to take us away; no one breaks up our worship services or requires us to be ID’d at the door. Here in China, those things still happen (though, thankfully, with ever-decreasing frequency). Native Chinese cannot attend this international church, by order of the government. And that’s hard, and that’s wrong.
Yet Americans act as if those things exist for them. As if one person saying “Happy Holidays” is going to change Christianity to dust. As if everything that is different is also wrong, no matter how insignificant. As if every difference will eat away at their personal foundation. They affirm truth, but are the first to doubt their own truth.
Truth is powerful. Truth speaks. Instead of worrying whether we’ll be subverted into wearing skirts that go 1/2 an inch above the knee or believing that maybe public schools really aren’t the worst things ever, maybe we as Christians should be bold. It’s time to start believing in the unity of the body of Christ, time to see that Christ’s death and resurrection is far more important than some artificial point about theology. Yes, theology matters. But love for your fellow Christians matters more. This, after all, is what St. Paul was telling the Corinthians: knowledge puffs up, but love builds up (1st Corinthians 8:1).
Christians, among all others, need to be open to other people, to actually hear what they have to say. If you know you have the truth, why not be open to hearing someone else’s viewpoint? Truth isn’t fragile. It won’t crumble at the first sign of attack. It won’t disappear if it hears a falsehood.
So I’m thankful that this church is free from fear that someone will walk in the door who will subvert the church by eating out on a Sunday. I’m thankful that I get this opportunity to worship with so many from different backgrounds and cultures and denominations. And most of all, I’m thankful that I’m given this chance to love my Savior more.