What it’s like to attend a church service that’s entirely in Chinese

Justin and I were thrilled with the idea of attending a Chinese church service right here in Huzhou, especially since we’d be accompanied by our new Chinese friend, Cherry (for more information about her, read my last blog post). Sadly, we weren’t able to attend the same weekend that we met Cherry, because she was called unexpectedly by her boss to come in to work to cover for someone on Sunday morning; she waitresses at a very expensive Western-style restaurant downtown. But we were able to go on Wednesday evening the following week. Cherry admitted to us that she had only been to this church a few times and could not recall when the services usually started, so we got on a city bus and headed in that general direction around 5:00 PM, hoping that we would get there on time.

When we arrived (as pictured above), the doors were wide open, but a metal gate was drawn and locked, blocking our entrance. We were disappointed, but this minor obstacle didn’t seem to stop Cherry, who walked up to the gate and started loudly shouting in Chinese. Moments later, a man and a woman came running into view, greeting Cherry in Chinese and unlocking the gate for us. They led us into what looked to be a church office, talking to Cherry in Chinese all the while. They pointed us to two chairs, having Justin and me take a seat, while the rest of the group (about five people total) stayed standing, giving me an odd, claustrophobic feeling. Finally, Cherry remembered her manners and addressed us in English. She indicated the only man in the room (unless you count the little two-year-old boy sitting off to the side on the floor, playing with toy soldiers) and said, “He is the pastor of the church.” The pastor leaned forward to shake our hands, and started by saying, “My English is very poor,” (a line that we’ve heard from almost EVERY Chinese person we’ve met). Justin gave him a little encouragement by saying, “I think you sound great!” and gave him a thumbs up. The pastor told us a little bit about himself, with the help of Cherry to translate when he couldn’t remember a certain English word or phrase. He told us that his English name is “Wisdom” (how appropriate for a pastor!) and that he is twenty-eight years old (Wow! Only a couple of years older than us!), and pastor of the only Christian church within fifty kilometers. He introduced us to his wife, who did not have an English name, and his son (playing with toy soldiers in the corner), who he said we could call “Harry.” “Ni hao, Harry!” I tried, getting only a grumpy stare in return.

The pastor showed us around his church a bit, saying goodbye to some of the women on staff who were about to leave before we showed up. As we talked to him, he seemed like any pastor you would find in America–heart-broken for a city of lost people, encouraged by his church’s ever-increasing attendance rate, and full of plans to build a larger sanctuary at some indistinct point in the future. He even had some computer generated images of the massive, stadium-sized sanctuary that he would like to build, right in the heart of Huzhou, complete with a giant red cross on the roof that could probably be seen from airplanes passing overhead at 30,000 feet. “Our church is very…..small,” he explained, “But our people are too many.”

He took us upstairs to the main sanctuary, and explained something to Cherry. She translated, “On Sunday morning, about 1,200 people meet here.” I looked around the room, only a little bigger than the sanctuary of my small church at home, which never held more than 250. Justin said, “That can’t be right. Maybe you mean 120 people meet here?” The pastor seemed to understand, and he shook his head vigorously. “No! No!” He said, “One-two-zero-zero,” as he drew the numbers in the air with his finger. He pointed up toward the ceiling, to a balcony, as if to explain how they managed to fit so many. Even with the balcony, I knew his figures must be off; it was true that I had seen unfathomable numbers of people cram their way into a Chinese city bus, but there was no way that 1,200 people could fit into this room. It simply wasn’t possible. Justin and I both exchanged a look that said, “We’ll have to come back on Sunday to see for ourselves.”

On our way out, the pastor invited us to the Wednesday evening service (which we thought we’d somehow already missed!), which started at 7:00. I loved the way he phrased it, “We are having a party later! Would you like to join?” We told him we would; we had just enough time to go and grab something to eat for dinner and then return. Before we left, the pastor ran over to a cupboard in his office, and pulled out a Bible. I thought it looked to be double-thick, and I realized it was because it was an English and Chinese Bible printed with side-by-side translation. “I want you to have this,” he said. We felt overwhelmed, and told him that maybe we could just borrow it and return it to him later, but he insisted that we keep it. It was by no means new; the binding had been worn from being opened over and over again, and the golden letters on the cover were fading. This wasn’t just some wealthy pastor with a stack of shrink-wrapped dual-language Bibles in his closet—this very well may be this pastor’s only copy of an English Bible. We told him thank-you, and I left feeling touched at the kindness and generosity of a man whom we’d only just met.

During dinner, as always, we had a very interesting conversation with Cherry. Justin started by asking her, “Tell me what you know about Christianity,” to try to get a starting point on what we should explain to her. She responded by saying, “Yes, I know.” Perhaps she thought we meant, does she know about Christianity? So Justin said again, “No, tell me what you know,” and she said, “I know.” They had a very ridiculous, circuitous conversation for a few minutes, until Justin finally pulled a piece of paper out of his bag and decided to explain Christianity’s most basic principles. He looked to me to see if I had any input, but I completely drew a blank. I’ve had a lot of experience talking about Christianity to people who have heard about Jesus all their lives. I have shared my testimony and shared my feelings on God with people who have grown up going to church their whole lives, and who feel very jaded towards and tired of the whole thing. Those sorts of people can be difficult to witness to, but I’ve had experience with it and I usually have many smart arguments and anecdotes prepared for them. But how on earth does one begin sharing the gospel with someone who has never heard a thing about it? How do you even begin to explain something so complicated with such a large language barrier? Well, Justin (a.k.a. my hero) seemed to have just the trick:

He drew this picture, explaining it while he drew it in very simple terms to Cherry, “Here is earth….you are here. Here is God….He is so big, as big as the entire universe (here he drew stars and a crescent moon to illustrate “the universe”), and He is way up here. He loves people very much, and he used to be very close with them, way down here (he pointed to the stick figure standing on the earth). But the people made a mistake, a sin, and they were very bad. So God came way up here (indicating the space between God and the earth). He is separated from them now. The people could not do anything to make it up here (pointing to the distance to God), and God was sad about that. So he sent his son to the people (here I thought Justin was about to draw an arrow, but instead he began drawing a cross—genius!). His name is Jesus. And he died for the people, so that God and the people would not be separated anymore—see, like a bridge (he indicated people being able to walk to God using the cross). Many people try to find God, but Jesus is the only way to get there! Does that make any sense?”

I couldn’t believe that Justin had managed to sum it up so well. He did explain to Cherry that of course, Christianity is more complicated than that (there’s an entire book about it after all), but that he had explained the most basic principles. Cherry seemed to understand. We also told her that she could borrow our new Chinese Bible, and perhaps being able to read the scriptures in Chinese would help her with her studies a bit. Justin pointed her towards the gospel of John as a starting point, and explained the gist of the first several books of the New Testament, advising her to start there rather than the Old Testament, as it can be confusing even for someone who’s been going to church for a while. Cherry did remind us that she’s only interested in all of this so that she can do well in her class and learn more about foreigners, a not-so-subtle hint that she is by no means seeking conversion. However, God has been known to take people who have just a mild curiosity and fan it into flame, transforming them into warriors of faith.

Well, we were able to return to church later that night after dinner, and also on a Sunday morning a few weeks later. So to answer the question that you’ve all been waiting for, what is was like to attend a Christian church in China:

  1. Quaint: Don’t expect plush, luxurious amenities in a Chinese church. For our Wednesday night service, we sat on very old, creaky wooden pews that looked as though they’d survived a couple of wars (and probably had)! For the Sunday service we attended, we actually sat on tiny plastic stools that belong in a kindergarten classroom—more about that in the next paragraph. The sanctuary actually did have a large screen overhead that the pastor was able to use for PowerPoint during his sermon (he clicked his own slides using his laptop on the podium up front), but during the praise and worship, we sang using very old Chinese hymnals (that used some sort of number system instead of using music notes, for some reason). My hymnal was actually missing two of the songs that we sang during the Wednesday evening service, but a nice Chinese girl saw us frantically flipping the pages and came over to assist, letting us borrow her hymnal instead. Everyone kept their winter coats on during the entire service because it was about fifty degrees outside and the church building does not have any central air or heat, so we were all freezing. And someone had also cracked a few windows open to give us a little fresh air, probably thinking that it would be good for everyone’s health (there is a wealth of ridiculous things that Chinese people insist are “good for your health,” but that’s a subject that will have to be delved into during a later blog post). But you know, for all of the inconveniences, I rather prefer small, quaint churches to large, wealthy, stadium-sized ones. It doesn’t matter how quaint the church is—God is there, just the same.
  1. Crowded: Expect to get friendly with your neighbors when you attend a Chinese church. If you are seated on a wooden pew, as we were on Wednesday evening, expect to squish in as many people as possible on that pew (at least you’ll stay warm!). Remember how Justin and I thought it was so absurd that the pastor thought he could fit 1,200 people into his sanctuary? We were wrong. When we arrived on Sunday morning, there were at least 1,200 people there, if not more. We arrived a few minutes late, so the entire first floor was already completely full. A nice usher lady led us up a narrow staircase, where people were—no joke—sitting on the stairs with their hymnals, singing along with the choir in the sanctuary. She led us into the balcony, where we had to squeeze past rows of people who had been arranged like sardines in a can. There were extra rows of wooden pews up here which sat so closely together, a person’s knees would likely hit the pew in front when they sat down. Around the wooden pews were the little plastic kindergarten stools, some places arranged in rows, and some places formed into tight groups. During the service, one lady kept standing up to let people in and out of her row, and every time she seemed to loudly knock over her stool, which she always tried to pick up quickly in the hopes that no one had noticed (even though everyone had noticed). There were also people lined up all against the walls on each side, seated on little plastic stools. Our usher led us through the crowd of singing people (we had to turn sideways to fit) to a pair of empty stools along the wall. Though our seating arrangement wasn’t ideal (we couldn’t actually see the choir or the pastor from where we sat—only the church-goers on the other side of the balcony who were seated facing us), I felt a bit guilty taking these seats, thinking about all of the people stuck in the freezing stairwell, sitting on the floor, and the people on the first floor who were standing in the lobby without a chair. Little did I know at that point that there was another staircase (in which people were seated of course) leading up to the attic, and there was an entire host of people seated on the floor up there, watching the service on closed-circuit television! Can you imagine people in America being so desperate to attend church that they would be willing to wake up at seven in the morning (church started at eight), commute across town, just to sit on the floor in a fifty-degree attic with a crowd of people to watch the pastor not in person, but on television? These people must truly have a heart after God, as I’m sure he has a special place in his heart for them. (And I hope this pastor is able to one day build his stadium-sized church—he actually needs it!)
  1. Conspicuous: Do you ever get the urge during church worship to lift your hands, get down on your knees, or do something “out of the norm,” but you stop yourself because you feel self-conscious that people may watch you? Well, in an American church, I say do what you feel lead to do during worship, because if the other people in your church are actually worshipping, then they’re really not watching you or concerned about your crazy antics. But if you’re attending a Chinese church, be forewarned that literally EVERYONE will be watching you. Justin and I didn’t do anything crazy but stand along with them and attempt to sing along, though for the most part, I was content to just listen to their songs. (At one point, they sang a Chinese version of “Holy, Holy, Holy,” and I consented to sing along with them using the English lyrics.) However, during one of the songs, out of the corner of my eye, I caught a flash of light. And when I turned to look, I saw that a girl across the aisle from us had gotten out a camera and was snapping pictures of us. In the middle of worship! When I looked in her direction, she took advantage of the good angle she had of my face and snapped another one (that must have been a great shot—me with my mouth hanging open in shock). If everyone hadn’t noticed us by that point, the pastor made sure that they did before he began his sermon. He said a few words in Chinese that I didn’t understand, but I did recognize the words “wǒ de péngyou” (“my friends”) and he stretched out his arm to indicate us in the back row. Every face turned simultaneously to get a look, and Cherry urgently whispered, “Stand up! Stand up!” and gave Justin a little nudge. We both stood up, feeling very silly and self-conscious as everyone gave us an undeserving round of applause, and the girl across the aisle snapped another picture of us.

Aside from a few dramatic differences, I think the Chinese church essentially follows the same pattern of any other church. We had worship, we had prayer, we heard a sermon (though it was difficult to understand in Chinese, we could catch some things the pastor was saying. At one point, he mimed picking up his Bible from the shelf and blowing the dust off of it, and everyone laughed. After that he went on to exhort the people to read their Bible not just sometimes, but every day), and we had communion.  We’re still not sure exactly what the government is restricting the Chinese church from teaching; though we know it must be something. Justin’s theory is that perhaps they’re not allowed to learn about anything having to do with rebelling against the government, like the part in Exodus when all of the Israelites decide to quit working for the Egyptians and just leave. When we were there on Wednesday night, they were (to my surprise) reading scriptures out of Acts on baptism of the Holy Spirit and speaking in tongues, so apparently the government is not intimidated by the Holy Spirit (though I rather think they should be).

We’ll definitely be going back again, especially if we can bring Cherry, since the pastor can teach her more in Chinese than we ever will be able to in English, and especially because the pastor is our new péngyou.


4 thoughts on “What it’s like to attend a church service that’s entirely in Chinese

  1. Such a cool story Rachel. You guys are fantastic and I’m so encouraged by the faith of the Chinese church to cram together so eagerly to heard God’s word!

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