Magazine article The Christian Century

Reconciled in Worship

Magazine article The Christian Century

Reconciled in Worship

Article excerpt

WHEN MY WIFE, Darrah, and I met Andy in the Los Angeles airport, we thought we would never have a real conversation with him. This tall, muscular guy nonchalantly palmed a Bible as if he were pacing across the stage of a megachurch. But we soon realized that we would talk with him again, and soon. We were all missionaries, and we were all on our way to teach English at the same university in central China.

As we waited for our flight, Andy raved about the book Wild at Heart, a pop-Christian version of Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus.

"It says that every, man desires three things," he said, his bright blue eyes burning into mine as he held up a huge hand and began counting them off. "A battle to fight, an adventure to live and a beauty to rescue."

Darrah and I squirmed under his gaze, mumbled something like, "Surely all men don't want the same thing," and walked away rolling our eyes. I had grown up in the evangelical mainstream, but I turned away from that tradition at an evangelical college where McChristianity diluted the gospel into pop therapy. My wife grew up Southern Baptist, knowing she should have "a personal relationship" with Jesus Christ, but never quite discovering what that meant. In college we quickly became high critics of low-church America, and directed our newfound intellectual powers at all the easy evangelical targets.

We married, were confirmed in the Episcopal Church and accepted an assignment to China as missionaries of the Diocese of West Virginia. We were confident that our Anglican tradition was the ideal vessel for faith in Christ--sacramental, communal and biblical in the tidiest way.

But then we met our 45 fellow foreign teachers, most of them evangelicals from Bible churches in right-wing America. Having cut ties with a pop-evangelical expression of Christian faith, how would we ever commune with all these World magazine readers?

These questions became urgent when some of the teachers began forming a fellowship that met Sunday nights (separate from the official Chinese Three-Self church we attended Sunday mornings). The leaders were theologically averse to structured authority, so they invited all of us to "share a message as the Spirit led." Some shared wacky teachings about the End Times and "new teachings" of prophecy that the Holy Spirit had revealed to them. One time the service lasted over two hours as three unscheduled speakers got tap to throw in the Holy Spirit's two cents' worth.

We had expected culture shock in China, and the stares and constant shouts of "Laowai!" (Foreigner!) from the Chinese followed us wherever we went. But we were more shocked by our fellow Westerners. We woke up one day to realize that we were living, working, eating and worshiping with a segment of Christian culture that we had no idea how to relate to. Discouraged and feeling alienated, we continued to attend the Sunday evening services, but winced through the facile praise songs and cringed at talk about the Eucharist as "a nice symbol."

We began praying for members of the community who rubbed us the wrong way, and we found that our prayers bounced back at us, saying, in effect, "They might change, but you must change." I gradually let go of a resistance to leading in worship--a grudge that I had been holding against the egalitarian, free-form style of the fellowship--and suggested having the Eucharist every week. Several members of the community embraced this idea, so Darrah and I began leading a vesper service every Thursday evening.

At first the only people who attended were Diane, who had recently become a member of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod; Victor and Annie, Catholics of Eastern European origin; and Mary Alice, a cradle Episcopalian who had been in and out of nondenominational churches for the past 20 years. All of them were old enough to be our grandparents.

When all of our "members" attended, we felt the support of a like-minded community whose members had faith that reading scripture and saying time-honored prayers was better than emotive, electric-guitar worship music. …

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