by Christa von Zychlin—
As I write I am just finishing eight and a half years of pastoral ministry in Asia. Because of my unique call, I’ve been sitting in a back pew most Sundays, getting a view of different churches, different denominations, different countries, different forms of worship.
It’s quite a view from the pew, whether I’m in Asia or North America, where I encounter the amazing, the awful, and the truly great and awesome.
One Sunday, I join about 80 Indonesians gathered in a 10th floor Hong Kong business building. Most are women who work as live-in domestic workers to Chinese families. They live in cramped apartments tending to all the needs of their employers’ households. Poor treatment and outright abuse of domestic workers in Hong Kong is well-documented.
Dancing with the Lord
But on Sundays, these Indonesian women rock the Sabbath! They love to get together, speak their own language, cook traditional food, and worship the God who notices and loves each one. Dance is part of their culture, so dance is part of worship. When they dance, it is not just with shoulders, hips and feet; but with everything from the tips of their toes to the flash of their fingers. They praise God with their whole hearts, and their bodies show it. When they motion for me to join in, I awkwardly, but joyfully, do so. This is definitely not the Swedish-American church in which I grew up. I find it amazing.
Ancient words of life
Another Sunday, I worship with Bethlehem Lutheran Church in downtown Yangon (Rangoon), the major city of Myanmar (formerly known as Burma). In this country, which is just emerging after years of oppression under a harsh military regime, Christians are a minority and struggle to carve out safe spaces to live out their faith in the Savior Jesus.
As I walk to worship, I carefully watch my step to avoid horrendous traffic, gaping holes in the pavement, two dead rats, open sewage drains. I am sweating in the heat and humidity. When I enter the church, I feel as if I have entered another universe.
The floor is swept and clean, the altar decorated with fragrant flowers. I am greeted with warm smiles. Most worshippers are of ethnic Indian descent, so they are a minority within a minority, as Christians within a Hindu neighborhood, living in a Burmese Buddhist city. Women in this church wear saris and gauzy veils, and some men wear longyi (long skirt-like clothing for men).
Then the pastor begins the service, “In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” It is almost exactly the same as in the Midwestern church in which I grew up, a world and a half century away. We are so incredibly different, these people and me, but today we use the same ancient words of worship; we receive life and grace from the same ancient God. God’s church is amazing.
Listen to the children
On a third Sunday, I sit on the gleaming white marble floor of a church in Cambodia, the land which was secretly bombed by my U.S. government when I was a child. Cambodia, where you can still see craters caused by those bombs, and where people working in fields and forests still risk being blown up by old unexploded ordnance. Cambodia, where many make the argument that American policies fueled the rise to power of the Khmer Rouge, which led to genocide, the murderous death of more than a fifth of the population, and an educational and material poverty that continues today. Yet here I am, a stranger from the U.S., invited to join Christians in Cambodia.
There are no pews in this church, no chairs, no sofas. The marble is beautiful—but wow, do you know how hard a marble floor gets after about two minutes? Yet here elderly women—well into their 80s—sit serenely, cross-legged. Meanwhile I shift my legs, first this way, then that, trying not to show my discomfort. I do not understand the Cambodian language, so I watch the fans stir lazily overhead and listen to the cicadas through the open windows. As the service drags on, I imagine I can see mangoes ripening on the trees. And then at long last the sermon is over and the children’s choir bursts into song—a dozen wiggly, skinny, Cambodian kids fill the room with their voices. They sing first in their own language, Khmer, and then, solely for my benefit, they repeat their song in English: “Jesus is the light. He’s the light of the world.” Cambodian children proclaiming the gospel, even to me, an old American. God’s church is amazing.
There are awful things about church too. I’m not talking about things like music preferences or the pastor’s hairstyle, although I must admit, since sitting in the pew I’ve discovered how easily I can be distracted. Does the worship team really need to repeat this same song one more time? Does this deacon’s prayer really need to drone on so long? While it can feel cathartic for pew-sitters to list such annoyances, much more serious are the awful things which to my mind constitute church malpractice. At the top of the list: carelessness.
Careless is not to be confused with casual, laid-back or spontaneous. I like casual. In the bustling, busy international city of Hong Kong, it’s nice that most churchgoers feel free to dress casually for worship. Laid-back is good too. In our often hectic world it’s important for church leaders to not jump for every suggestion or provide a response to every need. And I think space for spontaneity is essential to foster the kind of “family life” the church is meant to provide. Families thrive on structured spontaneity!
By careless, I mean the sense in some churches that we don’t expect much to happen here. Writer Annie Dillard says if we really take worship seriously, we should be wearing crash helmets to church. We should expect God to show up!
Carelessness includes Scripture readings in which words are read without a sense of meaning, sermons using worn-out clichés or sexist jokes, musical ensembles who have obviously not prepared, implying the congregation (and oh yes, God) should be happy with whatever they get.
Worst of all is the church’s carelessness about people. As I grow older I find myself becoming slightly paranoid—am I not taken seriously because as an older female I’m not in a sought-after demographic? Does anybody really care who I am or what my week was like? If it sometimes feels this way for me, a church professional, what is it like for someone new to Christ or someone checking out God’s church in a time of spiritual inquiry or crisis?
Carelessness in church extends to obliviousness of the neighborhood of the church. When we come to church, are we awakened and empowered for specific opportunities for neighborhood schools, care of creation, development projects, elder care, moral and healthy workplace policies and strategies?
Carelessness is a crime for the church because God cares passionately for each one of us and each of our neighbors too.
The truly great and awesome
After worshiping with the Indonesian Fellowship, I ask the tiny friendly woman who walks me back to the train station, “Why? Why do you come to church?” I think but don’t add: “When you could be resting on Sundays, after a hard week scrubbing floors and minding children as a maid in Hong Kong.”
Her answer is simple. “I come because I love Jesus,” she says. She explains that back home in Indonesia, her family is Hindu, but here in Hong Kong she is free to worship as she chooses. When I ask about her family, she smiles at me. She is the divorced mother of a single son. She hesitates a moment, then she tells me that her son was killed in a motorcycle accident back in Indonesia, just this past year, at the age of 15. Would I like to see his picture? She shows me the photo of her bright young son, and I want to weep. But the woman is not finished sharing; she wants me to know more.
“I love Jesus,” she repeats. “And I told my son about Jesus too.” Her eyes are fixed on me, and she presses my hand. “I will see him again.”
The truly great and awesome thing about God’s church is that Jesus the Son of God meets us there. We receive love. We develop caring relationships with people different from ourselves. And we become bearers of an infinite hope.
What’s on your list of the amazing, the awful and the awesome about church?
The Rev. Dr. Christa von Zychlin, an author, wife and mother, is returning to parish ministry in the U.S. For the past eight years, she served with the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Hong Kong, focusing on empowering women’s Bible studies in Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos.
This article is from the March 2018 issue of Gather magazine. To read the full story or more like it, subscribe to Gather.