I recently traveled to China’s countryside with some friends to visit a Chinese pastor friend of theirs, and I’m excited to share some of my experiences with you. This pastor lives in a town of about 100,000 people, which makes it a rather small town in China. He is also responsible for churches in outlying villages. On Sunday we visited one of those churches in a village of about 10,000-20,000 people (in the area).
This was my first trip to the Chinese countryside. It is so different from Chinese cities. I knew that it would be, but even when you expect something it can still be a bit shocking. I don’t think I was quite expecting how different the churches would be. The church we visited in the countryside and the church I attend in Beijing are both Three-Self Churches, and there are a core of similarities, but there are also many differences.
We arrived, with the pastor, shortly after the service was officially scheduled to begin. The congregation was already gathered and had been singing together for some time (possibly up to an hour). We caught the last song or two before the singing time concluded. I’m sure that if we had gotten delayed they would have just kept singing until we arrived.
One of the things that surprised me is that the church uses a different hymnal than the one the Beijing churches (and Three-Self churches I’ve attended in other cities) use. The one used in Beijing has a few Chinese hymns and many 19th century Western hymns. The countryside hymnal boasted 1300 songs; they are all Chinese, and the style tends towards shorter choruses with fewer words. Once the singing concluded, much of the congregation stood up and started moving around. We thought it must be a stretching and bathroom break. Despite the fact that the congregation hadn’t come back yet, the pastor got up and started the service with another song and a prayer. Then, the choir came forward to sing, wearing robes. That’s when we realized that all the people who got up weren’t taking a bathroom break, they were moving around to put their robes on and then process in.
After the choir sang, the service also included the Apostles Creed, scripture reading, sermon, communion, and benediction. The communion elements were pieces of a Chinese flat bread (made by hand) and watered down wine. The pastor poured the wine out of a tea pot though, so I was wondering for a few minutes if I was having my first tea communion. The whole thing was a bit more chaotic and disorganized than in Beijing where things are very carefully organized. Some of Beijing’s precision is due to the vast number of people that worship in each service (and each Sunday). When you have thousands of people in one place (and thousands more coming for the next service) you need to be organized or chaos will reign. I’m not sure how often they get to celebrate communion; I suspect it depends on how often the pastor is able to come. When he isn’t there, the majority of the time, there is a lay leader who preaches and leads the congregation.
The church sanctuary after the service had ended. There was also a smaller multipurpose room (maybe 2?) and a kitchen in the courtyard outside. So it was a modest building, but my friends thought one of the nicer ones in the area.
On the wall was a “Gospel Bookshelf” with Bibles, hymnbooks, and some other resources. The main church in town had a bigger bookstore, but again nothing like the Christian bookstores in Beijing (which are still nothing like Grand Rapids).
After the service, we had snacks of fresh fruit, which included fresh water chestnuts (the white things in the photo above). I don’t think I’d ever had them before and they are crisp and juicy, much better than anything out of a can or frozen bag in the U.S. In northern China, they are not often used so I don’t eat them regularly. The second photo is our lunch. It was really good! The food in this province is spicy, but uses a different style of chili peppers than the spicy food we usually get in Beijing. I enjoyed it! We did eat fish at almost every meal. I like fish, but I don’t like the bones. You’re supposed to just spit them out onto the table, but I can’t bring myself to do that, so I have to use chopsticks or fingers to get them from my mouth to the table. The thing I didn’t like as much is that they really like to eat what I consider fat. Almost every meat dish had pieces of meat that were half meat and half fat. What I did like was the smoked meat (smoked fish was the best) that we don’t usually get in Beijing.
The church eats lunch together whenever they celebrate the Lord’s Supper, which I think is a wonderful tradition! It was a good and very interesting experience to meet and worship with these brothers and sisters. There are many things that are different between us—language, culture, geography, education, economics—but the most important things are the same. One of my professors once pointed out that we have more in common with believers in another part of the world than we do with our unbelieving American neighbors. I hope that this brief introduction to these brothers and sisters, that you have so much in common with, is a reminder of our shared citizenship in heaven!