What the Church in America Can Learn from the Global Church

Back in the early 1990s, Seattle was our home and University Presbyterian Church was our church. We’ve now lived most of the past 20 years in Asia. For years we were nomads, doing linguistic research for Wycliffe Bible Translators, and for the past many years have been involved in a Bible translation. Over these years we have been in a lot of churches.

I can find plenty of stuff at any church to be critical about, but can also choose to quiet my inner cynic and find plenty to appreciate. Even so, I’m always thinking back to UPC and comparing against this church. And just like my memories of Seattle seemed to refine over time to a few crystal clear summer days of blues, greens, mountains, and water, my memories of the church, I feared, had become skewed to the positive. In early March, we found ourselves back at UPC for the first time in many years, so I headed into the Sanctuary. I was excited to get to be back “home,” but also a bit wary that it couldn’t live up to my memories.

But it did. Through all these years of longing for this experience, to be back into it, actually brought tears to my eyes. Sorry, George; the sermon was good, but it wasn’t the sermon. It was the stained glass. And the organ pipes. And the band. And the clear, clean sound system. And the soundboard guys who actually know how to make a mix that highlights each instrument and each voice. And the content of the prayers and the songs. It was the kind greeters at the door. And it was the wealth of opportunities for community, for learning, and for service.

It overwhelmed me. It was the same feeling as getting back to an American grocery store after years overseas, drowning in the choices and abundance, and feeling like I either need to leave immediately or just sit down in the aisle and cry.

But then there’s this other side to it. As I listened to the content of the prayers and the sermon, and read closer in the bulletin, it felt that despite the abundance, there’s a longing for something more. There’s a longing for community, with others and with God. There’s a longing for our Christian lives to matter, and for Christ to matter in our lives. There’s this deep desire to not be yet another cold brick building called a church, but to be a vital, relevant, welcoming part of the surrounding community. It feels like we’re sitting, enveloped by greatness, and yet somehow feeling impotent to connect.

And in that moment I was transported to my experience over the years partnering with a small Himalayan church. A church which exists in a context of persecution, in a worldview of active spirits which need placating and, more to the point, a church that has nothing.

There is no sound system. One guy brings a guitar sometimes, but it’s always out of tune. And they have to sing quietly to keep from raising the attention of their neighbors. There is no Bible in their language. We are working with them on this, but there’s still a long way to go. There are no pews, or chairs for that matter. There’s no stained glass. And, since they meet quietly at night, no light streams through the windows. There are no bulletins or special classes, kid’s activity bags, or youth programs, and no organ. They have none of the stuff we have.

But they have all the parts we’re longing for. For them, making the choice to be a Christian is a serious choice with serious consequences. It leads to marginalization and persecution. It alienates them from friends, family, and village. It can affect their employment opportunities, their children’s access to education, and their access to utilities. But they stick with it.

They stick with it, because they need it. They feel the need for Christ’s power over other spirits and over sickness. Many are believers because Christian prayer healed them or a loved one, when nothing else helped. Christianity, for them, is a choice based on need, not on want.

The result is a vibrant faith through which Christ is the path to overcoming so many of the struggles they see around them. Their faith in Christ is out in the open because there is no way for them to hide it. They are known as Christians. And the changes in their lives are seen every day by the people around them.

In this context, Christian community is essential, to encourage one another, to teach one another, and to pray for one another. But engaging in the surrounding community is also essential. They are still part of the same village where they were born and where their parents and grandparents were born. Separation and seclusion is not an option. Community and connection are essential.

Recently I was fortunate to be visiting a church in California when Bob Goff (author of Love Does) was speaking. He said something that feels very relevant to this discussion. “I think that God wants us living right on the edge of ‘yikes,’” Goff said, stepping so his toes were dangling off the edge of the speaking platform, like a cliff below. “Guys like me are comfortable. We don’t need the Holy Spirit. If you are not living on the edge of ‘yikes,’ find somebody who is, grab hold of their hand, and just climb out on the edge with them.”

The people in this small Himalayan church stepped onto that edge the day they accepted Christ. Each day is lived on that edge. And their faith is vibrant, relevant, and attractive because of it. The best parts of my Christian life have been when I have simply bumped up against their experience of Christ.

I find it so easy to insulate and to be self-sufficient. I’m not forced to that edge. But I need to grab a hand and step to that edge as a daily choice.

We’ve got so much of what they want. But they’ve got exactly what we need.

Brad Chamberlain and his wife Wendy have worked in Asia as linguists since 1994.