I met a young Christian woman named Maple in my travels in China. She has a common story in China – went to college, heard about Christianity, started attending church, and was eventually baptized. Her life now centers on the church. She is involved in church-related activities five days/nights a week – Bible study, book study, actual worship services, etc. (Burnout among new Christians in China is a real issue but not something I know much about, I’m afraid.)
Maple was baptized by an American pastor. Let’s call him Pastor Tim. He’s from Tennessee. In the U.S., Tim was not ordained in any denomination. But a few years ago, he felt the call to preach in China, sold all his belongings, and moved his wife to China and set up shop as a teacher and preacher, which is how he ran into Maple. I don’t know Pastor Tim but I’m going to guess based on what Maple told me about him that his theology is probably a little different than mine. It’s easy to type-cast him as, say, a southern fundamentalist.
I went to a church service in Beijing that would not have been out of place in a suburban evangelical American mega-church. The half-hour of praise and worship music at the beginning was led by a young American who treated us all to a “praise sermon,” the liturgical act in which the guy playing the guitar decides that since he has the microphone, he can comment on, expand upon, and amplify the sermon. In the course of his discourse, he said a number of things that were awkward and embarrassing. More importantly, the content of his sermon emphasized, I thought, all the wrong parts of the Gospel, emphasizing, for instance, the importance of a one-off decision to follow Christ rather than the importance of a life-long pattern of obedience. During the service, my group of Yale students from mainline American denominations snickered at what the worship leader had to say and afterwards mocked him outright.
In Yunnan Province, there are scores and scores and scores of missionaries from conservative American denominations – Southern Baptist, Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, etc.. There is one Episcopal mission family.
The church in China is in real need of education and teaching as it grows and expands. Naturally, the bulk of this teaching will come from the Chinese themselves as they work out a Christian theology most appropriate to their context. But there is a role for western missionaries, I am convinced, and I think the theology preached by mainline denominations in the U.S. has something of substance to offer. For instance, in a culture that is driven by the obsessive need for more and more economic growth, a theology that stresses the abundance of God could be helpful. Yet these same denominations are ceding the playing field and leaving it to others.
There’s lots of hand-wringing among liberals in the western church about the conservative church in the non-western world. I don’t actually believe that the non-western church is especially conservative. In my conversations with Christians from a huge variety of backgrounds around the world, I’ve noticed that they are as open to conversation, discussion, and changing than minds as anyone. I think what the conservatism of the non-western church mostly reflects is who has influenced its views. Seen in this light, mainline Christians’ retreat from global mission is a real loss.
Is a praise sermon in a Beijing church a cause for our mirth? Or is it a call to action?