Yesterday I went to church in Hongqiao. Pretty much everyone I know who went there has graduated from high school and left Shanghai, and none of them happened to be back yet, so I felt like a stranger all alone in a new church (my parents went to their chinese church). I often feel like this when I visit home, especially since I now attend the adults’ service (although I still don’t feel like an adult), which is comprised of probably 80% recently (within the first 5-10 years) married young couples (based on what the sermons usually focus on–loving your spouse, managing your money, respecting your in-laws).
After surveying the congregation for a familiar face and coming up short, I paused to deliberate my options, as the rows seemed either almost full or completely empty. I did not fancy starting a new row by myself (because it didn’t seem like many more people were coming and I just hate being lone[r]ly), but I also hesitated to push my way through a tangle of legs just to sit uncomfortably close to a couple of complete strangers. The usher was really nice though, and not batting an eyelash at my awkward query of “hum.. where should I sit?”, seated me between two ladies who looked about 30-something and were also there by themselves.
It actually happened to be “youth week” this Sunday, which meant that kids from the youth group led worship, and the speaker for the youth group gave the sermon for the day (which meant that it was geared towards not just young married couples, huzzah! It was actually exactly in line with the reformational worldview that I’m reading about in Albert Wolters’ Creation Regained, which was really cool because I’d never heard of this kind of gospel worldview before college). The kids leading worship were all four or five years younger than me, and I knew them mostly as my friends’ younger siblings. It was amazing to see how much they had grown and matured just in the 2 years that I’ve been gone, and through their prayers I could see how much God has been working in the youth group to raise up leaders and passionate followers of Christ–I was really touched and filled with joy by this realization.
At one point near the end of the first worship set, the worship leader suggested that we hold hands with the people next to us (I don’t really remember why, because…) and I was suddenly moved to tears by the love that I felt filling the room. As I held the hands of the two women next to me, and saw the joining of hands in the row in front of us, and felt it all throughout the congregation, I was struck by how much love we had for each other, even as complete strangers. And it wasn’t just the love that we had for each other, because of course that is based on nothing except for our shared love for God, and the unspoken knowledge that we are all His people, and His heirs, and therefore brothers and sisters–we were family, without having spoken a word to each other, and without needing to. But I also knew then that if I needed to, I could find someone to talk to, pretty much anyone in the room, and they would have their testimonies to share and I would have mine–the potential relationships were infinite and infinitely beautiful because they were all tied up in our individual relationships with Christ. At that point though, I just contented myself with talking to Him, as we sang Be thou my vision and I gave up trying not to cry (and the lady to my left kindly handed me a tissue, which made me love her all the more).
God was reminding me of the importance of the church, not just any fellowship or Christian community, but the multi-generational church, with people of all walks and ages, families and young married couples and college students and teenagers alike, all with different strengths and different struggles, but ultimately all united in one Love. I praised Him for this community that made me remember the power of the Body, and reminded me that even though I may just be passing by one branch of it, we are really one family.
I just happened to be pondering what I would do later this summer when I go to Normandy, because it seems like I will have to work Sundays and I’m not sure that there will be weekday church services nearby (as my workplace is extremely rural and seemingly unpopulated), but I think God is telling me that it is really, really important for me to stay connected in the community, wherever I am. I also got an email from my sister today, about how she has discovered a (secret) community even in Oman, where she never expected to have fellowship at all! I believe that God knows what is good (thanks for showing/reminding me), and He will provide for us, wherever we are.