Ginny leads the singing--loudly.
Peter prays at the start of the service.
Yesterday Peter took us on a ride outside of Dalian. It’s hard to explain the nature of Chinese cities because they consist of massive apartment buildings that sprawl out in every direction. The vast majority of people live in those high-rise buildings. You don’t see very many single-family homes. The cities just go on and on. We traveled for a long time and got to the edge of Dalian where there was a village built not far from some high-rise apartments. Such village life was the foundation of Chinese society for thousands of years. Slowly that is ebbing away, being quite literally torn down to make way for more buildings. This particular village contained small homes with small garden plots. To get there we turned off the highway and onto a rutted dirt road.
We met in this tiny building for our service on Monday morning.
Many people jammed into the building for the service.
We parked the car and entered a small building about the size of a garage. It was heated by a coal-burning stove. On the walls we saw Sunday School-type paintings of Jesus and a Chinese banner with the words of 1 Corinthians 13 etched on it. Seventy or eighty people, mostly older folks with the deeply creased faces of people used to working hard all their lives, were singing and dancing, clapping and waving bright scarves as we approached. We found out later that this was only part of the congregation. They had a special meeting because we were coming to visit them.
The congregation is led by “Ginny,” who is 76 years old. Twenty years ago she contracted cancer and was in terrible pain. Feeling there was no hope, she went to a store to buy poison to take her own life. There someone told her, “Pray to Jesus, you will be healed.” So she did and she was and she became a Christian. Not only a Christian but a fiery evangelist, going door to door, telling people how Jesus had healed her. She is the undisputed leader of this congregation of 200 believers. Few of them have much education, all have worked with their hands for long years and known hard times. Many have suffered for their faith.
Peter and I kneel before the cross.
But oh the joy on their faces. Such radiant, transparent, overwhelming joy!
Ginny shouted out the words of a prayer—shouted! And the people shouted “Amen!” after every phrase. Loud voices—much conviction. The people sang—loudly! With joy! No piano. No guitar. A drum Peter would thump from time to time. A kind of cymbal they struck occasionally. Jammed together, sitting on hard wooden benched or on chairs made for six-year-old kids in the US, we listened with awe to the faith of the Chinese believers expressed in Monday morning worship.
A piece of the flat bread served at communion.
They had been singing for quite a while when we showed up. Peter turned to me and said, “You will preach now.” So I got up, stood on two planks behind a makeshift counter with a Boom Box in front of me and preached on “Father, Forgive Them.” The people wanted to say “Amen!” (they pronounce it “Ah-men”) after every sentence. I told the story, painted the picture of Jesus dying, and could hear these dear people beginning to weep, overwhelmed by the thought of what Jesus had done for them. I ended up on my knees in front of an imagined cross, in the tiny open space, with Peter on his knees beside me translating. When I finished, the people said, “Amen!” and then Ginny got on her knees and began to sing in Chinese—loudly—“Near the Cross, Near the Cross, Be My Glory Ever, Till My Ransomed Soul Shall Find Rest Beyond the River.” At least that’s the English version. The people joined in with many tears.
Ginny served the cup to each person in the congregation.
Then Peter came over to me and said, “We will serve the Lord’s Supper. You will lead us.” More singing. The Lord’s Prayer in Chinese, chanted loudly. I stood on those same planks and told the people how Jesus gave himself to die for us. Then Peter uncovered the bread. It was a single, flat tortilla. When he told me to break it, I tore off a piece. “No,” he said. “Like this.” And taking the tortilla (that’s not what it was exactly, but that’s what it looked like), he held it up and tore it in half. Then we began to tear up little pieces, one for each person in the group. “You have deacons in America who do this,” Peter said to me. Meanwhile the people were singing with great joy—loudly, so the song reverberated through the little building that was our worship space. You could have heard us a long distance away. Passing the bread around, we waited and then ate it together. Peter opened a bottle of what looked like wine. He took a very large cup that appeared to be tin covered with ceramic and held it as I poured the wine almost to the top. More singing. We had a “one cup” communion, everyone sipping from the same cup. It seemed like this was how it was 2000 years ago. Very simple, very powerful.
Then I sat down. Over an hour had already passed. Peter came over and whispered, “You will now have an hour to preach another sermon.” Hadn’t been told about that.
The dancing begins as the service concludes.
More singing. Much joy. Loud praise to God.
Then I stood up, intending to preach on Peter denying Christ and being restored. Got two sentences out of my mouth and the sermon suddenly veered in another direction. I cannot explain it except it was the Holy Spirit. I preached on “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God” and “I will build my church” from Matthew 16. It just came flowing out. I stepped off the planks and walked out where the people were, just a few feet away. “They can tear down this building but they cannot tear down the church because we are the church.” “Amen!” the people said. “They can make us move, but they cannot destroy the church because we are the church and Jesus is our Lord.” “Amen!” Then I began to reach out my arms and the people, these dear Chinese believers, reached out to grab my hands in a celebration of unity. It was a moment of glorious, Spirit-filled confusion and liberty and joy. I kept preaching as the people surged forward and we reached out to each other in Christian love that transcends geography and language and culture.
Marlene with a few of the women.
When it was over, I sat down, exhausted and overwhelmed. We sang again—loudly. And then the people chanted the Lord’s Prayer. Inside that little shed of a church, Ginny began to shout out something and the people stood up and started clapping. It was praise to Jehovah is what I was told. Some people began to dance in motion, like a line dance of sorts, clapping hands together in rhythm. One old woman with only one tooth clapped and danced and we could see the radiant joy of God on her face. We all watched and clapped and praised along with them.
At length the service ended. Then the people crowded around us, wanting to take pictures with us. Not many Americans come to where they are. They were grabbing me and Skip and Marlene and pulling us this direction and that direction, laughing and posing for group pictures.
Skip with a few more people from the congregation.
This is the true power of the Christian faith. This is the early church in action. This is what cannot be stopped! This is the power that will change the world. This is what some people fear because they cannot control a movement like this.
As we left the people gathered round us to sing and say “Amen!” and “Hallelujah!” and to wave goodbye as our Jeep drove down the dirt road back to Dalian. Never had a church service gone longer or seemed shorter.
Sometimes you think, “I would like to see the real thing.” We saw it on Monday morning in Dalian, at a village somewhere on a dirt road, along an alleyway with trash strewn at the end, in a little building where Ginny and the faithful believers carry on the great work of our Lord.
Thank you for praying. We are in awe of what we saw God do.