The following post is written by Alexander Hannis, whom I recently quoted. He is currently serving the kingdom of God by doing what many of us cannot (and some in sin, will not). I know that he would appreciate your prayers as he learns his local language and strategizes.
Read, enjoy, and appreciate your local church in spite of its failures and your preferences--it is her for whom Christ was lifted up from death.
I wrote this blog because I am an external processor. Nothing helps me think better than writing and rewriting my thoughts. I have both God and college to blame. Certainly, it is wired within me; but I cannot ignore the fact that for the last four years in a row I was forced to write down almost every theological thought I had. Nor am I complaining. I love my Creator and I loved every minute of my academic career. A sincere thank you to Manny for giving me an outlet and a sincere thank you for at least reading this paragraph.
I am a language student living abroad. I am also surrounded by God-fearing Westerners. There is no local church for us so we choose to worship together with our families every Sunday. Every week we sing songs, pray, and exegete a passage. Here are my reflections of the past 5-7 months:
1. The fellowship is deeper here
When I say (write?) “fellowship” I mean “talking about God and the things of God” (Dr. Donald Whitney), not just two Christians talking about sports, weather, and work (which I believe is a common misconception). “What did you do this week?” or “Who won the game?”—normal questions heard everywhere, and ironically usually in the Fellowship Hall. But what separates a church of 300 and a group of 30 is the intimacy. Prayer requests are taken in public and prayed for immediately. Every Sunday I look around the room and genuinely know how people are doing. I know what they have to praise God for. And I know what they want my intercession for. I have heard it said, and have no difficulty believing, that those who return to the States struggle to find community in the local church in a way that matched the “life on life” model that naturally occurs overseas. It’s vulnerable out here, and I like it that way, and I believe God does too.
2. I miss the regular preaching of God’s Word
Discussing certain passages in a small group setting is absolutely beneficial, and I enjoy the different perspectives of interpretation and mutual encouragement that is provided from it. However, in my experience, there is an undeniable depth of richness in preaching that cannot be matched in discussion. A pastor prepares hours on end with his nose buried deep in his Bible, Hebrew and Greek text, and commentaries before delivering his carefully thought out monologue. When a passage is discussed among believers on a Sunday morning the majority of people have not prepared. We come together forgetting where we left off the Sunday before and immediately give our opinion and insight on a text we have never thought deeply about. This does not always result in error, but the probability is much higher. Not to mention the insights given usually produce less depth than a pastor who has spent the week mulling over the text.
3. I miss elders and deacons
Even without a local church, meeting together regularly and often gives us the opportunity to serve one another. But since being away I have come to love the offices of elders and deacons even more. Who is the shepherd of my soul? Who is given responsibility to see me presented mature on the last day? And where are the Average Joe laymen? The men who can’t define or even spell “eschatology” but love their wives and serve the church in a way almost unmatchable. The group I meet with every Sunday is rich with mature believers. I do not question that at all. I look up to many, if not all of them. But we all must function in part as elders and deacons. Every week we put on a different hat. The role is not reserved for any of us, though we all play the part. I miss the (God-given) structure and offices of the local church.
4. I miss the mission of the local church
Vaguely speaking, the purpose of the local church is to be a light in the darkness that directly surrounds it. People get saved then worship in that church. Personally, I get nervous when I hear about church growth, but it is a biblical reality. The purpose of us foreigners worshiping overseas together is not to bring locals into our small group. And it shouldn’t be. But meeting together regularly without any intention to expand our own group feels a little awkward sometimes.
5. I like to worship in my own culture
In college I spent a lot of time thinking through “the gospel in all cultures.” It made me love culture, diversity, and helped me understand God’s love for the nations. I still believe that wholeheartedly. And even now when I hear others worship in their own way and in their own language I get goose bumps. But what I missed in college is this: I love to worship in my own culture just like I like watching them worship in their culture. I like Western hymns. I like praying in English. I don’t even mind pews. My culture isn’t the best culture, and there are areas in it I believe need to be redeemed. But I imagine the next time I walk into a steeple topped church, a wave of comfort and ease will wash over me as I worship the God of diversity.
For some, I may need to clear the air. Not all five of these holds equal weight. No one with whom I worship on Sunday mornings believes our group is a church. It’s a substitute for the church, and because of varying factors (some much more convincing than others) this is what we choose to do. We believe God is honored in this. I may not be completely content within my own group, but how can I be when we are not the local church? Anything that falls short of that, despite the situation, should make you long for the real thing.
So take this post for what it is. It is not a critique of the local church in the States. It is not a critique of worshiping without the local church overseas. Just simple reflections of an American Christian away from the local Western church.