Expatriates at Worship: Going to church away from home

Our choir was invited to participate in the service so we came early to rehearse; their worship team was already practicing when we got there. The worship leader was surrounded by keyboard, guitars, drum set, and miked singers. It was a scene that wouldn’t have been out of place in Minneapolis or Memphis—but we were in Manila, in the Philippines.

Union Churches for Expatriates

I had the privilege of touring Asia with the Calvin Alumni Choir this past summer. In addition to giving many concerts and school programs, we participated in five worship services; three were English-speaking. Several Asian cities have English-speaking congregations for “expats,” people who live away from their home country to work in business, government, or education.

The Tokyo Union Church was founded in 1872 as “an ecumenical and international congregation of English-speaking Christians.” They sing from Hymns, Psalms, and Spiritual Songs, the ecumenical edition of the 1990 Presbyterian Hymnal. The Union Church in Manila and the Taipei International Church print songs in bulletins or on overheads. These congregations differ from each other, of course, but no more so than many congregations within any number of evangelical Protestant denominations in North America. These English-speaking Christians find comfort and strength in meeting together, putting aside whatever denominational differences might separate them.

In Asia, Expect the Unexpected

In Manila we sang at several points in the service, and their worship team led the congregation in singing contemporary praise choruses that many of us knew. After the service I spoke with a couple who asked me if I had heard of Willow Creek. I was not expecting that question in Manila!

After the Union service a short bus ride brought us to the United Evangelical Church of the Philippines, the largest Chinese congregation in the country and home to the family of Dr. Pearl Shangkuan, director of the Calvin Alumni Choir. From her I learned that many Chinese in the Philippines also consider themselves expatriates. Some settled there years ago; many others, including her family, left communist China just a generation ago.

The service was already in progress when we filed into reserved seats just after the sermon. The congregation sang a hymn, but with only Chinese characters in the hymnal, we couldn’t join in. However, the The service was already in progress when we filed into reserved seats just after the sermon. The congregation sang a hymn, but with only Chinese characters in the hymnal, we couldn’t join in. However, the tune was familiar. Here was a different connection to Western culture: most of the hymns in their Chinese hymnal were eighteenth- and nineteenth-century American and English gospel songs that missionaries brought to them. That morning in Manila we moved from an Anglo setting with contemporary choruses to a Chinese setting with translations of familiar older hymns.

The most moving part of that service for me was participating with these Chinese Christians in the Lord’s Supper. Twenty elders came forward to serve, ten women on one side, and ten men on the other side. The pastor recited the familiar words of institution in both Mandarin and English: “Take, eat, remember, and believe.” United in Christ, sharing the same loaf and cup, we experienced our ties to these brothers and sisters in Christ in a profound way.

We’re All Expatriates

We were met with an outpouring of love and hospitality by everyone who hosted us. Sometime I hope to return and worship with more of the indigenous congregations in Asia, where such a small percentage of the population is Christian (fewer than 2 percent in Japan). Language is one barrier; culture is another. But our own worship can be enriched from contacts with other Christians. A good starting place is the book God’s Global Mosaic: What We Can Learn from Christians Around the World (InterVarsity, 1997, 2000); author Paul-Gordon Chandler takes us on a tour, rejoicing in the diversity of the body of Christ.

In Japan, in view of Mount Fuji, we joined a conference celebrating fifty years of partnership between the Reformed Church of Japan and Christian Reformed World Missions. We listened and watched them sing the first stanza of “Holy, Holy, Holy” with power and conviction. Then we sang a stanza in English. On the final stanza we sang the descant in English over their Japanese. That moment stands out to me as one of the most beautiful of the entire trip.

No matter where we are, when we gather to worship we are all getting ready to go home to that unending worship service where we will join all the saints and angels singing “Holy, Holy, Holy” around God’s throne. Until then, we are all expatriates in this world, reaching for the kind of worship that will bring us closer to God and closer to the body of Christ in our own congregations and around the world.

Emily R. Brink (embrink@calvin.edu) is Senior Research Fellow for the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and former editor of Reformed Worship.