When Our World Looks Different

Learning from Christians Around the Globe

In August 2006, the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship sponsored an amazing trip to the Philippines, Indonesia, and Singapore. Nine Institute staff members, myself included, spent a month meeting with worshiping communities there.

The experience was both encouraging and stretching for us. It wasn’t the kind of stretching that renders an elastic band useless—rather, it was the kind a mother’s womb must go through to make room for another family member. Last August our North American story stretched halfway across the globe to South East Asia, and when we came back, the Asian story was pulled back here with us. Now we are changed; we can no longer tell our own stories without including theirs in it. We can no longer look at ourselves without seeing them too.

Our world looks different!

What We Did

During our time in the Philippines and Singapore, we collaborated with several churches, seminaries, and Christian institutions to organize and host a Symposium on Worship with significant contributions of Asian scholars, theologians, pastors, and musicians. The learning and encouragement were mutual and equal as we worshiped together with faithful brothers and sisters on the other side of the globe, and as we listened to each others’ stories, songs, and struggles.

In Indonesia, we had the privilege of attending and participating in the first annual Conference on Christian Worship organized by the Christian Church in Indonesia (GKI). There we encountered many gifts and talents, a deep desire for learning and fellowship, and irresistable hospitality.

What We Learned

The Church is the Church wherever we go
Like all travelers to foreign countries, we expected to feel out of place as we walked the streets, bargained in the market, and tried to choose the correct coins for public transport. But we didn’t anticipate how “at home” we would all feel when we worshiped.

The liturgical flow was familiar, the songs were recognizable (though in a different language), and the general Reformed atmosphere was comforting. What a gift it was to celebrate our common heritage and the One Spirit who guides us in our worship and faith across nations, cultures, and languages. Worship unites us!

Furthermore, our struggles unite us. Through many candid conversations in all three countries, we came to realize that issues such as navigating the worship wars, keeping youth in church, and learning what it means to worship as Reformed people are concerns that are as real and urgent to the Asian church as they are to us.

The true meaning of hospitality
The practice of hospitality saturates the churches we visited. It’s a hospitality that surpasses convenient entertaining or frantic attempts to make a good impression.

The kind of hospitality we experienced was the kind of hospitality that brings your hosts to greet you at the airport with flowers in the middle of the night when they could have sent a driver. It’s the kind of hospitality that prompts people to take days off work and cancel all appointments simply because you are in town. It’s the kind of hospitality that welcomes a stranger into a warm home, not simply a church foyer or coffee shop.

It’s the kind of hospitality that seems uncalculated, because if we stopped to ponder its cost to us, we’d be too overwhelmed to even consider offering it. It’s the kind that pushes us to focus on persons rather than preparations, and fruitful ends rather than painful means. It’s a Christ kind of hospitality.

We have much to learn from our Asian brothers and sisters in addressing Christian hospitality on a deeper level, especially in the church.

The Church’s songs unite us
For years now I’ve been hearing North American church musicians question the use of Western hymns in worship in other parts of the world. “Why should they sing our songs? They should come up with their own,” they say.

While I understand the deep grief over past unhealthy missional choices, and while I appreciate the sincere desire for the development and use of more Christian songs appropriate to local cultural contexts, I wonder if this perspective from an Indonesian pastor might help reshape our questions:

Indonesia is the world’s largest archipelago, with over 300 ethnic groups speaking more than 700 languages. We speak and dress and do things differently, but at church we are united because we sing the same songs. Singing these songs is what unites us as Reformed Christians. They are our common heritage.

And so I wonder. If songs like “How Great Thou Art” and “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” become formative in their identity as Christians, and more specifically as Reformed Christians, why can’t these people claim them as their own? Why can’t our songs become theirs too? Why can’t they sing them with joy on Sundays, teach them to their children during the week, and request them for their funeral services?

They can, because they do. Maybe we need to stop thinking of these songs as belonging to Western Christians and rather see them as belonging to the church worldwide.

Sharing the Fruits

In October we hosted a dinner for forty students, faculty, and staff members from Calvin College and Seminary who represent the three countries we visited. There we shared slides and highlights of our trip and invited them to challenge our team to continue to grow from this experience and use it to impact our communities. The ideas we generated that night were practical and creative, and can be useful to any community involved in similar work or in short-term missions.

Challenges to those who visit another country

  • Keep in touch with people you meet after you return home.
  • Intentionally share your stories and learning to expose others to this vision, and inspire them to become involved in it (through presentations or publications).

Challenges to the North American church

  • Become aware of and minister to immigrant communities; be hospitable both in church and in the community toward immigrants.
  • Make room for immigrants in your congregation to share their stories of faith and worship in their home countries.
  • Be willing to learn from Christians from other countries.
  • Support foreign students who come to study in your country.
  • Include global concerns in prayers.
  • Partner with sister churches overseas and together find creative means to support each other in ministry.
  • Learn songs and prayers from diverse Christian communities.
  • Organize international choirs with a diverse repertoire of global songs and music.    

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For additional material from the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, click here.

Anne E. Zaki (aez2@calvin.edu) is a Resource Development Specialist for Global and Multi-Cultural Resources at the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, Grand Rapids, Michigan.