One of the hazards of living overseas is returning to the US and finding yourself critical of a church you once loved. Of course I didn’t hear of this potential pot hole until years into my time in China. By that point I was already ruined for the ordinary, so why not this area too?
Over the more than 18 years I was in China, one of the few constants was the change experienced year-by-year in my church experience.
This did not bode well for me fitting into churches that don’t tend to change much.
My first year, church meant three of us foreigners gathering in my apartment on Sunday morning.
Mark loved singing and brought his guitar. Erin loved singing if there were enough people to hide her voice and since there weren’t, well, our music was a combo of awkward awesomeness or awesome awkwardness. For a sermon series we passed around a small book with insights on the Psalms and took turns talking about the Psalm for the week. To say this was nothing like the way I had experienced church the previous 27 years of my life, would be either the set-up OR the punch line on a joke told by Jesus to Peter, depending on how uncomfortable the music had been that week.
By the third year (yes, years have now passed), I had a new teammate and our Sunday gathering had grown to two single women, three single men, and two families with a total of five kids. We had folks who were studying three different minority languages in the area, we had English teachers, we had someone working with blind children, we had Americans and Koreans. We had decent music and solid rotating teaching. We had little arms that liked to give big hugs. And we had no-clue what church tradition we each had come from. It never came up. In short, we had a slice of heaven.
Year six I moved from Chengdu, Sichuan to Beijing. At that time there was only one foreign fellowship and it was on the other side of the beast that is Beijing. To get there took more than an hour by bus (and more than an hour to get home, in case you wondered if after a long exhausting Sunday experience we were teleported home… the laws of the universe weren’t bent for us.). It was held in a gigantic auditorium with the capacity to hold several thousand. And it was crowded.
Up-sides included more than 60 countries represented. I never wearied of seeing the women from African regaled in bright colors. The style of worship music was different each week depending on whether it was led by Koreans, Africans, Australians, or Americans. The commute and time commitment are what stick with me all these years. Though glorious, I have a profound sense of exhaustion when I think of that church experience.
Eventually the church outgrew the venue and a branch was set up in a location closer to my side of the 17 million people of Beijing. I started splitting my time between a Chinese church AND the foreign fellowship plant. My mis-fitting was now in who I was becoming since we met in a part of Beijing dominated by foreign families and young foreign students. As an aging single I didn’t really fit.
I returned to the US a little over a year ago. I am less this than I used to be and more that. I don’t think the this or that matter. Whatever I’d been before I spent two decades outside of the US church, how could I not change? I find myself wanting a crossbred church experience that doesn’t seem to exist and I wonder how did I not miss it before? How did I feel like I belonged?
Eighteen years is long enough for churches to have changed. Styles to have evolved. A generation has been raised up. I don’t like feeling like a fuddy-duddy on Sunday morning when we stand for half the service for what seems like a music concert after which we straight into a sermon and at the end the pastor says, “Have a great week!” Where’s the sense of history? Where’s the prayer? Why are the blinds closed so I can see the projected trees on the walls instead of looking at actual trees out the window?
But other Sundays as I soak in rich liturgy, various scripture, and pass the peace I leave fussing at the “divine outreach” involving washing dogs for Jesus or helping high schoolers pick a college major. Have you heard of human trafficking? Or the homeless? Or AIDS orphans? Do you see how God is worthy of more than dogs and there might be something more eternal than your major?
Not the thoughts of one who fits neatly into her place in the puzzle.
So I claim the label Spiritual Misfit, reminding myself of the special place Jesus has in his heart for us misfits. Jesus, here I am, fit for nothing but you.
How has the twists and turns of your life made you more a misfit (instead of less)?
Amy Young is mostly done readjusting to messy middle of life in the US after more than 18 years in China. She is an editor and regular contributor to Velvet Ashes, a watering hole for women living overseas. When she first moved to China she knew three Chinese words: hello, thank you and watermelon. Often the only words really needed in life. She is known to jump in without all the facts and blogs regularly at The Messy Middle and tweets as @amyinbj and is the most unbeautiful pinner Pinterest has ever seen (but she’s having fun!).