This past Wednesday at our Pause worship service, we talked about the process of becoming – a process in which we grow to better understand our identity and who God created us to be. The following story is one of my own experiences of becoming during my time in China – enjoy!
For those of you who don’t know, I’m majoring in Chinese and last year I studied abroad both semesters in Beijing. I had many experiences of becoming during my year in China, but I’m going to focus specifically about how I experienced becoming in my faith and beliefs as a Christian.
Before going to China, my faith life revolved almost entirely around all things Lutheran. We’re talking potlucks in the church basement, lefse bakes, old school German hymns, super chill Midwesterners, and a strong belief in salvation through grace. Lutheranism was what I grew up with and for the most part, it was all that I knew! After two years of being heavily involved with LCM and loving every minute of it, I was in a very comfortable place with my faith – I was confident in what I believed and I didn’t have many questions for God. And then I went to China…
Since I was going to be in China for many many months, I made a conscious effort to seek out a church community. I wanted to make sure that I maintained my relationship with God, and I wanted to find a good ol’ group of Christians to be in community with. After doing some research on the ELCA’s website, I found a partner congregation in Beijing called BICF (Beijing International Christian Fellowship). BICF is a non-denominational church for Beijing’s international community. They had an English service on Sunday mornings and were pretty close to my dorm, so I decided to check it out.
I walked into the worship space (a rented room in an office building) and found an empty clump of chairs towards the back. Since this was an international church, the worshipers were mostly American, British, African, Pacific Islander, etc. There were mostly families and 20-somethings in the congregation. The service started with a worship song led by a contemporary praise band with the lyrics projected onto multiple screens. About halfway through that first song, I looked around the room and noticed more than a few people with their hands in the air, swaying back and forth to the music, really getting into it. I’m not gonna lie, I got the church giggles a lot that morning. Since Lutheran worship services are typically pretty reserved, I felt very out of place in this new worship style. The whole time I kept thinking, “What have I gotten myself into?”
After the service ended, I was getting ready to leave with no intention of going back, when I heard someone call out my name. I turned around to find my next-door neighbor from the dorms, John. John’s from England and as I found out, had been going to BICF for a while. He introduced me to his group of friends and we all ended up going out to lunch. This group was all young working professionals or students like me, all Americans or Brits, and they were all involved in a small group. They were also the first big, friendly community of young people I had found since being in China – everybody was really friendly, welcoming, kind – it was like walking into LCM for the first time as a freshman.
It wasn’t long before I joined one of their weekly small groups. We met every Thursday night for about an hour, and we would follow a Bible study book, reading and discussing certain passages. At first it was great to be back in a weekly routine of faith discussion, something I had really hoped to keep up with after leaving the U.S. But after a few weeks, I started hearing opinions and ideas being expressed that didn’t have much correlation with what I personally believed or had thought much about before, particularly the idea of conversion and salvation through faith alone. There were a couple small group meetings where we prayed for people we knew to find Jesus. Since converting others isn’t something Lutherans really talk much about, I felt very confused and turned off whenever the subject came up in small group or at church services. Every now and then I would get into these long debates with myself about it, thinking over and over about what I actually believed and how to reconcile this difference I had found with my other small group members. My faith had been shaken, my comfortable ideas about God and Christianity thrown out the door. I even had to Skype with Pastor Kate a few times for moral support and to remind me the basics of the Lutheran faith.
After a few months of these sorts of internal debates, I eventually came around to the idea that finding the answers wasn’t so important. I didn’t have to agree with everything my friends believed – we could have differences and it didn’t matter. At the end of the day, we were all just a group of Christians who liked to have active, thoughtful discussions about God. I even got used to and enjoyed some of the different practices they had – even some of the contemporary songs sounded pretty good by the time I left China!
More importantly, this group had given me something that I would’ve never experienced without stepping outside of an ELCA church. They had given me a reason to seriously question my faith, to challenge my ideas about God, to live into those questions we’ll never know the answers to. Like Martin Luther said, “this life is not about being, but becoming; not rest, but exercise.” My experiences with this group led me to get a TON of spiritual exercise – and my faith is stronger than ever because of it. I was able to grow, and I was able to become a little bit more the person God has made me to be.