Every Sunday, it’s pretty much the same routine at First Chinese Baptist.
I typically arrive 10 minutes late. This isn’t intentional, of course, but I’ve spent my entire life running on AST. You’d think a Chinese church would adjust to this, knowing that most of the congregation also lives on Asian Standard Time, but we start service at 10am on the dot. The only people there at 10am are the deacons and the praise team. When I am on the praise team, this is quite demoralizing.
Usually, my car is parked by 10:05. Chinatown parking is a B, not to mention Ed Lee screwed me over when he turned on Sunday meters. On top of that, the streets are already crowded with grandmas buying groceries, fobs drinking vitasoy, and hom sup lo’s smoking and spitting in front of me. It takes me another 10 minutes just to juke and spin move my way through the crowd without getting a fat loogie on my shoes.
When I finally get in, I’m handed the same bulletin we’ve been using for the past 6 weeks. Does anyone even look at these anymore? The praise team has already reached the bridge of the second song. It’s nearly impossible to start singing a song at the bridge with any kind of emotional integrity, but I do my best to jump in: Break my heart for what breaks yoouuurrs! Chinese churches love Hillsong. Black churches have gospel, white churches have hymns, Asian churches have Hillsong. I don’t get it either. I join in the singing, but I have a hard time hitting the ground running with this intense Hillsong bridge that took 5 minutes to build up before I came. No worries though, because remember, this is a Chinese church: everyone else is singing with about as much emotional energy as a depressed turtle on Nyquil.
Our pastor claps his hands every once in awhile. He had a period where he would try to clap loud enough so that everyone else would join him out of pity or just to put an end to the awkwardness of seeing him clap alone. Needless to say, he doesn’t clap much anymore. A couple folks who returned from their college ministries where they worshipped in more expressive ways close their eyes or, God forbid, raise their hands. The rest of the congregation usually stares at these people until they become uncomfortable and put their hands down.
After worship, we have a few formalities: passing the peace, prayer time, confession, and offering. And then the pastor walks up.
We respond, congruent with our depressed turtle worship: Guuhhh Muurnnnuunnghh
And without fail: “Oh come on guys, you can do better than that! I saaaid: ‘GOOD MORNING!”
Why do pastors always do that?
Ever since I started working the Saturday overnight shift at work, I have yet to stay awake for a full sermon. Instead, I inform my friends that I am “in deep mediation and prayer” with the occasional twitch of the Spirit. But most sermons in the Chinese church follow this basic pattern: read the bible passage, usually from Paul’s epistles (in ESV, of course), exposit the passage with occasional attempts at cultural relevance, perhaps explaining why “yolo” is not biblical or why Glee is demonic. Maybe a joke or two. And finally, end with an applicable exhortation to better, more morally righteous living.
Most Chinese church pastors who serve in English speaking congregations are pretty cool, down to earth 30 or 40-somethings with young kids, the type who wear Nike Frees and drive Corollas–practical folk. They’re usually kinda in tune with pop culture, but like, a half step behind. Their cultural references in sermons can be a bit forced, but we commend them for trying. Most Chinese American pastors are the I-only-preach-the-Bible-types, guys who swear by Piper, MacArthur, and The Gospel Coalition. I surmise that most Chinese American pastors are more likeable in person than they are from the pulpit, but hey, you can’t have everything. And I’d rather have it that way than the other way around.
After service, we loiter in small circles for 20 minutes. There might be baos or small snacks lying around. Sometimes I am fortunate enough to be approached by an elderly Chinese woman who I recognize and call “Auntie” even though I have no clue what her name is and I’m too embarrassed to ask because I’ve seen her every Sunday for the past ten years. She asks for an update about something that happened to me 3 years ago. “Chicago was great!” I tell her, pretending like I came back just the other day so she can save face. That’s a big thing in the Asian American community, the whole saving face stuff. It happens more often than we think.
Someone finally breaks the loiter circle and we ask each other where we should eat lunch, which prompts another 15 minute loiter circle of indecision. Asians never want to tell anyone where to eat. I suggest pho, because it’s cheap and easy and, well, why would anyone want to eat anything else? Over lunch we might talk about things like sports, rock climbing, rent prices, or Game of Thrones; a few Rush Hour quotes are usually sprinkled in. We rarely make mention of the sermon we just heard or anything that happened in service. And then we go home until next Sunday, when the routine starts anew.
This is a typical Sunday at a Chinese church. For someone without much experience in it or for those who have left to attend other churches, it may seem at times like a dysfunctional place to be. And in many respects, I agree. But I love this church, not because it’s a beacon of spiritual vibrancy, but because it’s part of who I am. I can’t leave this church any more than I can shed my own skin. It’s family after all, and my roots are too deep at this point to be pulled up.
Is your church like this? Did I forget anything?
For those who have left a Chinese church, is there anything that you (don’t) miss?