Growing up in Hong Kong, my experience in worship mirrored a synthesis of Eastern and Western culture. Talk about getting pulled in two different directions. The Lord, however, gave me plenty of room for exploration. As I got older, it somehow consolidated. When I look back, I can see God’s grace connecting it all—making it work as I serve a Chinese congregation and in a Western theological seminary in the metropolitan area of Dallas, Texas.
In the Beginning
What I consider my first worship experience occurred in a Chinese church with an American missionary in 1978. Because of my Catholic school background, I associated my first Christian worship as something like attending a “Christian mass.” The church—deeply influenced by southern Baptist music with a choir as well as a traditional hymnbook—had long pews and lengthy sermons. I often tried to fight my sleepiness by straightening my back. The blend of formality with Southern gospel music, however, cultivated a reflex of joy and reverence. Every Sunday for me meant coming before God with devotion and contemplation. Moreover, the gospel music aroused my youthful ardor to follow Jesus. As a new convert, worship taught me to know and to love the Lord my God (Deut 7:9).
Stepping into college, I felt excited by a freedom of worship in the new movement of contemporary music in Christian community. Band, not choir, was now the norm. A group of musicians from Campus Crusade [now Cru], named “Cross Road,” brought new excitement with open area worship in the college amphitheater. Spontaneity, devotion, and a lively dynamic between the singers and audience moved us into an emotional apex. Worship now transpired a transforming experience of a personal God.
Meanwhile, Koreans brought in the action songs with devoted affection. We sang and acted in open areas before passerby college students. “Come, let us bow down in worship, let us kneel before the Lord, our Maker” (Ps 95:6).
Worship was more than music and voice. It incorporated movement and holistic participation. Kneeling down to pray with lifted voices expressed the deepest yearning of our youthful souls. Prayer within the community sounded like waves of water mingled with adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and heartfelt petitions.
Friends rarely mentioned prayer meetings, but instead participated in prayer movements. Worship united us into a community of strong Christians. A great revival spread from one spiritually dying campus to almost all major universities in Hong Kong. As disciples of Christ, we loved the worship experience. And because we did, it spread like wildfire across campuses.
For the past four decades, I’ve participated in many diverse worship experiences, which have blessed me in more ways than I can count. The experiences have given me insight to look into Chinese worship through a kaleidoscopic lens. Some churches guide their leaders and congregants with formal liturgical procedures in worship. Others lead their communities with gifted worship leaders who bring the congregation to a climactic point with artistically designed music.
Some worship music is characterized by a homogenous culture while others by a mix of traditional and present-day music. Despite their differences, the trend is that more and more worship leaders practice looking inward to the leading of the Spirit.
In today’s Chinese churches, the majority of them are characterized by sermon-dominant worship. In recent years, like most Chinese congregations in the US, the church I serve—New Life Gospel Church—has moved to two worship services (Chinese and English). Our leaders can tell the difference of emphasis between the OBC (overseas-born Chinese) and ABC (American-born Chinese) generations.
Worship for the OBC congregation is characterized by contemporary Chinese hymns. The rise of gifted hymnists or hymnographers from China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong adds color to worship songs which reflects diverse Chinese culture. Hymns are picked with melody and lyrics that fit the core values of the educated and Westernized middle-class Chinese. Worship may directly or indirectly reflect the spirit, struggle, and dream of the Christ-followers—all as aliens in a foreign land. The English worship (for the ABCs) is more youthful with a mix of traditional and contemporary American Christian music. The trend leans toward modern-to-postmodern American Christian culture.
One major difference is that a Chinese-style worship is comparatively more structured and reserved in expression while an American-style worship is more natural and free. A preservation of Chinese ethics highly impacts the overseas-born Chinese. The echo of contemporary US culture meets the need of American spouses and their American-born Chinese offspring. Furthermore, under the influence of two major seminaries in the Dallas area, sermons—heavy on Scripture—play a vital role to bring the congregations together for instruction, meditation, and action.
The growing number of immigrants and seminarians from mainland China only contribute to the oriental element of the Chinese church. The arrangement of worship in the Chinese congregation grows complicated by the need to remain sensitive to the diverse Chinese culture around the world. We need a Sesame Street style of cross-culture adventure to expose today’s Chinese church congregants to the beauty of different worship experiences that include both the East and West (Acts 2:42–47).
Reflection on Worship
Looking back, I realize my seminary education gave me an opportunity to reflect on my worship expression under the lens of the Bible, theology, and history. I find it difficult to evaluate worship from a purely academic perspective. However, asking questions gave me an opportunity for a reexamination of the practices or habits I had formed in worship. Some of the major questions that I continue to ask move me to ponder deeply on how I worship.
Is my worship a psychological effect impacted by this worship environment or is my worship from spirit and truth? Is it driven by a charming, charismatic worship team, by an enthusiastic crowd, or by the Spirit of the Lord? Is my worship determined by the expression of contemporary culture or by an experience that can cross generational boundaries? Is my worship personal or just a corporate experience? Does the West or the East lead the trend of today’s worship experience? Is it a choice among traditions or an adaptation to the established culture of a congregation?
Often, it is where I am spiritually and what is in my heart at the moment that determines my worship experience. My heart can tell whether I have come closer to my Lord, my heavenly Father. I may ask a lot of questions that I cannot answer, and sometimes I don’t receive a black-and-white answer. I have something to learn while giving it a try to experience worship from a culture different from my own. However, I cannot overextend myself to the point that I lose the essence of worship—that I disregard what it means to worship in spirit and truth (John 4:23).
An Impromptu Worship Experience
A few years ago, my entire family went to Toronto, Canada, to attend the wedding of my brother Leonard. He was in his fifties and a Catholic. We had a great time and a meaningful family reunion. The morning before we took our flight back to Dallas, Eira, my wife, asked whether I could lead our family in worship. I had led many worship services before, but not like this one. I struggled to initiate this because of my brother’s Catholic upbringing, its tradition, and the intergenerational gap between my brothers, sisters-in-law, and my three college kids.
With anxiety, I led a family worship with the simplest format: songs, Scripture reading, and an invitation to each member of my family to pray one after another. To my surprise—a huge surprise—everybody enjoyed it. My kids prayed sincerely for our family. My two brothers participated with a good heart. One of my sisters-in-law told me that it was her first family worship experience. With sincere heart and the work of the Holy Spirit, we had crossed our boundaries to worship the same Father in heaven. Matt Redman penned:
“I will bring you more than a song. For a song in itself is not what you have required. You search much deeper within through the way things appear. You’re looking into my heart.”
May our hearts worship the Lord in spirit and in truth!
The Lord has already revealed to us a beautiful picture of worship in Scripture. People from all nations, all tribes, and all languages will come together to honor the same creator and redeemer God. No longer will we look at our differences.
Instead we will keep our eyes on him. When we look back, we will see God’s grace connecting us all. It is then worth it to overcome cultural and language hurdles in our earthly worship so that we can mirror and look forward to the coming days of heavenly worship (Rev 7:9–10; 19:1–7; 21:1–3).