Mystery Worshipper: Amaranta
Church: Dali Protestant
Location: Dali, Yunnan, China
Date of visit: Sunday, 4 April 2010, 9:30am
From the outside, the church is an attractive stone building, surmounted by pagoda-style roofs and two red crosses. Inside, it is the most uniformly square church I think I have ever entered. In the centre of the front wall is another red cross illuminated from the inside, flanked by the phrase "God is love" (as is common in both Protestant and Catholic churches in China). There is a stage with a lectern, and a piano at the side. Both side walls largely consist of windows, interspersed with framed calligraphic renditions of the Ten Commandments, the Lord's Prayer, the Apostles' Creed and a number of scriptural texts. On the back wall there is a painting depicting Christ above the Great Wall of China. The overall impression is of a building both plainly constructed and well-used.
The church belongs to Three-Self Patriotic Movement for Protestants, which is colloquially called the Three-Self Church. This is the official Chinese government-sanctioned Protestant body in China. Three-Self stands for self-governance, self-support and self-propagation. The church was established in 1881 by missionaries sent by the China Inland Mission. During that period, the mission in Dali had an emphasis on medical work and the missionaries established a hospital in conjunction with the church (it now operates separately). Missionary presence was sporadic in the first half of the 20th century, due to the remoteness of the region and continuing unrest in China. The church has been exclusively locally run since the 1940s. The current building dates from 1981.
Dali is a town in northern Yunnan, a province in southwestern China. This area has a very mild climate and a relatively pristine environment. It is known for its large population of non-Han ethnic minority groups, since it has been part of China only since the Mongol conquest. It is also extremely popular with western tourists, and has been a standard part of the backpacker trail for at least 20 years. These days many consider it too touristy, but it retains its reputation for the best marijuana in China. The Old Town, about 10km north of new Dali city, is a curious mix of cafes, bars and hostels aimed at foreign tourists, as well as restaurants and reconstructed old-style buildings aimed at Chinese tourists. There are also gift-shops aimed at both, and schools, hospitals and supermarkets aimed at neither. Dali Protestant Church is located in this Old Town, at the less tourist-oriented end of the main pedestrian street, Fuxing Road.
Preacher Yang (female) led the worship, while Pastor Deng (male) was preaching and presiding. An unidentified elderly woman conducted half the baptisms.
What was the name of the service?Easter Worship
How full was the building?
Packed and sitting in the aisles. The capacity of the building is about 250.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
No. However, once the service started, the woman behind me generously offered me her hymn book.
Was your pew comfortable?
Not bad. The cushions had been squished flat through use but were still functional.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
About as quiet as you would imagine such a large group of people could be, without actually keeping themselves silent! There was a definite sense of anticipation.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Let us pray" in Chinese.
What books did the congregation use during the service?
The Bible and Songs of Praise – New Edition.
What musical instruments were played?
An upright piano. There was also some recorded music at a couple of points during the service.
Did anything distract you?
At the very beginning of the service, I discovered that my pew-mates and I had inadvertently sat in the choir's section, and we had to move quickly out of the way as the choir processed in. I also was a little distracted after communion trying to read the inscriptions on the bottom of the wee cuppies. They read, "Drink the Lord's blood, receive the Lord's salvation."
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Chinese Protestant worship, as befits a church formed by the amalgamation of the various denominations 60 years ago, tends to take a lowest common denominator form. This is generally a sort of hymn sandwich with long sermons; communion once a month; minister in dog collar, gown and stole/scarf; and very little formal liturgy. The church in Dali seems to be on the higher end of that spectrum, as the service included congregational responses, recitation of the Apostles' Creed, and a psalm said by half-verses. The readings used were Matthew 26 (the Last Supper and Judas' betrayal of Jesus) and 1 Corinthians 15, especially verse 14 ("And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith").
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 – Pastor Deng was both clear and animated, and managed to hold the attention of a non-native Chinese speaker for most of the sermon. Preachers in the Chinese Protestant Church all tend to have a certain cadence of emphasis in their preaching, but Pastor Deng had exceptionally expressive gestures and a talent for mimicry that livened the sermon up even more.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The title of the sermon was "An ancient confusion and eternal hope." After discussing the importance of the resurrection as a distinctive part of Christianity, and of Easter as the greatest festival in the Church calendar, he went on to describe the disciples' various reactions to the resurrection, and its importance in our lives in terms of the titular "eternal hope" in Christ.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Between the sermon and the eucharist, two baptism stations were set up at either side of the lectern. After the candidates made their affirmation as a group, we spent a wonderfully joyous half hour watching them receive baptism. They were old and young, male and female, Han Chinese and ethnic minorities, from babies in their mothers' arms to an old woman who was too infirm to leave her pew and had the makeshift font brought to her. Altogether 46 people were baptised that day.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Two words: liturgical dance. Actually the first bit wasn't too bad; it was the abrupt change in tempo halfway through to an upbeat rendition of the Sunday-school classic "Hallelu-hallelu-hallelu-hallelujah" that got me. That, and the concluding section, accompanied by a has-to-be-heard-to-be-believed version of Handel's "Hallelujah Chorus."
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Both my neighbour in the pew and the woman who lent me her hymn book engaged me in conversation as we waited for the pews behind us to empty. On my way outside, another man asked where I was from and welcomed me.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There was none. There was, however, an Easter goodie bag of two boiled eggs and some steamed bread with beans cooked into it.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
8 – I particularly liked the more-than-usually liturgical shape of the service. My only hesitation is that Im not sure what services are like when it's not a special occasion.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
One line of the sermon really stood out for me. Because of some less-than-ecumenical spirit among early foreign missionaries in China, most Chinese people, even today, believe that "Catholic" and "Christian" (the term used for what in English we would call "Protestant") are different religions. Unfortunately this idea is often propagated by Christians themselves. I was therefore delighted that the preacher made a point of saying that the resurrection is crucial for Protestants, Catholics and Orthodox, and I learnt a new word, jidu zongjiao ("the religion of Christ"), which can be used for all Christian groups as a whole. I intend to remember this word for much longer than seven days!