Many foreigners in China are ignorant about the Chinese church and all that it has to offer. Rarely do overseas’ guests who are Christians attend the open worship services, Bible studies, hymn singing sessions or prayer meetings held on a regular basis in the thousands of Protestant and Catholic churches throughout this country.
Part of the problem is that everything is in Chinese. Most foreigners don’t understand due to the language barrier, but a majority of overseas’ visitors don’t even know that there are churches in China, where they are in their areas or that everyone is welcome to attend.
From Luzhou (“loo-joe”, a Yangtze River city of 5 million), let me enlighten you about what our Luzhou Protestant Church has planned for Christmas. It will surprise you!
Welcome to Our Christmas Worship
Last Wednesday evening, the church choir (of which I am a member) and Christmas Eve worship performers finished our first dress rehearsal for our 2 worship programs this coming weekend. Dec. 23rd, 7:00 – 9:30 p.m., will be for the Christian community and Dec. 24th will be for the public. Both services are exactly the same, with nothing omitted or added to accommodate different audience members.
The church is always packed full of people for these celebrations. It’s standing room only, and this is why our program is given twice. It allows as many people as possible the opportunity to attend, especially as the church sanctuary and balcony can carry only so many at one time.
What’s in Store for Visitors and Christians Alike: The Worship
We have an opening processional, with votives alight, which the choir leads while following behind a huge golden cross.
Years ago, the choir carried wax candles (as I’m sure many of you American choir members remember doing as well) with wax dripping down onto our hands (Ouch!).
There was always the fear that a choir robe would go up in flames as we walked so near to one another. Plus there was the problem of a candle (or two or three or more) blowing out due to the open windows. The church has no heating so windows were/are open to help with the smelly, stuffiness of the crowds. I remember when a candle went out, we had a quick scramble to get a neighboring choir member to light it for us.
Made for a rather stumbling, bumbling display of our orderly, lovely processional.
Ah, those were the days!
The electric votive variety of lighting, as I’m sure you all know, is safer, much more convenient and there are no surprises of flames going out on us.
Continuing onward: During our processional, recorded bells toll solemnly and “Amazing Grace” in Chinese plays softly as we file in, holding power-operated votives. We bow before the church cross and take our places on the risers to wait for our pastors to give the invocation.
For the first 15 minutes of the service, congregation members and other audience attendees are invited to sing all the old Western hymn favorites displayed on the power point screen. These (in Chinese) are : ”Silent Night,” “Oh, Come, All Ye Faithful” and “Hark, the Herald”.
After that, there is a scripture reading and a 15-minute message from Pastor Liao.
The choir sings its last anthem, we all say The Lord’s Prayer in Chinese (those not familiar with this can read from the screen), Pastor Liao gives the benediction and the worship closes dramatically with the choir quietly filing out the same way it came in.
Next, it’s time to launch into all the different performances which center on Christianity.
This year, the program is changed a bit.
We will be having English announcements at certain points in the program and also English subtitles on a few of the video clips shown.
My city has the Luzhou Medical College which enrolls 600 students from developing countries who are studying to be doctors. Students from African nations, Nepal, and Pakistan use English as a common language for their medical courses and to communicate among themselves. Some are Christians. Christmas is a time they often come to worship so the church is trying to make them feel welcome.
Aside from foreign students, there are a limited number of English teachers and business people from America and other countries. They have been known to show up for Christmas Eve. I’m sure the English language translation will be greatly appreciated.
Other changes include more liturgical dance numbers, those that re-enact Bible stories or accompany soloists who sing Chinese praise songs and hymns.
There is one routine which tells the Parable of the 10 Virgins (Mathew 25: 1-6): 5 young girls who went to meet the bridegroom with no oil in their lamps and 5 who wisely came prepared.
No Christmas program is complete without the portrayal of the Jesus’ birth.
A mother-and-child performance will be another highlight of the evening.
We also have a very powerful modern piece done by the young adults. The choreography tells of a young teenager tempted by sinful people. They and the devil try to convince our poor lost girl to do evil acts against God, including committing suicide.
Jesus holds back the wicked hoard, trying desperately to get their grip on their victim. He blocks their advances and tosses them back to their hellish domain.
He then wraps the girl in a robe and leads her toward the light, the loving safety of God.
The Choir: Ready to Go!
As for the adult choir, we members have been practicing 2 to 3 nights a week (2 1/2-hour sessions) for over a month on Tuesday and Thursday nights. Yes, it’s been a huge commitment for me, and challenging due to all the Chinese, but I have enjoyed it immensely.
Needless to say, we’re as ready as we’ll ever be.
We have a very unique baroque piece. This will take the place of Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus, which used to be the closure to our Christmas service but I think our director wanted to try something different this year. It ends with a dramatic pause and “荣耀!”(“rong yao”, Glory!) snapped out with staccato gusto, so I’d say it fits the bill for an impressive finale to our night.
Pastor Liao will close with a blessing and invitation for non-Christians to return to the church at any time. We then encourage everyone to sing with us a popular Chinese praise song shown on the overhead screen while we extend hugs of Christian love before people depart.
Crowd Control by the Luzhou City Police: A Blessing, not a Curse
Since this is a public event and a gathering of so many, the church always invites the Luzhou police to come and make sure we don’t have too many trying to enter at once into our small sanctuary and balcony area.
Usually, about 10 police officers come to help maintain control.
I mention this here because sometimes, pictures are posted of policemen outside a church on Christmas Eve with captions that church is forbidden and the government police are there to watch people, take down names or stop the service from happening. This is not true, at least not in our case here in Luzhou.
Pastor Liao is on very good terms with the officers (both men and women) who come to our aid. She talks with them about how many the church can accommodate, where people should stand who come in late, that the adjacent church clinic is open in case of accidents and what the program entails if people ask. She makes sure the police officers are well-informed about the service and what to do in case of an emergency.
And those on duty are just as happy to watch the performances from the church entranceway as those who attend inside. They also are getting an education about Christians, how they worship, what their values are and what the religion is all about.
It’s a win-win situation for all of us, which is truly a blessing from 15 years ago.
Christmas “Stampeding” Problems in the Past
Pushy crowds used to be a worrying issue in the past, especially upon my first arrival in Luzhou in 2002 when we had only one service for Christmas. A large number of Chinese who were not church members behaved quite badly, pushing and shoving their way into the church to see our performance programs.
I still remember when there was a 4-year period in China where the Chinese were very ignorant of the meaning of Christmas and treated it as a Mardi Gras celebration. They purchased Mardi Cras masks, confetti spray canisters and inflatable plastic baseball bats to use at midnight, Christmas Eve. These items were sold by sellers up and down the streets of the city. Thousands of revelers gathered in our downtown square, began a countdown to midnight and when midnight struck, they whacked one another over the head with their bats, sprayed confetti everywhere and shouted “Merry Christmas!” in Chinese.
The wild square-gatherers always crashed our Christmas midnight eve service with their antics. It was impossible to keep them, or their rambunctious, ornery kids, from entering the sanctuary and balcony where they would spray confetti on everyone below when the churches’ midnight bells rang out Christmas Day had arrived.
Granted, it didn’t help that at that time, Santa Claus was a popular entity to add to every Chinese church service. At the end of our worship, out came Santa to throw candy and Santa hats to those in attendance. The mad rush to the stage, trampling of those in the way, and the chaotic snatch and grab to get Santa’s goodies was quite dangerous and frightening.
And, believe it or not, the overzealous, excited church members were the ones doing most of the trampling!
I am happy to say that those days are long gone.
Now Chinese church pastors and lay-leaders have been re-educated on the mood to set for Christmas Eve. Seminars sponsored by the China Christian Council (the governing body of the Protestant church in China), courses in seminaries addressing Christmas protocol and other means of information offered on Christian websites have helped a great deal. Now many churches across the country take note to create a calming environment for Christmas worship. Those wanting ideas can even download full tapings of successful services held in other cities, both in China and abroad. In fact, our Luzhou church is one of those that offers online videos of our Christmas program every year to those interested.
Needless to say, our current videos no longer include Santa Claus stirring up the frenzied masses.
This change in worship practices has helped the Chinese public as well. No longer do we have people believing that Christmas is to be ushered in with confetti, masks and playful beatings with inflated baseball bats.
Christmas Eve (referred to as “Peace Night” in China) is now viewed as a time of respectful, joyful and meaningful celebration for Christians in the country. This takes place via song, prayer, scripture reading, dance and other means of praising God.
An Added Element: A Commercial Video
For the first time, the church has created a professionally done 2 1/2 minute video announcement to the public and media about our worship nights.
While an exuberant, uplifting praise song is sung, the video details the service and shows many clips of the Luzhou church, including shorts of the young adult services which are so lively and upbeat. There is also a WeChat account (China’s Facebook counterpart) with a QR code to be scanned. This will add the individual to the WeChat group for updates and other church news. (A QR code, for those not familiar with this, is a matrix bar code that is read by photographing with the camera of a smartphone or other mobile device equipped with a bar-code reader.)
Since virtually everyone in China has a smart phone, the video has been flying around this city of 5 million via text messages and attachments.
Even I have been posting on my group chats for friends, colleagues and students to freely attend if they wish.
From China, Merry Christmas!
I hope this post has given you an uplifting view of our upcoming Christmas program and worship at the Luzhou Protestant Church.
It will be a packed full weekend, including Christmas Day worship which begins at 9:30 and will include adult baptisms and communion. No rest at all for this gal!
May your Christmas be as exciting and wonderful as mine. Ping An (Peace)!