The Church takes many forms around the world. We understand this intellectually, yet emotionally there is an image that comes to mind when we hear the word “church” that seems right, proper, and biblical. It doesn’t matter whether you could find it in the Scriptures or not, anything else seems wrong or sinful. Of course, such egocentrism is true for many of our ideas. When I say the word “apple,” what comes to your mind? Is it a green apple or a red delicious apple? Or do you think of a computer? Some people’s idea of a “church” includes multipurpose buildings, gothic cathedrals, rented storefronts, businesses’ break rooms, or living rooms. Of course, these are just places where a church might meet. An open area under a tree on the African savannah would work just as well. I first began to ponder the possibilities when serving as a missionary in Quito. The capital city was home then to around two million people but there were only a little over twenty Baptist churches at the time, each of which only averaged about 100 people on Sundays. Obviously, the city needed many more churches. In addition to the needed city churches, the Highland Quichua people we were working with needed hundreds of churches immediately just to serve the existing believers who had none.
As I began each day before sunrise, reading the Scriptures and praying in my study, I would look down into the valley of Quito and see the millions of lights. I prayed that a church would be planted in all of the apartment buildings, homes, and businesses since it was obvious that we would never be able to provide a building for every needed church. Indeed, to require every legitimate church to have a building would have virtually shut down the work of church planting. So, while none of the missionaries required it, the constant challenge was that the Ecuadorian believers in Quito insisted upon having a building for their church. This was not only because all the other Baptist churches had a building, but because the Catholics always provided buildings for their churches. Any religious group that met in a home was often suspected of being a cult. Thankfully, that perspective is changing, slowly but surely, among hesitant nationals and reluctant missionaries alike.
International churches enjoy diverse worship expressions as well. The expected decorum and comportment in church varies from place to place and denomination to denomination. While some are staid, austere, and worship God with almost stoical emotional detachment, others are singing with hands raised and hips swaying to the music or even with the clapping and dancing reminiscent of a rock concert. And the denominations do not always follow the patterns of their sending bodies. I once preached in a Presbyterian church in Bolivia where the worshipers were “helicoptering” in the aisles during the singing. Some churches sing 17th century hymns with pipe organs or full orchestras while others worship with beautiful Andean melodies and harmonies accompanied by traditional string and wind instruments. Unfortunately, many of these churches have thrown aside their traditional music to embrace high volume electronic noisemakers and full drum sets. These instruments would be fine for worship in the hands of those skilled to play them, but some misled musicians apparently believe that God will accept this worship as better simply because they heard them on the latest praise CD.
Clothing communicates different things to different people in worship. Some prefer suits and nice dresses. Others seem to worship just as well in t-shirts and jeans, and if they really want to dress up, they wear a black t-shirt. I increasingly see shorts worn to church. I even worshiped in a church in Miami once where various members of the congregation wore all of the above in the same service — and in addition, others in this same crowd were wearing bikinis! We seem to be relaxing the standards even within our own culture. This causes lots of angst among the more traditional, but those who embrace diverse forms of church find it easier to embrace differing styles of church around God’s world. Worship looks different around the world, but I think God inhabits the praise of His people no matter what language they sing, what instruments they use, where they meet, or how they dress. What is important is all that the New Testament requires a church to be, not necessarily ensuring that every church looks like your home church looks. The Baptist Faith and Message succinctly describes the essence of a New Testament church for those who wonder what elements should be insisted upon.
I am leading orientation for summer missionaries in Peru this week. They will fan out into the countryside and encounter diverse forms of church and worship styles, and I pray that God will bless them to start churches and lead worship in many others. May He broaden their minds and ours to embrace all those who embrace Him.