When the Church Does Not Look Like You, and When it Does

Walking into one of the first church services we attended in France in 2013, I saw a large bearded man holding the door open. As I approached, he grabbed my hand and moved his face directly next to mine so that our hairy cheeks almost touched. I learned later that this is an intimate greeting that the French call the “bise,” a small air-kiss on each side of the face (although with one man it was straight up a kiss on each cheek). I had heard of such greetings in France, but I was not expecting to receive the bise at that moment, so it came as a bit of a shock. Through observation and conversations in my then halting French, I learned that the bise was common with family and close friends, but (especially between men) almost never done with complete strangers. I understood very little of that service, or the following 6 months of my life, but one thing was clear: when we were at church, we were with family.Two weeks ago we attended a “celebration of life” for one of the first Baka Christians to have died in our area. Dali was a young, but faithful woman who served alongside her husband, Nestor the pastor of one of only 2 Baka churches I am aware of. The entire celebration was conducted in Baka, a language I cannot speak at all. With me was our Bamilike pastor (from the West Region, Cameroon), a Baya neighbor (a tribe here in the East), a Bakoum brother (the group we are working with), and five other Americans. All around me were the mixed emotions that can only be seen at a funeral when Christ is involved: both sorrow and joy. I did not understand many of the words, but I saw that my brothers and sisters were worshipping God in the midst of a difficult situation and I shared the comfort that I saw from the Scripture in French with Nestor. And we shook hands as brothers.

This morning, we arrived a bit late to the small village of Baktala (believe it or not they pronounce it Kpaktala, in which they say the ‘k’ and the ‘p’ at the same time), so the congregation had already started their singing. We were warmly welcomed at the door by the pastor, one of our language partners named Bosco. Some of the songs were in French, but the vast majority of the service was conducted in Bakoum. Startlingly, I understood most of it! It was a great pleasure to see fruit from two years of studying the language. The Sunday School time was focused on the question: what is the church? Bosco explained how, though many people think of “church” as a place or a building, it is actually a people. These are the men, women, and children who have been chosen by God, some have died, and some are not even born, but all will one day worship together in Heaven. We are the church universal. We are black, brown, yellow, white, and red. We speak thousands of different languages, wear an amazing variety of church clothes, but have only one Lord and Savior: Jesus Christ.

When I was in the States most of my church experiences were with people that were quite a bit like me. Certainly they all spoke my mother tongue and many of them were the same race as me, and grew up in a very similar culture. I purposely sought out churches that I was like-minded with theologically and usually walked into a church feeling very comfortable and in my element. I do not think this is inherently bad. One thing we are taught when training to be missionaries is that we walk into a culture with a specific mindset to learn their ways and their language. We do this because we want them to speak their own language when worshipping God, we want them to sing using their own styles, we want them to be comfortable knowing that God is their God, not just the God of Westerners. Applying this back to the West, I see no problem with people seeking to worship in the way that is least distracting for them and makes them more inclined to focus on God.

However, there is something that we miss out on when we worship in homogenous communities. When I look into Nestor’s eyes, and speak to him in my second language (which is also his second language) I feel a connection that is stronger that I feel with those unbelievers who are in my own biological family. I have more in common with this Baka pastor that lives in the forests of Cameroon, than I do with many white, American, college graduates. If we are only around people like us, we begin to believe that what makes us who we are is our culture. The more contact that we have with Christians that are not like us, we begin to realize that who we are is otherworldly. How else could we have so much in common with people that are so culturally different?

For all of the challenges of living somewhere so different from where I grew up, and am thankful for the times I have to worship with people that look nothing like me. I am thankful because they challenge me to see myself as a Christian more than as an American. In church today I received from several people the Cameroonian version of the “bise.” It is a tri-part alternating sided hug. It too is reserved for close family and friends. And I knew without a doubt that they see me as just that: family.


When the Church Does Look Like You: Pray

Many of you will not relate to my most recent church experiences. If that is the case, I challenge you to set aside time in your week to pray for the Universal Church. Stacey wrote up some very good resources for families on our ‘Missions at Home’ page. Near the bottom you will find three sections: ‘Specific People Groups’, ‘Exposure to the Unreached’, and ‘Bible Translation.’ These resources are designed for children, but they have been a great way for all of us, as a family, to learn about the lost and also those places where Christians need the most prayer. I would also encourage you to consider signing up for the weekly emails at icommittopray.com with Voice of the Martyrs. We pray for the families of martyred Christians as well as those who are being persecuted and imprisoned for the faith. I have found that prayer shapes what we care about, think about, and invest in. This is also a great way to get our kids to think outside of themselves.

Ultimately, we will spend all eternity with a wide variety of Christians, from every tribe, tongue and nation. Why not put in the effort now, so that when that day arrives, we will be able to tell many of them that we already know who they are because we prayed for them.


Author: David M. Hare

Dave is a husband, father of four Africans, and is currently helping the Kwakum people do Oral Bible Storying and Bible translation in Cameroon, Africa.