Many countries have unique ways to welcome in a new year. Thai people splash water at one another as part of a ritual cleansing. Some Chileans go to cemeteries and sleep near the graves of deceased loved ones. And Estonians participate in feasting a total of seven times on New Year’s Day, symbolising hoped-for abundance in the months to come.
Sadly, in the five decades I’ve been a believer in Jesus, I’ve known of several local churches that have split due to infighting. Leaders fight, and congregation members rally behind their chosen side. Then the feuding leaders prompt their supporters to form splinter congregations.
“Sometimes, going to church just seems irrelevant. After all, we listen to sermons via podcasts and can live- stream a church service . . . in our pajamas. Personally, I enjoy having access to so many Christian resources at the swipe of my finger on my iPhone. . . . I also meet in Christian community on Wednesday nights for small group Bible study. That’s good enough, right?” Those words, from a thoughtful post by Lindsay Blackburn, reflect the ambivalence many people feel about being part of a local church.
Nelson Mandela didn’t just acknowledge that the treatment of black Africans in South Africa was a terrible injustice—he went to great lengths to reverse it. He endured prison for twenty-seven years, confined with little to eat and being forced to labor for long hours—including pounding gravel. After he was set free in 1990, he continued to work tirelessly to dismantle apartheid and establish a more just government in South Africa.
Last summer, my city was embroiled, yet again, in a confrontation with the ongoing realities of racism in our nation. To protest the removal of a local statue honoring a general who fought to preserve slavery, some white-supremacist groups descended on our town. The pain caused by the hate-filled demonstration opened wounds that were hidden below the surface. In the US, we like to pretend that these issues are ancient history, but until we deal head on with these sins, we’ll never be healed of the evil.
I enjoy looking around my local London church on a Sunday morning, taking in the array of faces. Along with British people, I see those from Nigeria, Uganda, Romania, Macedonia, Brazil, and many other places. I’m reminded of the vision John saw of a “ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Revelation 5:9). In a small way, my multiethnic church reflects that picture—reminding me that, although believers have differences, we belong together.
Author Sarah Wells, in her blog post “Church, Why Bother?” writes, “On Sunday mornings, I have the keen sense of worshiping God with other believers in my community while other believers around my community, my state, the country, and the world also worship. All of those believers are strangely and mysteriously and powerfully connected to us by the Holy Spirit, and we are all together worshiping one God in a dedicated space at a dedicated time.”
When I was fourteen, with the help of a friend’s dad, my friends and I started a worship band. Before practice each week, we would gather in a circle and read a chapter of the Bible, then go around the circle sharing prayer requests and praises. We each took time to pray out loud for the person sitting next to us. This not only helped us get to know one another better, but allowed us to support and encourage one other through difficult times. It also helped us celebrate in praise together.
One of my favorite TV commercials of all time involves a man and a woman sitting in a conference room together. The man suddenly proclaims his attraction to her. While the woman is surprised, she responds that she feels the same way. But then the man turns his head toward her, revealing that he was actually talking to someone else on the phone via an earpiece—his passionate proclamation wasn’t meant for her. Oops!
“The Unity Dance” is a beautiful poem written more than a century ago by Romanian Vasile Alecsandri. The verses evoke a desire of unity for all Romanians and freedom from oppression. To this day, the call to “join hands, those with Romanian hearts, to go round the dance of brotherhood on Romania’s land” awakens a longing for unity and peace.
In the well-loved comic strip Peanuts, Lucy sets up her makeshift office and advertises that she will dispense advice for a small charge. Then Charlie Brown approaches and tells her how he feels overlooked and unimportant. When he finishes describing his sense of isolation, the unconcerned “counselor” flippantly gives him the simplistic solution to “go make some friends,” and then tries to collect her fee. Ouch.
Few of us would think we’d done anything significant after attending a prayer meeting, much less that one day a monument would be built to commemorate what we did. College student Samuel Mills would surely have felt the same way.
Getting a group of people to move in the same way and at the same time requires a lot of skill. But more than 31,000 dancers in China made it look easy. Guinness World Records says that 31,697 Chinese women set the record for mass plaza dancing in multiple locations. The participants danced for more than five minutes in six different cities.
A ministry leader once tried an interesting communication experiment. Holding giant whiteboards and some markers, he engaged passersby on his city’s streets. On one whiteboard, people were asked to write what they wanted to tell the church. The messages weren’t very kind. On the other board, people were asked to write, “What do you want to say to Jesus?” To Him they wrote surprisingly tender messages such as, “I miss you,” “I’m sorry,” and “I love you.”
The Institute of International Education revealed that more than one million international students studied in US universities and colleges during the 2015-16 academic year. As a former international student myself, I know how difficult it is to enter a different culture, to learn to communicate in another language, and to experience culture shock and homesickness. I also know how wonderful it feels to be welcomed and loved by believers in Jesus from a local community.