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Reformed Churches Worldwide: A common heritage

The heart of Christian worship remains the same, whether you worship in Ghana, Mexico, China, or Japan, according to worship music expert Emily Brink. A feature story exploring the reformed church around the world.

Worshipers in Ghana leave their pews, row by row, and dance single file up the aisles to drop their offerings in large woven baskets. The electricity's not working-again-so 600 Nigerians in Tivland sit as quietly as possible to hear the pastor read the Bible by flashlight and preach the sermon.

People sing the same Genevan Psalter tunes beloved for centuries in Europe and North America, but their words are Japanese. After a benediction by a woman pastor, Chinese congregants soak up the peace of a choral three-fold Amen and then politely squeeze out of the packed sanctuary.

Emily Brink has had all these experiences within the last year. As senior research fellow at the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and editor of Reformed Worship, she travels a lot.

While meeting and worshiping with Christians in Ghana, Nigeria, Japan, and China, Brink of course noticed differences in wealth, opportunity, dress, diet, and time use.

"But I worshiped mainly with people who stand in the Reformed tradition, so I noticed more similarities than differences," she says.

Reformed churches on every continent

There are communities around the world where people mistakenly stereotype most Reformed Christians as Dutch or Hungarian.or most Presbyterian Christians as Scottish or Korean.

But broadly speaking, the Reformed branch of Christianity includes all churches with roots in the 16th-century Reformation led by John Calvin, John Knox, Ulrich Zwingli, and others, as well as churches that trace their heritage back to medieval Reformers such as Jan Hus and Peter Valdes (Waldo).

For example, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches (WARC) connects more than 75 million Christians from Congregational, Presbyterian, Reformed, and United churches in more than 100 countries. Emily Brink visited Ghana for the WARC general council, which meets every seven years.

Some WARC members, such as the Christian Reformed Church in North America and the Reformed Church in Japan, also belong to the smaller Reformed Ecumenical Council, which will meet next summer in Utrecht, the Netherlands.

In Emily Brink's recent visits, she experienced many of the Reformed distinctives described in Christian Worship in Reformed Churches Past and Present, edited by Lukas Vischer.

The Word remains central

In Ghana, Brink attended Presbyterian Church of Ghana (PCG) services in two villages. Whether the service was in English or a local language, both congregations followed the Revised Common Lectionary.

"The order of worship was similar, too. There appears to be great respect for the classic Christian and Reformed pattern of worship. I experienced the same pattern at a Christian Reformed Church of Nigeria service in Abuja, where I even received printed copies of the whole sermon, not just the bulletin.

"In all the churches I visited, preaching is central," Brink says. At Gang Wa Shi Christian Church in Beijing, Brinks recalls a sermon on Jesus' command to "feed my sheep" (John 21:15-29) as "very scriptural and pastoral."

Because it's important to hear God's word through preaching and the Bible, Reformed Christians find ways to steep their youth in scripture. The Church of Christ in the Sudan among the Tiv (NKST) uses drumming and drama to help kids up to age 12 memorize scripture and the Westminster Shorter Catechism. Dressed all in white, they recite during church services.

When Brink spent six days with Joseph and Christie Akpem in Mkar, Nigeria, she noticed they have family devotions at dawn and dusk.

"The Akpems have taken in six children from ages 7 to 18. They begin family devotions with a triple clap-clap-rest pattern and keep it up while singing several songs, even songs in duple time! Then Joseph or Christie asks, 'Who would like to preach?' Someone volunteers to read a few verses and comment on them. Others add their interpretation.

"Joseph or Christie asks, 'Who would like to pray?' Two or three offer to pray, and they just pour out their hearts to God. We'd all end together with The Lord's Prayer. It was humbling to be included so simply and warmly in their family circle," Brink says.

Other Nigerians have told her that they grew up with this pattern and follow it with their own children.

World and life perspective

People in the Reformed branch of Christianity often remind each other that Christ is Lord of all of life. They gather to praise God, intercede for each other and the world, and be renewed in the Word and sacraments of baptism and the Lord's Supper. Worshipers are sent from church to share "the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit."

How this world and life perspective plays out depends on a church's national context. In Ghana, major denominations such as the PCG and Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Ghana (EPC) have established bookstores, schools, seminaries, agricultural stations, clinics, and hospitals. Brink says the PCG provides 9 percent of the healthcare in Ghana.

In Nigeria, too, Reformed churches sponsor hospitals, agricultural training centers, universities, and seminaries. However, Brink says that although Nigeria is rich in oil, fertile soil, and rivers full of fish, life is difficult. Government corruption, poor leadership, civil conflict, and AIDS dog the economy.

"Joseph Akpem earned his doctorate at Fuller Theological Seminary and now teaches philosophy and religion at Benue State University. Of eight people in his department, only the chair has a computer-and it works only when there's electricity. The university library has only about 100 books about religion or philosophy. A hundred or more students cram into classrooms, with five or six students sharing a single textbook," Brink says.

In wealthy, technologically advanced Japan, Christians account for less than two percent of the population. Reformed seminaries and churches reach out to Buddhists and Shintoists by offering Bach organ and choral concerts or free English lessons.  

Though Reformed and Presbyterian denominations helped bring Christianity to China, the country now has only two categories of churches-Three Self (self government, self support, and self propagation) registered churches and (illegal) house churches.

Gang Wa Shi Christian Church is one of a handful of registered churches in Beijing, home to 11 million people. "I felt very at home at Gang Wa Shi. It's openly and warm-heartedly evangelical, connected to the society, open to the world, and obviously interested in growing in their understanding of worship," Brink says. Check out the article on Gang Wa Shi Christian Church in Reformed Worship 73 for more information.

Sharing all of life with God through song

Music is at least as important in the Reformed churches Emily Brink visited as it among Reformed churches in North America. A great many African Christians belong to choirs that meet two or three nights a week. Brink attended an all-day Nigerian wedding where a women's choir sang for three hours.

Congregational and choral music in Ghana, Nigeria, China, and Japan often reflects the influence of American and European missionaries. Even when people near her were singing in another language, Brink says she experienced oneness in Christ while singing "Praise to the Lord, the Almighty" in China and "O God, Our Help in Ages Past" in Ghana.

And an English service she attended in Abuja, Nigeria's capital, reminded her of contemporary Christian Reformed worship services in North America, complete with a plugged-in praise band and miked singers. The NKST service used more traditional Tiv music.

But Brink also enjoys hearing and encouraging indigenous music or sharing one culture's music with another. Ghana and Nigeria already send their songs to churches around the world, such as the powerful "Kyrie."

"It's striking how the Reformed Church in Japan (RCJ) is reaching back in history to the Genevan Psalms," she says. All 150 Genevan Psalms had been translated into Japanese by spring 2004, when she and Calvin College music professor Calvin Stapert lectured at an annual RCJ church music workshop.

"I'd brought my English-language Psalter Hymnal. Singing along on Genevan Psalm 77, 'I cried out to God to help me,' reminded me of accounts of early Reformed churches in New York, where recent immigrants sang in French, German, Dutch, and English simultaneously, unified by these same melodies," she says.

She and Stapert sang newer songs from around the world with the RCJ pastors and church musicians, such as "Take, O Take Me as I Am," from the Iona Community; an African-American version of Psalm 116, "I Love the Lord"; and "Ososo," a Korean prayer for unity. They also sang "Don'na Tokidemo," written by a young Japanese girl before she died of cancer. This song was chosen both for Sing! A New Creation and Sanbika/Hymnal 21, a new Japanese songbook.

In China, Brink lectured on worship and music at Gang Wa Shi church and at a secret gathering of house church leaders. "In Beijing, I was impressed by how many English and American hymns brought by missionaries a century ago are still sung, rather than Chinese hymns. But many new ones are being written. Some recent popular Christian Chinese songs are very experiential," she says.

Meeting face to face with Chinese Christians gave Brink an amazing chance to exchange hymnals, hear unpublished indigenous songs, and brainstorm.

"Publishing new hymns that have been composed but not written down, translating them into English so churches around the world could sing them, analyzing worship practices and encouraging new songs so we can learn from each much can be done!" she says.

Lessons for North Americans

Threading together common themes in her visits with Reformed Christians in such different settings, Brink says three things stand out.

"The hospitality of the Christians I met shines out in each nation I visited. There's such an emphasis on relationships, especially in Africa. We in North America are often too busy to make room, to show hospitality in the deep, rich way I experienced.

"The two main Presbyterian churches in Ghana voluntarily fed-without charge-all the WARC delegates this summer. That's three meals a day for two weeks for more than 800 people," she says.

When Brink stayed with the Akpems in Mkar, Nigeria, many neighbors came, some before 7 a.m., to greet her. A large church moved its service up one hour so there would be time to introduce her, let her bring greetings from the U.S., and receive gifts and greetings to bring back to her church-all before she had to leave for the airport. In China too, fellowship was warm. One woman prepared a delicious meal for eight in a closet-sized kitchen. Guests ate sitting on book cartons in her small living room, which doubled as a Christian bookstore office.

Visiting other countries showed Brink that a classically Reformed pattern of worship has plenty of room for joy, especially where worshipers feel free to drum, dance, and use their bodies to praise God.

The churches in Ghana use dance for a praise time at the beginning of worship and to bring their offerings forward. During the WARC general council, a mass service drew thousands of delegates and local Presbyterians to Independence Square in Accra.

"Brass bands and drum ensembles played the prelude. Several choirs processed in beautiful movements for the opening hymn. One choir sang the introit. After the call to worship and another hymn, it was time for praise-and the whole crowd literally came out of their seats into the large open area between the platform and seating.

"Everyone, old and young, from all over the world, was dancing. They were inspired by infectious joy. I was sitting by an elderly Korean pastor, and he started dancing, too!" Brink says.

In every country, she also noticed a prayer habit that North American Christians might consider. In Japan, Ghana, and Nigeria, everyone in the congregation says Amen after every prayer. In China, worshipers say Amen after every sentence of every prayer.

"The person saying the prayer does not say Amen. The people do. They say it to give their assent to the prayers. It's very biblical and Reformed, because it shows that we are all one body praying together, not simply listening to one person praying," Brink says.

Learn More

View a Slideshow of Emily Brink's trip to Ghana as an observer at the World Alliance of Reformed Churches.

Join Emily Brink for a class on Reformed worship worldwide, to be held July 7-26, 2005, in the Netherlands.

Check out these worship resources on Africa, Japan, and Asia. Find Reformed worship materials in many languages.

Consider starting a book club, discussion group, or adult education series to study (or excerpt highlights from) books on Christianity in other countries. You might also buy one of these books for your church library and write a review for the church newsletter. Good novels and memoirs include Colors of the Mountain, by Da Chen, Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China, by Jung Chang, Rickshaw, by Lao She, all about China; Silence, by Shusaku Endo, about Japan; Kwabena: An African Boy's Journey of Faith, by David Mensah, from Ghana; Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe, Purple Hibiscus, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, set in Nigeria.

Excellent nonfiction books include Christian Worship in Reformed Churches Past and Present, edited by Lukas Vischer, The Cross-Cultural Process in Christian History, by Andrew F. Walls, and My Only Comfort: Death, Deliverance, and Discipleship in the Music of Bach, by Calvin R. Stapert.

Read devotionals written by Presbyterian women in the U.S. and Africa after they participated in a cross-cultural exchange. Brainstorm ways to do a cross-cultural exchange within your congregation, city, denomination, or with a local college or seminary.

Consider building a partnership with a congregation in another country, either in connection with a missionary you support, or perhaps through contacts in business, education, or with family members who live in other countries.

Start a Discussion

  • What connections can you capitalize on to learn more about similarities and differences between worship in your church and in local or international congregations within your denomination?
  • Your church probably supports missionaries. When have you last asked them to describe worship in their congregations? What easy practices might you adopt from their examples?
  • Reformed churches in Nigeria use drumming to help youngsters memorize catechism concepts. Rev. Yutaka Maeda has developed a series of catechism readings geared to different ages, starting with one a pregnant woman can read aloud to the baby in her womb. Does your church hold to any creeds or catechisms? If emphasis on catechism instruction has changed in recent decades, what are the pros and cons of this change?
  • Emily Brink experienced amazing hospitality in her travels, often from people with relatively few economic resources. What are your congregation's goals and practices for showing hospitality?

Share Your Wisdom

What is the best way you've found to help your congregation become more aware of distinctive elements of your worship heritage?

  • Have you built a relationship with another congregation in which you aim to learn from and with them, not just "minister to" them?
  • Have you found an easy way to identify what's distinct about your worship tradition, refine this understanding with other congregations in your denomination, and teach it to your children?
  • Have you learned specific things about what hospitality means in certain cultures-and then used this knowledge to learn more from and with another ethnic group in your community?