After living my entire life in Alabama, the buckle of America’s Bible Belt, I set out to explore Christian culture around the world. Over the course of two years, I visited 13 countries and spent time with believers from Beijing to Rio and wrote about the experience in my book Jesus Without Borders.
1. All political leanings are represented.
In a typical Bible Belt church it’s easier to find someone who hates college football than it is to find a socialist, but I encountered many left-leaning Christians throughout my travels. From the Labour Party believers in the United Kingdom to the Japanese Christians who kept asking me why the American church wasn’t fighting for stricter gun control laws. I didn’t have the heart to tell them that back home we’d be more likely to have a “Bring your gun to church day.”
2. Spreading the Gospel is easier for some.
I spent time Down Under with a group of Korean Australians who told me their church has more success reaching the Aboriginal population than white Australians because the latter introduced smallpox to the Aborigines and forcibly removed around 50,000 Aboriginal children from their families. Similarly, some Chinese believers I spoke with believe they can bring the Gospel to the Middle East in a way mistrusted westerners never could.
3. Being the majority isn’t always better.
I visited many countries where “Christian” is just a box checked on surveys, a part of someone’s heritage, not a faith they are trying to live daily. This is a pitfall of comfortable, majority Christianity — and something believers around the world told me they think America will struggle with in the coming decades.
But I also visited places where Christians make up an underwhelming minority, and while before I would have viewed the church there as somehow failing, I came away encouraged by these small, vibrant pockets of the faithful showing the love of Christ to each other and their communities. Minority Christianity isn’t easy, but who ever said this was supposed to be easy?
4. You can’t assume anything.
Before I went to China I imagined the churches there always meeting in secret, believers constantly worried about the secret police coming to imprison them for owning a Bible. Yes, there is a booming underground church in China, but from what I saw, the above ground church isn’t fairing so bad either.
The one I attended, Haidian Christian Church in Beijing, has five packed Sunday services (one in English), plus an overflow room where worshipers can watch the service via closed circuit television. Haidian Church is state sponsored, part of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement (something you should read about on your own time). This leads some to conclude the Chinese government waters down the message, but we sang “Amazing Grace” and “How Great Thou Art,” and the sermon was as Gospel-centered as anything you’d hear back home.
5. No really, you can’t assume anything.
If you’re from the United States, people assume you are Christian, and this isn’t always a good thing. In Turkey I was told that most Turks think Christians are promiscuous because European and American men and women on Mediterranean cruises hook up with locals at their ports of call.
I know we like to say America is a “Christian Nation,” but there is some danger in making an entire nation ambassadors for Christ.
6. Not all churches are as casual as in America.
Most churches in America these days are quite casual, but that isn’t the case everywhere around the world. Don’t ask how I know, but here’s a tip for men: if you find yourself waiting on a Russian Orthodox service to begin and you’re sitting on an out-of-the-way pew in a dark corner of the cathedral, do not cross your legs. If you do, you’ll find yourself being scolded by a very agitated Russian Orthodox priest who doesn’t understand the English phrase “I’m very sorry.”
7. Not everyone blends God and country.
I grew up with, and am quite accustomed to, a certain amount of patriotism in the church, but others found the marriage of God and country they see in the American church a little off-putting. A pastor in Brazil told me, “There would never be a flag ceremony or singing of the National Anthem in Brazil.”
When I did visit countries that blur the line between God and country, like walking under a giant Chinese flag into Haidian Church, or singing “God Save the Queen” at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, I caught a glimpse of how strange a foreigner might find a typical Bible Belt Fourth of July service.
8 We’d all benefit from having kept the hymnals.
Local culture plays a part in shaping Christian culture around the world, however some things are universal. I noticed throughout my travels, from India to Israel, whenever a worship service PowerPoint slide messed up, every member of the congregation would turn and look at the poor soul frantically clicking on his laptop.
9. American trends impact the church around the world.
I was amazed at how familiar many of the services I attended around the world felt. The Chris Tomlin songs might have been in Russian, and the Jesus Culture songs might have been in Portuguese, but everything from the video screens to the lighting to the sermon felt familiar.
A Russian friend told me when he visits churches in the United States it’s like traveling to the future, because he knows what he sees will make it to Russia in a few years. A Brazilian pastor echoed this, saying, “We imitate American culture without much filter, and that goes for Christians as well, so practice, ideas, and theology, good and bad, are assimilated without much reflection. Every trend in the American Church will soon find its way to Brazil.”
10. We all have the same Savior.
At times the church feels so scattered. There are countless denominations, many claiming a monopoly on the true Gospel. Traveling the world and observing just how different we Christians are could have left me jaded, but instead, after spending a couple years getting to know believers around the world, I’ve never felt more connected to the global family of faith.
Ours is an ancient and incredibly diverse faith, and if you’ve only experienced one little corner of it, you’re missing so much. Traveling the world and worshiping the same Savior with believers gave me a broader perspective of Christianity, and I believe it continues to change me for the better.
The opinions expressed in this piece belong to the author.
Lead image courtesy of Shutterstock. All others courtesy of the author.