Earlier this year, in April, when I first arrived in Brazil, I was faced with an unusual dilemma, of sorts. I was looking for a church. Not just a church to attend some Sunday, but a church that I could really commit to and become a part of during my (originally planned) 6-plus months in the country. I was in the hunt for a temporary second home church, more or less, in the city where I was temporarily seeking to make my second home. That is all nice and good, except that I didn’t really speak Portuguese, which made this task much more difficult.
To be fair, I can speak Portuguese, to some degree. I can joke around with friends, talk soccer and girls, and make basic arrangements by telephone. Just don’t ask me to translate a sermon on Sunday morning. Ah yes, a sermon. That central piece of a Sunday service on which, we would assume, any church choosing would be based. But there was my dilemma. I was going to have to make my choice based almost entirely on what we usually consider to be secondary criteria.
So, how does someone choose a church in this situation? Well, as with all searches, Google is not a bad place to start. A quick search gave me an impossibly long list of every kind of “church” possible, from tourist attraction Catholic cathedrals to Charismatic holes in the wall. Brazil doesn’t have the same “mainline”/bible-believing divide found in the United States, meaning that I couldn’t use the same process of elimination based on denomination or church name. Apart from one specific mega-denomination which I knew to be a mouthpiece for the prosperity gospel, just about every church was fair game. I was concerned that my quest for a church might last until the day I left the country! But Sunday was coming and I had to go somewhere. It was time to get off Google, pound some pavement and plop down in some pews.
My first attempt was the evening service at a Presbyterian church in Copacabana, Rio’s most famous beach side neighborhood. The church met in a beautiful older building, rare for a non-Catholic church in a country whose protestant history mostly goes back only a generation or two. The building could seat at least a couple hundred, but it was mostly empty. Those that were there seemed mostly older and they were scattered, in 1s and 2s, throughout the cavernous sanctuary. This brings up an important cultural note. A visitor could walk into a perfectly healthy church in the U.S. or northern Europe and find people evenly spaced throughout the room. These are cold-climate cultures where “body bubbles” are large, and people place a high value on personal space. It’s not that they don’t like each other, they just need a lot of elbow room to feel like they can breathe. This is not as much the case in Brazil and many other warm climate cultures, where a sense of community is reflected in smaller personal spaces and more physical contact. Knowing this, one quick look around told me that something was off. The worship service began. The music was neither traditional nor contemporary, instead seeming to come from that musical no-man’s land in between the two. It felt dated and lacking in power. The preacher emerged, dressed, surprisingly, in a traditional white robe and stole. I did my best to follow the message, from Psalm 11, where the wicked “bend their bows” against the righteous and then have “fiery coals and burning sulfur” rained on them. Beyond that, my limited Portuguese left me scratching my head. I couldn’t tell if we were supposed to be fleeing for the hills or assembling a war council, but either way, the congregation didn’t look like it was in any condition to be charging anywhere, least of all the gates of hell. By this point, I had the disappointing feeling instead that most in attendance were just going through motions. After the service concluded, I hung around outside, watching as people dispersed into the city. Within 15 minutes, the church was empty, gates locked, congregation gone. This was not a healthy church. I did give it a second chance at the following week’s morning service. There were more people, but the atmosphere was the same. It was time to look somewhere else.
By the time the next Sunday came around, my Rio experience was beginning a downward spiral, and I was feeling my need for a good church. I decided to try a smaller Baptist church a 20 minute walk up the hill from my hostel, and arrived early, to find a surprising number of teenagers milling around. They had just wrapped up their evening Sunday school class, I was told; the service would begin soon. The age range diversified as more people came in, but the congregation still skewed young. I noticed even that every member of the worship team was younger than me. During the first song, people got up, moved around and greeted each other. In true Brazilian fashion, one of the girls came up and gave me a great big bear hug. It is not uncommon to get big hugs from complete strangers in Brazilian churches. Worship was loud and the singing sincere. The message came and went; once again, I was quickly left behind. When the service was over, though, many came up to find out who I was, what I was doing there, and to try out their English phrases as well. After 15 minutes, instead of the church being empty, it seemed no one had left. We all did leave, eventually, but I was back the next week. And the next. And every Sunday afterwards for the rest of my time in Rio. I went to the Friday night small group meetings in their homes; I went to birthday parties. I visited the Bible college some of them attended, and taught English at the evening classes they sponsored. Even after two months, I still couldn’t fully understand the messages, but I could see that this was a healthy church, and I was really happy to be a part of it.
I would never say that the sermon is not important. The preaching of the Word is the defining and most integral part of any church. But for those few weeks I had the chance to see church through a different set of eyes and ears. Instead of analyzing how the Gospel was preached, I was able, forced even, to evaluate instead how the Gospel was lived out in that community of Christians. The Gospel doesn’t just impact what the pastor preaches; it affects everything. So while I couldn’t dissect the theological nuances of the sermons, I could see from experience that this was a group of people who loved the Lord and each other, and who welcomed me when I came looking for Christian fellowship.
To borrow from Philippians chapter 2, Rio is a corrupt and twisted city. I loved it there and believe that I was meant to be there for that time, but it was not a “safe” place for me. I needed that church, and I’m thankful to have found it so quickly. The choice to cut short my stay and begin my journey home was a very difficult one. That said, I am also thankful for the immediate family and church family I can return to. So now, as I see my church across the backyard, hillsides changing color behind it, I consider my experience in Brazil, and I have to wonder. If a new person stumbled into our church, what would they see? What if their English wasn’t good enough to fully understand the sermon, or if they were a new believer still learning how to discern a solid biblical message from a shaky one? What if they were young and from a faraway country, adventurous but lonely, looking for refuge from a corrupt and twisted city and running scared from their own corrupt and twisted heart? Would they still be able to see Christ in our music, in our worship, and in how we relate to them and to one another? Would they see Christ’s presence in us? Would they see it in me? Is it something they would want to stay and be a part of? I hope and pray that their answer is yes.
by Ian Bridgman