Encouraged by the Strangeness of the Gospel: A Story of Making Space in Church Small Groups
“Nathan, can you tell me, what does it mean: ‘You are a priest forever, after the order of Melchizedek?’” This was not the conversation I expected to be having in my third meeting with Qing, a visiting scholar from a leading Chinese university. To be honest, it’s not the conversation I would expect to be having in my third meeting with anyone. So as I looked at him and thought about how to answer his question, I couldn’t help wonder how on earth we had gotten there.
Qing and I had hit it off pretty quickly when we first connected as language partners. This was primarily due to his friendly and engaging personality, though it also helped that we shared a background in economics, and could dive right into the details of the project he was working on at Harvard Business School. On top of that, his English was already excellent, so we had no trouble communicating; he had signed up for the language partner program primarily to improve his fluency in conversational English and to learn more about American culture. “Do you know any other places I could go,” he asked me, “to spend more time with Americans and have conversations with them?”
I can be a bit dense when it comes to opportunities to share my faith with friends or invite them to church, but even I could spot this one. “Well,” I answered, “my wife and I host a community group in our house every week – a few folks from our church come over to have dinner, talk about the Bible and pray for each other. We’d love to have you join us.” Somewhat to my surprise, his eyes lit up as he accepted.
Welcoming Qing into the group was a delight. The next week he arrived at my house with a big smile and a small gift. I introduced him to my wife and children, and to the other members of the group, and over the next few months we all enjoyed getting to know each other and learning about our different cultures. Qing introduced us to the glories of Chinese food prepared in a pressure cooker and we introduced him to apple picking and cider donuts.
Food and friendship were the easy parts. More challenging was making the group discussion accessible to Qing. There was no question that he was interested in listening to our discussion of the Bible; one of his assumptions was that in order to understand American culture, he needed to understand Christianity. What quickly became evident was that Qing had absolutely no experience or knowledge of Christianity, the Bible, or the church. The fact that we were working through a study in the book of Hebrews – a challenging book even for life-long Christians – presented a special challenge, but also an opportunity.
I soon realized that having Qing in our group pushed me to think about how every verse I read, every discussion question I prepared, and every comment that I or anyone else in the group made would come across to someone encountering Jesus for the first time. Qing was often quiet during the group discussion itself; he was afraid that asking too many questions would be perceived as impolite, even when I reassured him that no one would take it that way. But in our one-on-one language partner meetings, he consistently came with a list of questions that probed the basics of Christianity and the essence of the gospel. What does it mean to say that this man, Jesus, is God’s son? What does Jesus’ death on a cross have to do with us breaking God’s laws? What does a priest do – and just who is this Melchizedek?
Qing was entirely unfamiliar with Christianity, but he was brilliant when it came to unpacking the logic of the gospel – occasionally working his way to some humorous mistakes that actually make a lot of sense when you think about how someone would process the Bible on a first reading. For instance, Qing worried that no one would respect or obey a god who simply forgave sins. But one afternoon over coffee, he told me that he had figured it out! For Christians, he reasoned, there are essentially two different gods: the Father, who gives the law and punishes those who break it, and Jesus, who offers forgiveness by dying in our place. That way, Christians can both fear the Father as a holy judge and be grateful to Jesus as a loving savior.
I told Qing that that wasn’t quite right, and explained the significance of the Christian belief that God the Father and Jesus the Son are not two different gods, and how the holiness and love, the justice and mercy that they share in common are perfected in God’s plan of salvation for the world that he so loves. (I also told him that I was extremely impressed that, all on his own and in a matter of weeks from his first encounter with the Bible, he had more or less replicated the early Christian heresy known as Marcionism!) Like Melchizedek, the doctrine of the Trinity wasn’t something I expected to be discussing so early in my friendship with Qing, but his curiosity and intelligence quickly drew our conversations to the essential depths of the gospel.
Having Qing in our community group was more than a lot of fun, and more than a good way to share our faith with someone who had never considered Jesus, though of course it was both of those. Qing’s presence in the group brought the riches of the basics of the gospel to light in a way that newcomers could understand, but which was also relevant and nourishing to those of us who have called ourselves Christians for a long time. We had to grapple afresh with the holiness of God and the seriousness of sin, and so could receive, as if for the first time, the good news of Jesus’ atoning sacrifice on our behalf, the forgiveness of sins, and the power of the Holy Spirit in raising him from the dead, now at work in us as well.
Here’s the main thing I learned about welcoming an international student, with little to no understanding of Christianity, into our community group: changing our discussions to make them more accessible for Qing made them richer and more rewarding for us at the same time. Fighting the temptation to lapse into Christian jargon prompted us to confront the strangeness of the gospel, to be challenged and encouraged by it. If anything, the experience has encouraged me to consider how I can continue leading our group in a way which is always more open and intelligible to nonbelievers – not only for their benefit, but for ours too.
After nine months in our group, Qing returned to his university in China. As far as I know, he didn’t convert to Christianity in his time here, and I think his interest in Christianity remained as much academic as it was personal. He was always very concerned that China, as it transitions toward a more market-oriented society, lacks any moral basis on which to build one, and he felt sure that Christianity was a key component of America’s success with capitalism. (He even took an undergrad course at Harvard on the relationship between religion and American economic institutions, and invited me to join him for several sessions, giving us plenty to talk about!)
But I’m hopeful that what Qing saw in our community group suggested to him that our faith is much more than an ingredient in a recipe for a well-functioning economy. He saw our small group share a meal every week, and heard how we knew one another’s lives and cared for each other. He heard us pray every week, for God’s kingdom, for our city, and for one another. And every week he heard clearly the gospel of grace, with its message of hope for sinners, strength for the weak, and a warm welcome for the stranger. I’m immensely thankful for the time he spent in our church, and count it a great privilege that we can remember him in our prayers.
Nathan Barczi is on staff with Christ the King Presbyterian Church in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He holds an MA in Systematic and Philosophical Theology and is working towards a PhD from the University of Nottingham.