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The Church in the Basement

A Letter from John McCall, serving in Taiwan

May, 2019

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Dear Friends,

I left my home on the seminary campus early Sunday morning to walk through heavy rain down the mountain road to the closest bus stop. Water was running down the sidewalk like a creek. The buses come at non-regular times, so I always have to leave early to make sure that I get to my destination on time. The bus came fairly quickly, and it dropped me off near the subway stop. I then hopped on the subway and easily got a seat that early on a Sunday morning. I got to my destination earlier than I needed to, so I found a coffee shop where I went over my sermon for the morning. Taiwan used to be a tea culture, but coffee is now king. The convenience stores sell a pretty good cup of freshly brewed coffee for about $1.50 (USD), so folks here love their coffee.

I then headed back to the place where the pastor of the church was to meet me. Most Sundays, I preach at what they call a Renewal Service, which both nurtures current Christians and also invites seekers to learn more about the faith. The pastor, one of my former students, led me to the Righteous and Beautiful Baptist Church located in an area south of Taipei. Six years ago, they purchased a large basement area of a high-rise and designed a very welcoming space for worship, fellowship, and education.

When we walked down the stairs to enter the church, we took off our shoes, and lots of slippers were waiting for the worshipers, including me. I then found the two teenagers who were operating the computers, so I could give them the art PowerPoint that went along with my sermon. One of the church’s young adult small groups was practicing to sing during the service. Then the worship band got up to practice.

It was an encouraging morning, for this church has lots of youth and young adults. Most of these folks are new Christians. As I watched them sing with deep feeling, I thought about how difficult it is to become a Christian in Taiwan. These young people have grown up in families who worship occasionally at the local folk religion temple. They tend to go to the temple on special days, like the beginning of the Lunar New Year or when they have a special need (beginning a new business, wanting to find a spouse to get married or have a child, or before taking a big test). The relationship between the worshiper and these folk gods is more transactional. They bring offerings for the gods, so the gods will then do what they are requesting. There is no talk of love between the gods and the worshipers.

But when they become Christians, they come to know their identity as God’s beloved children. They live each day seeking to respond to God’s love in their families, jobs, schools, and churches, and in the larger society. These first-generation Christians are on fire, and it is a joy and inspiration to be with them. For them, the old life is over, and a new life has begun.

The worship band led us in about five songs, and then we read the scripture I had chosen together. I then stood to preach. An average sermon here now is about 30 minutes. When I first arrived over 20 years ago, it was about 45 minutes. The members of the congregation were very attentive and laughed at the humorous parts of the sermon. Since I am preaching in a different church most Sundays, the different responses to preaching in each congregation always interest me.

After worship, the whole congregation divided into small groups for Bible study. Then we shared a meal together. I sat with a group of young men, five of whom were new Christians. I asked each man to tell me how he had come to believe, and one man’s story really struck me. His older sister first became a Christian, and one Christmas (which the church here uses as a wonderful way to invite people to come to their first worship service), he accompanied his sister to church. After several months, he was baptized, then his younger brother. But their mother was not happy about her children going to church, for she was an ardent temple worshiper. But her three children began to pray for her. And miraculously, she decided one day to go with her children to worship. She continued and eventually was baptized. This young man said, “Now our mother is the most energetic Christian in our family. She gets up early each morning to pray and read the Bible. She is always encouraging us to pray more and read the Bible more.”

When I hear faith stories like this, it reminds me that with God all things are possible. The pastor then shared with me that his wife is also a first-generation Christian, and that she has a special urgency about sharing the good news. He said, “She loves the Lord so much, she just has to share that love with the world.”

In a day when all over the world the church and its message seem to be less relevant to many, it was wonderful to spend a rainy day with the Baptists.

As I rode the subway that Sunday afternoon back to the neighborhood where I would catch the bus back up the mountain to the seminary, I looked at the people of all ages packed into our subway car. Most were staring at the screens on their devices. What does life mean for them? What does abundant life mean?

And I gave thanks for the church in the basement where many have come to know abundant life.

Thank you for your prayer and support, which allow me to accompany the folks of Taiwan each day.


John McCall

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