In our home church, we worship in a beautiful sanctuary. The natural sunlight streaming through the windows, the handsome wooden pews, the terrific sightlines from all sections… what a blessing from God! But worship can happen anywhere and our Biblical mandate to assemble ourselves together for corporate worship, edification, and instruction need not take place in a palace or even in a complex like ours that comes with a family life center, a fellowship hall, a parking deck, and a shiny steeple.
On Sunday, just like at home, we worshipped for two services at the New Life Church in Kiev, Ukraine. This congregation does not meet in one of Kiev’s gorgeous centuries old, festively colored, gold domed churches. Instead the parishioners gather in a gigantic lecture hall four floors up in a rather nondescript university building that looks like a poster child for Soviet-era architecture. In fact, when we arrived about 45 minutes before the start of the first service, a few members hastily scurried about the stage, transforming it into a place of worship – hanging colorful banners from the stage rafters, ironing tablecloths to drape two tables where the elements of communion were to be placed, setting up musical instruments and sound equipment, lighting candles, and, of course, moving in risers for the Mount Paran choir! This was a labor of love on their part.
Once service started, we were met with warm hearts and abiding smiles. As with our other worship experiences, the congregation reacted happily when we sang in Russian and joined in, when they could, during our English numbers.
The service’s blueprint resembled a service at home – praise and worship songs, prayers, and preaching. But they did not stop there. Before the pastor ever came to the pulpit, the minister of music invited anyone who needed prayer or had a special burden to come down to the altar (the stage’s edge), and when they did, Spirit-filled saints followed right behind them to pray, one-on-one, with their brothers and sisters. And the audience did not treat this as a spectator sport; they raised their hands and prayed likewise, bearing each other’s burdens in intercession to God.
And then, at the tail end of the service, the pastor entered announcement phase. Granted, we could not understand much of what was being communicated to the congregants. However, at one point, they started reading names, and people popped up from their auditorium chairs and ran down to the front just as if they had been called to Contestant’s Row on The Price is Right. These were people who were to celebrate their birthday this coming week. The church presented them with a gift, but then they did something that we all found extremely special. The whole crowd stretched hands to these eight or ten people (in each service) and prayed for them. What a wonderful gift.
When the last “Ahhhh-meeeen!” had been shouted, the choir closed the service in song. What the pastor – and the congregation – really wanted to hear was traditional Southern gospel music. In fact, at the conclusion of the second service, the pastor told his flock that we were about to sing “gospel music,” the only words in English he uttered in his benedictory remarks and a phrase he uttered three times!
(Now the congregation had already song a standard old gospel chorus, Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus, as communion was offered. To hear such a beautiful song sung in Russian as we received the elements brought tears to many of our eyes.)
We started singing In the House of the Lord, an upbeat gospel adaptation of the 23rd Psalm, and the crowd popped up and clapped with extraordinary enthusiasm. We followed it with When the Saints Go Marching In, and I believe we could have just marched right on to Glory arm-in-arm with our Ukrainian brothers and sisters.
Even though we sing – and we love – all sorts of music, the message of old-time gospel remains timeless.
Turn your eyes upon Jesus. Look full in His wonderful face. And the things of earth will grow strangely dim… in the light of His glory and grace.