A few weeks back I was sitting in a cafe in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala when a friend of mine who I hadn’t seen in two years shocked me.
She said, “It’s so good to see you Jonathan. And it looks like you’ve gained weight since I last saw you!”
The smile on my 185 pound body quickly turned into a slight scowl, and I waited for her to continue.
“You look great. You were too skinny before.” After pausing to reflect on her own body, she continued, “I wish I could put on a few pounds. I’m too skinny.”
My scowl transformed back into a smile. I burst into laughter thinking about the absurdity of her comment.
As I composed myself, I told her, “I can’t imagine this exchange happening in the United States.” And after a few minutes of explaining how people often view each other’s bodies in the United States, we each continued dinner with our enculturated views about weight and beauty challenged and expanded.
The next morning Rev. Juan Pablo Ajanel picked me up from one of the many parks in the city and we rode in his pickup truck to a Methodist Church a few miles away. As we made our way through busy streets, I didn’t know what to expect in worship that morning. After a quick Google search days before my trip, I emailed the Guatemalan Methodist Church and asked if there were any Methodist churches near the city I would be visiting. Amazed, I received a reply the same day from Rev. Ajanel offering to pick me up and take me to the nearest church the following Sunday. I’m not sure why I was amazed—I had experienced truly radical hospitality from Christian brothers and sisters on previous trips to Central America—but having a pastor who had never met me pick me up and drive me to worship was something new.
When we pulled up to the bright yellow church, La Iglesia Evangelica Nacional Metodista Peniel, children were playing in the dirt yard and the adults were inside. Rev. Ajanel and I joined the adults in Sunday Bible School who were learning about the titles given to Jesus throughout the Bible. A few minutes later, the lesson wrapped up and more adults and children found their way inside.
People in suits, jeans, and traditional Mayan clothing slowly filled the maroon plastic chairs throughout the church. Worship opened with a reading from the song of Moses in Exodus 15 and continued with a number of gospel hymns that I recognized from scorching summers spent at camp meetings in Georgia. Halfway through the service the senior pastor, Rev. German Ramirez, invited me to introduce myself from the pulpit. I bumbled through a two-minute speech in Spanish I had secretly been rehearsing in my mind in case he called me forward, and as I stepped out of the pulpit I was relieved that it went better than I expected. Rev. Ramirez continued the service by preaching on Psalm 95 and the importance of staying personally connected to God. Finally, we celebrated the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper together and exited the church to a table outside of home cooked food.
On the truck ride back, I reflected on my worshipping experience in my head like most pastors do after visiting another church. The church’s location was a little off the beaten path. Service times weren’t clearly advertised. Everyone was very gracious to me. I shared a hymnal since I didn’t bring my own like everyone else. The transitions between elements of the service were a little rough. They sang with passion. I hadn’t rehearsed my welcome with them beforehand. Who knows if anyone actually understood me. People prayed with conviction. They had no worship leader with perfect pitch. We all drank Fanta grape at the Lord’s Supper.
I found it hard to imagine this church doing well in the United States. The church environment didn’t exactly have the feel of a Starbucks like many blogs I had read suggested it should. Throughout my first year in ministry, many Methodist pastors told me that worship should be ‘polished.’ The floors of this church were polished, but that was about it. And after a quick survey, not all the drivers of a Vital Methodist congregation were present.
Yet, there was something about our time worshipping together that I couldn’t shake.
It was the same thing that I loved about worshipping with Methodist brothers and sisters in El Salvador on previous trips abroad. It was something that I had felt and seen but found difficult to put into words.
Days later, I remembered the conversation I had with my friend in the café. I remembered how she had challenged and stretched my cultural assumptions about beauty. And it was at that moment that I remembered what I loved about worshipping in that Guatemalan church.
Their worship was beautiful.
This truth had eluded me for so long because my assumptions regarding beautiful worship had been shaped in an American context. My ideas of beauty were deeply shaped by thoughts about “flow,” lighting, performance, general ambience, and professionalism. And I had to face the truth that perhaps my enculturated understanding of beautiful worship had been wrong for quite some time.
I had to face the truth that offering ourselves to God in the Spirit and in truth as a holy and living sacrifice was a much higher priority than executed excellence.
Beautiful wasn’t what I expected.