he Chinese language worship service at Community Church of Columbus hardly seems foreign. No more than two minutes into a recent gathering, an opening prayer ends with a fairly vocal chorus of, “Amen.”

Moreover, a closing song is filled with more than an hosanna or two.

The mild blending of East meeting West actually serves as a direct way to feed the Christian faith of about 40 Chinese believers each Sunday — a group that just welcomed its first, full-time Chinese minister little more than a month ago.

Ex-atheist Shihan Li, the church’s director of Chinese ministry, became a Christian only five years ago at a Baptist church in South Dakota, where he was pursuing a college master’s degree in transportation and highway engineering.

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That was until he felt someone else engineering something else altogether.

“You don’t always know God’s plans,” he said of his abrupt life change that landed him in seminary training.

Li has become perhaps the most visible Asian Christian leader in an area where several churches in the past 20 years have nurtured the spiritual hunger of people from mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and elsewhere.

In that time, Bartholomew County’s Asian population has grown rapidly with the help of international corporations such as Cummins, Inc.

From 2011 to 2012 alone, the county’s Asian population increased 16.2 percent, faster than all but four Indiana counties, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Currently, the county population is 5 percent Asian, according to the bureau’s figures.

Li mentioned that the Chinese people coming to the United States often pack one big inaccurate idea.

“They think of Christianity as a Western religion,” he said. “They don’t always fully realize that Jesus is not American.”

Most of those attending the Chinese services, launched nine years ago at the church, also attend the regular English services at Community Church of Columbus. Chinese native Leo Tian is among those churchgoers.

When he first arrived in the United States 17 years ago, he knew almost no English. He said he believes a service similar to the current one would have helped him a great deal.

“Your mother tongue always is the most powerful way both to deliver and to understand the gospel message,” Tian said.

He added that he loves the sermons of the Rev. Chuck Coleman, longtime pastor at the church. But his native language helps him understand spiritual illustrations and nuances more than anything.

Columbus’ Stan Chen can relate.

“My English will never be as good as my Chinese,” Chen said.

Much of the Chinese Christian ministry locally began at Columbus’ Parkside Baptist Church in the mid-1990s, according to the Rev. William Bailey, who is the pastor. Parkside hosted an all-Chinese language worship service for several years — until it could no longer find a part-time leader from Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, to lead it.

Other challenges surfaced amid Parkside’s successful ministry run. Leaders from the seminary generally were in their 20s. So, decision-making could be tough because older members of the worship group sometimes had more authority than the young leader, due to traditional Chinese culture, Bailey said.

“They still put so much emphasis on respecting your elders,” Bailey said.

Yet, other elements of Chinese culture bow to a desire for Christian unity, according to the faithful. Columbus’ Lynn Zhao acknowledged that, in China, some provinces are vastly different, and can tend to keep groups of people separated.

“In China,” she said, “some of us might not ever speak to each other. But, in here, we are so close. Other (English-speaking) people can shop for a church here if they want to. But this is all we have.”

Li definitely wants to see the ministry grow. But he said he has learned that he cannot always imagine God’s plans, or what specifically those plans might entail. Zhao said her vision of the future is simple.

“We definitely want to increase our visibility so people know we are here,” Zhao said. “And we hope people see a difference in us — because of the love of Jesus.”

A look at local Chinese ministry

Chinese worship service times:

  • Tuesday Bible study at various times — St. Paul Lutheran Church 6045 E. State St., three miles south of Columbus, or other locations. Information on times and location: 812-376-6504 or stpaulcolumbus.org.
  • 10:30 a.m. Sunday — Community Church of Columbus Room 408, 3850 N. Marr Road. Information: 812-376-9478 or cccolumbus.org.
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Brian Blair is a reporter for The Republic. He can be reached at bblair@therepublic.com or 812-379-5672.