Friday, June 29, 2012

Japan Reflections Part Two: What are the roles of the local and wider churches?

Another theological theory I wanted to test in Japan was the role of the larger church in the life of the local church. I know the classic argument for the larger church: it provides a sense of unity in mission.

And, yes, that’s true. As far as it goes. But it could be that I’ve spent too much time in Alberta, but I’ve grown suspicious of centralized authority, and try to celebrate the strength of grassroots, local efforts. I often felt that some decisions made by synod office were to protect their authority rather than help enhance mission.

For example, in a previous congregation, we had a few university students attending worship, and I wanted to encourage them to step into positions of leadership. Of course, to be in leadership they, constitutionally have to be members. And they were reluctant to transfer membership from their home churches just for the few years they’d be at school.

So, I came up with an “associate membership” possibility. That way they could retain their membership at their home church, yet still serve in leadership while in school. It seemed like a win-win.

Synod office vetoed the idea. “It would screw up our numbers,” I was told. As if our numbers aren’t already screwed up. It felt like they were protecting the institution at the expense of mission. And it told the young people “your gifts are only welcome on our terms.” And even having to get permission for something for changing something as mundane we membership seemed a little heavy handed. It assumed that churches couldn’t make decisions on their own.

So, I became a little suspicious, if not somewhat hostile to centralize decision making. It’s not that I shunned synod or national offices, it’s just that I took their recommendations with a pinch of sodium. I preferred local solutions to local ministry challenges.

Then, when I received the call to St. Paul’s, knowing that it was an independent Lutheran Church with informal ties to the ELCA and LCMS, I figured it was an excellent opportunity to see if I was right, that the local church can stand on its own without institutional support or accountability. These are grown-up Christians, I figured. They should be able to chart their course - with God’s help - using the gifts and tools they’d been given.

Unfortunately, that was not the case. While the congregation has survived some pretty heavy interpersonal storms through the years, and is challenged with conflict, St. Paul’s could have weathered the gales of conflict more easily with the help of an interested third-party. Namely a synod office. And they would be stronger for it.

This is not to criticize any of the faithful members of St. Paul’s. Just the opposite. St. Paul’s is filled with wonderfully faithful Christians trying to do church with an organizational structure that has been working against them. It’s testimony to their creativity and resilience that they have lasted this long.

But the question of the role of the larger church is still ongoing. It’s certainly a hot debate topic here in Canada. Given the current ELCIC realities, I think that’s an important question for us to discuss. And we should fall into the polarized debate I often hear. “The national church is irrelevant!” vs “We need the Winnipeg office for our sense of national unity.” We need to dig deeper.

However, the question underlying all of this is: what is the church, in concrete terms, trying to accomplish? And I’m not sure we know how to answer that. And if we can’t answer that, how will we know how to organize ourselves?

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Japan Reflections Part One: Christendom

(NB: This is part one of a series of my reflections on my experience at St. Paul International Lutheran Church in Tokyo, Japan. These are just ideas I'm kicking around. I encourage discussion and debate)

Theological Theory Number One: Christians in non-Christian countries will thrive outside of a culturally accommodating setting.

Conclusion: Maybe. Maybe not.

It’s almost an article of faith among many moderate-to-liberal Christians in the west to say that the church must disestablish itself from the host culture. Most reflective Christians are sensitive to the spotty historical record Christians have when we are given political power and cultural authority.

For the uninitiated, many church folks call this marriage of cultural/political power to the Church “Christendom.”

Japan has no memory of Christendom. Which was, at first, for me, exhilarating. It felt like I was walking a tight rope without a cultural safety net. And I was DEEPLY impressed by the Japanese Christians who came to faith and remained committed to Christ and church despite Christianity being a foreign religion, not just because it was imported, but because it was so different from Japanese believed about the divine, and how Japanese lived their religious rituals (which is for a different blog post). To be a Japanese Christian is to be deeply counter-cultural in ways that westerners can’t come close to understanding.

Being Japanese and a Christian will put you at odds with family and friends, as Shinto and Buddhist rituals are embedded in daily life. Not to mention that Japanese have no sense of one “God.” They believe in “gods.” In fact, I’m told that the Japanese word for “god” is plural.

After a few months in Tokyo, I began to realize how easy it is to be Christian in the west, and how Christendom has made my ministry much more effortless in Canada than in Japan. Small things, like Christmas and Good Friday being national holidays in Canada, but not in Japan, makes getting to church easier. And I could rely on a full house in Canada. But not in Japan. In fact, to be a Christian in Japan takes effort.

It’s tempting to see all the awful things the Church has done in Jesus’ name, and why we’d want to run away from it. It’s understandable to be ashamed or embarrassed by the times when church leaders confused God’s kingdom authority with Caesar’s, and that we’d want to distance ourselves from that memory. It reasonable to want to create something new and redeeming when the Church has often behaved so badly through it’s history.

But we can’t run away from out history. It will be there whether we like it or not. Being in Japan, and having ZERO cultural props upon which to lean showed me the opportunity to invoke the positive elements of Christendom’s cultural memory, without baptizing the atrocities. We can repent of those times when we abused our authority, but we can also call people to mind the stories that are THEIR stories.

Western culture is profoundly shaped by Christianity. Art, music, language, law, economics, all have their basis in Christian history. It’s embedded in our memory. It’s who we are. So, to disestablish ourselves too quickly and cleanly will be a cultural lobotomy.

People come to church at Christmas and Easter for a reason. They want a church wedding, and it’s not by accident. They present their children for baptism even though they haven’t been to church for years because they want to connect to a memory they can’t really define. They call a pastor for a loved one’s funeral because they identify the church with presiding over eternal things.

I know that many clergy feel like the proverbial street walker when they are asked to perform pastoral duties for those who haven’t shown commitment to Christ and his church. But those are moments of evangelistic opportunity to share the story of Jesus and how he connects with their story. When else can we help people make the link between the ritual they’re asking for, and what it means for them and their lives?

In Japan, Christianity is declining the same way as it is in the west. Most of the declining numbers are a direct effect of smaller numbers of people going to church in traditionally church-going countries. If they aren’t going to church at home, why would they go to church in Japan?

Expect to find a sense of home. And that’s what the Japanese church has to offer ex-pats in the country. I recommended that St. Paul’s stay with the traditional liturgy in its future because people are drawn to a sense of the familiar. And that familiarity is a gateway to deeper faith.

Maybe that’s something that the western church can explore. How we can connect people to a deeper, more ancient story, than the one they are currently living, a story not of their own making.