(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)
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.