Sunday, May 11, 2014

A Tale of Two Churches: Foreign Versus Indigenous

To say it was a sea of grey-heads would be a drastic overstatement. It was more like a puddle. There were eight congregants in all, plus three foreigners. Eleven people in a church that could easily hold forty or fifty. The pastor was just as old as the rest. The age gap between me and the youngest Japanese person was at least thirty years.
The church had been founded by a missionary who had preached there for many years. He held Bible classes that the congregation would attend. But, when he left, there was no one to take over. No one was really qualified. No one had gone to seminary, or even a religious educational institution. So, a banker decided to take the reins of the church. Now, some years later, the average age of the congregants was well past sixty. Every once in a while a young family would come up for a special event or just to visit, but they lived in another town and came for nostalgic reasons. All in all, the church is dying today, almost literally.
There are several reasons for this. One might be that the average age of the town is old. As Japan has grown, its younger citizens have migrated from the rural areas into big cities like Tokyo and Osaka, where jobs are plentiful and pay is higher. And with the population in active decline, young people are becoming scarcer. So, small towns are getting smaller and older.
But, there has to be another factor contributing to the age of this church. After all, these elderly people must have friends. In fact, the elderly in Japan are extremely active. There is a group of elderly woman in Tokyo who practice cheerleading. In mountainous regions like Nara, there can be seen groups of grandmothers and grandfathers wearing backpacks trudging up hiking trails. I've seen sixty and seventy year olds playing baseball, croquette, and power-walking, usually in groups. Surely, these people have friends that they can invite.
While that may be true, there's a bit of a problem. Japanese are very unwilling to change. And even that seems to be an understatement. I have worked in schools where the computers are still running Windows 98, students huddle around kerosene heaters in their classrooms, and nothing looks new or updated. It's not like they are unaware of these things. Teachers often complain about the age of the computers and the cold in the classrooms, but, you see, it's always been that way. There's no reason to change because this is what it means to work in this school. The school has its own personality, it's own struggles, and the more you struggle in Japanese society, the more admired you are, whether your struggling produces anything at all. It's called being a “gambaru-hito,” that is “someone who is making an effort.”

There's also an insistence on keeping traditions. Japan is a very traditionally minded society. For example, I once went to a temple with a couple of Japanese Christian friends. We had met them through work and had attended their church once. But, as we walked up to the temple, we stopped at a small well. They both dipped a little ladle into the water, touched it to their lips, and then washed their hands with it. They told us it was to purify themselves before going in. I was, well, more than a little confused. I wondered what they thought they needed to purify themselves from. Sin? They're Christians! Christ's blood took care of all of that. If there are any sins that this water washed away that Christ's did not or could not, then can we even call them sins?

I now realize why they did that; it was tradition.

Japanese people have this mindset that being Japanese means you do certain things. During New Year's, Japanese who call themselves atheists go to temple to pray. Very scientifically minded Japanese who believe in a mechanicalistic universe run around the house dressed as a goblin being chased by his bean-throwing children because it wards away bad luck. Obon is a time when the spirits return and families gather to send lit lamps down rivers to the sea to help their dearly departed cross into the afterlife. This is just what Japanese do. It's tradition.

So, when a missionary, who has established a routine in the church, leaves, the Japanese are very, very hesitant to change anything. It's the way it's done, after all. Why would they change it?
So, we take a look at this church. We see a beautiful building with space to spare, a bit out of the way, but in a residential neighborhood. Yet the church is actively shrinking. Why?
Because they haven't changed since the days of the missionary.
In Japan, Christianity is seen as a Western religion, something that only Westerners believe. It’s not for Japanese. Oh, they enjoy Western movies, clothes, and food, but only a kind of experience, something novel to be adored because it's so not Japanese. It's not a rebellion against their own culture; it's the newness, the strangeness of ours. So, when a missionary talks about Christianity to a Japanese person, the Japanese person nods and smile and thinks, "I'm sure this is great for a Westerner, but it's not really for me. I'm Japanese."
See, the church we went to didn't change from a missionary church to an indigenous church. The strange fingerprints of Western culture were still all over it. The hymns were Western melodies, the preaching in the didactic-story style. About the only non-Western aspect was taking your shoes off and donning slippers before entering. Everything else was very Western.
And when you're trying to engage a culture that sees Christianity as Western, it only re-enforces that feeling when it looks entirely Western.
Now, take another church we have attended. This one is a small branch of a larger church. The founding pastor was taught at a Japanese Bible school. While the preaching is still in a didactic-story style, it is from a foundationally Japanese perspective. Often times, our pastor’s husband will give sermons from a Bible written in Osaka dialect. It would be like a pastor reading something called the “New York Accented Bible.” Around the walls, the pastor's husband has hung his original paintings, semi-abstract works inspired by biblical imagery. The music mixes traditional hymns with contemporary praise and worship. It appeals to both the older and younger members. And it is growing. We recently had to move to a bigger location. There are grey-heads, to be sure, but also young families, single mothers, high school students, and older singles. Even though we rarely break forty people, the age range is much more balanced and we average twenty to thirty people every Sunday. We have babies, young children, and youth which are the life blood of any church. Why? Because they have started an indigenousness church.
Now, I just want to make clear that I am not getting down on missionaries. Churches started by foreigners are definitely needed. That's how the Gospel gets started in a country. But, it has to change. The people in that culture must take the reigns after a time and start talking about God in their own words, not simply translating what the Western pastor is teaching. Without contextualization, there can be no growth.
So, what does this contextualization, this talking about Christianity like a Japanese person, look like? I have no idea. I'm not Japanese. For me to offer my advice would be to counter the point of this post. But, I can say that it is up to the missionaries who are working in Japan, and in other countries, to be always thinking about the future of their mission after they are gone. They have to train leaders to stand up and own their faith, not just copy what was done before. This is especially important for Japanese missionaries, since the Christian culture here has copied so much of Western culture.

After all, Christ, as the embodiment of God’s message to us, was the ultimate contextualization.


  1. That was very challenging and clear. I also loved the last line.

  2. Amazing! This gave great clarity to some challenging, abstract ideas about contextualization. I love that you gave two examples. It challenges growth in an area while also helping us not to lose hope that a healthy, contextualized transition is possible.