From non-church to emerging church?

Lowell Sheppard is an author and minister who has found himself living in Nagoya, Japan – via Mexico, the Balkans and the UK. Along the way he has been the UK Director of Youth For Christ, founded the Whose Earth Initiative and is currently Asia Director of HOPE International Development Agency. He’s also found time to write eight books and a host of magazine articles.

His book ‘Chasing the Cherry Blossom’ explored the Japanese ‘non-church movement’ – an approach to church which some Christians may find has resonances with the emerging church in the west. Eager to gain a non-western perspective on emerging church we welcomed the chance to chat with Lowell about his perception of what’s going on in the UK church at present. We began by asking him to share some of his experiences of Japan:

It must be a fascinating country and culture – tell us what brought you there and your experience of living there…
What brought me to Japan?  Well, put simply, my wife!  Born and raised in Japan, she was a missionary’s daughter who harbored a dream of returning.  When we were married in 1980, we agreed that if she went with me to the UK I would follow her to Japan one day.  To be frank, I ever thought it would happen, but in the early 90’s it seemed that God spoke to her and convinced her it was right. So in 1996, we pulled up stakes in the UK and moved to Japan. She came home and I felt I had moved to Mars.

I came to Japan assuming that nothing I had learned in the UK or elsewhere was relevant. I was so convinced that I had to relearn what mission meant that I gave away my entire book library ( I confess to regretting that while in the depths of writing my MA dissertation). The first two years I devoted myself to understanding changes in Japanese society for my Master’s dissertation. I also struggled in language learning and had to get use to being introduced as Kande’s husband. During the transition period, Nagoya, JapanI realized that my life in the UK was sinfully busy and went through a period of tortuous repentance. My health was poor, I was overweight, and in hindsight realized that our marriage was not all it should/could be. I set out to rebalance my life. I made three decisions:

  1. Avoid involvement on committees, boards etc.
  2. Throw away the filo-fax. Take on only as much as I could remember in my aging brain
  3. Buy a Bike and use it for local transportation. A decision helped by economics.

All three decisions changed my life, not least being the bike. In the year 2000 I pedaled the length of Japan (I had a book contract with Lion Plc) in an attempt to learn more about the culture that had shaped my wife. Although she looks western, I discovered she is, in fact, not only bi- lingual but bi-cultural too.

While on the bike ride I learned some great things about Japan, not least being the origins of the non-church movement, which I think has some relevance to the emerging church movement in the UK. My life in Japan today is spent largely outside the church, being active in a variety of networks ranging from the business community to the dance/club network.

So the ‘non-church’ movement – what does this mean in Japan?
While I had heard of the non-church movement, my interest was piqued at the end of my 3000 K bicycle trek when I came across a statue of William Smith Clark, in an obscure valley in Hokkaido not too far from Sapporo. I subsequently wrote about him and the movement that he sparked, in my book: Chasing the Cherry Blossom. 

Clark, a Christian and an educator visited Japan for only a few months in the late 1800’s but left his mark which is still evident today.  At the time of his visit, Japan was going through enormous change and Hokkaido was being slowly incorporated into the nation of Japan. 

Less than half a century earlier, Japan had ended 250 years of self imposed seclusion and proscription of Christianity.  The new regime governing Japan, while still suffering from ingrained xenophobia, was hungry for western industrial advance and to settle. Consequently, many academics were brought from Europe and the US to assist Japan in her quest.  Clark was one of these.  He was an educator and asked to start an agricultural school in Hokkaido.  Clark was a Christian of the Methodist persuasion, and while in Hokkaido he ‘discipled’ a handful of students.  Clark is known for a three-fold legacy:

  1. Hokkaido University which he founded and is now considered one of Japan’s prestigious learning institutions.
  2. His final admonishment to his disciples before departing Japan: BOYS, BE AMBITIOUS.   In fact, the full quote is Boys be ambitious for Christ.  But the shorter version is known in every household in Japan.
  3. The non-church movement. The non-church movement was not started by Clark, but rather his converts, Kanzo Uchimura, who later went to Harford Theological College in the US to study theology.  Uchimura was impressed with the Bible’s capacity to challenge the mind while being a guidebook for daily life, and in particularly to provide an ethical framework for public policy and personal conduct.  BUT, he was not so receptive to Western Models of Church, and in my opinion he had a reaction to the western invented model of local church. 
    Uchimura set up a network of what were essentially bible study groups that spread among the intelligentsia of Japan. 
    Uchimura made national headlines when he and others from the non-church movement (this was the name they gave themselves) when in 1891 they refused to adhere to a royal edict that required all teachers and academics to worship at Shinto shrines.  Their protest became known as the lese-majeste incident and eventually led to the freedom of religion being guaranteed in the 1946 constitution.  Many of the members of the non-church movement entered politics and corporate business as well as remaining in the world of academia.  They were committed to grappling with scripture in the context of real life issues.  

So that is it in a nutshell.  Most evangelical and charismatic Christians today would be unlikely to give any credence to the non-church movement preferring to view it as a sect, but I fear that their judgment is essentially a product of dualism that has infiltrated the church in Japan through the conservative disposition of Western Mission organizations.  The church in Japan is small, and virtually irrelevant.  The non church movement however, is evidence of the Mission of God being expressed in Japan and I believe deserves a second look by missiologists.

But, this is only part of the story of the church in Japan that can provide some light on the struggles we are facing in the West.

Other tid-bits that are worthy of exploration are:  

  1. Godly Syncretism: The Hidden Christians, who went under ground in the early 1600’s, having come to faith through the work of the Jesuits, often referred to Japan as having a superior civilization over the west. They saw it as one of the most fertile fields for the gospel seed.  When Christianity was banned in the early 1600’s the church went underground, and for 150 years they camouflaged the sacraments and other Christian practices with Buddhist and Shinto symbols and liturgies.  When the Catholics arrived back in the mid 1800’s a handful of the ‘hidden Christians’ confronted the newly arrive priest in Nagasaki on the steps of his newly built church, announcing to the rather gob-smacked churchman: “We are the same as you.” This is an interesting study in incarnational mission. I am in fact currently working on a new book, a piece of fiction ( I refer to it as a missiological thriller), where I explore the role that protestants played in undermining catholic mission in Japan for the sole aim of making Japan a trading partner of northern Europe.
  2. Also of interest is the fact of a growing view that Christianity arrived in Japan a 1000 years before the Jesuits in the form of Assyrian missionaries.  But this is another tale altogether.
  3. Finally, I am skeptical of the often quote statistic that only 1% of the population in Japan are Christians.  This stat is based on church attendance.  The fact is that the western model of Sunday church meetings, and full mid week programs are wholly incompatible with the Group oriented society that pervades Japan.  I suspect that as many as a third of Japanese are followers of Christ and seeking to live out their faith in ways that fit with the society in which they find themselves. 
    Evangelicals would dismiss this view for they claim the Japanese are simply syncretistic, taking bits of everything as it suits them.  I disagree.  If the KOG is our ultimate aim in mission and not simply ‘conversion statistics’ I suggest that the Japanese People are more embracing of KOG than most evangelical Christians in the west.
  1. Why has the church ended up this way? Well, my initial response is: ” Who am I to say?” but here are some thoughts:
    • The church has bought into rationalism in a big way… Post modernity ( a somewhat tired concept now and one that Douglas Coupland of Gen X fame has debunked) is a reaction to the loss of mystery within the church. The emergence of systematic theology is but one manifestation of this, but also, the church generally seeks to structure and organize itself in a very industrial fashion. So, perhaps many people simply view the church as another institution that cannot be trusted.
    • Money has corrupted the church and what we call the para-church.  I do not mean to suggest that the vast majority of Christian workers and leaders are themselves corrupt (the opposite is true as most I know give their all to the cause at great personal sacrifice… perhaps at times sinfully sacrificial) but the system is corrupted by the power of money. Whether it is a pastor of a heavily programmed church who compelled to grow his church and sustain his the payroll, the CEO of a single focus mission agency that has to build a support base tailored to suit the donor base, money is lethally effective at subverting relational, organic mission.
  2. What can we learn from the non church movement?  Mmm… well on the surface the non church movement of Japan looks similar to the various bible study groups in the west.  But I suggest that despite the cosmetic similarities there are two fundamental differences:
    1. Western Bible Study Groups start from a position of doctrinal purity seeking to indoctrinate others, (despite what is said about the inductive approach of study and engaging people in dialogue, most Christian organizations are committed to converting people to the doctrinal statement they adhere too) while the non-church movement started from a position of curiosity – eager to discover how the teachings of Christ can be applied to a group-oriented Japanese society.  In particular, adherents of the non church movement sought to uncover how scripture could be expressed in personal life and public policy”
    2. In the west, bible study groups are usually part of a larger program (ala Alpha, or UCCF etc) while in Japan they appear to be much more organic.

So what can we learn?  Well, we perhaps need to work harder at de-clothing ourselves of the Christian sub-culture baggage we carry and approach scripture from a point of view of exploration, seeking insights as to how we can live our lives in a world God made for his pleasure. It seems to me it is much more authentic mission to live our lives in a celebratory fashion, rather than seeking to persuade and coerce others to ‘sign’ on the dotted line of our particular tradition or doctrinal statement.

Yeah, they were big questions! It’s good to hear someone explore some thoughts from the advantage of seeing western Christianity from more of a distance.

I’d be interested to know how you view ‘the emerging church’ from your perspective in Japan. Do you see signs that some groups are beginning to find genuine ways of living the gospel in contemporary culture?

I am outside the loop and other than dipping into the blogs of various friends from time to time I do not have much occasion to discuss or ponder what is happening in the UK. That being said (my tentative-ness is only matched by my arrogance in having an opinion when asked) I observe things that are both encouraging and troubling.

Positively I see a determined effort to be culturally relevant while keeping an eye on heritage and orthodoxy.  Gerard Kelly captures that notion wonderfully in his book Retrofuture. The emerging church concept stems from a concern for cultural relevance, which is not new at all. It has been around forever, and the current cycle of discussion dates back to the Lausanne movement and their commitment in the 70’s to making the gospel relevant. I recall Clive Calver, evangelical superhero to many, stated that his attendance of the Lausanne Conference for World Evangelization in 1974 charged him up with a passion to be culturally relevant, and he came back to lead BYFC with verve and a dogged determination not to compromise.

In fact he came back and wrote a book called: WITH A CHURCH LIKE THIS WHO NEEDS THE DEVIL. A daring venture indeed for a young ambitious evangelist!! Since that time, we have seen various revolutions, streams, emphasis and manifestations of the new DNA that was imprinted on the church in those heady days of the Jesus Revolution that impacted a generation of young people. The revolution in church started out with drums, guitars, long hair and no ties in Sunday morning services. There have been a myriad of mutations of the ‘culturally relevant’ movement in the decades since Clive declared war on irrelevancy. In the meantime, Clive and his generation have grown older and are now associated with institutions and structures that the new emerging generations are challenging. All that is good… constant change…dynamism …restlessness…etc. 

  Troubling? Here are just a few of the burrs in my saddle:

  1. The word ‘emerging’…  I know it is a catchword but it almost feels a tad arrogant, as if to suggest that there was not a church before. I do not like it. But that is pedantic and semantic. Not an important issue and not certainly one to fight about. But I would prefer the word re-inventing church. My latest book, NEVER TOO LATE, largely fiction, is about personal reinvention, so I confess a bias to the term.
  2. Too much talk! With the amount of time spent blogging on this subject, it seems that some people just have too much time on their hands and despite all their claims to be relevant, they are largely irrelevant to the culture at large. They appear alternative, but in fact I fear they are very much at home within a subculture that they are the creators of but still irrelevant to the world at large.

The discussions can appear to be a dialogue with fellow discontents, many of whom work for Christian organizations, or wish they did. The discussion sounds introspective, self indulgent and irrelevant to those who are outside. There appears to be a hunger to be HIP, cool and proficient at the use of the images and sounds of current pop culture. But I wonder whether those outside the church can ‘smell the rat’ of inherent Christian smugness. When I take the time to wade through the array of blogs and websites around the world that come up when I use the keyword emerging church, I find that most are simply the old church in new, cool clothes. North American is the most guilty, but in fact Australia is not far behind! (Yikes I will get an email or two about that one.) When I say the old church I mean a church with flawed theology that focuses on individual salvation at the expense of social enhancement, meeting based spirituality rather than organic lifestyle fueled spirituality and ultimately concerned with saving souls rather than building the kingdom. 

This sounds harsh, and I do not mean it to insult or offend anyone I know for my friends in the debate are people I love, respect and listen too. It is the context of the debate that I am concerned about.  Actually, many in the debate do not believe in the dualist nonsense that infects so much of evangelical thinking, but, because it is the context in which they live and work and are conducting the debate, it seems that they are placating the dualists.

10 years ago when I moved to Japan, I decided not to join any missionary association, board, or committees, and apart from my relations with those Christians around me to whom I am accountable, and at my wife’s encouragement, we decided to primarily surround ourselves with non Christians.  Also, out of necessity, after our UK funding dried up for our work in Japan, I was forced to become largely self funding. The result of which is that I have had to create businesses and enterprises where the bottom line was important while continuing to be involved in the non-profit sector. My life is richer for it I believe, and on reflection, I look back and consider a lot of the things that occupied my time as a ‘full-time Christian worker’ were somewhat dubious as to any value added to the Kingdom of God. The challenge has been to live my life as a Christian in the cut and thrust of society and in particular the business world. I have found conversations with fellow business folks, to be more frank, to the point, and transparent that within the rarified air of the Christian industry.
I do not for moment question the motivation of Christian workers, BUT, the sub culture can all be all consuming, and have found the atmosphere of the outside world, to be more nourishing and invigorating than the limited atmosphere of the Christian sector. I realize that statement sounds judgmental, and as I write it I see the faces of many friends who I admire, cherish and respect for their faithfulness to their call. But despite my regard for my many friends, I am still convinced the sheer volume of Christian workers around the world, impedes the emergence of a church that is truly alternative and transformational.  

But, I live with a daily realization, that I do not really know anything about what church can or should be, but what I do know is that the Savior in whom I have decided to place my trust, ultimately teaches me to love God and my neighbor, and nothing else much really matters. I wonder sometimes how much God is interested in our conversation about these themes as he is in our overall disposition to loving him and others.  I will let my favorite Japanese Theologian, Kosuke Koyama, have the last word.

The people around us are not interested in our Christology, but from time to time they show interest in our neighborology.

Lowell’s most recent book Never Too Late is aimed at the non-reading non-Christian market. It is published by LION HUDSON.