by Herbert Skoglund
Eventually someone will pick a name, but so far no one has proposed one. How do you adequately define and identify a small but significant group of evangelical churches in Japan that are rapidly adding a new hue to the already colorful church history of their country?
Eventually someone will pick a name, but so far no one has proposed one. How do you adequately define and identify a small but significant group of evangelical churches in Japan that are rapidly adding a new hue to the already colorful church history of their country? The name will have to capture some of the new, unique, and dynamic elements of this group, and at the same time reflect its connection with historic western evangelicalism.
Regardless of their lack of a distinctive label, the churches that were started by the evangelical denominational and nondenominational missionaries who arrived in Japan a little over twenty-five years ago have reached a new level of existence. Numerous articles have detailed the frustrations, problems, failures and successes of the missionaries who spearheaded the postwar effort. Early progress gave rise to hopes for the rapid evangelization of Japan. But within less than ten years after the war it became apparent that Japan’s social order possessed an amazing resiliency; the gospel was warded off by all levels of society.
Nevertheless, the number of churches grew significantly during the next two decades. Although comprehensive statistics are not available, it is estimated that there are between 1,500 and 2,000 evangelical churches in Japan, with a membership of about 100,000. This would represent 25 to 30 percent of the Protestant population. Their places of worship are found in both metropolitan and rural areas of Japan. The change is underway from a mission-led evangelical church to a truly Japanese evangelical church. It is no longer dependent upon missionary leadership or aid; it has come to the place where its own leadership and resources under God’s blessing are sufficient for its continued existence.
We look first at the leadership of these churches for some hints as to the shape of the future. The pastorates are more and more being assumed by comparatively younger men who, in many instances, were won to Christ and trained in missionary-dominated and missionary-supported schools. These pastors are now in the forefront as change takes place. Although not rejecting the faith and practices of their spiritual fathers, the new leaders perhaps more than missionaries realize, have seen that the "message" brought by the missionaries contained a mixture of North American and European culture with the gospel. Some missionaries have reacted to this with suspicion and have interpreted it as a threat to mission work.
However, the purpose of the new leaders is not to cast away the missions’ concept of the task of the church. Rather, they want to heighten their own awareness of the fact that the church always exists in a given time and place in history. Since churches in other lands and other periods have emerged within the framework of their own cultures, Japan’s new evangelical leaders are concerned about removing the cultural baggage of North America and Europe. At the same time, they are seeking that form of church life which will best preserve and nurture the truth of the gospel within their own culture. They are well aware of the dangers of syncretism and ill-advised accommodation to false doctrine, but they are equally concerned about the necessity of serious biblical studies that will help them root the churches more firmly in the life and culture of Japan. Result: the rapid fading away of the foreign mission control of the thought forms and modes of expression of the churches.
As the churches shed their residual foreignness, they will be better enabled to display the true "foreignness" that is a hallmark of the scriptural tension of being in the world and not of the world. The resulting expression of the evangelical church will be unique both in relation to Japan and its place in church history. Concerned Japanese leaders know that they are at a critical point in their history. They are anxious to be open to the leadership of the Holy Spirit.
In a similar vein, theology is undergoing a change in the evangelical church. Certain forms of theology, as well as certain church structures, were brought to Japan by missionaries from Europe and North America. This, of course, was necessary and proper for the founding of the churches, but now many Japanese pastors feel the time has arrived when the evangelical churches in Japan must speak their own authentic voices to their fellow-citizens.
The labels Reformed, Wesleyan, Baptist, nondenominational, independent, and so on, are well-sprinkled throughout the evangelical churches in Japan. However, although appreciated and honored, these labels sit rather lightly on the shoulders of many of the present Japanese leaders. They recognize that theological forms reflect a cultural background. They know that the last word has not been said with regard to the expression of an evangelical theology. So they are dissatisfied with time-honored formulations of theology; they want to express evangelical theology in a new and more familiar Japanese idiom. Again, it must be stressed that the new leaders do not seek to reject evangelical theology, but they are concerned to find a more forceful way to speak the truth of the Scriptures to their own people. For them, therefore, no question is a closed question and no formulation is the final one.
It must be emphasized, however, that their attitude does not represent a disparagement of the past struggles of evangelical theology, nor a foolish rejection of 2,000 years of world-wide theological reflection and formulation. They do not want to accept theology as a "packaged item" that can be made ready for serving with hardly any effort. They desire to enter into serious dialogue with earlier theological formulations in order, first, to understand their meaning, and second, to use profitably the experience of the past to help them to prepare a biblically-based word for contemporary Japan.
In the field of ethics, the evangelical churches in Japan have sensed a great need to break out of some of the limitations of the essentially pietistic ethic that characterized much of pre and postwar evangelical thought in Japan. There were, of course, some outstanding exceptions: Uchimura Kanzo and Yamuro Gumpei, who sought to widen the social perceptions of their fellow believers.
The new leaders of the evangelical churches do not deny the need for personal ethics, but they are aware of the great need for the church to formulate a social consciousness ethic. Many pastors have in recent years been concerned to arouse their people to the need for an authentic biblical social ethic. As a result of this emphasis, social and political questions are being seen from a new perspective by many evangelical Christians. They are trying to see that their responsibility to the world includes more than just obedience to a limited view of evangelism. Perhaps one of the most pointed illustrations of this is their opposition to the nationalization of the Yasukuni Shrine. They view the proposed legislation of government financial support for the shrine as both a danger to their Christian faith and a violation of the constitution of their country. Other matters such as the Mutual Security Treaty, world trade alliances, international monetary policies, relations with Communist Chin, and social problems of all kinds are also recognized as legitimate areas of Christian concern. Consequently, various elements of Japanese society that were closed to them before are now open to evangelical Christians.
They have not proposed Christian solutions for all these issues, but they have begun a serious effort to understand the pace and shape of their own culture. At the same time, they are studying the word of God in the light of this new understanding of Christian responsibility. Visionary Utopianism, simplistic answers and imported suggestions that ignore the Japanese scene are rejected outright, but Japanese evangelicals are eager to join hands with other evangelicals around the world who are beginning to accept the needs of all of society as their responsibility.
The appearance of new forms of evangelical churches in Japan demands serious consideration by all who are concerned with the advance of the gospel in Asia. Our duty to pray for Japan is not lessened, but heightened by the presence of these new developments in Japan. Its potential for spearheading a dynamic breakthrough in evangelism in Japan is enormous. Christians everywhere should pray faithfully for its leaders, pastors, and people.
Its appearance must make us reconsider the place of missions in Japan. Does the presence of a growing evangelical church, one may ask, signal the end of missionary activity in Japan? Should missions ignore these changes, and maintain their present programs and policies? Should the churches of Europe and North America recognize these Japanese churches as full-fledged members of the body, and enter a new day of meaningful cooperation with them? The combined energies of all churches and missions are needed to reach that vast portion of the Japanese population that is still unresponsive to the gospel. A new day demands new strategic considerations.
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