….there Were No Church Ever

by Lucy Ong

Lucy-picIf there were no church ever; no grand cathedral, no quaint country chapel. If no one had ever made a single stained glass window for sun streaming in to tell the story of Jesus in resplendent colours, nor written a single hymn for angelic faces to sing of the loftiness of heaven. If we had never passed round a single offering bag, officiated a Lord’s supper with stately solemnity.

If pews and pulpits had never been built, and church committees had never been formed. If pastors had never been ordained and baptism classes had never been instituted. If we had never been taught forms of praying; never followed a single model of Bible study.

If there were no church in our experience but what we read in the Bible, and a church started here in Japan, what would that church look like? If we only had the Bible and the Holy Spirit, how would our prayers sound, how would we in Japan read the Bible?

It would be different from how it is now, I think.

Japan would have a church built, not on foreign models led by a blonde Jesus, but solely on Scriptural principles, adapted to make sense to the local culture of the time.

We would try to understand the Bible from experiences we understand rather than pass on pat theological answers that we have learned to mimic from others. We would pray with words we know rather than rattle off long phrases of beautiful prayer language the meaning of which we either do not know or have long ceased thinking about.

I have often found it extremely rewarding and refreshing to discuss the Bible with friends with no church background. They have come to God’s word with no theological baggage or half-baked stereotype understanding of Scripture. They don’t know how to give the correct answer, therefore, the only thing they can do with the Bible is to respond to it.

Masahiro (name changed), a street musician, ex-aspiring sportsman and our good friend, comes to our home every week to hang out and play TV computer games. After a month or so, part of the evening started to include praise time and Bible study and a bit of prayer.

The 3rd time we discussed the Bible together, we came across Jesus saying to a man he had healed, “Don’t sin anymore or worse thing could happen to you”. Masahiro asked, “What is this sin?” “It’s the dirty things in all our human hearts. To God, the big sins and small sins and all the bad. Take envy for instance: If under control, it stays as a bad feeling. If badly controlled, it can end up as murder. Either way, it starts from the same sin of envy.”

“Ah, just like in the TV drama, HERO!!” Masahiro lit up. “Whether the case is a big political scandal, a murder or a small theft, a crime is a crime!” (Japanese language has the same word (罪) for “sin” and “crime” .)

HERO, one of the top TV drama series on Japanese TV, is about an unconventional public prosecutor named Kuryu Kohei, who has, in fact, many Christ-like characteristics. But it takes someone like Masahiro, coming from an unchurched background, to draw the link between God and a Japanese hero.

“How cool! This Jesus is exactly the kind of person I have always wanted to be,” he commented at the end. Masahiro is able to come to Jesus as a Japanese young person, relating to a God who understands the dreams and fears, struggles and joys of his people.

Now and then, all of us need to come to the Bible this way, with the freshness of a first timer, and relate to God just as we are, with no doctrinal position to protect, no church tradition to perpetuate.

When we work to bring the love and salvation of Christ to other cultures, we are to leave our own beloved forms of worship, the theological tidbits we are so proud of, and the church structures that have worked magic in ministries in our home culture. Unless we die to our own desires to do what we want, and allow God to give us a new heart and eye in the new culture, we will become guilty of confusing the truths of God with cultural imperialism and of creating religions alien to the hearts of the people.

For us personally, our weekly home party with Masahiro has all the elements needed for church: food, game, lots of conversation, Bible, praise songs…all we need is for Masahiro to come to full faith. When he does, this will hopefully be a church he can understand, which helps him to relate to Jesus with images and music that come from his natural environment, in a setting in which he is completely at home.

And we dream of the day when Masahiro will go out and start other church gatherings in the same way.

It doesn’t have to be at our home, or even his. It could be at the baseball grounds, by the river, at a karaoke lounge or in McDonalds, introducing people to a Jesus who can identify with might swing a baseball bat, strum a guitar, croon into a mike and chomp on hamburgers.

God’s truth will never change, but unless the medium of communication changes, unless we learn to relate timeless truths to this time with its own parables, what we preach and observe in rituals will be relevant to only a small group of people in a particular spot of time in human history, and that will never do.

Writer: Lucy Ong Sing Tian and her husband, Stanley, are missionaries with OMF International. They are in their second term of service in Japan.

Article extract from Asian Mission 2008 March Issue.