by Wayne Jansen, missionary Tokyo Union Theological Seminary
It goes without saying that history shapes one’s identity, and this is definitely true for Christians. I was born to parents who were members of the Reformed Church in America. Naturally, I knew nothing about my family’s traditions or the traditions of their church when I was newly born, but slowly through the process of growing up with them, the traditions became a part of my religious persona as well. There are indeed people who have compared several Christian denominations before choosing to belong to a particular one, but in my case, I inherited the denomination of which I am a part from my immediate ancestors whom I respected.
The majority of the people in the area of my home state of Wisconsin were descendants of German and Polish immigrants and therefore were generally members of Roman Catholic or Lutheran churches. So I was a religious minority of sorts. One day in fifth grade, my elementary school teacher asked the members of our class to tell what denomination they belonged to. Virtually everyone in the classroom said they belonged to a Catholic or Lutheran church, but when I said I belonged to the Reformed Church, everyone looked bewildered. Many had never even heard of such a church, including my teacher. After that experience, the question of why there were so many differing denominations became an issue for me. For a child who had not yet studied theology, it seemed strange to me that there would be so many denominations if the body of Christ was one. For that reason, I felt that what was most important for me was not my personally affiliated denomination but whether or not I knew or was following Christ.
In 1992, I was sent to Japan as a Reformed Church in America missionary. Knowing that over 90% of the Japanese people did not know Christ, I wished to share my faith with them so that even a few may know Christ through my witness. I was blessed with the experience of being introduced to many Kyodan churches in Japan. Most of the churches had fewer than 100 members, so I appreciated the family atmosphere they had. However, I remember thinking of how so many churches were made up of a high proportion of elderly people and a low number of children, so I became concerned about the future of these churches. The issue of what would remain of these churches in the late 21st century caused me to feel quite anxious.
Considering this problem, reversing the trend of waning membership is perhaps one of the most pressing problems for the Kyodan at present. While I am very thankful for the many traditions I have discovered in various Kyodan churches, I have become aware of the urgent need to focus attention not only on the desires of the people worshiping at the church but also on the nonbelievers and children who are outside the church doors. We have to ask the questions of why there are few newcomers and what would make people outside the church see it as a place of which they would love to be a part.
When considering tradition and reformation, we must first consider what things must be preserved. I believe those things to be the Confession of Faith, Liturgy, biblically based sermons, hymns and worship songs, prayer, and of course, fellowship in the Holy Spirit. All churches have different styles and ways of worshiping, but we must ask through prayer what kinds of ministries God is wishing us to partake in for the present society in which God has placed us. It is not easy to say concretely what exactly must be changed, but we must have a spirit of wanting to change according to God’s will to accomplish God’s purpose. This does not mean that we simply pray for God to support our ideas and plans, but that in prayer we open our ears to hear God’s voice so we can know how God wants us to proceed and what God wants us to do: in other words, focusing not on how we want to change but on how God wants us to change.
I am very thankful for the great number of brothers and sisters in Christ that the Kyodan has given me. Beyond the year 2020, I have a vision for a lively church working diligently to please God and accomplish God’s work in this world. Reformation is not easy as it sometimes means giving up things that are important to us, but it is necessary in order to bless the people of Japan and the world and to build a greater church. Let us pray together that we will learn to seek God’s will and put it first to establish God’s Kingdom in this land.