Stomping beats, blaring guitars, dancing youths in front of a glittering stage, I stand a little offside in the dark, reach out my arm and sing along to the unknown song. No, this not a rock concert, but a church in the middle of Tôkyô. Around me resonates the many-voiced pop-Alleluia of hundreds of Japanese and foreigners. The church is called Jesus Lifehouse, and in it my body feels as if it was time-traveling – back to the youth events in Germany that helped shape my teenage faith. Was I back to my roots? Initiated by the Australian Rod Plummer, the JLH has just in a few years not only managed to attract over a thousand visitors to its concert services, but also to establish itself in Ôsaka, Yokohama and Hong Kong, where young Asians dance in droves to the theology and music of the Hillsong movement.
That was last year in July. I was new in Tôkyô and after years without a stable church starving to reconnect to the Christian community. During my university times I had distanced myself much from the evangelical movement. Now I wanted to risk it again, wanted to belong to somewhere, to contribute time, energy, skills for God’s ministry. Kick-start a new life. Jesus Lifehouse, with its international flair, seemed to offer all this and more. It was like entering the fieriest talent smithy of the city. After being welcomed effusively they immediately wished to make use of my potentials. I sensed something flaring up: euphoria, the urge of being there when something cataclysmic happens, to make it, to deliver it. My biweekly visits were electrifying, something which one could hardly await. A church with a vision. For the first time in Japan, I was sure to be at the right place …
A month later, my enthusiasm had turned into bitter disappointment. I was about to become an unwelcome person. I left Jesus Lifehouse as suddenly as I had come, determined to not longer tolerate the radical evangelical cause as one variation in the spectrum of Christian dogma, but to oppose it.
What had happened?
First, I tried to engage as best I could. I joined a cell group, the ‘Life Group’, helped cleaning the stage, got to know new people. The fact that most members, instead of hauling books around, had saved their Bible on their iPhones and seemed to indulge quite openly in an urban consumer culture, was something I looked over. Life Group prayers were held preferably at McDonald’s. Among people called Tyler, Grant and Summer I felt like in an American sitcom. So this was the self-conception of young Christians in Tôkyô. We specialize in youth evangelism, I was told, and leave the rest to the other churches. Plausible, because it worked: Hundreds of converts, absorbing the “messages” from the pastors, hundreds of enthusiastic teens and twentysomethings, who had just escaped the sufferings from the psychosocial miseries of Japan. JLH delivered exactly what the young were missing in this society: Unambiguity. Community. Identity. Chances to unfold their potentials. Someone who told them how to live.
The two pastors Rod Plummer and Kimura Ryûta talked straight in their passionate sermons. They inoculated the catalogue of evangelical tenets into the congregation: the absolute truth claim of the Bible, formulas against the attacks of the devil, no sex before marriage etcetera. No BS, Christian life without tepid cowardice and boredom!
I was more interested in people than incited sermons. Over a Big Mac I was initiated into the cell group mechanics. It was simple.You read the Bible and write your associations into a journal. You speak about it in the Life Group. The Life Group leader provides comments and advice, that`s it. There is no prescribed form.
I went with it. For a while things proceeded well. I put up with the impression that Rod’s sermons often seemed more like religious motivation training, and that the practical life advice from Ryûta ( who muttered Bible verses out so rapidly as if to achieve an entry in the Guinness Book ) didn’t really require some holy scripture to conceive. Even though I didn’t agree with about 50% of the teaching at least they caused some healthy turmoil in my inner apparatus.
Gradually, it became obvious that I didn’t really deem the absolute truth claim of the Bible, formulas against the attacks of the devil, no sex before marriage etcetera as decisive to my faith, or that much of this wan’t as unequivocal as it was to my Life Group leader, who was really caring to get me integrated. My affinity to the more contemplative and mystical forms of Christianity seemed strange enough, but doubting the divine authority of the Bible even a bit was out of question. For me it was a wonderful and central book, but which also contained concepts that a 20th-century Christian should dismiss respectfully as flaws of its times: patriarchic perception of women, homophobia, latent anti-Semitism, let alone its historical credibility. For my leader, however, this went beyond the pale. Quote: “At all Life Groups we believe that the Bible is the absolute word of God, 100% truth, and has to have total authority in our lives.”
We got into theologic disputes, in which any rationality was stifled by using the Bible as knockout argument. Many of my questions were simply ignored. “This book is the manual for life.” – And why do I have to believe in the Bible? – “Because it is God’s word!” – And who’s to say that? – “The Bible!” I, in return, was blamed in my own argumentation for circular reasoning, and that I was bending God’s commandments at will – to make myself a god. My doctrine was “poison”. I could only stay in the Life Group, if I abandoned my “self-delusions”….
Was JLH something like a club that systematically excludes all dissenters? I could not believe that, after all the initial warmth.
On the assumption of being able to change the group, I approached some more people – only to find that the other leaders were all on the same line. I was dumbstruck. The Life Groups were the integration sluice into the JLH world. Without one you were only a “tolerated” guest. I was afraid that the longer I hung around without a group, eventually rumors would make rounds about this lust-driven heretic German and that my views wouldn’t count at all. To get involved I would have to negate the spirituality which God had unclosed to me through stony paths during the last five years.
Was this His will? Didn’t the number of visitors alone prove who was right? Was not everyone there an exemplar of success? Good family, good job, and an X-Box at home. I, with my pragmatic worldview that is not afraid of reflecting on the shortcomings of life with a pinch of irony, looked like a cynical grouch in comparison. If my skeptical belief was true, why did I not have four hundred Facebook friends, half of whom had found Jesus through my flaming lifestyle? And next to their shocking self-confidence (shocking for local conditions) my Japanese ambivalence must have come across as a testimony of deep uncertainty.
I did not understand why faith had to be a zero-sum game. The fact that our debates indeed ran in a circle was certainly also due to my inability to formulate my views in a more orderly manner. I had hoped to find a place at which the dynamics of an exchange of many positions were alive, as elsewhere. But instead of cultivating independent thinking the Life Group was meant to steer thought into the direction specified by the church leadership. Discussions were not desired.
Slowly, I noticed other things. From the sermons one could discern the symptomatic complacency of those who think to be in possession of the final truth: ‘We against the corrupt world. We against the demonic religions of Japan. We are entirely different. Only we can attain true happiness and live decently.’ And the junior preachers of the church were eager to imitate the overzealous speech style of the pastors.
My faith was in crisis mode. I did not want to leave. Nevertheless, I had to tear away. Even at the risk of being again driven as a faith nomad. I decided, ultimately, with pleasurable self-destruction, to be an outsider. I also won courage for my refusal from the latest Tocotronic song …
In case of doubt, go for the doubt and the inconceivability
For the interior contrition when you bare your teeth
In case of doubt, go for the collapse in front of the full hall
My life becomes disruption, my existence a scandal
And I have not regretted it. God had other plans for me, as I found out later.
I am not sure how to evaluate Jesus Lifehouse. There is no such thing as a perfect church. I do not want to condemn it, as this would do the many bright personalities there wrong. My impressions were certainly incomplete. The success, however, comes surely not only from an extra pot of blessing, but also from strategies that make the people in this country flock to cuckoo groups like Happy Science. What I criticize is the exclusivity towards dissenters and the one-sidedness of the teachings much detached from Judeo-Christian traditions. This anti-democratic, self-righteous element is dangerous. Will the the members be able to retain full freedom of decision, or will their lives sooner or later be heteronomous? Will they be induced to disconnect from opposing families and friends? Will they be allowed to drill down on hard questions when doubt starts germinating from blows of fate, or will they steadily be fobbed off with “Because the Bible says so”? And are there any supervisory bodies that control and regulate the actions of the “leaders”?
The congregation has moved to Roppongi by now, into a trendier neighborhood, and has brought another youth church in Nagoya under its umbrella. Easy to imagine that a megachurch is in the making here. For a wide Christianization, however, additional strategies are needed, since the concept of a youth church is hardly sufficient in Japan’s aging gerontocracy.
Should there ever be a mass revival in Japan, JLH will be at its spearhead. Another possibility is that it radicalizes under its hardliners into a cult-like sect, that rejects the diversity of other Christian ways of life and critical thinking. Whatever the case, Jesus Lifehouse is on the way to influence this city, this country. I see this development – yet again – with ambivalence.
(translated from German)