This past New Year’s weekend, we skirted through one dimly lit back alley to another. This was after a 40-minute commuter train ride, my daughter escorting us to her international church in the heart of Osaka. My daughter is an English teacher in Kyoto. If this had been a movie set, I would think bars, drugs, and muggings. Fortunately, I knew in advance that Japan was a relatively safe country, my daughter spoke Japanese fluently, and I relied on that sensibility to trust this experience.
A small sign in the alley directed us to the church. We went downstairs into an actual bar decorated in American—popular movie stars and bar stools. Huh. Well, I’ve never done church in a bar, before, I thought. Is this even Godly?
Christianity, as you may imagine, is not a hot commodity in Japan. The main religious beliefs are Buddhism and Shinto. During this time of year, we witnessed droves of Japanese crowds making obligatory visits to local shrines to pay homage to their ancestors—a national tradition. It may be similar to how we might visit a gravesite on the anniversary date of the passing of a loved one. Real estate is certainly a prime commodity in this tiny country, so renting a bar space for two hours on a Sunday afternoon for a Christian church service is not so uncommon.
Inside the bar-church, about 25 people were gathered, Japanese, Americans, and other nationalities. We sang translated worship songs. We listened to a bilingual service, delivered in Japanese and then English. We shared a communion of apple juice and sesame crackers.
The message was about being thankful for your blessings in 2018 and looking forward to 2019. As I observed mostly young people, full of spirit and passion, worshipping and fellowshipping in unity, it brought tears to my eyes. I felt as much in church as any other place of worship I’ve attended.
As we fellowshipped afterwards, several of the participants shared their vision of an international church in Osaka. One young American man from Colorado, a tattoo artist, even shared about using tattoo artistry as a ministry opportunity to reach unreached people. Now that’s a creative vision!
In Japan, there is a high emphasis, founded on ethics teachings centuries ago, of obligation, respect, honesty, and manners. I dropped my hat near a restaurant, only to backtrack and find it neatly placed on a shelf. People are safe, possessions are safe, and polite customer service is the rule. And yet, contrast this with a high suicide rate among a sometimes stressed out and hopeless population. Can Jesus provide hope, and become real, to a people focused more on honoring the dead than seeking eternal life? Evangelical churches certainly have a challenge before them.
This experience took me w-a-y out of my comfort zone. I had to appreciate that regardless of religious differences, I do respect the Japanese culture and people deeply. Yet, it was inspiring to find Jesus in a bar in Osaka.