13 May, 2013

Yesterday was a historic, but unsettling, day

Yesterday was a historic day in the life of the church that we've called our "home church" ever since we came to Japan. It is the church my husband has attended since his university days and the church I "married into" back in '97.

Over the years they've had their struggles, many of them while we've been away in Japan, so it's been hard to feel a part of what's gone on.

In our first term there were some serious leadership issues that caused a diaspora of many of our friends from the church. When we came back on home assignment in 2004, the church was much reduced in numbers, and met in a different location (they've never owned a church building).

Then we left for another four year term and when we came back the church had again lost numbers (down to less than 50 people), they had a different pastor, another location, a different name, and only met in the evening, not the morning. During our second home assignment, they changed location and meeting times once more, starting over in a new suburb.

This was our last day at our "home" church before we
set out on the adventure of missionary life. These were
just a few close friends at the church. Only one of those
 pictured (aside from us) is still a member of the church,
and he is also overseas, but only for a year.
To say that all this change has been unsettling for us, is an understatement. We hardly recognise the church. We don't know many in it any more, though there are a handful of faithful friends still there, and it is probably their friendships that have kept us with the church. Mind you, I can't omit to mention that the church has been faithful financial supporters, not large supporters, but commensurate with their size.

Yesterday another huge change, possibly bigger than all the rest, was voted on. The church, which has struggled to survive in recent years, has voted unanimously to merge with another church from different (larger) denomination. Meaning another location and name change.

I think it is the denomination change that seems the most drastic, even though they are both Presbyterian, given that they've shifted and changed their names in the past, but in the past they've always remained a semi-autonomous group.

The denomination they have been a part of is a small denomination in Australia. The Westminster Presbyterian Church (of Australia). It was started in Western Australia in 1970 with the help of some missionaries from the US. Our church began in the '80s.

I'm not certain of this, but it seemed to me, back in the late '90s when we were preparing to come to Japan, that the denomination hadn't "sent" any of its members as overseas missionaries before. Whether or not that is the case, we made a point of visiting as many of the churches within the denomination as we could (and back then that was more than a dozen). Over the years we've kept in contact with and visited these churches as often as we could, even the ones in WA and NSW/ACT. Many of them have been faithful in praying and supporting us.

But our "home" church has now voted to leave the denomination (but not because of any disagreement with the denomination, as far as I know). Where does that leave us?

We're grateful that we've been kept somewhat "in the loop" for this one. Change like this is unsettling at the best of time, but a lack of communication about it is even worse.

We're still not sure where we stand. At this point we still hold membership in this church. Should we stick with them? Should we skip over to another church within the original denomination?

Membership in a church that you rarely attend (because you're rarely in the country) is a strange thing. Before I came to Japan, I had all these wonderful, vague dreams of what a supporting church would be like. The reality hasn't matched my somewhat naive dreams. And it's been an uneasy journey for me. Can you pray for us as we wonder what the future holds for us in terms of a "home" church?

But most of all we're praying, and have always prayed regularly, for our home church(es). What they've decided to do is a huge change for them (and the congregation they're joining). We're praying that God's name will be glorified as they join together and look to the future.


-J said...

Lots of changes over the years! And, I agree, this one would be unsettling and bring up the question, "Where is home?"

I went to Japan straight from college, but when I went back to visit my college church (in a college town) each successive time, I knew fewer and fewer people, because people come and go frequently in a college town. It took intentionality on my part to get to know the new folks when I visited, and thankfully, they're a gracious lot and the new ones who didn't know me before were always eager to get to know me.

But you've touched on a deeper theme. Living the cross-cultural life rocks one's definition of home, but as missionaries we like to think we at least have a home church which will always be there for us. My home church never moved location or denomination, and only once got a new pastor while I was away, but I think that veiled the changes that naturally occur in people's lives. I returned to people who were different (hopefully and in a good way) than when I left, and hopefully I was different, too. I found bridging that gap to be not so easy.

-J said...

PS - I think the people in my college church were more open to getting to know me because they were transient people themselves.

Ken Rolph said...

Interesting the way "home church" changes meaning between countries. I see you are using it in the American sense of the congregation you would stay attached to if you could only keep one. Americans are such great shoppers.

In Australia the term developed for small groups which actually met in each others homes. It was in opposition to large congregations who have public buildings. I've heard some interesting conversations between Australians and Americans where each was using "home church" in their different applications without them understanding.

Wendy said...

Ken, are you sure you don't mean "house church"? I would like use "sending church" in relation to "our" church, but that term has been ruled as inappropriate by the church itself.

J, yes, as I see people's responses, I can see that it is probably only missionaries who understand this situation. Most other people's relationship to a church is quite different. "What is home?" is definitely a deeper theme here, one that has rocked me to the core, on occasion, over my career as a missionary.

Ken Rolph said...

House church was probably the original term in Australia. It was to contrast the smaller meeting in the intimate circumstances of your own life with the dress-up-and-go-to-a-public-building. Somewhere along the way people realised that a house was also a building, and this did still not convey the proper meaning. So home church became a more widely used term in Australia. I remember when Robert Banks brought out his book on house churches that the American edition changed the title to "The Church Comes Home' for precisely the reason that for Americans the term "home church" could still mean a large cathedral.

Judy B said...

We'll pray for you and your unsettling situation. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and trying to give us understanding of what all this means to you. It seems that now you need to choose between what is left of your "home church" and the remaining Westminster Presbyterian churches that also help support you. May the Lord establish your thoughts.

Sarah said...

I always feel saddened when I hear of churches dwindling in numbers or folding. I felt similarly (except I obviously wasn't overseas) when I left Perth but kept up with the happenings of my old church there. I grieved when that church ceased to exist in March last year. Thinking of you, Wendy. I will pray for that church and for what you decide.