A few years ago I discovered the 19th century Japanese Christian teacher Uchimura Kanzo. Uchimura had a vision of an indigenous Japanese Christianity. He wanted to separate the faith from its Western/European packaging and make it relevant to his own context. He was way ahead of his time on this; even today a non-Western incarnation of Christianity is inconceivable to many.
He founded a movement called Mukyokai, which literally means “no church.” In this mode of Christianity believers meet together in simple zendo-like settings to study Scripture and cultivate the life of discipleship without sacraments or clergy. The movement has always had a strong social justice focus. There are about 65,000 Mukyokai Christians today, mainly in Japan and Korea.
Uchimura’s movement fascinates me for several reasons. I am always on the lookout for exits off the deteriorating highway of conventional, Western Christianity. In some ways Uchimura’s movement reminds me of what the early church might have been like. They too were incarnating the good news in terms of received cultural forms. Plus I am drawn to models of Christian community that are simple gatherings around the Word, shorn of many of the trappings of “religion” and institutionalization.
I recently had a conversation with a friend fluent in Japanese. He informed me of an even more literal translation of “mu kyokai.” “Mu” means “no.” But he suggested that “kyokai,” which is the word used for “church,” more broadly refers to boundary, enclosure, corral, or fenced-in area. Thus the term mukyokai could also mean living without borders, separation, distinctions, and differences. I find that to be a good way to talk about the emerging church as we make our way through the 21st century.
Mukyokai expresses the same openness and equality, the same breaking down of barriers and hierarchies, the same willingness to see differences and social distinctions dissolved, as Paul’s remarkable affirmation in Galatians 3:28. “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” It is a verse that has been largely opaque to the church for 2000 years, but which now emerges as perhaps the core of Paul’s insight into what Jesus is all about.
I suspect that the church of the future will have a strong element of openness and a dissolution of differences and boundaries separating the “in” people from the excluded or marginalized. At least in that sense, Mukyokai may describe what is emerging. I also wonder if, in our time when there is widespread frustration, disillusionment, and rejection of many of the characteristics of institutional religion, Uchimura’s movement doesn’t give us an example and model to learn from. Maybe he was actually doing several decades ahead of time what Bonhoeffer famously and cryptically imagined as the “religionless Christianity” of a world come of age.