This is an interesting opinion. We certainly don’t share the same perspective on Biblical inspiration (I’m more or less evangelical, theology-wise) but I felt your insights into your time at JLH Tokyo were insightful and confirmed some things I was worried about.
When I was an exchange student I went to the JLH church in Osaka, and while I had an overall positive experience there were definitely things that put me on edge. What I loved about the church was the community and its strong evangelistic mindset. I felt that if Christianity was really going to change Japan, churches like JLH were essential and would make all the difference. Virtually everyone was friendly and loving; I don’t hesitate to say that it might have been the very first church I’ve ever attended (since becoming a Christian as a child) where I really felt like I was part of things – where I was able to contribute to the church. I felt that people were honest and it wasn’t just some pretense to pull people in. In short, what I love(d) about JLH is the community.
But I’d echo many of the other concerns voiced here, with several main concerns.
1. I always found it alarming how JLH very much existed in its own bubble with barely any contact with outside churches; when a big evangelistic conference came to Osaka and virtually all of the churches, evangelical and mainline, got together to support it, I was kind of shocked that JLH had nothing to do with it: from what I gathered it just wasn’t hip or cool enough for them. There were one or two other churches that sort of collaborated with Jesus Lifehouse, but they’re very much on the same page as them, which leads to…
2. …a ‘seeker-sensitive’ environment. I think it’s great to maintain an open and welcome atmosphere for visitors, and I fully support evangelistic efforts (one of the church’s strong points); but the ‘seeker’ movement has been a disaster for the American church and hurts the growth of Christians new and old when sermons and teaching can’t get in-depth enough to cultivate further spiritual growth. They might say that flashy lights and music and ‘accessible’ messages are to welcome people unfamiliar with church, but it many ways it’s a distraction and messages rarely go into real depth.
3. Anti-intellectualism. From what I understand this is part and parcel with the whole Australian kinda-pentecostal Hillsong movement, but it definitely popped up here as well, like others in the comments have said. Life Groups are the only real approved means of discipleship. I didn’t have a bad experience with it, but my LG leader did say things that I took to be deriding to serious Biblical scholarship, seminary training, apologetics, and similar sentiments I saw elsewhere in the church.
Everything is heavily based on feeling and emotion, subject to change rapidly, instead of having a firm intellectual foundation for belief and the ability to defend it. If I had ever suggested we do some sort of class on, say, how to defend the Resurrection, I have no doubt it would have been shot down very quickly. I don’t think anyone at the church has real theological training from a seminary, although one or two did go to Hillsong’s ‘leadership’ school (again with the insularity.) I too worry that many, if not most, in the church have no firm foundation for their faith and could easily ditch the faith once their spiritual high ends. For that matter, all of the messages seem to be unrealistically optimistic, even going as far as to say not to have anything to do with people who are ‘excessively negative.’ That looks like pretense for quickly dismissing anyone who doesn’t fit in with the feely-smiley paradigm and faces difficult seasons in their life.
4. Self-Help Christianity. Many of the sermons seemed to be based on how to get a girlfriend/boyfriend, how to get a better job, or achieve some other goal, the same achievement-based activities Jesus came to free us from when he said his yoke and burden were light. This is a problem in the church in general but I heard very little preaching of grace, with many of the sermons seeming like vague Christian self-help seminars with the occasional Bible verse thrown in, no real in-depth or expositional preaching to be found, and usually very little context. The leaders are heavily influenced by the likes of gimmick-master Ed Young Jr., and while there’s still a lot of good in JLH, it’s not hard to see it becoming a gigantic megachurch 10-20 years from now, with highly-paid pastors and staff, security guards, massive slick venues, and ever-growing distance from Christ and his gospel of grace.
5. Overbearing leadership. As mentioned in the original post, I saw hints of this when I was at JLH. I have always felt tense around the pastor, as if I’m being put on the spot or interrogated every time he talks to me, even though I know I’ve done nothing wrong. This may just be my paranoia at work, but it can’t be totally imagined.
I feel that JLH is far too pushy about romantic relationships, and tries to control relationships from the start until marriage by all but requiring you to talk to your LG leader before making any sort of a move, and following JLH’s rigidly-defined program of pursuing someone of the opposite sex. I got called out for this during my time even though I never committed a single offense beyond friendly chat. They need to quit trying to rule people and control their relationships and offer helpful advice without trying to rule over them.
I think it’s absurd to call JLH a cult, but they do demonstrate many of the worrisome tendencies of the evangelical megachurch. The more time I spend away from JLH (I live elsewhere in Japan now) the more I worry about the church and if my time there was really as great as I thought it was. I was sold on JLH’s model – convert young people, get them to marry each other, start families, and have lots of kids, and then you can transform the spiritual face of the Japan. But now I fear that I was buying into the McChristianity love of big numbers and statistics instead of focusing on individuals and letting God handle the numbers. It seems JLH is largely about people and what they can do, instead of Christ and what he already did. It’s a subtle step back to the bonds of old religion from which Jesus came to liberate us.
Now, of course I have no experience with JLH Tokyo and don’t really know pastors Plummer or Ryuta, so I can’t comment on them. But the core worries – that JLH is a works and achievements-based environment subtly contrary to what Jesus taught – don’t seem like they’re going anywhere. I hope for good things and positive changes in JLH, but I’m not going to be surprised if I see more posts like this in years to come.
(Title added by the Editor)
(Special thanks for Mr.Fuji’s permission for forwarding and translating of the document)