It is a venerable institution, shaped by centuries of tradition, ritual, and religious practice. It has inspired people for thousands of years and continues to hold a cherished place in many hearts.

But there are problems.

This great institution “has been racked with repeated scandals,” and “is in desperate need of reform yet is seemingly unwilling to muster the courage for true change.” It is said to be “suffering an existential crisis,” which is “eroding its popularity.” It “must change” or it may not “even survive the next 100 years.”

No this institution in crisis is not the twenty-first century Christian Church in the western world. It is “Japan’s most traditional sport.” Venerated for centuries and deeply embedded at the heart of Japanese culture, sumo wrestling is struggling to “keep up with the times.”

The sport which has such a long and vital connection with Japanese culture is in trouble not because the wrestlers are undisciplined or lacking in skill. The problem is not that the managers, tournament organizers and officials, or even the wrestlers are unwilling to work hard or are lacking in commitment to their sport. It is not their training that is at fault.

Sumo wrestling is in trouble because the sport is the victim of larger cultural trends in a country which has less and less place for the elaborate rituals and disciplined lifestyle sumo demands. The sport is caught up in cultural trends over which it has no control and which it has little power to influence.

An elaborate, hi-tech entertainment industry is sweeping Japan. Foreign influences from outside Japan through media, internet, and world travel have diminished the attachment to the spiritual traditions of Japanese culture upon which sumo wrestling depends. It is almost impossible for the slow traditional art of sumo wrestling to keep up with the changes engulfing its homeland.

I take encouragement from the August 23rd “Time Magazine” report on the state of sumo wrestling in Japan. The analysis of sumo’s problems in Japan sheds light on the current challenges facing the church in the western world. While we who serve in leadership in the church bear some responsibility for the state of our church, it is also clear that the life of our community is deeply affected by larger cultural trends over which we have absolutely no control.

Like sumo wrestling in Japan, the church in the Western world is struggling to survive in a culture that has become deeply secular and which offers a multitude of opportunities for distraction, as well as many opportunities, apart from traditional church programs, to engage in meaningful, worthwhile work for the benefit of the world and humanity. The church today functions in a tremendously competitive environment.

But most of all, I take encouragement from “Time Magazine’s” prescription for solving the problems faced by sumo wrestling. Time correspondents Hannah Beech and Saitama Sakae suggest,

In the end, what may save sumo is its spiritual heart.

Like sumo, we in the church will effectively address the challenges of our current culture not with fancy new programs and better managerial skills. Rather, we must reconnect with our “spiritual heart.” We must understand that we are, before all else, an organization that exists to support people in opening their hearts to an awareness of the transcendent reality of God present in our lives and in our midst. We are not primarily an institution that exists to entertain the masses. We are not first and foremost a social agency to repair the ills of a sick culture. We are not an arts organization, a therapy group, or a fundraising machine. These may all be worthwhile dimensions of church life, but none of them is the unique and special call of the church.

There may be many things about how we do church that can be effectively tweaked to make our packaging more user-friendly and to heighten our consumer appeal. But in the end, it will be our grasp of our central vision that gives us life, vitality and energy. Like sumo, we must first heed the call to gather to focus our attention on God and to open our hearts to that Reality that sustains all of existence.

Beech and Sakae end their “Time Magazine” article with a picture of the central vision of sumo.

18 students, sticky with sand and slick with perspiration, form a circle around the ring, bring their hands together and bow their heads to the gods. For a moment, the future of sumo is united in worship. It is a most inspiring sight.

I am willing to dispense with the sticky sand and the perspiration but the vision is the same. We gather to bring our hands together and bow our heads to God, “united in worship.” Here we will find an inspiring vision.