This is the statistic that most American Christians are given about Japan that is shocking. Until, at least, you’ve been given that statistic about Japan for the hundredth time and the shock value has worn off. That’s the trouble with statistics; as powerful as they can be, they still represent only a faceless number. And this is the reality that I believe Japan lives in now. Christians are vaguely aware that there aren’t many Christians in Japan but have no idea how to effectively change that statistic.
But if I were to tell you the story of a little girl, perhaps it might change your perspective about the possibilities for Japan. This little girl was born with special needs and was fortunately born to parents who didn’t feel she was any less of a person despite her disabilities. Nonetheless, finding help for her special needs in Japan was difficult and the lack of understanding and support from the schools was discouraging for her parents who just wanted the best for their daughter, like any parents would.
We met this little girl for the first time this summer when her mother brought her to attend our VBS program. Her joy for life and positive attitude were so inspiring to us that months later we still smile when we think of her. But we also remember her mother listening intently as my wife talked about the kinds of programs she used for special needs children in her work and her mother nearly pleading with my wife “You must come to Japan!” Today, this mother takes her daughter to church activities because she sees how patiently and lovingly the leaders and other children interact with her, but also hoping, perhaps praying, that someone will come to Japan to help change the entire landscape of how special needs are addressed.
Then there is the story of the teenage girl living in foster care. She is no longer able to go to school due to her emotional troubles and spends her days lying in bed while other kids her age are in school. Yet in her memories are times as a child when she went to church and read the Bible. She is at a crossroad in her life, a place where she needs something to hope for, something to cling to. She needs to know that God is love and in His love, he sent Jesus for us.
Thankfully, some local Christian friends have built a relationship with her and are now doing practical things to help her, especially in keeping her from falling too far behind academically. So where do we fit in this picture? Three years ago, we visited the school where this girl used to attend and taught her class some English conversation. When we returned this past summer, she remembered us, from that very brief encounter that God arranged long ago. This was the stone that allowed us to further build a relationship on, the stone that allowed our Christian friends to reach out to her and share the love of Christ with her.
Finally, there is the pastor of the local Japanese church. At first, he was apprehensive about allowing us to host VBS at his church, and for good reason. VBS is a program that is rarely used in Japan. Programs that work in America don’t necessarily work the same way in Japan. His church was mainly older Christians, not the young families who are the target group for this type of program. All the planning had to be done through email, and translated between English and Japanese. There were many ways for the program to fail.
Yet after an incredible week of VBS where many new children and their families came to church for the very first time, the church experienced a transformation brought by the Holy Spirit. Even volunteers who were already attending church had their faith in God increased in incredible ways. With tears in his eyes, the pastor thanked us for bringing VBS to his church and praised God for the work He was able to do through the program, and in the lives of members of his church.
These aren’t simple statistics, but real lives touched by the power of the gospel. Yes, even in Japan, considered “hard soil” in the mission field, the work of the Holy Spirit is prospering because we do not lose hope that God loves the people of Japan and wants them to know and worship Him. But “How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent?” (Romans 10:14-15a)
We aren’t under any illusion that the work of spreading the gospel in Japan is not difficult. We simply believe that whatever work is required to reach the Japanese for Christ is worth it because God believes they are worth it. Jesus gave his life because they are worth it.
I’m the first to admit I have no experience in being a full-time overseas missionary and I am not informed in what works and what doesn’t work in the field. I will use this ignorance to my advantage, asking questions, challenging the status quo, getting people to see the problems and solutions from a different perspective. I’m not special. God wants ordinary people like me who are willing to be empty vessels to be used by Him, and perhaps in the process, I will live out an amazing life in Japan over the next few years.
So why Japan? Simply this: God has put the Japanese people in our hearts and we will go where He sends us.