The Homestay Experience: Blessing or Being Blessed?

On Wednesday morning we stood in the church parking lot as the van of students pulled away, waving our final farewell as they headed off to the airport and eventually back to Japan. Several families from our church and our sister church hosted 8 students and their 2 leaders for a little over a week.

This would be our third and final year hosting a Japanese student here in the Bay Area; we’re leaving for Japan in just a few months. Each year has been an experience I can only describe as reciprocal, teaching and learning, giving and receiving, blessing and being blessed. Having a Japanese student in your home enables you to appreciate the culture of Japan intertwined with the uniqueness of a person whom God created.

We knew hosting a student would be a little more difficult this year than most. Our house was in a bit of chaos from our weekly purging to rid ourselves of 10 years of material accumulation. Some members of our family would be missing at times due to commitments to other activities we had made months earlier. Yet we felt it was important to host a student, to build a relationship with one more person whom we could reconnect with when we reach Japan this summer.

And God did not disappoint us by providing us with a wonderful student whom we will call J. J is a PK, the son of a Tokyo area pastor. PKs generally have a certain reputation for being a bit on the wild or rebellious side, but J was nothing like that. He was a disciplined young man who started each day before sunrise with a five mile run around the neighborhood. Back home, he was a committed soccer coach (apart from being a full time student at a prestigious university) for a middle school soccer team. He told me that he did not expect his players to do anything he would not do himself, hence his discipline in running every day.

J was also extremely independent. I could tell from his story about growing up as a pastor’s son that expectations were high for him and his siblings and he was expected to contribute in positive ways to being successful and hard working. I felt bad because I never woke early enough to make him breakfast; I only had to show him where everything was and he was content to make his own meal long before I was out of bed.

But for all his independence, one thing J had not had to experience was being humbled, at least, until he came to America for the first time. On one of his morning runs at his homestay before he came to our house, he got lost in the neighborhood. Since it was early in the morning, he couldn’t get in contact with any of his team members. When he encountered people in the neighborhood, he was unable to convey enough information to help them help him. Eventually, the police were called out to help him. By the time the police arrived, he was finally able to get the address of his homestay family’s house, and they drove him back. J admitted it was humbling for him to be in America. To be lost and unable to find a way home. To need help identifying items at the store. To need to rely on other people for transportation. But it was through that humbling that he experienced the love of Christ through other Christians, perhaps for the first time.

From what I gathered, J’s father was a pastor whose style of preaching is more intellectual than emotional. Though his father is an outstanding pastor in his own style, J had never seen a church service different from his father’s church. When he experienced church in an American style, a Japanese-American style, and a Japanese church in America style, he realized the rich diversity in the worship of God. None was more right or wrong than another, only different and beautiful in their own ways. In the same way, J experienced the love of Christ through others in different ways than he had experienced before, and that love fed a need that he had not known he even had.

For me, it was a blessing to be able to see how even among our Christian brothers and sisters in Japan, there is a diversity in the worship of God that needs to be experienced to be appreciated. J’s church is a healthy church where people are being fed from the Word of the Lord, but now he has experienced a different style of worship that will no doubt influence him spiritually in the future. For me, I’m excited to walk with J on this journey and continue to meet with him in Japan to answer his questions about living out his faith in new ways and serving God with the many gifts he has been blessed with.

Please pray for J as he processes all he experienced and learned from his time in America and decides how he can love others with the love of Christ as he was able to receive it from others.

4 Behaviors of a “Soto Muki” (Outward Looking) Church

As our Japanese Christian network continues to expand, I keep “meeting” new people with amazing stories and ministries to the Japanese. “Meeting” in the sense that I am only able to make their acquaintance online and if I am lucky, have a Skype call with them to introduce myself.

Today, I exchanged messages with Kathy Oyama who co-pastors the Biblical Church of Tokyo with her husband Seiji. It turned out we attended this church once 3-4 years ago as a missionary family we know attend there. In the past few years, however, the church has made great strides in connecting with their community, an area of Tokyo with a growing number of young families, a rarity in Japan these days.

The Biblical Church of Tokyo is thinking outside the box to connect with their neighborhood. Here are a few things they are doing that make them exceptional in being an outward looking or “soto muki” church.

1. Participating in the community. Seiji and Kathy sit on the board of their community association along side local business owners and influential people in their neighborhood. By showing they are willing to serve their community in ways that are outside the scope of church activities, they are building bonds of trust and transparency with their neighbors and showing them they have no reason to fear the church.

2. Serving community needs without an agenda. The church found simple ways to serve the community by simply opening the church’s restroom to families playing in the park across the street. As they gained trust, they were able to offer more services, now opening a play center for use of the community families. At no time did they pressure anyone using the facility to attend church; they simply used the “soft sell” of posting information about classes and activities that might be of interest to local families. And the community members were astounded that the church never “forced religion” on them, which built a stronger bond of trust.

3. Relating to their community in the context of Japanese culture. Biblical Church of Tokyo embraces the beauty and uniqueness of Japanese culture. They host their own mochi making party on New Years Day. They celebrate Children’s Days and Respect for the Elders Day. Contextualizing the gospel is very controversial in Japan where so much of the culture is tied to idol worship and animism. Yet in order to make the gospel relevant to the Japanese, who see Christianity as a Western religion, it must be done. The Oyamas address the context of the culture carefully while maintaining the integrity of the gospel message.

4. Bonding with the community in service to others. The Oyamas invite their neighbors to participate alongside the church in serving others in their community. There is no greater opportunity to witness to others about the love of Christ than to work side by side with them. The greatest impact for the gospel in the tsunami affected region of Tohoku was not the people who were being served, but those in the periphery, family, friends and community who witnessed the selfless work of Christians for others.

In a country where the vast majority of the population is apathetic about or sometimes hostile to your faith, it’s easy to “circle the wagons” to protect your flock. But to do so is to ignore the Great Commission (Matt 28:18-20) and moreover, to deny the reason for our existence as children of God: to share the good news with those who have not had the chance to hear it. It takes courage to do what Kathy and Seiji are doing, but through their faithfulness, they are being  building bridges of love with the people around them to experience life in Christ.

Read more about what the Biblical Church of Tokyo is doing in Kathy’s article for Christianity Today.

Preparing for Japan: The Epic Road Trip Begins

Well that is a bit of an exaggeration, but starting yesterday at our sister church in Walnut Creek, we have embarked on a partnership building tour that will take us to at least 9 churches and 2 missions conferences over the next 3 months. Of course for the most part, we’ll have the luxury of returning home to our own beds at the end of the day, but we’ll be mostly MIA from our home church of San Lorenzo for a while.

Like most people, public speaking was on my list of favorite activities just behind falling out of a moving vehicle, but I find that I actually enjoy sharing in public about our ministry in Japan. I suppose if you’re passionate about something and convicted that this is the path God has set you on, you WANT to tell everyone else about it.

Of course, my favorite part of sharing is getting to listen to the stories of people whom we shared with. It was a beautiful melody to hear people come up to us after service to share about their own experiences in Japan and their own compassion for the people of Japan. I am confident that we will receive the prayer coverage we need from brothers and sisters such as these!

Image Problems

I have been told the Christian church in Japan has an image problem. People who attend church in Japan are seen as people who have something wrong with them, something they can’t fix on their own. Attending a Christian church is admitting to society that you cannot deal with your own problems.

How ironic that the Japanese view of the church is more accurate than our own! Sometimes we see ourselves as the healthy ones and the world as the sick. But Jesus tells us in Matthew 9:

“Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”

The truth is that we are no more righteous than non-Christians; the difference is we recognize our need for help. What non-Christians in Japan are failing to see is that there is no shame in admitting that many things in our lives are too great for us to overcome on our own. Only by God’s unconditional love and unfathomable power can we be healed.

The real shame is people trying to get better on our own. Like a terminally ill person refusing medical treatment and trying to will himself back to health with the power of his own mind, the results can be tragic. Only this time, the stakes are eternal.

How much more effective witnesses could we be if we stopped judging people for their poor life decisions and instead extended compassion, lovingly convincing them there is no shame is asking for God’s help?

Is Unity In the Church Just Wishful Thinking?

Whenever I think of the greatest obstacles to evangelization, I always think of the lack of unity among Christians. For whatever reasons, Christians seem to enjoy drawing lines between their group and others that don’t naturally exist. We scrutinize the gospel down to the dots over the ‘i’s and rage against each other over the smallest differences. We find a minor flaw in an individual’s personality and we call it fatal. We get our feelings hurt inadvertently and vow to never forgive.

Call me naive, but I just don’t get it. Given the size of the task at hand and the fact that the harvest is plenty and the workers are few, doesn’t it make sense that we would all strive to work together for the spirit of the Great Commission? Wouldn’t we be wise to set aside the criticism of any differences that are not crucial to the gospel message and work together for the task the Lord has asked us to do? Could we be a little more graceful when dealing with the shortcomings of our brothers and sisters in Christ?

I have had the privilege of working with ministries where minor differences are set aside for the sake of the gospel and I have had the shame of participating on a mission where neither my group nor the group we were conflicted with could get past our differences and thus created a very uncomfortable experience for everyone involved. I have seen how hard feelings have grown out of simple misunderstandings and have a profoundly negative effect on the credibility of the gospel. If Christians can’t love one another with the love of Jesus, then how are we any different than the world?

And yet as I consider the simplicity of the problem, I realize the magnitude of the solution. We are all unique, and uniquely broken, individuals. Jesus doesn’t always fix what’s wrong with us; in many cases He just loves us for who we are and asks us to do the same for each other. The trouble is we rarely do this as well as the example He set for us.

I know when someone has a personality or a habit that annoys me, I can be very judgmental about them. Not in front of them, of course, but behind their backs, gossiping with other people who share my annoyance. But what we may view as innocent talk in secret often leads to hurt feelings, and hurt feelings lead to divisions between groups and divisions between groups create disunity in the church. And when we are responsible for creating disunity in the church, what we are really doing is tearing the body of Christ limb from limb. I’m sorry that isn’t a pleasant image, but it is what it is.

As I was skimming through Francis Chan’s blog recently, I found that he was considering the same issue of unity in the body of Christ. And I was surprised and slightly disheartened to learn that he had found no solution for the problem either. But what did give me a glimmer of hope was the Scripture that Francis found that convicted him this was not a problem we could simply dismiss:

14 For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility 15 by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, 16 and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. 17 And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. 18 For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. 19 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, 21 in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. 22 In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit. -Ephesians 2:14-22

This passage makes it clear that Jesus died on the cross not just for the sake of our sins, but for the sake of unifying people of different nationalities, cultures, languages, and personalities as one body of Christ. Unity isn’t supposed to be pleasant side effect of Jesus’s sacrifice; it is a motivation for His sacrifice.

I believe if we understand the importance Christ placed on unity in the church in full, we would not be so flippant about the things we say about others behind their backs or so casual about rolling our eyes when someone makes a comment we don’t agree with. We would treat each other with much more grace and sincerity. And that would at least be a start, wouldn’t it? We may not conquer the problem of disunity in the body of Christ, but we can certainly stop contributing to it.