Free To Be

In a recently published article in the Japan Times, the uncomfortable issue of child suicide stemming from school pressures was brought into the light once again. On the first day of the academic school year in April and again on the first day of school after the long summer break, suicides among students spike, a trend that has gone on for over 40 years.

Though the Japanese education system is a wonder in many ways, it has serious blind spots that put children, especially those who have trouble fitting in, at risk. For students who are socially awkward, terrible and often relentless bullying is common. For students who are not academically gifted, the constant pressures of testing, where your future opportunities can be set for you in the 6th grade is a factor. And for students with learning or behavioral disorders, the rigid structure of public school can be extremely difficult, on top of the bullying and academic performance pressures.

Last year at JEMS Mt. Hermon, I was introduced to a brother who is passionate about giving children who don’t fit into the rigid mold of public education and chance to learn, thrive, and be accepted unconditionally. Moto Kimura is principal of the Keiyu Gakuen free school, a church-based school near Ueno Park in Tokyo. Moto is a co-worker in more ways than one: he is a JEMS affiliated ministry worker.

Moto, his wife, and his two children all serve and attend Keiyu Gakuen along with about a half-dozen other staff members. They serve children from elementary school to high school age. The curriculum is fairly fluid and there is plenty of room for play. Minor behavioral “problems” that wouldn’t be tolerated in public school classrooms, like talking out of turn or getting up and walking around during a lesson, are ignored by the staff. The kids are free to be who they are.

Since last November, I have been serving monthly as a Chapel time speaker and photography teacher, as well as an informal English “coach”. I give a simple message to the children which I usually try to focus on God’s purpose for our lives and our value as His children. Then we eat lunch together and I talk to some of the kids (in English and my broken Japanese) and joke around with them. Every two or three months, we also do a simple photography lesson in the afternoon, which is basically teaching them how to use a camera and taking portraits of each other, which I allow them to print on the spot. The photographs they have taken of each other have become a source of amusement and laughter as we bring them back as slideshow material every month.

I love my time at the free school as I have developed friendships with the staff and kids. The kids may not be perfect students but it is not difficult to see how wonderful they are in the eyes of God. They are full of life and happiness, and being in a safe place where they can be who they are without fear of being disciplined or bullied brings out the best in them.

Sadly, not enough is being done in Japan to help the many children who cannot conform to the strict mold of the public education system. While much lip service is paid to reforming the system, at the heart of the matter, society wants children to be trained to conform, which is the basis of Japanese society being group-oriented, not individualistic. So progress is slow and every year, hundreds of children will needlessly take their own lives in protest of the system they cannot fit into.

Like Keiyu Gakuen, the church can step in fill needs where they are not being met. A free school is a huge resource commitment, but having clubs or making the church a place children can come to feel safe, with adults they can trust and who genuinely care about them can make a big difference. As one director of a Tokyo non-profit said so accurately:

“School shouldn’t be a place requiring children to sacrifice their lives. I want children to know there are places other than school where they can learn and make new friends.”

Please pray for the children of Japan, especially now as they return from summer break, but also every day. Pray they find hope in something greater than academics or social standing. Pray they find their worth in the eyes of the Lord, who gave his life as a sacrifice because of his great love for them and us.

The Eternal Hanami

When Spring arrives in Tokyo, the entire city is transformed. I’m not just talking about the obvious transformation of thousands of previously barren trees suddenly bursting with fluffy clouds of cherry blossoms. I’m also talking about the attitudes of the people. I am amazed at the sight of a salaryman rushing off to his job suddenly coming to a dead stop on the sidewalk, gazing up at the beautiful blossoms of the cherry tree, mesmerized. And I too, have found my gaze lingering too long on a lovely cherry tree before suddenly remembering that I’m operating a moving vehicle.

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In the parks, people gather in the evenings and often all day on the weekends, to sit underneath the cherry blossoms enjoying one another’s company and consuming a meal (and often copious amounts of alcohol) and literally breathing in the beauty of Spring. I imagine hanami in Japan has the same effect on the work week of Sweet Sixteen / Final Four week in America; I’m sure if companies could bring cherry trees into the office much like American companies bring in the cable television, they would certainly do so.

So what is it about hanami that is so compelling that it brings productivity in the world’s third largest economy to a near standstill? There have been many theories on this topic (including one which suggests that the DNA of Japanese people has changed to make them more attentive to it, but I’ll skip that one), but I chose a couple of ideas that make sense to me, both based on Buddhism, which has existed in Japan for over a thousand years and is well known to have a strong influence on Japanese culture as a whole.

The first idea is about suffering, a concept that is basically at the center of Buddhism. In fact, the Buddhist view of “heaven”, or nirvana, is the state of mind of being totally without suffering. Christians, of course, share this view though that is only one aspect of heaven. Buddhism encourages exploring human suffering as a means to recognize it and its root causes.

In less modern times, Japanese suffered through brutally cold Winters in shelters that were not designed to keep out the cold (actually, you could say this about most modern Japanese homes as well, but that’s another blog topic altogether). Food had to be stored from harvest and vegetables were mainly the tasteless root veggies that could be foraged. I’m sure many people especially the very young and old did not survive the freezing winter in Japan. The coming of Spring was a huge relief in many ways, and the blossoming cherry trees were a sign that the worst was over. Therefore, Spring was a time to celebrate life, or in some cases, simply survival of the Winter. The harsh suffering of Winter magnified the beauty and promise of Spring.

The second idea is about the impermanence of life, or Mono no aware (物の哀れ) in Japanese Buddhism. Hanami can last a week, maybe two if the winds and rain are gentle. But soon, their lives come to an end. A Japanese tanka, or poem summarizes this idea:

散ればこそ いとど桜は めでたけれ 憂き世になにか 久しかるべき
(散るからこそ桜は美しい この世に永遠なるものはない)

Rough translation: Cherry blossoms are beautiful because they scatter. There is nothing eternal in the world. 

The impermanence of the cherry blossoms is what compels Japanese people to spend their evenings and weekends camped out underneath them, braving crowds of hundreds of thousands of people in some cases. They know that by next week, they may be gone. There is something bittersweet about hanami, a beautiful hope that is quickly gone.

Of course, this all must come back to the gospel. Hanami is beautiful, but lasts only for a short season and is gone. It offers the hope of life, but as the poem reminds us, there is nothing eternal in this world. If we want eternal hope, we must look beyond this world. And when we do, we see Jesus, offering life and hope through believing in Him. For Jesus said in the Bible, referring to those who believe in Him: “I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand.” (John 10:28). Later, the Apostle Paul will also write to his fellow Christians: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope.” (Romans 15:13)

The message of eternal hope is the reason we came to Japan in the first place. We believe there are many Japanese who have never had the chance to hear this message and are literally dying to receive it. The gospel isn’t about us trying to convince people they should become Christians. The gospel is already in itself the most compelling reason for people to believe in Jesus. But it is up to the individual to make that personal choice to accept it or not.

With that, I leave you with some beautiful images of hanami in Tokyo and remind you that this is a mere glimpse of the glory contained within the gospel message, the story of God’s love for the world through His Son, Jesus Christ. This Sunday is Easter, and every Christian church in the world will be focusing on the wonderful gift of Jesus, so if you’ve never heard that story, here are some great places to find out more.

Nerima Biblical Church (Japanese):   〒176-0012 東京都練馬区豊玉北1-12-3 (TEL&FAX) 03-5984-3571

New Hope Tokyo (Japanese / English): Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo Surugadai 2-1 Ochanomizu Christian Center 8F

Grace City Church Tokyo (Japanese / English): See website for location and time

The Bridge Fellowship (Japanese / English): Write to us or call us @ joey@thebridgejapan.com  |  080-5479-1895

 

 

 

Beauty from Ashes, Hope from Despair

Note: While trying to stay as factual as possible, the details of this story were conveyed to us only in Japanese and I cannot confirm everything is absolutely correct. The great news is that with the help of filmmaker Matthew Burns, my friend Paul Nethercott will be releasing a video of Mrs. Fukuoka’s story in the near future. This story only scratches the surface of the story the video will help tell about her. I will link to the video when it is completed.

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Standing on the porch of the new Fukuoka house, now elevated a few feet from its original foundation, one can hear the quiet roar of the ocean beyond the fifteen foot tall cement barrier built to protect the neighborhood from a tsunami. Assuming, of course, the tsunami in question is less than fifteen feet high itself and not the terrifying wave of destruction that occurred in March 2011, which was in many areas of the coast, far greater. Alongside the road running parallel with the coast, a grotesquely twisted guard rail remains where it lay after being manhandled by the power of the water.

We are greeted at the door by Kai-kun, the Shiba dog whose amazing story plays an role in Mrs. Fukuoka’s emotional recovery from the tsunami. Inside the Fukuoka house, Mrs. Fukuoka shows us a few of the many crafts she has been working on lately. Besides the lovely seaglass necklaces that my friend Paul Nethercott has been selling to help raise support for the 2 Criminals film project, she shows us adorable things she has been sewing: purses and bags. And with the seaglass, she has moved beyond just necklaces, now making earrings and candle holders.

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Soon, we are walking down toward the beach, along a road that was once lined by the houses of Mrs. Fukuoka’s neighbors. Most have gone now, some taken by the surging sea, some moved on to other areas, some still stuck in temporary housing. Mrs. Fukuoka reckons all the neighbors who intend to return have already come back, a few family homes scattered around the desolation now overgrown with weeds and littered with debris. But for the ones who have chosen to return, they are very close, sharing a bond only those who survived such a traumatic event could share.

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On the hill behind the Fukuoka house is the building where Mrs. Fukuoka watched the waters sweep over her neighborhood and eventually over her house. The presence of the hill and her instinct to run up it probably saved her life, but from that view, she watched the horror of the power of the tsunami unfold. The family dog, Kai-kun, was tied up at the house when the tsunami came. It wasn’t until the following day that she learned he had gotten free and somehow managed to swim to safety. Miracle number one.

Weeks later, as Mrs. Fukuoka struggled with the emotional weight of the disaster, she began to take Kai-kun for walks on the beach. The beach made Kai-kun happy and his happiness in turn made her happy. It was on one of those walks when Mrs. Fukuoka first saw the glimmer in the sand of a smoothly polished piece of seaglass. Garbage and other debris were constantly washing up on local beaches for months after the tsunami, but this seaglass, there was a beauty in it. Sure, most of it had probably gone into the ocean as a result of the tsunami but the sea had returned it in a new shape, as something beautiful. Miracle number two.

On her daily walks on the beach with Kai-kun, Mrs. Fukuoka would find many pieces of seaglass of all shapes and sizes. Using fine wire and nimble fingers, she creates unique necklace pendants and earrings. Many of her creations end up being given away to friends and other people she meets. Paul has purchased hundreds of her pieces to sell, helping raise awareness and funding for the movie project.  But for her, it is part of her healing process, to take back from the sea something of beauty and use it to bless someone else.

Indeed, there is no better word to describe this woman than “blessing”. Instead of choosing hopelessness, bitterness or despair, she chooses to infuse beauty and love into the lives of others. As we sat around her table listening to her and her husband talk about their lives and family, it was obvious that they, like Kai-kun, were meant to live, meant to bring hope to the people around them.

The upcoming video was meant to be a blessing to Mrs. Fukuoka, to aid in her emotional healing by giving her an audience to hear her story. As we reluctantly said our goodbyes to her, it was less clear whether the blessing was on her or more so on us that day.

Reflecting on 3/11 – Hope for Japan

 

In the winter of 2011, nine months after the tsunami changed everything in Japan, I sat with Pastor Jonathan Wilson at a Christian conference in Southern California. While Jonathan Wilson may not be a household name here in America, he is destined to become one in Japan and possibly throughout Asia. As Executive Director of CRASH Japan, it was Jonathan’s team that coordinated the relief efforts of thousands of volunteers from hundreds of Christian organizations coming into Japan to serve after the devastation of the earthquake/tsunami/nuclear disaster. Literally days before Typhoon Haiyan took an equally heavy toll on the Philippines, Jonathan Wilson was there, training local Christians on large scale disaster response. But I digress.

The point of this story is how the experience Pastor Jonathan shared with me about Japan changed my perspective of serving there. Until I heard from Pastor Jonathan, I felt, as many American Christians do, that the Japanese people need the message of salvation, that they needed to be saved, one by one, from the error of their beliefs. It was a Western-centric perspective that though well-intended is wrought with judgment and condescension.  On the other hand, Pastor Jonathan served many years in Japan before the 2011 triple disaster. He preached the same message to the Japanese people the whole time, but it wasn’t until disaster struck that the message really sunk in for many. What was the message he was preaching? Hope.

If you ask a person who lived through the tsunami what hope means to them, the answers are pretty concrete. Moving out of temporary housing and back into their family home. A community of friends and family who can support them emotionally. Rebuilding a life that was literally swept away from them one horrific day in March 2011.

Apart from those who lived through a tragedy like this one, however, the idea of hope becomes more vague. Japan is, in its own eyes and the eyes of much of the world, a successful country.

Though Japan puts on a facade of a country that has it all together, some serious cracks are appearing in it. The suicide rate in Japan continues to be an epidemic and train service on lines in the Tokyo area are halted daily by suicide attempts on the tracks. Social issues like hikikomori, shut-ins who live in their parents’ home and refuse human interaction with anyone, number in the hundreds of thousands. And problems the world assumed Japan did not have like homelessness, child abuse, and violent crime, have become more visible to the general public. And what can prevent and/or relieve social issues on a scale this large? Only one thing: Hope.

When we view Japan with the lens of our American context, we assume Japan can handle its own problems. After all, that’s how we do it in the West. What we forget is that Japan doesn’t have the infrastructure of churches and social services that America has. For whatever negative things can be said about the churches in America, there are a multitude of positive things that can be said about them. Churches and other religious organizations are the primary providers in America for counseling, serving the poor, and defending the helpless, like the elderly and the orphaned. The same cannot be said of Japan, where the responsibility lies chiefly with the government, a government hopelessly overwhelmed with other issues that demand its attention.

Simply put, it is the church’s responsibility to bring hope to Japan. It’s not something they can manufacture for themselves, nor are we exporting it from America to them. Our hope is in the gospel. It is in the person of Jesus Christ, our Savior and Redeemer. We will go to Japan with that message and to partner with Japanese Christians to encourage them to share hope with their communities. Because it’s going to involve every Christian in Japan to get this message out to the people.

And hope is a message that can’t simply be shouted from the rooftops or handed out in tracts at Shinjuku station. It’s a message that requires the messengers to get their hands dirty, to go into the dark places where hope is needed most and to WORK out the message in love and deed. Bringing hope to the homeless means spending time with them, giving them back their dignity, meeting their physical, emotional and spiritual needs simultaneously. Bringing hope to the abused means being a person who is trustworthy and kind, a person who rebuilds the self-esteem that someone else destroyed in them. These are not places we would go by ourselves, but Jesus himself leads us there.

There are a growing number of Christians in Japan who realize the urgency of sharing the gospel in their communities and are finding creative ways to communicate the gospel. These are the people we are seeking as partners. It isn’t our intention to convince those who think otherwise that they need to change what they are doing, but we are happy to work with those whose hearts, like our own, have already been changed by God. They see Japan not as a nation needing to be saved from itself, but a people who need hope in Jesus.

If this message strikes a chord with you, I challenge you to do something about it. Pray with us regularly for hope to come to Japan. Whether in a sentence before eating a meal or on your knees before dawn every morning, every word prayed in earnest is like a fragrant offering to God (Psalm 141:1). Prayer is pleasing worship to God and when He is pleased, He will answer. Join us in this critical activity for bringing the hope of Christ to the many Japanese who need to hear about it.

Japan FAQ – Why Japan?

1% Christian.

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.

 

6 Things Christians Must Know About Japan

As I have been sharing with new people about our move to Japan, I have found that many Christians have a surface knowledge about the spiritual condition of Japan but surprised to hear about some of the details. I don’t profess to be an expert on the subject, but over the past few years, I have both studied and experienced spirituality in Japan, so I feel I do have something valuable to share on the topic.

What I have discovered in talking with people is that many people are at a loss when it comes to how to minister to the Japanese people. They know of the social problems and the “1%” (commonly used to describe the percentage of Christians in the Japanese population). They know about relief efforts to the Tohoku region. But they aren’t sure how Christians working in Japan can influence the spiritual environment in any lasting positive way. If I could share with every Christian some facts about the condition of Japan and the role of the Christian in Japanese society, it would be these six things:

Christianity is strongly identified with Western culture.

From its first introduction in the 17th century by the Jesuits to the post WW2 churches planted by Baptists and Methodists, the Japanese people have always seen Christianity as a religion brought into Japan by Westerners. That fact influences the acceptance of Christianity in Japan, but not always in positive or negative ways. There have always been periods and demographics who are more accepting of Western ideas than others, and in these times and groups, Christianity has been more influential. On the other hand, in periods of nationalism or jingoism, Christians are often used as scapegoats or at the very least, alienated from society. One family that we know settled in an area outside Tokyo specifically because it was known for its hatred of Christians from the decade leading to WW2. On a prayer walk around the neighborhood, they discovered old signs saying “Christians not welcome here” were still on display!

As long as Japanese people view Christianity as a foreign religion, they will always have an excuse to reject it. Even today, we are seeing a frightening rise in the right-wing of Japanese politics, those who spew hate and intolerance for things deemed non-Japanese. Should these radical thinkers gain a foothold in national politics, it could spell dangerous or at least difficult times for Christians, Korean-Japanese, and immigrants in Japan.

This is precisely why it important for Christians in Japan to refrain from simply “selling religion” and get to the basics of what Christianity is about, a personal relationship with the Son of God himself, Jesus Christ. Japan does not need another religion; it needs the healing, saving power of the love of Jesus. Aside from that, non-Japanese Christians in Japan need to allow Japanese Christians to contextualize the worship of God into their own culture. After all, that is exactly what we have done when Christianity was brought to the West from the Middle East. I’m sure a person from the Middle East would be completely befuddled by our representation of Communion, but what is important is what it represents, not how it is performed.

Japanese Christians should be identified as persecuted.

When we think of persecuted Christians in Asia, we probably think of Chinese Christians or perhaps Indian Christians or Indonesian Christians. We don’t think of Japanese Christians as persecuted because Japan has freedom of religion and separation of church and state.

But many Japanese Christians suffer greatly when they make a decision to follow Christ. Often, this suffering comes in the cutting off of relationships, which in Japan, is extremely important. You may damage or lose your relationship with your family members. Your friends may no longer wish to socialize with you. You become less of a person in the eyes of the very people whose opinions matter to you.

Then there are the other subtle persecutions. Perhaps your job will not accommodate schedule flexibility for you to attend church on Sundays. Perhaps a local community center will not allow you to use their facilities for Christian activities, though they have no problem allowing festivals of a Buddhist or Shinto nature. Perhaps a local business refuses to do business with members of your church. While all technically illegal, the government turns a blind eye to these sorts of behaviors. Why? Because, as we have already established, Christianity is a foreign religion.

There is great personal cost for a Japanese person to become a Christian. Most Japanese already know this before they make a decision for Christ, but when they encounter the ugliness of discrimination or persecution, that knowledge doesn’t bring them comfort. As outsiders, we won’t feel this persecution in the same way they feel it, so we need to be extra sensitive to what we are asking a Japanese person to sacrifice when we offer them the gospel. And as brothers and sisters in Christ, we need to give them extra support and grace in dealing with what they have had to leave behind.

The greatest impact Christians have on Japan is on those watching how we behave.

After the earthquake and tsunami hit Tohoku in Northern Japan, hundreds if not thousands of Christians rushed to the region to help in the relief efforts. In the beginning, they were a few among the crowd of government workers, NGOs, and other non-religious organizations helping those who suffered loss. A year after the incident, however, most had moved on from Tohoku, but of the ones who remained, the vast majority were Christians.

I asked Jonathan Wilson, Executive Director of CRASH Japan (which coordinated most of the Christian based relief effort for Tohoku), if the Christian response to the disaster was more effective at reaching those who were being directly helped or the community around them. Jonathan responded that “…while we might not see many of the elderly people that we have been serving come to Christ, it is the fringe around them that have seen the selfless service of the Christians to their neighbors, friends, and relatives that are more open to it than they were before.”

Now, there is a simple truth about Christian faith in action, and that is that the world watches our every move and this holds as true in Japan as it does anywhere else. When we respond to people the way Jesus would have responded to people, with love in action and not hypocrisy or empty words, people may open their hearts to the truth of the gospel.

Put into application, however, I believe this opens tremendous opportunities for us as Christians in Japan. We should seek to serve “the least of these”: homeless, orphans, the poor, hikikomori, the hopeless, but we should not seek to do it alone. Whenever possible, we should work alongside Japanese non-believers, so they might witness the love of Christ in action. How often do Christians take their own initiative to address disaster or social problems, but do it on their own? When we isolate ourselves, we miss out on a huge opportunity to witness to a group of people who already share a core value with us: compassion.

There is no “right way” to minister to the Japanese.

Throughout the history of Christianity in Japan, there have been many waves of missionaries entering Japan to try to find the most effective way to reach the Japanese heart. After centuries of work, I conclude there is only one way to reach the Japanese for Christ: whatever way works.

Facetiousness aside, approaching Japanese evangelism as a puzzle to be solved presupposes that there is time for the puzzle to be solved. Every day spent developing strategies for reaching the Japanese and not doing actual evangelism is hundreds of lives lost forever. Death claims too many Japanese lives every day, nearly 100 by suicide alone.

While I don’t think it’s wrong to evaluate what has and hasn’t worked in terms of evangelizing the Japanese, it is easy, given the poor results over history, to over-analyze the problem. To try to simplify the solution assumes a relatively homogeneous Japanese culture, and we know this just isn’t true. The  teen aged Tokyoite is nothing like the aging farmer of Niigata.

When missionaries entered Japan after WW2, they largely approached the evangelism of Japan with a cookie cutter approach based on what they knew best: American Christianity. Go to church at many of the rural churches established during this time frame and you’ll feel like you stepped back in time, attending a Midwestern American church in the 1950’s. While these missionaries certainly had good intentions, they had not anticipated the Japanese cultural penchant for faithfully reproducing what already existed, rather than evolving for the changing times. As a result, many churches now serve the needs of the older members of their congregations now reaching their 70’s and 80’s while remaining largely irrelevant to generations of younger Japanese unfamiliar with the traditions and values of the times.

Unlike the US, where it seems like there is a ministry tailored for every demographic, there are large voids in the Christian ministries to the various demographics of Japan. What I believe this means is that creating strategies to reach the Japanese is not a productive use of time when 99% of the people you meet are not Christian. If you have the gumption to start a ministry, chances are you will reach somebody. And if you stick with it, you may reach many. Or better yet, join an existing ministry that is already having success since they probably need your help.

Organizations like TEAM Japan, World Venture and JEMS understand that flexibility and creativity are important elements of developing ministries in Japan. If your approach doesn’t work, you need the freedom to re-evaluate and try something different. One missionary friend we know spent over a decade in Japan helping his church to raise funds to build a building. In the end, they had the building, but the people weren’t showing up. They had focused on building the building without building the church. After taking a sabbatical, they decided to return to Japan focusing on building house churches, a ministry that has been much more successful in reaching the people of Japan.

Even at home, ministries reaching Japanese students like ISI or JCFN are using innovative ways to reach the Japanese while they are abroad and helping to connect them into Christian networks when they return to Japan. We need to use whatever means are at our disposal RIGHT NOW to reach the Japanese for Christ.

Small church does not equal bad church.

One myth that I bought into as an American Christian was the myth that small churches are part of the problem in Japan. The average size of a church in Japan is probably around 20 people. But small churches are not the problem. Small churches that are not growing are the problem.

In terms of buildings, things are much smaller in Japan. A Japanese megachurch is not ever likely to be a reality because the cost of a facility to house a congregation numbering in the thousands is probably beyond what the congregation could afford to support. Many churches are built for congregations of less than 50 people, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

The problem occurs when a pastor decides, consciously or unconsciously, that he must limit the size of his congregation to that which he alone can support. Or when a church or its governing organization decides that church can only occur in a church building, presided over by an ordained minister and only on Sundays. When non-biblical standards are placed on the church that keep it from growing, then we must address the problem.

The idea of the house church is still not as well received in Japan as it is in many other countries where Christianity is thriving. Missionaries have to take some of the blame for this, directly or indirectly, for establishing the protocols of the early and mid 20th century where house churches were virtually unheard of in the United States. Churches and their affiliations who are suspicious of the nature of the house church and lay leadership also need to examine the reasons behind their policies and whether the risks they are guarding against are greater than the threat of the death of the traditional Japanese Christian church due to its inability to adapt.

Small churches are a wonderful thing if they are allowed to thrive through multiplication instead of addition. This of course requires that lay leaders be trained and trusted to care for house churches, a role traditionally filled only by an ordained pastor. I’m not an authority on the pros and cons of house churches, but I do understand that exponential growth of the church, which is absolutely necessary in Japan if any real impact of the gospel is to be made, requires more flexibility than the model the traditional church has been built on.

More than ever, Japanese people need something to believe in.

The current generation of young Japanese have known almost nothing but heartbreak. The Japanese economy began its slow but relentless decline in the early 1990’s and has yet to show any lasting recovery. For the first time since the 1950’s, a university graduate has no guarantee of a career in a stable company, like his parents or grandparents had. Disaster struck in 2011 with the largest earthquake in modern history followed by a devastating tsunami, natural disasters that could strike almost any part of Japan at any time. These disasters triggered a nuclear catastrophe which effects are still largely unknown due to the failure of the government to inform and protect its citizens. The growing power of both China and  South Korea have caused international friction and a rise in right wing extremism in politics and society in general.

A century ago, the Japanese looked to their Emperor as their god. The defeat of Japan in WW2 showed the Emperor was simply a man after all and left a spiritual void in the hearts of the Japanese which has yet  to be filled. The decades of economic success following the war temporarily filled that void with the idol of materialism, but now,  even that is gone. Nature, with its earthquakes and tsunamis is dangerous and unpredictable. Government has failed them. What is left for the Japanese people to hang their hopes on?

In a sense, there is nothing left in this world for the Japanese except Jesus. As the trustworthy saying goes, “You don’t know Jesus is all you need until Jesus is all you have.” But millions of Japanese people don’t have a clear understanding of who Jesus is. This is what I believe our role is in Japan and the role of every Christian in Japan: to preach the name of Jesus Christ and demonstrate the love of the Father who sent Jesus as Savior to all mankind.