Dream Big Dreams

In many ways, today was the culmination of over two years of praying, dreaming and planning with our partners from Redwood Chapel. Over two years ago, God brought us together with Redwood Chapel as they sought a vision for ministry to their newly chosen unreached people group, the Japanese. At that time, we had not even left America and were still forming in our own minds what long term ministry might look like in Tokyo. One of the few things we were sure of was that we felt God prompting us to reach children and young families with the gospel message.

It was with that in mind that we floated the idea of a partnership to do some sort of ministry like Vacation Bible School in Japan. We knew from experience on a smaller scale that children loved it and even parents were able to learn about the gospel through the simple message of children’s ministry. But our dream was for something larger: perhaps more churches or a larger scale event, and for the ability to replicate a program across the nation of Japan.

When we found a wonderful church, Nerima Biblical Church, with a pastor couple who shared our passion for reaching families in the community, we knew it would be possible to host some sort of event at our church. So we went ahead and started high level discussions with Redwood Chapel.

We explored the idea with small steps, leading to a small vision team from Redwood Chapel visiting our church last October. On that visit, the person in charge of the preschool whose facility we are using shocked us by offering the use of their facilities free of charge. Suddenly, the concept of “large scale” grew even larger. Here was a brand new facility with the capacity for over 500 children, much larger than any church in Japan could host on its own.

From that point on, we moved forward with the plan to host such an event in August 2016. We met on numerous Skype calls and on our own in both Japan and California. A “dream team” was formed by Redwood Chapel with experienced leaders who could lead the initial event while teaching a Japanese counterpart how to lead in future years.

On July 1st, we opened registration with barely any marketing other than word of mouth. We had no idea how many children we should expect to be enrolled. We told ourselves that we would be happy if 50 kids came the first year since nobody knew what to expect. 50 kids were enrolled on the first day. And enrollment continued until we hit 230 at the end of the official enrollment period. We were blown away by what God was doing in our community. It had nothing to do with us.

To say there was spiritual opposition to our English Summer Camp program would be to put it mildly. We faced all sorts of problems, from fierce political fighting at the facility we were using, to horrible automobile accidents involving team members, and even mosquito-induced anaphylactic shock. Little issues kept eating away at our time, our enthusiasm, our sense of unity. But we pressed on with prayer and the little faith we had, knowing that the work the Lord had begun He would see through.

As I stood on the stage today looking out over our 240+ children, 50 volunteers and a number of lingering, curious mothers, I was close to tears. For two years we dreamed of this day, of the hundreds of little smiles, the ring of laughter, the enthusiastic dancing. And today, there it all was, as if God had choreographed it all behind the scenes while we struggled with our faith to expect even 50 children.

Today was day one. There are five more days of ESC this year alone, not to mention the years of partnership with Redwood Chapel yet to come. There will be spiritual conversations with children and parents. There will be real and lasting impact on individuals and families. There will be amazing works in people’s hearts that only happen through Christ Jesus. And it all began with a dream, a dream that we allowed to be big even when our faith would have kept it small. And everyday, I want to relish it all, to breathe it in like a refreshing cool antidote to the hot summer days, knowing the Lord is moving in our community and in this nation of Japan.

The Evangelical Catholic: Pope Francis

Earlier this week, Pope Francis published a document called the “Apostolic Exhortation”, written to every Catholic in the world. While this document will likely garner most of its attention for its blunt challenge to fiscal policies which have benefited the rich at the cost of the poor, Pope Francis writes an incredibly beautiful yet challenging piece on the topic of evangelism. I am not a Catholic and rarely follow the details of what goes on in the Catholic church, but I was completely drawn in to what Pope Francis had to say. His prose is so moving yet so generous to his audience, it is impossible not to reflect on the wisdom of his words. Let’s put it this way: the full title of the document is “Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium of the Holy Father Francis to the Bishops, Clergy, Consecrated Persons and the Lay Faithful on the Proclamation of the Gospel in Today’s World”. And I still read it.

So powerful are Pope Francis’s words in this document that I am simply going to quote some of the passages so you can let the power of the prose move you themselves.

“Whenever our interior life becomes caught up in its own interests and concerns, there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor. God’s voice is no longer heard, the quiet joy of his love is no longer felt, and the desire to do good fades. This is a very real danger for believers too. Many fall prey to it, and end up resentful, angry and listless. That is no way to live a dignified and fulfilled life; it is not God’s will for us, nor is it the life in the Spirit which has its source in the heart of the risen Christ.”

“We become fully human when we become more than human, when we let God bring us beyond ourselves in order to attain the fullest truth of our being. Here we find the source and inspiration of all our efforts at evangelization. For if we have received the love which restores meaning to our lives, how can we fail to share that love with others?”

“The Gospel offers us the chance to live life on a higher plane, but with no less intensity: “Life grows by being given away, and it weakens in isolation and comfort. Indeed, those who enjoy life most are those who leave security on the shore and become excited by the mission of communicating life to others”.”

“Let us recover and deepen our enthusiasm, that “delightful and comforting joy of evangelizing, even when it is in tears that we must sow… And may the world of our time, which is searching, sometimes with anguish, sometimes with hope, be enabled to receive the good news not from evangelizers who are dejected, discouraged, impatient or anxious, but from ministers of the Gospel whose lives glow with fervour, who have first received the joy of Christ”.”

“In every activity of evangelization, the primacy always belongs to God, who has called us to cooperate with him and who leads us on by by the power of his Spirit. The real newness is the newness which God himself mysteriously brings about and inspires, provokes, guides and accompanies in a thousand ways. The life of the Church should always reveal clearly that God takes the initiative, that “he has loved us first” (1 Jn 4:19) and that he alone “gives the growth” (1 Cor 3:7). This conviction enables us to maintain a spirit of joy in the midst of a task so demanding and challenging that it engages our entire life. God asks everything of us, yet at the same time he offers everything to us.”

“Lastly, we cannot forget that evangelization is first and foremost about preaching the Gospel to those who do not know Jesus Christ or who have always rejected him. Many of them are quietly seeking God, led by a yearning to see his face, even in countries of ancient Christian tradition. All of them have a right to receive the Gospel. Christians have the duty to proclaim the Gospel without excluding anyone.”

Am I a reformed Protestant heartily agreeing with and even endorsing a vision of evangelism defined by the Pope of the Catholic church? Why yes, I am. In fact, I daresay that the Pope understands global evangelism better than some churches who call themselves “evangelical”. Which just goes to prove that those who get it right don’t always get it right, and those who get it wrong don’t always get it wrong. God has been teaching me a lot about passing judgement on others: individuals and institutions. He is reminding me that if I desire to thrive in the mission field (or even just survive it), a black-and-white view of the world simply will not do. There is good and bad in everyone and everything and I must learn not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Evangelism is a messy business because God allows human beings to play a part in it, and sometimes we start thinking we’re the ones running the show. But in the end, God’s will is done, even in spite of us, and this is what we can take our joy in.

Japan Update – Another Giant Leap Toward Tokyo

Jayne completed her interview with CAJ yesterday afternoon and apparently all went well. She received a contract offer a couple hours later. Thank you for lifting her up in prayer; she had a great conversation with the administrators she would be working with and there is mutual excitement about working together in the future.

So the rest is now on us. I have started contacting missions chairpeople from churches we feel would be a good fit for partnership, churches who already have a heart for the Japanese and we have a personal relationship with. It’s scary to think we have to raise our full support in less than eight months, but we are confident if God has brought us this far in this short amount of time, financial and prayer support are not going to be a major barrier for Him.

The Japan FAQ: How Do You Prepare for Japan?

With about nine months to prepare for our move to Japan, it still seems a bit far off. The truth is that moving from a place we’ve now called home for over ten years to a place where we technically haven’t visited yet (the neighborhood we’ll try to find a home in, at least) is a bit daunting. So how do we go about preparing to move to Japan.

I’ll skip the logistics. Obviously, there are the boring details of paring down our material goods and separating our worldly belongings into categories: Keep in the house, put in storage, sell/give away, and trash. I don’t think we need to go down into that darkness.

In a more holistic sense of preparation, how are we going about preparing for Japan?

Getting familiar with the language. Notice this is not getting FLUENT with the language. I’ve been studying Japanese off and on for over a decade and a decade from now, I doubt I’ll still be able to claim fluency in the Japanese language. But gaining a familiarity with the language, by using it at least a few times a day in reading, writing or speaking helps get the rusty wheels of language acquisition turning again. Right now, I’ve committed to 30 minutes a day of language study in Rosetta Stone.  I also intend to start attending our Japanese service once in a while so I can get familiar with Christian terms in Japanese, something no language school is going to teach me. Again, it’s not about fluency, but just about getting used to seeing, hearing and speaking Japanese.

Learning the culture. As a frequent visitor to Japan, I know in the broadest strokes the uniqueness of Japanese culture. However, if you’re trying to figure out how to address the deepest needs of a people, a surface level understanding of culture isn’t going to be nearly enough. This past year, one of my Perspectives instructors clued me to a paper written for the Lausanne Conference entitled “Exegesis of the City” by Glenn Smith. The word Exegesis means an exposition or explanation, but in the context of the city, it is the study of various aspects of a city to discover the entire culture and subcultures that contribute to making the city what it is and determining how to address the real spiritual needs of the city. There are 20 steps in the exegesis of a city including, to name a few: studying significant historical events and how they shaped the city, understanding the different zones of a city and their locations relative to one another (financial, industrial, ghettos, blue collar neighborhoods, etc.), power centers and people of influence,  how communication and information flows,  and analysis of currently existing churches and church strategies, especially among successful, high growth churches.

In this area, I’ve purchased a collection of non-fiction work about Tokyo, ranging from pure historical works to what do Tokyoites like to eat and what neighborhoods do they eat in (I have some ulterior motives for discovering that, of course). I am also researching the locations and basic information about the current growing evangelical churches in the city, in hopes of arranging interviews with pastors or other leaders when we arrive. Of course, much of the research required for properly studying a city must be done in person over a considerable length of time. I think my exegesis of the Tokyo metropolis will continue as long as we are living there.

Praying for Japan. I find it’s important to pray for Japan even more now than ever. The tendency for me is to selfishly pray through my own needs and insecurities about our situation, but it should already be clear to us that if God wants us in Japan, He’s going to bulldoze the path for us (or plant the little flowers along the road, however you prefer to see it). We’re  going to be serving the people of Japan for a long time, so we might as well get into the habit by starting now. There are about a zillion things we can pray for Japan about: suicide, broken families, nuclear disaster, but my focus is on one thing that God has set my mind on: hopelessness. There is HOPE for Japan; his name is Jesus. This is what I believe and why we’re doing what we’re doing.

Today, would you join me, if only for a minute or two, in praying for the people of Japan? Christian, Muslim, Jew, agnostic, whatever you are, God hears a sincere prayer of faith. Pray that HOPE comes to the people of Japan in the form of something worth believing in.

The Japan FAQ: What Are You Going To Do In Japan?

Breakfast at Tsukiji-ny's (with apologies to Blake Edwards)

What are we going to be doing in Japan? Hopefully, eating a lot of this.

The question de jour for us right now is: So…what are you going to be doing in Japan? I have to admit that I struggle for a good answer right now, one that is not too vague. leaving the person asking to wonder if I even answered his question and not too specific, leaving him wishing he never had asked.

No offense to missionaries, but in describing ourselves, I hope to avoid the “M” word completely. Not that I don’t admire and value the work that missionaries have done and are doing, but the word comes with so much historical and religious baggage these days, that once you tell people you are a missionary, they start thinking of religious intolerance, cultural imperialism and a number of other half formed facts about the work missionaries have done throughout the course of history. (Worse still, they imagine a couple of happy fellows in white short sleeve shirts pulling up in their driveway on bicycles that send them scurrying into the house for cover.)

Our organization, JEMS (Japanese Evangelical Missionary Society), has a very simple vision: “Jesus for every Japanese, Jesus everyday.” I love our vision because it says some very important things that everyone, not just Japanese people, and not just non-Christians, should know about Christianity.

Jesus is a person, not a religion. We aren’t going to Japan to bring them religion. Japan has quite enough religion as it is, probably too much, if you define religion as a set of traditions and rules that one must follow to be considered “good” and live without fear of something “bad” happening to you. Jesus is a person, whose life on earth was lived perfectly as an example to all mankind and whose voluntary death on the cross was done as a perfect sacrifice for the wrongs we have done. The only “rule” of Christianity is faith in Jesus, that he is whom he claimed to be. Anything else we do, including moving to another country to share about Jesus, is what we choose to do in response to the love of God through Jesus.

Jesus is for everyone. There is a big misconception, not completely unfounded, that Christianity is a Western religion. While this is definitely untrue (after all, Jesus was a Jew and Christianity began in the Middle East and spread through both Europe and Asia from there), the entanglement of Christianity with Western culture, particularly American, is difficult to unravel. That’s why I like the idea that we aren’t bringing Christianity to Japan. We are bringing the story of Jesus, also known as the gospel, to the Japanese people. Everyone should have an opportunity to know who Jesus is and decide for themselves if he is worthy to be believed. But the fact is the majority of Japanese people, even in the largest metropolitan areas, do not have an accurate depiction of who Jesus Christ is.

“Jesus everyday” is a manta we could all live by. It’s become a bit of a cliche, but I think the best thing any Christian could do when they wake up in the morning is spend a few minutes pondering this question: “What would Jesus do today?” It’s not a question of “What would I do if I were Jesus?” but “What would Jesus do if he were me?” In other words, if Jesus had my career, my location, my material goods, what would he do today? If we answered this question each day with brutal honesty and actually did what Jesus would do, what a huge difference it would make in the world. Because Jesus wouldn’t walk by the homeless woman begging for change in the subway station; he would stop and talk to her and give her some dignity. Jesus wouldn’t spend his whole day trying to make himself look good to his manager at work; he would look for ways to help others succeed. Jesus wouldn’t fall asleep on the sofa watching a baseball game (this hits home for me); he would spend time building up his family and leading them by example to be godly people.

So back to the question “What are you going to be doing in Japan?” In the most basic sense of the question, we will be living out the vision of JEMS: Jesus for every Japanese, Jesus everyday. When I wake up each morning, I want to ask the question, “What would Jesus do today?” and then go and do it. I want to share the love of Jesus with every person I meet and paraphrasing Saint Augustine, when necessary, use words. It is not necessary to be a master of a language to show love and compassion to people.

Yes, I actually do have a plan beyond wandering around Tokyo sharing the love of Jesus with people. I know many people, particularly my parents, would be uncomfortable if I didn’t have any plans beyond that. But the details of that plan are another blog entry unto themselves.

Jayne will be interviewing to serve at the Christian Academy of Japan for a position much like what she does now, helping kids with speech and language issues and learning disabilities (and their families). This is a role that has been needed for a long time at CAJ and she is thrilled to be able to fill the need. We know of friends who were serving abroad who chose to come back to America because help for children with learning disabilities is not easily found in many countries, including Japan. In a larger sense, Jayne desires to contribute to a positive change in the stigma that Japanese culture has toward those with mental and learning disabilities. If Jesus was in her position, that’s what he would do.

So there you have it. That’s what we’re going to be doing in Japan for the next few years. Hopefully, as you follow our exploits, you’ll get a better sense of HOW we are doing what we are doing.

New Beginnings

A view of one of the most densely populated areas of Tokyo and the world, Shinjuku, with Mt. Fuji peaking through the summer haze beyond.

The Fongs are moving to Tokyo next summer.

There, I said it, and now we can get over the awkwardness of the limbo we’ve kept ourselves in for the past couple of months as we ascertained if this was God’s plan for our family.  Obviously there is a story behind this statement, and its an story that reveals how God works in our lives and the gentle ways He coaxes us to live life to the full. It’s a story that started for us in 1996 but took 17 years of baby steps to bring us to the point where we can confidently go to Japan knowing it’s God’s plan and timing for us.

But that story can wait for another day. Today is the day a new season of our lives begins.

Patterns In Themes

CMC West Coast ’11:

We have created a fictional character called a “Christian” who has all the benefits of salvation in Jesus Christ without any of the responsibilities of a “Disciple” of Jesus Christ. The fact is that we cannot separate the responsibilities of discipleship: loving selflessly, defending the poor, bringing the good news to the nations, from calling Christ our Lord and Savior. If He is truly our Lord, we must follow His commandments.

based on Greg Ogden’s message from his book “Transforming Discipleship”

Equipper Conference ’11:

The Jews awaited the arrival of God’s Kingdom as a cosmic event that would restore Israel to political prominence under the leadership of the Messiah. Jesus taught that He is the physical manifestation of God’s Kingdom and that we, through Him, would do the transforming work of His Kingdom in the world. God’s Kingdom is in the midst of us, as our Lord Jesus Christ, and He has included us in the work of “Kingdom building” here on earth.

based on the EC ’11 theme verses, Luke 17:20-21

World Christian Conference ’12:

As sons and daughters of the Most High King, we reflect imago dei – the image of God. As bearers of His name, we have been entrusted with both the calling and authority to carry out His purposes to bring His salvation to all peoples…All the nations are crying out for the good news, and it is time for us to fully embrace what the Lord has bestowed to each and every one of those He calls His own. We will never be completely alive unless we respond to the call and step out in faith with our God-given authority.

description of WCC‘s theme, Entrusted: Stepping Out With God’s Favor

Do you see a pattern emerging here? What are you going to do about it?