When Mission Becomes Life

Tomorrow marks 19 months to the day that we arrived in Japan with stars in our eyes, giddy with expectation. Tomorrow is Tuesday, and it will feel like just a normal Tuesday with school and work, a trip to the supermarket and some language study time. Many of the things that fascinated me about Japanese life are no longer quite so fascinating. We are grateful to be able to walk a couple hundred meters (yes, meters, not yards) down the road to pick up some fresh produce from a roadside stand and leave money in a lockbox, but it’s no longer a novelty. I no longer think the world is ending when driving down two way streets that are the width of 1.35 cars and I see another car coming toward me. These are all just part of our life now, the life we have here in suburban Tokyo.

I can’t say for sure when I personally crossed the point where I stopped thinking of myself as a missionary and began to regard our current situation as a season of our lives. But with that shift came some changes in mentality, some good, some bad, some just gray. For those who desire an insight into the mind of a 1.5 year learner in the field, here’s what I have come to understand so far.

Ministry life integrates into the world we live in. Recalling the horror stories from Perspectives class of missionaries who go to third world countries and literally build themselves fortresses to live in and wonder why the local people never trust them, we laughed and said we’d never be like that. But separation happens in subtler ways in the field as well. My weakness is definitely language. If I can get away with speaking English in almost any situation, I will. The other day I asked the cashier at Costco in Japanese if I could speak English. She replied (also in Japanese) either Japanese or English was fine. So of course, I defaulted to English. Seems innocent enough, but that decision draws a line between myself and a local person that doesn’t need to be drawn.

I’ve made a decision to be more intentional about language acquisition this year. It is one barrier between myself and the Japanese people that I don’t want to let languish any longer. But many things can become the “fortresses” we live in. Where we chose to live, where we chose to worship, who we chose to become close friends with. And in order to live in the world we have chosen to live in, we may have to make some uncomfortable choices that draw us closer to the people we have come to share the gospel with.

Boundaries are difficult to identify, but must be set. The more ministry becomes a part of everyday life, the harder it is to identify the boundaries that separate ministry from our personal lives. But wait, that sounds like a contradiction, doesn’t it? Shouldn’t ministry fully integrate into our personal lives?

The answer to that could probably be debated at length, but one thing is certain; nobody is able to do ministry 24/7. There must be Sabbath days, times of refreshing for our souls, times to spend only by ourselves or with our family. Jesus set many examples for us to follow with regards to time alone with God, time fellowshipping with his closest friends, and time being among the needy crowds. He took naps at times which his disciples may have considered inconvenient for him to do so! But Jesus knew how to work, how to play and how to rest.

In a workaholic society like Japan, setting work boundaries is actually a ministry in itself. If we don’t set aside time to refresh ourselves, we are no different from secular Japan that tells people they must work themselves to the point of exhaustion to be productive and therefore, worthy. If our lives in Japan are to be a witness to those watching us, then we need to demonstrate the value of the Sabbath, of time for ourselves and our family. It’s unfortunate that many churches fail because their pastor, in their zealousness for God’s work, forget to set boundaries and forgo rest and refreshment time.

I want to do it all. But there are times when I need to be reminded that I’m not here to do it all. That God has a specific calling for me at this time and I need to stay true to that calling and not wander off following the latest, shiny thing I see. The way I do this is to always know our vision, our church’s vision, and ensure every activity I do is in alignment with those visions. English Summer Camp is one of those programs where it is crystal clear that it aligns with the visions we share with our church pastors on reaching the young families in our community. And so I weigh each of the ministries we are involved in against our personal ministry vision and our church ministry vision and it becomes much easier to know how to prioritize my time and energy.

We are in the world, not of the world. We are truly blessed in having so many people and churches partnering with us in ministry that finances are rarely a concern for us. I don’t say this to boast, because I know God has provided those partnerships for us and given people a heart to reach the people of Japan through our ministry, and that is humbling. It is also a responsibility that I don’t take lightly and thinking about how we spend based on how God has provided is at times stressful.

The worldly man in me sometimes desires to be free of that responsibility. “If we were independently wealthy, we could focus on the things we want to do and not have to worry about financial accountability,” I think. And then I start wondering how I can make that happen.

Now I don’t believe being wealthy is a sin, but when it becomes a distraction from our ministry, then it becomes sin. And when I start to see the blessings of God as a burden because I am too proud to accept His financial blessings on us through others, that is certainly sin.

Where this really hits home is with photography. As I gain in experience and exposure, many well-intentioned people have talked to me about ideas for making my photography more profitable. And I must admit the idea of becoming financially self-sustaining through photography is a seductive idea. But at this season in our lives, it just isn’t in alignment with our vision.

The way I try to bring these impulses under control is to offer my photography services to ministries and ministry workers at pro bono or highly discounted rates. Of course, photography is an expensive business to be in because of the cost of equipment, and the wear-and-tear and technological advances that require equipment to be replaced. But though I have been able to offer free or nearly free services to local ministries, God has still provided financially an amount of money that can be used to cover the cost of repairs or replacement for much of my equipment. This is funded through gifts and donations from ministries or payment for small photography jobs unrelated to ministry.

Believe me, it’s difficult to explain to people that I can offer free or highly discounted photography services to them because of the obedience and generosity of individuals and churches back in America supporting us. But it’s a story I love to tell because it is a concrete image of God’s faithfulness at work and the love of Christ through his body, the church, in action.

No one is an island. One of the most disappointing things I see among fellow ministry workers and organizations is the cowboy mentality that often comes with being raised in the West (western culture, not western US). I believe walls between churches and organizations were crumbled as a result of the cooperation needed to respond to the 2011 Tohoku disaster, but remnants of the walls still remain. As we live here, we see them, though again, more subtly than one might imagine.

But I do realize that many missionaries and organizations want to work alone or within their own context. Working with other individuals, churches, denominations is messy. Feelings get hurt, people get offended, too many opinions on how to do things get thrown around. I’ve been on both sides of that as well, feeling like an outsider being kept out and feeling like an insider needing to exclude others from my work.

The fact is, the work to be done in Japan, in Tokyo even, is too great for one family, one church or even one organization to tackle alone. Our English Summer Camp will likely require 100 or more volunteer helpers, many of which will need to be proficient in Japanese and English. Our church alone won’t have the resources to staff it. We will need members of other churches or organizations to help us. And what will they gain? Perhaps nothing apparently significant. No new church members. Maybe a line item on their annual report.

But the Kingdom of God gains. The reputation of the church in Japan gains, as not-yet-believers see that we can work together as well as we can work separately. New believers are added to the global church who will eventually gather in Heaven, worshiping God together.

The enemy seeks to divide the church. He has done it successfully since the church was founded and he knows it is one of our most glaring weaknesses. For while we argue and offend others with differences in opinion that are insignificant to the gospel message, we are distracted from doing the real work of the Lord together.

Ministry workers, we need thicker skins. We need to not take offense when someone disagrees with something that in the big picture is minor. Political views. How we raise our children. Even minor doctrinal differences that have no bearing on the message of the gospel. And we need to stop feeding the machine that turns us against each other. Stay positive. Focus on the only message that matters: the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Because in the end, we need each other. We need to help one another. We need to deal with one another, warts and all, because that’s what Christ called us to do. That’s life: dirty, messy life. Let’s not forget when we answered the call to join the front line of the battle for people’s souls, we would be living in the trenches.

Ichinomiya: Second Home

We arrived in Ichinomiya yesterday afternoon to overcast skies and a cool ocean breeze which felt so good after the heat of our Saitama summer days (yes, we technically live in Saitama, by way of some bizarre city borders).

We first came to Ichinomiya almost 14 years ago, with a 4 month old baby boy. It was a time when we didn’t even realize we would be involved in ministry in this town 10 years later, let alone move to Japan as full time ministry workers. I remember walking from the house across the busy highway to the beach, dipping my feet in the cool but not cold water and thinking how beautiful and peaceful this place was.

Today, standing in exactly the same place with my feet in the same water, I felt the same feelings. But the beauty and peace this town brings me is no longer just a surface feeling, but a feeling in my heart. We have so many friends here, people we love and have worked shoulder to shoulder with for the sake of the gospel.

In a few days, our California team will arrive and we will begin another year of summer ministry in this area. It will be non-stop, exhausting days, full of the joy of working hard for the Lord. But today was just another sleepy day in Ichinomiya, a meal with friends, a shopping spree at Beisha, a soft creme cone eaten hastily before it melts in the hot summer sun. God’s blessings are on this place and I, for today, have enjoyed soaking up some of that blessing before the days get a little crazy.

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YWAM Tokyo Video – Why Japan?

 

We’ve been asked this same question, “Why Japan?” in many forms and nuances. What blew me away about this video, produced by YWAM Tokyo’s David McDaniel, is how similar the answers this video provides are to our own. Broken families, suicide, and hopelessness among a population of people with less access to Christianity than many people groups in far more remote or impoverished places in the world. A beautiful people, intelligent, hard working, hospitable and generous. Like David, I see an incredible opportunity for Japanese Christians to be bearers of the the good news of the gospel to other parts of the world. But how can they go if we do not first go to them?

A couple of important take-aways from this video:

1. This video could easily have been called “Why Tokyo?” rather than “Why Japan?” Nearly a third of the population of Japan live on the Kanto Plain, which is the Greater Tokyo Metropolitan area along with the people of  nearby prefectures. It is the single most populated metropolitan area in the world. We didn’t choose Tokyo, but God chose Tokyo for us. We believe He did this because of the impact Tokyo can make on the rest of Japan and the world. This is why I have been reading Tim Keller’s “Center Church” and following the Redeemer: City to City movement to better understand how the great city centers of the world will be used to share the gospel to all nations and people. Growing up in a suburban church, urban ministry is a stretch for us, but we are excited to engage the people of the city and share the gospel with them.

2. This video reflects our reasons for serving in Japan nearly word for word, which is amazing because I have never met David McDaniel before and we have no affiliation with YWAM as an organization. This is a huge encouragement to us, however, in that we can see how God has aligned the vision of many church leaders in the Tokyo area. We already know of several others missionaries and Christian leaders serving in the Tokyo area who also strongly agree with the content of this video. Sometimes hashing out differences in vision is what stands in the way of making progress, but being able to go to Tokyo and basically “plug ourselves into the machine” will be a great benefit to our ministry and hopefully a blessing to those whom we will serve alongside.

 

 

Japan Update: March Madness

This month we’ve been blessed with so many opportunities to talk about our ministry in Japan. For those who haven’t had time to keep up with us, here’s a summary of what we’ve been doing:

March 1: OMS Holiness NorCal Missions Conference

We shared about our ministry at the Northern California OMS Holiness Missions Conference at Santa Clara Valley Japanese Christian Church in Campbell.

March 8: Reaching Japanese for Christ Conference, SoCal

We attended the Southern CA RJC Conference at Wintersburg Prebyterian Church in Santa Ana. Made new networking contacts and learned new information about the profile of different generational groups of Japanese, contextualizaton of materials for Japanese VBS programs, and cultural differences to consider when sharing the gospel with Japanese.

March 9: Los Angeles Holiness Church

We were blessed to be able to share about our ministry at our sister church, Los Angeles Holiness in Los Angeles, and catch up with many old friends.

March 11-19: Younglife Japan Homestay Program

We hosted a student who came with the Younglife Japan ministry team from Chiba. Went with the group to Yosemite, hosted a soccer clinic and ate a lot of great food.

March 23: Fremont Asian Christian Church

We gave the message for FACC’s service. Besides explaining our ministry vision, we also presented on the spiritual landscape of Japan and the opportunities and challenges presented.

March 23: World Christian Fellowship Prayer Group

We spoke at the WCF East Bay Prayer Group in Castro Valley. Our message was on our journey that eventually led us to make a decision to become full-time ministry workers in Japan.

Coming up March 30: Tri-City Chinese Baptist Church

We will be speaking for 25 minutes during the English service of TCCBC in Fremont and doing a Q&A about our ministry during the English Sunday School hour after service.

Is Missions For the Young?

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This past weekend I had an opportunity to speak on Missions at a youth conference. Though the conference itself was nostalgic for me (I remember attending a similar event as a teenager many years ago), I have to admit, I initially struggled with how I should present Missions to teenagers. Two thoughts immediately came to mind when I thought of youth as missionaries: most teenagers aren’t thinking of participating in missions and most adults, including their parents, prefer it that way. I realize these are broad generalizations, but I am talking about the majorities, not the total. So stay with me here.

It took me several weeks to even formulate what I felt God wanted people to hear about youth as missionaries and I want to summarize it here for those who weren’t able to attend my workshop (in bullet points, naturally).

  • God has endowed young people with special gifts for missions ministry that adults rarely have.
  • Young people have a powerful advantage in sharing the gospel with other young people, and 50% of those who are yet unreached are under the age of 20.
  • Missions is not just for missionaries. If you are a Christian, you have already been called to Missions.
  • So what are you waiting for? Go to the world and shine!

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The critical point for the youth was that if they weren’t thinking about missions, they need to think about it because as part of multi-generational missions teams, they play a critical role in  connecting with people their own age. But as parents of teenagers or leaders in the church responsible for missions, we also need to change our thinking about involving youth in missions. Youth are not a burden to a multi-generational missions team. They fill a role that adults cannot fill adequately: as connectors to people of their own age group. Adults preach the gospel to children through words; children preach the gospel to each other through their lives.

I’ve served in missions long enough to realize we create a lot of barriers to involving youth in missions. We designate specific missions to the young: low risk, low cost, “easy” ministry. This is a disservice to our children. Instead, we need to consider how youth can be integrated into multi-generational missions teams to give those teams greater reach and impact in the world. As parents, we loathe to send our children into situations where there is an element of danger. As natural as that tendency is, what message are we communicating to them? That our faith is so small that we can’t entrust their care over to God? Believe me, I’m not condemning any parents for thinking this way. I don’t like the idea of sending my children into potentially dangerous situations and I have yet to be tested on this. But when the opportunity comes, I need to be prepared to be obedient and faithful and let them go.

The highlight of the weekend for me was Pastor Tim’s altar call, when he asked the high schoolers who would be willing to serve as missionaries or even full time ministry workers. At least a dozen students stood to commit themselves. Looking back at myself at that age, I would have remained sitting. But the commitment of these young people ready to serve the Lord in missions and ministry just blew me away. These are our future church leaders, our future missions deacons, our future missionaries. As I parent, I felt a great sense of joy that no matter what the world tries to tell us, the world is safe in the hands of this generation.

Faithfully pray for this generation, that they will carry out the task they have committed to and that they will courageously shine the light of Christ into the world of darkness.

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Day One

Photo by Paul Gor

For our 90+ first time attendees of the World Christian Conference that took place this past weekend, this post is especially for you. For the rest of you, you’re welcome to read this post too! 🙂

As first timers, and I count myself among you, attending the World Christian Conference can be a shock to the system. It is, after all, a weekend packed with messages from the Lord that are by nature going to turn our worldviews inside-out. When we are in complete obedience to God’s calling in our lives, we realize the priorities the world measures us with have no relevance to us. We may find ourselves caught up in the battle between flesh and Spirit.

Today, on Day One, the Spirit has the advantage. But even now, the world and the prince of this world, Satan, are relentlessly chipping away at your resolve with distractions and discouragement. They may seem subtle at first, but in time, the passion lit in your heart will fade and you will look back and wonder what happened to your motivation to live out God’s calling.

I want to remind you now, while it is fresh in your hearts and minds, that your relationship with World Christian Fellowship did not end yesterday when you left Redwood Christian Park. Your relationship with WCF began when you arrived at camp and we are still here, walking beside you to support you in prayer, encouragement and networking. As long as you stay plugged in with your WCF community, we commit to helping you find your place in the Great Commission.

There are currently two very practical ways for you to remain connected with us:

Prayer Groups. WCF Regional Prayer Groups were the foundation of our organization, existing even before the World Christian Conference. We still believe Prayer Groups to be the heart of our ministry, giving our community a place to meet regularly throughout the year to pray, learn and network with other World Christians going through the same trials and joys you are. You may contact the Regional Prayer Group Facilitator in your area on our website to find out about the group meeting near you.

What? There’s no Prayer Group meeting in your area? Well, that’s even better news! If you have the heart to establish a Prayer Group, our Regional Prayer Group Coordinator can train you to host one. Prayer Groups can meet in homes or churches; the important thing is that they provide prayer, learning, and networking opportunities for our community members.

Serve. If you believe God is blessing World Christians through the ministry and events of WCF, we welcome you to join us. We are in the process of defining the roles and skills we  need for our ministry, but it is never too early to let us know you are available and willing to serve with us. Currently, you can contact me and I will keep your information handy and send you an information packet once we are ready to communicate about our volunteer opportunities.

We are encouraged as your co-workers in Christ to accompany you on the journey you are on. Let’s keep pressing on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus (Phil 3:14)!