Japanese Service and the Intersection of Culture and Gospel

Last year, the Wall Street Journal published an article entitled “How Japan Has Perfected Hospitality Culture”. The author describes in the article how he personally experienced the incredible hospitality of Japanese department stores, hotels, and restaurants, and from his descriptions, one might come to the same conclusion as he did. But is the hospitality culture of Japan as wonderful as it is made out to be?

One thing that should be noted about the author’s perspective: he experienced Japan as a western tourist soliciting the most high end hotels, restaurants and department stores in Tokyo. One might expect good, even great service from the same level of business in any major international city. Does that experience trickle down to the masses who actually live here?

I frequent our local “Mister Donut”, a popular donut chain in Japan. My friend and I basically use it as our office-away-from-home once a week. I order a donut (or two if I’m feeling spendy) and a bottomless cup of coffee and settle in for a 2 or 3 hour study or work session.

At the register, I am given the same good, if slightly generic level of service you can expect at any regular restaurant, store or service in Japan. I am greeted when I walk in the door, and am treated politely and professionally during the transaction and I am thanked or apologized to at least a half dozen times.

But when it comes to refilling my coffee, the employees are on that task with eagle eyes. Rarely does my cup fall below the half-full line (unless the shop gets incredibly busy, which it does at times) before someone is around to offer me a refill. And when the refill comes, the employee knows I take my coffee with cream and sugar and often knows how many sugars to give me. And the refills keep coming until I’m over-caffeinated and have to ask them to stop.

You bag your own groceries at every supermarket in Japan (which is one service exception oddity I have not figured out) but most clerks will sort your cold items from your hot items and give you plastic bags for your meats that are already scrunched up and ready for you to slide the meat package into. They actually work on the task of scrunching up the bags when nobody is at their register. They have hashi (chopsticks) if you buy a bento (box lunch) and spoons for your yogurt and ice cream.

And of course there is the ubiquitous combini (convenience store), which in Japan, unlike America, is actually convenient. I can walk into a store and pay my utility bills, ship my luggage to the airport, or buy tickets to a baseball game. If I don’t know how to do something, the clerk patiently walks me through it, free of eye-rolling or sarcastic remarks.

So yes, I have generally concluded that living in Japan and at least somewhat disguised as a Japanese person, and using shops and services of the average person, I still receive a level of service far above Western standards. And no catch, right? Not exactly.

One must understand that Japan is a very structured, role-based society. Interactions and levels of politeness are afforded to people based on the relationship between two people in a specific interaction. In the case of service provider to customer, there is an expectation of a level of service and politeness that the provider is to give to the customer. In fact, my wife and I often struggle understanding people at shops because there is a special vocabulary that is used for those provider-to-customer interactions!

On the other hand, there is no similar expectation for the customer. The customer may use the rudest forms of language, as if speaking to a child, or not even acknowledge the service provider at all. Aside from not causing a scene in public (which no Japanese person would do because it would bring shame on them), the customer is basically free to act however he likes. In other words, the service provider must lie like a doormat for the customer and thank him for being walked on.

While this all sounds like a good deal for customers, one should expect that at some point, they will need to play the role of the service provider. Helping out at the school thrift shop. Doing part time consulting work. Greeting people at church. And, oh how the tables turn.

When you are put in the position of service provider, you must learn all the nuances of serving others. The attention to detail, the extra greetings and vocabulary, and the humility it takes to not expect anything in return. As one who was raised in Western culture, I don’t know if I have the capacity to do this on a daily basis.

There are lessons to be learned from this part of Japanese culture. Because the ability to give hospitality and serve others is so ingrained in most Japanese, this is a trait they can recognize and admire in Jesus. For it was Jesus:

 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Philippians 2:6-8

The humility of Christ is something Japanese people can recognize and appreciate. Many have probably gone through times when they struggled with having to humble themselves. Yet Christ Jesus never struggled, though he was God and had infinite power at his disposal at any time, even to the point of allowing himself to be killed on the cross for the wrongs we have committed against him!

Sometimes, we tend to focus on all that is wrong with Japanese culture, but there are many things it gets right. Humility and having a servant spirit is one of those things and we should encourage our Japanese friends that this spirit in them is something they already have in common with Jesus, Son of God! Making these connections help break down the fallacy that Jesus is a “western god” and Christianity a western religion.

On George Muller and Faith That Changed the World

This week, I finished a biography on George Müller, the Christian evangelist who went from being a gambler, liar and thief to a man of faith who provided care and education for over 10,000 orphans over nearly 60 years in Bristol, UK during the 19th century.

The life of George Müller is remarkable on many accounts, but none so much as the way he exercised his faith in God. Though he was entrusted with the care of hundreds, sometimes over a thousand orphans at any given time, he never once asked anyone except God to provide financially for them. When there was need, even to the point of having no food to put on the table, Müller and his wife Mary would simply retire to their room and pray, and God would answer, in many cases immediately.

Many famous stories have been documented about Müller’s faith in prayer. At one point, with over five hundred orphans to feed breakfast and not a scrap of food to be found, Müller gathered the orphans around the empty dining hall tables and they prayed together for God to provide them with a meal. Within minutes, a knock came at the door. It was a local baker who said in the middle of the night, he felt an overwhelming urge to get up and bake bread to take to the orphanage the next morning. While the children were eating the freshly baked bread, another knock came at the door. The milk delivery driver said his vehicle had broken a wheel right outside the orphanage. In order to fix it, he would need to unload all of the milk and he didn’t want it to go to waste, so if the orphanage could use it, they could have it for free.

Müller kept detailed records, not only accounting for every penny of his finances (which he would only use as the donor specified it should be used) but also for every prayer request he made of God and the date and way it was answered. Müller not only saw how faithfully God answered prayer, but he recorded everything so that it could be used as an encouragement to others about how God could be faithful to them! Because amazingly enough, serving the orphans was not George Müller’s primary calling; his calling was teaching others that God was absolutely faithful.

It was estimated that over 1.5 million pounds passed through the hands of Müller as he served the orphans. He never kept a penny for himself, and died with 160 pounds in his estate, most of which was the value of his furniture. Nevertheless, he was able to travel the world on multiple occasions  preaching the good news of the gospel and sharing about his faithful God who provided every need for the orphans at just the right time. He never lacked for God’s work to do and was preaching over 300 times per year while running the orphanages and supporting missions work into his late 80’s.

As I reflect on serving in ministry over the past two years, I also see how faithfully God has provided for me and my family. Though I certainly never prayed like George Müller prayed, nor believed in God’s provision like he did, God has still been completely faithful, even generous in providing for us. And when I look at where my faith is today compared to where it was two years ago, it has changed. Though perhaps it isn’t so much that my faith has grown, but that my understanding about God has grown. Müller discovered and practiced a great truth about God; not only is He capable of providing for all of our needs, He loves to do it when we ask. Because as we rely on God for all of our needs, we bear witness to His power and faithfulness to those around us.

But I am even more inspired that God didn’t just provide for the little things of the Müller’s daily life. He provided in abundance for the sake of the orphans. George Müller dreamed big, prayed big, and received big from the Lord. In a sense, his whole life was a challenge to God to show how powerful He is. And God not only came through every time, but He surpassed all expectations George Müller ever had.

Ephesians 3 concludes with this reminder that God’s power  is not limited even to the capacity of what we can imagine:

Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.

George Müller inspires us to pray big prayers and expect big answers from God. As Hudson Taylor, missionary and friend of George Müller once said: “God’s work, done in God’s way will never lack God’s supply.” Perhaps Taylor was thinking of his friend’s example when he said these words.

Reflecting on the World Christian Conference

Communion Candles

This past World Christian Conference represented my third and my last as attendee/staff. Very soon my tenure with the World Christian Fellowship will come to an end as I transition full time into serving in Tokyo, Japan.

In my small group, I confessed that juggling the responsibilities of planning the conference with preparing for Japan had been a distraction for me. In fairness, it’s probably not easy for anyone to focus simultaneously on two tasks of this magnitude, but I admitted that I was just happy that we were able to finally host the conference for our attendees. Oops. That was my mistake.

I now understand the power of confession because soon after those words left my lips, the conviction of the Holy Spirit went to work on me. Was my whole motivation for planning the conference based on putting on a good performance for those in attendance? I had, without ever realizing it until that moment, developed a Martha complex.

But God is so faithful and so patient with me. When I realized how selfish and prideful I was thinking, I immediately repented of my attitude. “Lord, I know this conference is for me as much as it is for everyone else here.” I confessed. And those simple words changed everything.

During the next morning session, the Spirit was able to break through to me and challenge me in an area of my life where I had not acknowledged I was resisting God’s will out of my own fears and insecurities. I received prayer from a dear friend about yet another area of ministry where I would potentially struggle but had not sought prayer before. And another brother, whom I had just met prayed a powerful blessing over me that evening. Throughout the day, I was able to talk to many people, old friends and new, who confessed that God had moved them in a powerful way through the conference.

As the evening session ended, I stood alone but not alone, absolutely basking in the grace that God had for me. Not only had God broken through to me, but to many others as well, who prayed together or simply worshiped around me.

In the selfishness of my heart, I wanted to finish my tenure at WCF strong. I wanted to be remembered as a leader who left WCF in a good place and made positive changes to the organization’s culture. But it was all about me and God reminded me at the World Christian Conference that it’s NOTHING about me and EVERYTHING about him.

So if I am remembered as a leader of WCF, I want to be remembered as a leader who loved my fellow servants as brothers and sisters. I want to be remembered as a leader who came out of my role as Executive Director as a stronger and more mature follower of Christ than when I began. And I want to be remembered as a leader who believed so strongly in the vision of WCF that in obedience to God, I left the best job I’ve ever had at WCF to follow Jesus to Japan.

Why Christian Leadership Is Bogus

I find it interesting how many books and articles there are on becoming a good leader and how few there are on becoming a good follower. I believe the problem we have today is not a lack of good leaders, but a lack of those willing to learn how to be a good follower. Because to truly become a good leader, one must have experience as a good follower.

Think about what it means to be a good follower and you’ll see how applicable these skills are to being a good leader.

Humility. Leaders don’t need to be humble and many of them are not. However, one of the characteristics of what Jim Collins termed “Level 5 Leaders” in his book, Good to Great, is humility. The ultimate test of humility is your ability to help another person succeed without garnering any recognition for yourself. Look around corporate America and I doubt you’d find many people fitting this description. But when you do, you’ll find the makings of a great leader.

Loyalty. The idea of loyalty is one that has gone completely to the dogs these days (sorry, I could not resist). In the ancient times of the 20th century, companies rewarded loyal employees with practically guaranteed long term employment, but in the 80’s and 90’s the pendulum swung the other way. Employment today is based on the “what have you done for me lately?” mentality and being loyal is not on the list of good behaviors. It’s no surprise Corporate America is reaping the rotten harvest from sowing purely performance based reward systems. Backstabbing, hyper-competition between employees and company hopping for better pay are all common behaviors of the American white collar worker.

The idea of loyalty is standing behind your leader through good and bad times, of selfless sacrifice for the good someone else. Today, the idea of loyalty is mocked as archaic, stupid and career suicide. But if you can’t be trusted to be loyal to your leader, how can you be trusted to be loyal to those you are responsible for?

Patience. A good follower is able to bide his time, learning from the successes and mistakes of his leader. Of course, his loyalty demands he do whatever it takes for his leader to succeed, but when things don’t go well, he isn’t quick to try to seize the reigns or break away and do his own thing. The accelerated pace of the corporate world demands that we do things faster, even when faster isn’t necessarily better. The best beef brisket isn’t going to get better by smoking it in half the time. Building an airplane faster isn’t better if you’re going to skip tightening every other bolt.

A good follower knows it takes time to develop the skills to become a good leader. He also knows that becoming a good leader can happen under a good leader, a poor leader, or one in between. It simply requires the willingness to learn and learning takes time.

Here’s the kicker. The ministry is supposed to be a place to serve free from the methods and measurements the world uses to define success. Yet more and more, we see how these corporate ideas of leadership infiltrate the ministry, often in seemingly innocuous ways, teaching about “running ministry like a business” and proposing ludicrous ideas like “Jesus, CEO”.

I have a word for this kind of nonsense that can’t be written in a Christian blog, but it comes from a male bovine and smells real bad. It’s insane to even think of Jesus as a CEO since Jesus didn’t come to earth to maximize shareholder profit, but to give his life as a ransom for many. Any fool who would try to run his company based on what Jesus would have done is going to find himself out of a job quickly since Jesus would have sold the company and given all the profits to the poor. And Jesus never viewed himself as a leader because he wasn’t a leader, he was a Savior. His authority didn’t need to be earned; it was deserved because he was God.

I’m writing this because I know there are many in the ministry who are struggling or suffering because of this deception. Christians don’t need to learn to be good leaders, they need to learn to be God followers (see what I did there? Two in one blog posting!). The missions field is full of cowboys and lone wolves who have been deceived into thinking if something needs to be done, they need to do it themselves. Why try to partner with another ministry that probably has theological or philosophical differences from you when you can simply start your own thing, like a true entrepreneur? In a nation like Japan, where Christian workers are rarer than a late train on the Yamanote line, it’s not just a deception, it is a death sentence. Every day wasted by not working together to serve the Japanese is hundreds, thousands of opportunities lost forever to the cold, unrelenting hand of death.

God, let me learn to be a great follower, to check my ego at the immigration counter and simply learn to serve you with unswerving loyalty and infinite patience.