Thursday, August 23, 2012

Considering Vocational Ministry in Japan?

A few days ago I received an e-mail from a Christian college student from the United States who had read a post I had written on Christianity in Japan--he shared his burden for the Japanese and asked what steps he might take to prepare for future ministry in Japan. It took me a couple of days to respond as I thought about his question (most of these things I have done myself), but here is more-or-less what I wrote to him with edits made to conceal personal information (I also added bible verses for emphasis and combined some things): [many of these will be applicable to other mission fields than Japan!]

'Church' by Shohei Hanzaki (flickr) 
The Japanese are the largest "unreached people group" (youtube) in the world, a missiological term to designate those groups with less than 2% Christian population. Japan is one of the most resistant countries to the Gospel in spite of it being a country open to missionaries.

Many missionaries have spent their entire careers (30+ years) in Japan and only seen a hand full of fruit; and we some of the church's best and brightest to Japan--there are numerous reasons for this; historical, cultural, linguistic and spiritual--but it is enough to say that there is a great need for prayer for the Japanese.

Japan is worth investing your entire life in for the sake of the Gospel--but it also has one of the highest missionary attrition rates of any missionary field (possibly the highest) because of the cultural, spiritual and financial issues involved in being a missionary in Japan--missionaries to Japan experience burnout at a much higher rate than in other fields. This is probably due to the amount of labor put in versus the yield of fruit and the difficulty of living in Japan cross-culturally long-term.

I say this so that you are prepared--it isn't going to be easy. It isn't going to be easy raising support for Japan (although I have heard some amazing stories of people getting over in as little as 3 months) and it isn't going to be easy staying (the exchange rate right now is a monster).

Since you are in college now, here are a few steps you may consider taking:

  • Missions is not the ultimate goal of the Church. Worship is. Missions exists because worship doesn’t. Worship is ultimate, not missions, because God is ultimate, not man. When this age is over, and the countless millions of the redeemed fall on their faces before the throne of God, missions will be no more. It is a temporary necessity. But worship abides forever." -John Piper, 'Let the Nations Be Glad.' The most important thing you can do to prepare yourself for missions is to cultivate a life of worship. Develop a strong personal devotional and prayer life--as a missionary in Japan you will often feel lonely and isolated and you must be able to feed yourself spiritually. Worship is the most important preparation for missions and is the fuel for missions. 
  • "'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ -Luke 10:27. After love for God, we must love our neighbor--pray for the Japanese people. Pray for Japan--find out if there are any retire/furloughing missionaries to Japan in your area and see if they have a prayer meeting for Japan. If you can't find one, consider starting one of your own! Find out if there are any Japanese students at your school--make friends with them, if they are Christian learn about their experiences as a minority in Japan and pray together with them. Encourage them as they most likely will be returning to Japan as missionaries even if you never do. If they are not Christian, learn about their experiences and share your faith with them.
  • "For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them." -Matthew 18:20. Attend a Japanese church in the States if possible--see if they have a service time you can attend or they may have a bible study you can join. Most likely you will be partnering together with the Japanese church in the future, so it is best to learn as much about the Japanese church culture as possible.
  • "Then how is it that each of us hears them in his own native language?" -Acts 2:8. Study the Japanese language--language and culture are interwoven, and it will be a good step in understanding Japanese culture. Take a class at your college if possible--if not, see if there is someone you can meet with for lessons. There are also a lot of free Japanese language resources online
  • "And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight." -Philippians 1:9. Take the Perspectives course--this is one of the most valuable educational experiences you could possibly get, definitely take it even if the Lord doesn't lead you to Japan. Start reading missions and theological books--consider Lingenfelter and Mayer's 'Ministering Cross Culturally,' David Hesselgrave's (former missionary to Japan) 'Communicating Christ Cross-Culturally,' Paul Hiebert's 'Anthropological Insights for Missionaries,' books and articles by Harold Netland (former missionary to Japan, professor at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) on Japanese Buddhism... read your Bible too. If the Lord so leads you, consider an MA in Missions as preparation for service in Japan. Check out JEMA and the Hayama Mission Seminar Reports for more information--study history as well, understanding the history of Japan is invaluable as a potential missionary to Japan. Also read up on missions at the Lausanne Global Conversation and Mission Frontiers. Missionary biographies are also very good devotional reading.
  • "I pray that you may be active in sharing your faith, so that you will have a full understanding of every good thing we have in Christ." -Philemon 8. If you are in a Christian college, take some missions courses, if not, join a group like Navigators, IVF or CRU and get experience doing discipleship and evangelism. If you are at a Christian college find out if there is a missions interest group or prayer meeting; if not, consider starting one!
  • "While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off." -Acts 13:2-3. Share your burden for Japan with your church leaders. If your church has a passion for missions, make sure they know you are praying about vocational ministry--its never too early to start; they will help you be accountable and get the training and support you need. If your church isn't responsive, join a church with a passion for missions. 
  • "The LORD God said, "It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him." -Genesis 2:8. "Don't we have the right to take a believing wife along with us, as do the other apostles and the Lord's brothers and Cephas?" -1 Corinthians 9:5. If you are in a relationship, pray about taking steps towards marriage--being a single male missionary in Japan is super tough. Loneliness and the sexual saturated culture are a bad combination. If you have any issues with singleness, start praying for God to provide you with a mission minded wife.
  • "Barnabas took Mark and sailed for Cyprus, but Paul chose Silas and left, commended by the brothers to the grace of the Lord." -Acts 15:39-40. Begin the application process with a missions agency--its not too early even though you are in college. Pray about the best agency to serve in Japan with, whether you will go short term (2-3 years) or long term (3+ years). Consider your theological preferences, strategy and location within Japan. If you are a Southern Baptist, EV Free or part of a CMA church, consider going with your denomination. Also consider how much support you will have to raise--you'll find groups like YWAM and Operation Mobilization on the low end (with a short term emphasis), Pioneers, OMF, MUPS and World Venture in the middle; Asian Access, SEND, TEAM and Converge Worldwide (who I am with) tend to be on the higher end; I know because I asked most of them. ASK QUESTIONS to missions agencies. Some of the reasons I chose Converge Worldwide were its theology, long history working in Japan (60 years), strong partnerships with Japanese Churches (The Japanese Baptist Church Association), and their strong relationship with the Converge Churches here in the USA. Find out about the member-care options of each missions agency you are interested in--are they going to take care of you if something goes wrong? What about health insurance and retirement? Is there pastoral/spiritual counseling and leadership available? What does the team situation look like on the ground? Do you agree with their theology/strategy? Do you like the people you are going to be working with?
  • "While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols." -Acts 17:16. Consider taking a extended vision trip to Japan if you haven't already. Living in Japan for six months as a short-term missionary really helped me to fall in love with the Japanese people even more--and I went through culture shock and saw the ugly side of Japan, and got through culture shock and past the honeymoon phase. If your school has a study abroad option and you have time left, consider a semester in Japan. You may also begin preparing for next summer--I have a friend named Dan Basco who spent his entire summer in Japan shadowing missionaries with a couple of different organizations (TEAM and SEND) in order to find out where his best fit may be. 
  • "Finding the disciples there, we stayed with them seven days... But when our time was up, we left and continued on our way. All the disciples and their wives and children accompanied us out of the city, and there on the beach we knelt to pray." -Acts 21:4-5. Connect with RJC: Reaching Japanese for Christ--and attend a regional conference--network with others burdened for the Japanese. There is a lot of great work being done among the Japanese diaspora here in the states! 
  • "I tell you, open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest." -John 4:35. I highly encourage you to look into the topic of Church Planting Movements (pdf by David Garrison)--these days I have been exploring a program called Training for Trainers and have been considering how it might be implemented in Japan--there are 128 million Japanese, and only about 10,000 churches in Japan; there is a huge need for a multiplication of church planting. There are a lot of different kinds of missionaries--but church planting missionaries are urgently needed in Japan. 
  • "'For in him we live and move and have our being.' As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’" -Acts 17:28. Study Japanese arts and culture! Watch Japanese movies--Akira Kurosawa (Ikiru), Yasujiro Ozu (Tokyo Story), Hirokazu Kore-eda (Still Walking, Nobody Knows, I wish), Hayao Miyazaki (Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke). You can learn a lot about the Japanese from media--but it is passive, and it is just one voice; it can supplement your interactions with Japanese people as you prepare for ministry in japan, but it cannot replace them.
  • "Therefore, my brothers, be all the more eager to make your calling and election sure." -2 Peter 10. Pray some more--ask the Lord to confirm your calling to vocational ministry. Because of the difficulties of serving in Japan it is very important that you make your calling sure. If God wants you there, you will get there, but if God hasn't called you there, you won't be fruitful there.
  • "Young men, in the same way be submissive to those who are older. All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because, "God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble."-1 Peter 5:5. Be in relationships of accountability--if you have any patterns of sin in your life that you need to deal with, deal with them now, don't bring them to the mission field. Also, if you have any family problems, abuse, anger issues, identity issues, consider visiting a Christian counselor before going overseas--many missions agencies are now making this part of their recruiting/training/orientation process. 
  • "Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is not disciplined by his father?" -Hebrews 12:7. Finally, prepare for suffering. I want to re-emphasize an earlier point: fall in love with the Japanese people. After worship and prayer this cannot be over emphasized. Love for God and love for the people he has called you to serve is going to help you to persevere in the midst of suffering. This is what is going to get you through some of those really tough times on the field dealing with culture shock--that and the sovereignty of God--knowing that he is going to be glorified among the Japanese! 
I also should mention that going to Japan with a missions agency is not the only way to get there--you can also go as an ESL teacher (possibly with JET) or work directly with a larger Japanese church if you can make the connection. If you can get your Japanese language skills up high enough you may even consider seminary or graduate studies in Japan (Christ Bible Institute in Nagoya would be a good option--it is strongly evangelical and has an international faculty).

This is not an exhaustive list, but it is a good start and should give you plenty of things to look into as you prayerfully consider serving the Lord Jesus in Japan!

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