A few years back I tried to gather as much information as possible about the state of the Japanese church. Last time I reported on these statistics, church membership was down, church attendance was down, baptisms were down… it wasn’t a great time for the Japanese church. Periodically I wonder what, if anything, has happened since then. Read more about Japanese church statistics, revisited
A few friends have shared this article by Joseph Kim, explaining why he’s a missionary to Japan. It does a pretty good job of some of the context to Japanese society, even if some of the figures are off. Read more about What does a mission field look like?
Jamie points out that if you want to be a missionary, one of the best things you can do is get a job. And she’s right. It’s very good advice. Experience in that thing called the ‘real world’ gives you many of the things she points out, and one more that she doesn’t: you get to understand how people actually live. So if you’re going to be a missionary, get a job. But then give it up. Leave it behind. And know you’ve left it behind. Read more about Get a job - then get a vocation
When I first came to Japan as a missionary, I was convinced that what I needed to do was to fit in with the Japanese culture. This is what we were taught that we had to do. So I really tried my hardest to work “in a Japanese way.” I lived in a Japanese style house. I sat on the floor. I tried to speak indirectly, and to hold back in meetings from telling everyone about my brilliant ideas. (Well, usually I tried.) I would take Japanese o-bentos to meetings in case anyone was looking, when what I really wanted was bread.
It was crazy. I remember looking at a row of aftershaves in a supermarket and, without word of a lie, thinking “what kind of aftershave would a Japanese man buy?” (Stupid really: any of them, that’s why the shop sells them.) I wanted to smell like a Japanese person. I really wanted to fit in, and this despite the fact that I was six foot one and white. I worried about doing the wrong thing. I worried about saying the wrong thing. I worried about how what I said would be interpreted. I worried about offending people unintentionally—I worried All. The. Time.
It was very, very stressful. Read more about Culture is hard
- You make yourself unavailable to the pastoral needs of your church members.
- You lose the opportunity for fellowship with other missionaries and church leaders.
- You can’t evangelise yet; you need to put more time into building the relationship.
- Sermons don’t write themselves, Bible studies don’t prepare themselves.
- It’s more important to train other people to do the work instead of doing it yourself.
- There’s an important meeting about proposed changes to the denominational organisational structure that you should be at instead.
It’s now clear that we live in the proverbial interesting times.
Long-established dictatorships in the Middle East crumbled within a matter of months in the face of mass non-violent assembly - although nobody is yet sure quite what happens next. That doesn’t happen all the time. Entire European economies are failing in slow motion. Tens of thousands of people are currently right now in protest at… well, basically at the whole way Western society works. Sure, that happened to some degree with the student protests in the 1960s, but this is global. The relationships and even the rules of international diplomacy are being rewritten as a result of a small bunch of volunteers who believe that information wants to be free, and they’re not alone in that belief.
Each of those is a once-in-a-generation thing, and they’re all happening at once. I think all this means that we’re sitting on an inflection point, the kind of thing that keeps the history books interesting. Read more about Interesting times
Many of my friends are also missionaries, and missionaries tend to communicate with each other and with their friends “back home” by sending out newsletters. You know like those “family news” letters that people put in with their Christmas cards, the ones you never read or regret it when you do? Those. I feel like I ought to care about what these people are doing, especially if they’re my friends, and yet I end up binning most of these newsletters either totally or partially unread.
Now there could be several reasons for this. It could be because I’m a cold, uncaring person with a miniscule attention span. I am willing to give that possibility a lot of thought. But I think there are other potential reasons that aren’t due to my own narcissism: Read more about Why I didn't read your newsletter
The problem that you come up with is that linguistically you want to be as much of a native as you can, but culturally there is a delicate dance that you have to perform. In one scene the dancer behaves like the locals. In other scenes he pulls back and asks am I going too far, am I crossing a boundary and interfering now with the local sense of identity. Occasionally the dancer goes too far and confronts an attitude of “Look, you’re obviously not one ofus; you’re trying to pretend to be one of us and the more you pretend the more we find problems with that, the more you make us feel uncomfortable. You’re intruding into our identity. You’re being presumptuous that you can really be one of us.” And that’s why I talk of being the ideal foreigner, that there comes a time in which you say, particularly in some cultures, “Look, I’m never going to be anything but a foreigner here.”
- Ronald Walton, National Foreign Language Center, Johns Hopkins University
So, I’ve been rummaging through archives to try to understand more of the history of our churches and why things are how they are. In the course of that I’ve found a whole bunch of field reports, which are the mission leaders’ reflections on how things are going, to be sent back to home bases. Fifty years ago, cultural sensitivity was not necessarily a strong point for missionaries, but the power relationships in churches seemed to be somewhat the same as today: