Bridging the language gap
Three ways that God has provided opportunities for me to minister to Japanese people
In the 25 years since I moved to Japan, I have tried a variety of approaches to ministry outreach through teaching English. I’ve seen God work in three significant ways to bridge the language gap.
God drawing students
Like many rookie missionaries, I wanted to share the gospel, but the concepts were beyond my Japanese ability and the English was too difficult for most of my English students. But as Jesus said, “No one can come to me, unless the Father who sent me draws him” (John 6:44 NASB). For me, one early bridge to success came when God drew English students to seek Jesus on what common ground we could find—through language classes.
One starry night during my first year in Japan, my students (nurses at a children’s hospital) walked me to my car after our English class. I had been chirping my excitement about a Bible study I was in. As I reached my car, there was a lull in the conversation and a sad thought came: These women would never want to study the Bible.
Suddenly, the class leader asked me in Japanese, “Would you teach us the Bible?”
Astonished, I stuttered, “Could you say that in English, please?”
She confirmed her request, and we began our adventure the next week.
As my mother often said, “No one can think about God on an empty stomach.” The nurses came straight to class—sometimes late—from work. On our Bible study week we cooked in the morning and brought food, which we ate as quickly as possible, then dived into a study of women in the Bible. They read handouts in Japanese, while I followed along in English. Then we pooled our language skills to have a discussion.
Within a year, the class leader, her six-year-old twin daughters, and two of the other students joined me on a trip to the States, attending church for the first time. This resulted in questions which we addressed in our monthly studies. Unfortunately, when I later returned to the States to fundraise for long-term ministry, the Bible study ended because other teachers in my company did not have enough Japanese to continue it. However, I am still in touch with the leader, who has achieved her dream of opening her own restaurant. She assists in gospel outreach by distributing fliers to her customers.
Through our class, it has been a blessing to see these women, who didn’t mind my limited Japanese and were willing to bend their schedules, drawn by God to catch a glimpse of the kingdom of heaven. At the same time, I have learned that it is a worthwhile struggle to learn Japanese as well as I can, to help them to venture deeper.
On my return to Japan, I attended language school full-time for two years. At my leaders’ recommendation, I continued only one Bible study during that time. It was with a student who had gravitated from English classes at her company to BEHoP (Bible/English Home Parties), a circle from which interested students could move into private Bible studies. That student came to believe in Jesus, and we enjoyed watching God bring many others into our weekly circle in a park after church, with an obentō lunch followed by Bible discussion and prayer.
After I graduated from language school, a BEHoP student named Yūko was given a Japanese Bible by her uncle, a believer in San Francisco. He told her to read it, so she obediently tried, but could not understand what she was reading. I was asked to help Yūko, and this year we celebrate our 17th year of reading the Japanese Bible together! Other seekers have joined us for various periods in what we call Bible Discovery Group, because we all make discoveries, rather than my teaching the study like a class. This group would never have been possible if I hadn’t taken the time to do language study.
Using an English children’s Bible
For several years, I looked after the house and pets of a pre-believing friend when she went on vacation. I would also teach her English classes. Following a former teammate’s example, I used an English children’s Bible with her students—as I do in my own private classes. I use it because it is accessible to beginners, and advanced students don’t mind the colorful stories, either.
The doctors at the children’s hospital in my English class there were so receptive to the story of the angel Gabriel’s visit to Mary that I chose it for a lesson at my friend’s home. Her students became so excited about the story that they asked to read the children’s Bible together at my house. They even opted to begin with the Old Testament instead of the Gospels, because they didn’t want to miss anything!
Here are women whose hearts have been grabbed by God. At first, I felt a little awkward, not wanting to steal my friend’s English students. However, to my relief, our format soon settled into the students taking turns reading one sentence at a time in English, translating it into Japanese on the spot, then discussing a few pages at a time, all in Japanese.
In March, they came in chattering about the COVID-19 virus, and I was delighted that our Bible lesson happened to be on “Faith or Fear.” The story was of twelve spies sent to report on the land of Canaan. We looked at the devastating results of the spies’ choice of fear over faith—death in the wilderness for all except two courageous spies (Num. 14:28-30). Until then, my students had never viewed their response to the COVID-19 threat as a decision. When we finished, a student named Masako remarked, “This was a great session. It’s like a whole new world!”
Soon after, Masako showed up alone, unable or unwilling to wait for our April lesson using the children’s Bible. She wanted to sit in on Yūko’s lesson (by then we were into Acts), but after a bit she wanted to know where to start reading on her own. Yūko and I agreed that the Gospels would be best, and I lent Masako a copy of the Jesus film, as an introduction.
After that session, as I was leaving the house to go for my weekly swim, I found Masako and Yūko still chatting in the parking lot. Masako expressed fear about the virus because of her age and medical condition, and I was able to remind her of our choice between faith and fear.
By God’s grace, the eagerness of my students and materials I was given in both Japanese and English, I could start teaching the Word as a rookie missionary. Next, intensive language study has allowed me to continue in my friends’ heart language. Finally, I am grateful for the use of a children’s Bible to “lower the bar,” so that less advanced students can practice English while deepening their understanding of God’s truth.
Through such bridges, our Father has invited these precious women into his new world. What an honor it has been to point the way to him over my 25 years in Japan, in spite of and even because of our language gap.