Doing mission when you’re not a missionary
A transfer has landed this UK author in Japan with her husband, living a life she never imagined
As a pastor’s kid, I grew up listening to missionaries by the boatload. They were the super Christians— translating the Bible, preaching to the masses, and saving the savages. Although (typically) badly dressed and over-enthusiastic about reaching the lost, they seemed to me to be the godly elite. When I left the church in my late teens, my view of missionaries changed very little. Perhaps I was a little more cynical about the dangers of cultural imperialism, but missionaries still seemed a cut above normal churchgoers. Even when I became a Christian in my late 20s the idea of being a missionary or any kind of cross-cultural witness seemed, well, a bit unlikely. I’m not a fan of mud huts, I’m terrible at languages, and I’m definitely not super-spiritual. But I find myself living in Japan following my husband’s secondment (transfer) with his company to Tokyo and realised that to be involved in cross-cultural evangelism takes all kinds of Christians, even ones who’ve never been to Bible college. I’ve also realised that you can still be (in fact, dare I say it, need to be) involved in mission even if you’re not a missionary.
One of the things we noticed in Japan is that is it unusual to invite people into your home. Although Japanese are social, it’s much more common to meet people in restaurants or izakaya (Japanese bar). As a result people have been disproportionately pleased to accept invitations to our home to eat western-style food and see how foreigners live. This in turn has opened the door for us to host a variety of events including Christmas parties, board game evenings, a 100-day celebration for our daughter, hanabi (fireworks) parties, and numerous dinners.
Although not explicitly outreach events in the conventional church sense, we’ve found that over a glass of mulled wine or bowl of slow-cooked pork there have been many chances to share something of our faith and to build relationships with people. It’s also provided a relaxed and easy environment in which to introduce our Christian friends to colleagues and neighbours, which in turn has made the transition to inviting these same colleagues and neighbours to church much easier.
Another way we have had the opportunity to serve is through volunteering at a local children’s home. We stumbled across a small NPO called Joyful as a result of an interview with its founder Liza Satō that was published in the English language newspaper, Japan Times, in December 2014. The charity works with a number of homes in the Kanto region providing English lessons. We contacted them and a few weeks later began teaching every other Saturday.
In the 18 months since then we have been able to build relationships not only with the children we teach, but also with other students and the home and the staff. This has led to some unexpected experiences, including my husband being asked to dress up as Father Christmas for the home party and being able to take the kids to watch the JBL (Japanese Basketball League) final. More significantly, it’s been a chance to show something of the love God has for the fatherless. It has also undoubtedly been a highlight of our time here in Tokyo.
The reality of my husband working as a salaryman for a Japanese company has been one of the hardest aspects of being here. The pressures of work in a society in which the company is “god”, hours are long, and therefore family life is sidelined, has been tough for all of us. The temptation to resent the frequent business trips and nights alone with a crying baby is a real one and a battle I frequently lose.
However, there have been a number of advantages, too. Apart from the obvious financial and practical provision, the community the company provides has been a huge blessing. In Japan it is still expected that you join a company for life. For my husband, having joined as a graduate and now in his 11th year with the company, he has had the opportunity to build significant relationships with his colleagues. One advantage of the long hours is that he gets to spend a lot of time with them. He became a Christian whilst working for the company, so his colleagues have seen the change in him and this has paved the way for many gospel conversations.
As a company wife, I have also been able to get to know many of his colleagues. Corporate events such as the annual undōkai (sports day) have provided more formal opportunities to spend time with his co-workers, whilst dinners, hospitality, and the time I left my keys at home and had to wait outside his office on the 16th floor for his meeting to finish, have been less formal. I now meet up weekly with one of his female colleagues for an English conversation class and regularly see other company wives with babies of a similar age.
Having a baby in a big city can be an overwhelming and lonely experience. It was for me, and whilst this may have been intensified by being so far from our extended family, for many Japanese women I think it is similarly difficult. Many of the mothers I’ve met in our local park or children’s centre have husbands who work long hours. Even with my limited Japanese there has been the opportunity to build friendships.
What all of these activities have in common is the opportunity for us to build relationships with the people God has put us alongside. While it is far from my childhood perception of a missionary (there has been a lot more visits to Starbucks than I would have thought), my husband and I have had the opportunity to share both our lives and the gospel with people here. God exhorts us to “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have” (1 Peter 3:15, NIVUK). This is what we are trying to do here in Tokyo, however imperfectly, and we’re grateful for work providing us with the means to do so. We’re also grateful there isn’t a mud hut in sight.
Photo of author by Mark Bello