God’s pursuit of the oikos
What if we were to embrace a model of reaching out to relational groups in Japan?
God loves families. In Scripture, it’s often the entire family at the receiving end of the Lord’s salvation. Remember when God saved Noah—and his family? Or when God rescued Lot from Sodom—along with his family? God saved Joseph—and his family, even the brothers who sold him into slavery. And it wasn’t only Rahab who escaped Jericho’s fate. Her whole family experienced deliverance by the God of Israel that day. In the book of Acts, there’s a recurring theme of entire households hearing the word of God, believing, and being baptized together.
The family, or oikos, plays a key role in God’s kingdom expansion plan. In the New Testament, oikos is the Greek word often translated into English as “household.” This would refer to one’s immediate family, but it may also more broadly include one’s relatives and close friends (as in the case of Cornelius—Acts 10:24, 11:14) and even an entire people group (“oikos of Israel”—Matt. 15:24; Acts 2:36).
We see this disciple-making strategy of pursuing the oikos in Jesus’ instructions to his disciples in Luke 10 and Matthew 10. Upon finding a “person of peace” (Luke 10:6:5–6 CSB) or one “who is worthy” (Matt. 10:11 CSB), the disciples were to stay in the home of this person. So as we search for “persons of peace” among the Japanese, we are not simply looking for an individual who shows interest in the gospel, but one willing to open their oikos to the word of God as well.
This wasn’t a new strategy Jesus was teaching, but one he had already modeled. Remember when Jesus called Matthew to follow him? Matthew obeyed, and in the very next scene, we see Jesus eating with Matthew and his tax collector friends—his oikos—in Matthew’s home (Matt. 9:9–10). Or what about Zacchaeus? He shows interest in Jesus, and Jesus boldly invites himself into Zacchaeus’s home. “I must stay at your house today,” Jesus said (Luke 19:5 NET). Jesus looked beyond one man’s salvation. He went on to declare—“Today salvation has come to this household [oikos]” (v. 9 NET).
I have to admit, this perspective of seeing beyond the individual to one’s family does not come naturally for this Westerner. I grew up in a culture of individuality, where personal choice often trumps family concern. And if I’m not careful, I transfer that worldview to my ministry strategies, which can inadvertently lead to the extraction of individuals from their relational networks. Not only do we see a contrasting biblical pattern, but these results stand in strong opposition to Japanese society.
Challenges of “one-at-a-time” conversion
For those of us who minister to Japanese, the challenges for individuals considering allegiance to Christ are painfully clear. Shame associated with a perceived betrayal of family and heritage is a favorite weapon of Satan, and he uses it to drive fear into those who would otherwise find following Christ attractive. Seekers may consider family tradition and societal responsibilities as barriers that simply cannot be overcome, and this can cause many to move towards Jesus with much caution or not at all.
The struggles continue for those who take that step of faith and receive Jesus. This is not just a Japanese issue, but across Asia there are many missionaries who can tell stories of those who have lost jobs, of marriages that have ended, or of family harmony broken by distrust and misunderstanding. We minister in Malaysia to the Japanese diaspora and others. One Chinese woman in my neighborhood moved to Malaysia with her kids to give them an English education. She was led to Christ by some teachers here and recently returned to her homeland. Her husband and son are strongly opposed to this “Western religion,” and she went home with much fear. We praise God for her salvation but grieve her difficult situation. What difference might it have made if her whole family were intentionally invited along on this journey to Jesus? I fear the tendency of Westerners like myself has been to encourage individuals to believe now and think about family later.
Though disciples of Jesus have a new spiritual family, Asian believers often continue to experience loneliness and isolation. I currently minister to a single Japanese man who came to Christ in Japan and is now living in Malaysia. He works long hours and often becomes fatigued and depressed. He is lonely but finds connecting relationally into an already established group a significant hurdle.
We rightfully want to integrate new believers into the body of Christ; however, when we toss them into “discipleship” with a group of strangers, we may only heighten their feeling of isolation. I have been involved in a number of small discipleship groups over the years. It normally takes me a long time (sometimes years) to feel comfortable sharing openly and honestly in a new gathering—and I have followed Christ for most of my life. How do new Japanese disciples feel when they are asked to leave their natural relational circles and join a group of strangers to grow spiritually? Could the biblical model of pursuing the oikos offer a fresh understanding to our evangelism and discipleship strategies?
Benefits of “group journey”
You’ve heard it said that there’s strength in numbers. It’s so important to have the encouragement and support of others as we seek to grow in Christ, and it’s outright perilous to navigate this journey alone. But what if we were to intentionally start relational groups on that journey collectively—even before they commit to Christ? If whole families learn of God together, they might very well believe together. I heard from a mission worker in Nagoya who has seen three families believe and be baptized simultaneously, just within his close relationships. Think about the challenges mentioned above in light of an entire family who surrenders to Christ. The struggles related to family pressure, marital distrust, and other strained relationships diminish or disappear.
When entire families follow Christ, men follow Christ. In cases when the wife initially seeks Jesus, what would it take to get the husband interested? A colleague shared that wives in India often hear stories from the Bible first and love them, but the husband is not interested. What do they do? The wives beg! They implore their husbands to come hear these stories, just one time, and promise not to bother them any more after that. Inevitably, the husband becomes intrigued (or worn down), and the whole family is soon engaged with the scriptures.
There’s risk in a disciple-maker pursuing the family of an interested individual. If the family is strongly opposed to the message, one might lose a continued witness with the individual. Is this risk worth the potential fruit? The same colleague I mentioned above tells the story of a disciple with a Muslim background who had an audience with five young ladies at his sewing center. While teaching them a new skill, he shared stories from the Bible with them. They loved the stories, but the disciple thought, They must be terrified to tell their families. As he learned more about the biblical pattern of reaching the oikos, the disciple made a decision to trust God’s way despite his concerns. He went to the families of the girls and asked them for permission to continue sharing these stories with them, and in turn, the girls could share the stories with the family. As feared, two of the families objected and forbade the girls from ever returning to the sewing center. However, three of the families agreed to let the girls hear the stories and bring them home. Now, instead of five individuals learning from scripture, three families—close to twenty people—were hearing from God on a daily basis.
When a family, circle of friends, or group of colleagues decide to follow Christ together, the result is immediate support and accountability. The group becomes the body of Christ organically. The false notion that becoming a Christian means having to leave one’s relational networks is exposed. This group becomes a testimony to other groups. Men take up the role as spiritual leader of their households. Friends face hardship and persecution as one. Colleagues—well, I imagine it would be much harder for a manager to let go of an entire department!
“And in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen. 12:3b ESV). From Genesis to Revelation, the current of God’s heart and vision flows through families. Of course, there is “joy in heaven over one sinner who repents” (Luke 15:7 NET). We celebrate every person who comes to Jesus. But knowing that God “does not wish for any to perish but for all to come to repentance” (2 Pet. 3:9 NET), I have to trust there’s more rejoicing when more come to Christ! Jesus has given us the mission of making disciples of all nations, and he’s given us the strategies for accomplishing this mission. I envision the gospel spreading rapidly among the Japanese from household to household. I see men leading their families in obedience to Christ. The Holy Spirit is transforming whole communities, and an entire people group is being reached. Lord, may it be so in our generation!