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How can mission organizations better partner with Japanese churches and with each other?

I am interested in discovering how our various models, theologies, and cultures can effectively work together to see more Japanese people come to know Christ. I believe there is a way for us to be more intentional and collaborative in our placement process as we respond the spiritual, emotional, and physical needs of people in Japan.

After the natural disasters in Tohoku (2011) and Kumamoto (2016), multiple mission organizations responded by placing missionaries in partnership with Japanese churches. These two events were the first time in Asian Access’ (A2) 51 years in Japan that disasters have determined placement strategy. In both cases, A2 leadership dialogued with local networks of Japanese churches, Miyagi Missions Network (MMN) in Tohoku and Kumamoto Missions Network (KMN) in Kyushu, to make placement decisions. Though we are still in the midst of responding to needs in both regions and do not know what the long-term results will be, we see several themes that impact how we place missionaries in the context of these networks.

The word “partnership” carries a wide range of meanings. Even within the context of missions, there is a difference in nuance and emphasis. I encountered an example of this while working on my testimony in Japanese. I wanted to say that my wife and I desire to partner with the church’s vision. I wrote 教会のピジョンと協力します (kyōkai no bijon to kyōryoku shimasu). My Japanese teacher told me that (ni) would be better than (to) in this situation since implies that I am an equal in defining the vision of the church whereas shows a posture of alignment with the vision of the church. Changing one particle modifies the perception of how we approach partnership. Both stances are valid, but both may not be equally appropriate when considering a potential partnership between a specific missionary and church.

Responding to needs in Tohoku

There is a tension between responding to needs promptly and taking the necessary time to make wise decisions. After the triple disaster in March 2011, A2 was one of many groups that placed staff in Tohoku to help respond to the physical, emotional, and spiritual needs. My wife and I were two of the first three A2 missionaries to move to Miyagi in March 2012. The MMN introduced us to several churches, and missionaries in our agency also used personal connections to find their ministry partners. We were relatively fast in our response, but in retrospect, that response largely happened independently of dialogue with other groups and organizations. During this time, other organizations were placing large teams in the region as well.

We enjoyed running into other people who had relocated to Tohoku at MMN meetings and would often share updates about our ministries and teams, but there was little strategic dialogue across group lines. As we look back over the last seven years, there have also been several “if we had only known” moments. In his book Well Connected, Phill Butler discusses this tension between speed and intentionality: “We usually don’t choose to take the long road. Life is a journey on which, all too often, we look for shortcuts.” Anyone in Christian ministry know that it’s no different with God’s people. “All of us wish there were an easy way to overcome barriers, build relationships, develop trust and common vision, and see wonderful outcomes.” But, Butler goes on to emphasize that taking shortcuts in the early stage of partnership isn’t wise. “Make your strategic investments of time, prayer, and energy here, and you will see rich dividends later.”1

In retrospect, the timing of various missionaries’ arrival often drove the timeline of our placement process. We would work through our relational connections to have a place to send them when they arrived. I am proud to have been a part of the local church’s response to the Tohoku disaster and am happy to continue to serve there today. I also want to learn from our experience and do better in the future. Could we have taken our time, asked missionaries to wait, and been more fruitful in the long run?

Working together in Kumamoto

In the fall of 2017, I sat at a table with several people: the Japanese leader of the KMN, the representative of an organization sending missionaries from a closed Asian country, an A2 colleague, and the national director of A2 Japan. We discussed how we could most effectively respond to the spiritual needs from the Kumamoto earthquake and help catalyze church multiplication. We had spent a day meeting with multiple potential partner churches and discussing next steps. The local leader gave us his insight and recommendations, but it was a genuine dialogue between all of us about how to practically work together. Joshua Hari, our current national director, invited us missionaries to the table. The Kumamoto Church Build Project (the church-multiplication subnetwork of KMN) was birthed out of the Christian response to the 2016 Kumamoto earthquakes. There was an exciting synergy as we, missionaries and pastors from different groups, dreamed together. It was a new process: meeting with potential partner pastors with a representative from another mission organization hoping to place missionaries. But there was a definite sense that trying to work together in this way was pleasing to God.

When I think about the difference between mission organizations working together after the respective disasters in Tohoku and Kumamoto, the image of my two-year-old son comes to mind. Sometimes he acknowledges the other children in his space yet plays alone. Other times he tries his best to communicate with the children around him and build something together. In Miyagi, as mission agencies responded to the need, we served in the same area yet rarely actually worked together. In Kyushu, we see the beginning of collaboration—seeing how God may be leading us to work together on a deeper level.

The way that A2 initiates partnerships has shifted over the last two decades. We had a season where we placed missionaries in a pool of churches defined by our Japanese leadership, a season where our field leadership placed missionaries independent of our Japanese colleagues, and now our Japanese and missionary leadership prayerfully considering the best fit together while in dialogue with other organizations. The logistics are complicated and the decisions are difficult, but these in-depth discussions between organizations are worth the effort.

Can we work together?

Over the last year, one of my main questions has been: Can we work together? This question applies both across the missionary/Japanese church divide as well as across the gap between mission organizations. With all of the differences in theology, language, culture, and philosophy of ministry, it is difficult. At the same time, I believe that a more unified expression of the church would be pleasing to God.

How can we partner more effectively with the Japanese church in the future? How do we reconcile the independence of our organizations and the autonomy of a local church to build a strong ministry team? There are real difficulties associated with partnerships between missionaries and Japanese churches, but they are worth overcoming for the kingdom.

Another question, and one that’s potentially more difficult, is how different agencies in Japan can better collaborate in the placement process. How can I practically prioritize the broader work in Japan over my organization’s slice of the pie? How can I be excited about placing a missionary from another agency in a “better” setting than one from mine? I look forward to seeing how we can creatively collaborate across these real divides and to be a part of a more unified expression of the church here in Japan.

Originally published in the Winter 2019 issue of Japan Harvest magazine under the title “Can we work together?”

1. Phill Butler, Well Connected (Waynesboro, GA: Authentic Media, 2005), 121.

Photo from CRASH Japan’s Facebook page (not directly related to author’s activities)

Asian Access missionary Robert Adair serves in Miyagi prefecture through a partnership with Shiogama Bible Baptist Church. He is husband to Roberta and father of three energetic boys. He enjoys spending time in the mountains.

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