How my Japanese church became family
Four keys to building relationships with Japanese people
Before I left for my first term in 2008, many supporters expressed how brave they thought I was for going to Japan. Some of them had images in their minds of me shovelling snow by myself and getting depressed because of the lack of sunlight. I reassured them that neither was true in Kobe where I was going to live. My mission had lined up a good church for me, so I asked my supporters to pray that I would be able to build good relationships. Of course, I recognised that, as a single missionary, not getting to take any of my family with me was going to be hard.
I expected the first year to be difficult; I worked hard on my Japanese study and attempted to talk to people, but expressing anything beyond the superficial was usually beyond me. The people at my church were loving and patient and went out of their way to help me in so many ways. I couldn’t wait for us to be able to share our stories and our lives. My second year rolled around, and I still felt so limited in what I could say. How on earth was I ever going to be able to build deep relationships and share about Jesus if I couldn’t talk about much more than the weather?
Being an introvert, I don’t need a lot of friends, but I do need some. So my strategy was to attend most things that my church had going on during the week, partly to see what kind of things were happening, but also to spend as much time with people from church as possible. Most of the time, it was hard for me to understand what was going on, let alone contribute anything to the conversation. And I felt completely drained afterwards.
It wasn’t really until the beginning of my fourth year, just before I left for my first home assignment, that I felt like I had a breakthrough. I didn’t do anything special or even different to what I had been doing before, but I could feel a difference in my relationships. Of course, a big part of it was that I could now understand a lot more of what people were saying, but I also felt like there was a shift in the “vibe” of how we related. I realise now that I had probably begun to break through the barrier between the public face that people project (tatemae) and their true thoughts (honne).
Before I left for my first home assignment, I was asked to share at church, and I wanted to give thanks to God for this new family that he had given me. I shared from Mark 10:29–30 (ESV) where Jesus says, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life.” I had reached a point where I felt like God had provided family members for me in my Japanese church, and I was truly thankful.
Things I learnt
During those first few years, I learnt a lot of things about God, myself, and the world. Below I’ve summarised the things I learnt about building relationships with Japanese people. These are things that I continue to learn and am challenged to remember. My hope is that whether you have just arrived in Japan or have been here a long time, you will be encouraged to keep seeking to be a part of God’s family in your local church.
Presence: Being present is really important for relationships within and outside of the church. It doesn’t matter how much you understand or whether you have anything to contribute, just turning up has a huge impact on relationships. This might be as simple as increasing the size of the small group from three to four, but also people will realise that you are serious about getting to know them.
Perseverance: For most of us, learning Japanese is hard and frustrating, and we have no choice but to just keep slogging away at it. For me the possibility of deepening relationships was most often what motivated me to learn the next kanji or grammar structure or to try again to understand the listening exercise.
Patience: Good stuff takes time. I’ve learnt that even with persistence in study and turning up, it still takes time to understand the culture and get to know your Japanese friends. God continues to teach me to trust his timing, whether it be in depth of relationships or people coming to faith. I try to rejoice in the little things and pray that God will help me to wait on his good and perfect timing.
Perceptions: I learnt that things like friendship and hospitality look different in Japan. If you ask a Japanese person who their friends are, they can probably count them on one hand, maybe two. As an Aussie Christian, I could easily call someone I met at church last week a friend. I learnt not to just assume I’d be able to break into Japanese friendship circles, but to treasure it when it did happen. For example, in Australia, the way we usually welcome someone to church is by inviting them over to our house for lunch, often a barbecue. In Japan, getting invited to someone’s house is a really big deal, and you may never get invited. But that doesn’t mean Japanese people aren’t being friendly and welcoming. I took time to learn how hospitality and friendship is expressed; of course, this will differ depending on where you live and whom you are working with.
A challenging year
Over the years, there have been many times when I have been thankful for this new family that God has given me. This has been especially true this last year with the COVID-19 pandemic causing pretty much everything I am involved in to be cancelled or go online. I am immensely thankful that friends from church allowed me to come over and play with their kids, even in the times of state of emergency. It might seem like a small thing, but going to their house for dinner and hanging out with them on Sunday afternoons was the only face-to-face contact I had with people for about four months. Even now, going to church on Sunday is the only real opportunity I have to enjoy in-person conversations with people. I am thankful that they include me in their lives and find it hard to imagine how I would have survived this last year without them. I am thankful for the way God has provided me with a wonderful Japanese church family and all the things he has taught me so far.