Serving in a Japanese church
Some basic principles of how a foreigner can effectively participate in a Japanese church
How does a foreigner know if individual members of a Japanese church are effectively cooperating with each other? When we plan to support the work of that church, what are some things to keep in mind? More specifically, how can we become a contributing member of the church? We understand that the Japanese community within an established Japanese church has certain cultural differences from ours. Yet, what are some shared foundations for all citizens of heaven?
The power of the Word of God within the Japanese community
The more Bible-centered teaching a church community receives, the more Christ-like character the community can develop. The more the church community sees itself as a community of citizens of heaven (Phil. 3:20), the more the Word will permeate the culture of the church. We read accounts of this process within the early churches in the New Testament (e.g. Corinth, Ephesus, Colossae, Rome, and Thessalonica).
The Bible transcends cultural differences, philosophy, and history. This is one reason why it has been the most printed, given away, and sold book in the world. Therefore, when a church is established on the Word of God, the church members are equipped to fulfill the Great Commission—regardless of cultural differences. One example we see today is within the community of the Japanese church.
From a foreigner’s perspective
For the last thirteen years, I have been serving as a preacher-teacher at the Japanese church where I got saved 28 years ago. About 40 years ago the Kyoto Christian Fellowship Center was started by American missionary Berni Marsh and her Japanese ministry coworker Teruko Kawashima, along with three other people. Twenty-four years ago, the church was handed over to two Japanese pastors. It’s still shepherded today by one of those pastors, Pastor Hiroshi Sōma. Over the years, through consistent preaching and teaching of the Bible, we have been constantly reminded how the Word of God is indeed alive and sharper than any double-edged sword (Heb. 4:12).
Our church focuses on discipleship and evangelism through equipping the saints in the Bible (2 Tim. 3:16–17). The three points that I have found important for preaching-teaching are transparency, consistency, and reproducibility. In other words: being clear what is being taught, being consistent (using Scripture to understand Scripture), and working to the point that others are not just called to duplicate the process (2 Tim. 2:2), but are properly equipped to do so.
One result we’ve seen is that, although our church is a Japanese church, it serves as a fellowship center for internationals (residents and transients). This is not simply because, along with a normal Japanese language service, we offer a bilingual service. It is because there is a focus on God’s word while we engage as a church community (Eph. 4:1–6; Col. 3:12–17).
We’ve also seen a few of our Japanese brothers and sisters enter Bible study programs and seminary studies. Our church members have also started outreach programs such as The Little Lambs Club for preschool mothers, Bible Cafe for neighborhood women who have questions about the Bible, and the Silver Choir for seniors.
Our resident missionaries (Filipino, South African, Japanese, and Korean) use our church as a base of operations. One key thing they understand well is how hierarchy works in Japan. Vertical society (縦社会 tate-shakai) or hierarchical relationship (上下関係 jōge-kankei) are very important. It maintains order and helps keep harmony. Whether in the home, local community, school, place of work, or even the church, relationships are easier to establish and sustain when we understand our position within the group.
As a foreigner it’s important to identify, understand, and respect the Japanese hierarchy mindset. This allows us to function within the group. It also strengthens our potential to contribute within the Japanese community. Equipping the saints to work as the body of Christ in discipleship and evangelism requires that we operate within the values of the community in which we are working. As the Apostle Paul wrote: “I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some” (1 Cor. 9:23 NIV). In order to fulfill this role, it is therefore important for us to understand the church community. One way of doing this is by communicating with the church leadership.
Specifically for missionaries
With years of experience working with missionaries from other countries, Pastor Hiroshi Sōma has some recommendations for missionaries when they start to attend any church, especially a Japanese church:
Observe: How do you know if each member of the church is effectively cooperating with each other in the church? Consider the following questions when observing the church:
- Are they thinking about and building a missions program?
- Do they have a prayer program?
- Is the church body concerned about the salvation of every single soul attending church services?
Participate: If a missionary participates in a church, how can he or she support the work of that church? In the case of a small Japanese church, the church usually has a strong “family” relationship. Therefore, it is necessary to work within the prioritized policies of the church while being sensitive to the individuality of its members. If the missionary has additional spiritual gifts, they should ask the church leaders for their opinions on how the gifts can be used appropriately to meet needs within the church body.
Contribute: It is necessary to match the vision of each church. Before trying to do anything, approach and get consent from the church leadership where work can be done as a cooperating missionary. The value of reporting and communicating well should not be underestimated. In addition, while there are many types of tasks that can be done for the salvation of Japanese people, it is important to have a mindset of sharing the difficulties of Japanese missions together with others in the ministry.
The Japanese community, as observed within an established Japanese church, will have cultural differences to those of other countries, yet the Bible serves as a foundation for all citizens of heaven. Keeping in mind the power the Word of God has within the Japanese community, we must accept our role as foreigners from the Japanese community’s perspective. Observe, participate, and contribute in accordance with guidance from the church leadership. As a foreigner who got saved in a church planted by missionaries, I know that there are many Japanese who are extremely grateful for your work today.