Using English to open safe spaces
If churches provide ways for locals to build relationships, they’re meeting a basic human need
A perennial challenge World Gospel Mission (WGM) has faced in its history in Japan is how to partner with Japanese churches in meaningful ways. While church planting has its challenges, there are also unique challenges when working with existing churches and denominations. It can be a tall order for any ministry startup to try something new, build momentum, and grow the links and trust between a long-established church and their neighborhood.
In the past, we have fulfilled requests from churches for youth events, English Bible studies, English classes, preaching, children’s camps, and more. Some have been well received, while others have fallen flat. Recently, though, we have seen some success with a program called Fun Fun English. It is not a perfect program or a magic bullet, but I think it illustrates some important principles about ministry in Japan.
Create a safe space
Fun Fun English was created through a partnership between a few Immanuel General Mission (IGM) pastors and a WGM missionary, Holly Muehleisen. That partnership, which grew out of a prior relationship, was an important part of the program’s success. It also allowed news about the program to spread naturally by word of mouth through denominational connections. The pastors were interested in starting an English program for children. Of course, English programs taught by missionaries are common, and we have heard of other missionaries using similar programs, but I think it is instructive to look at how Fun Fun English has met felt needs within an established church context.
Fun Fun English is a program for very small children and their parents (mostly mothers). Its focus is not on a particular course of study but on exposure to English. A lesson might consist of some simple English songs, a handful of vocabulary words related to a theme, a game with those words, an English picture book, a craft, a card to decorate, or some coloring pages. A few lessons have the same theme and build on each other a little, but the lessons tend to be self-contained so that anyone can enter the program or miss a class without falling behind. Again, the emphasis is on exposure to English—we want the children to have fun with English.
Relationships are an end, not a means
For our missionaries, the goal is to create a safe and welcoming neutral space. Churches can be threatening places for people with little background in Christianity, especially here in Japan. Fun Fun English is a way to create a neutral space inside a church. When there is a neutral program in place, people can enter and find that what happens inside a church is not so intimidating and that the people there care and are friendly. That is, at least, what we hope they find.
We want that neutral space, the relationships, and the English exposure to be ends in themselves, not hooks for evangelism or veneers to cover hidden agendas. These are benefits that we have the privilege to provide, and we try not to treat them as means to something else. All of us can tell when someone wants to sell us something or that they have ulterior motives. It is hard to create a safe space for a person from outside the church if relationships become a means and not ends in themselves. It is good to be able to open space for others, meet the needs they see, and do the good that everyone agrees is good, and let that be enough.
Benefits flow over
That said, there have been byproducts of opening this safe, neutral space in churches. One of the best practices we have found with Fun Fun English is to encourage church people to participate: youth help with the kids, young parents participate, and grandmothers hold sleeping babies. Participation from church members is where connections are made and new friendships formed. This neutral space becomes a place where parents can talk about jobs, raising kids, and the struggles of life with people they may not have otherwise ever come into contact with. All this while a missionary is on the other side of the room singing “Baby Shark” or doing a pipe-cleaner art project with a swarm of rowdy children. Because of relationships that people have built through this program, some have decided to show up at the church’s Easter-egg hunt or to see what happens on a Sunday morning. There is still a big step from Fun Fun English to a church event, but some have taken it.
Karen Fisher, a noted scholar in information science, called these sorts of spaces “information grounds.”1 They are places where people gather for some primary reason (“I want my child to be exposed to English”) but then people talk, listen, share, and trade information as a secondary outcome. There is a community that forms because a safe place has been opened. These places, that facilitate openness and connection, are a basic human need. COVID-19 has caused a break in these regular meetings as it has with so many ministries, and we feel that something has been lost beyond exposing children to English.
A rewarding ministry
Because Fun Fun English has opened church doors and encouraged community connections, other churches have asked us to start similar programs. There is more demand than we have personnel to meet. While Holly was in the United States, I covered two of the Fun Fun English classes for a year. I am not the best fit for this ministry (I am pretty introverted, and Fun Fun English can be quite energy intensive), but that year of Fun Fun English brings me more pride than almost any other ministry I have been involved with in a decade of work in Japan. I am proud of it, not because scores of people were converted and churches that grew by leaps and bounds, but because people who otherwise did not have a reason to be connected to a church found it a safe place and valued the program that was provided.
1. Karen E. Fisher and Charles M. Naumer, “Information Grounds: Theoretical Basis and Empirical Findings on Information Flow in Social Settings,” in New directions in human information behavior edited by Spink, A., & Cole, C. (Springer, 2006) 93-111.