Saturday, May 8, 2010

When Missions is Spelled ABCs

A colleague as she teaches English to plant seeds for faith in children's hearts

“A missionary is someone who goes to another country to tell people about Jesus.”

This, or some variation of it, is what we usually hear from children in America when we visit their churches and ask if they know what a missionary is. Typically, the places they imagine missionaries go have lions, elephants, zebras, and other wild animals roaming freely, bringing an element of danger into the definition. Just as commonly, children (and many adults as well) also imagine desperately poor people begging for food, their sunken eyes and bony, stick-like frames a testimony to the dire straits in which they barely survive. Missionaries go to their lands and give them food—both the Bread of Life to satisfy spiritually and bread with calories to provide for them physically. This is the work of a “real” missionary.

We’ve been missionaries for more than 30 years and we’ve yet to see a gazelle, rhino, or such animal except in the zoo (although once there was a monkey that came down from Kobe’s Rokko Mountains and into our neighborhood, pausing shortly on our verandah to preen). It’s an entirely different world here in Japan, a nation that refashioned itself from the ashes of World War II into a modern economic miracle. We don’t fight wild animals and muddy, pot-holed roads to go to work—only unbelievably crowded trains and gridlocked highways. Every modern convenience is available at the snap of the fingers. Even the homeless of Tokyo are not gaunt for lack of food.

With Japan as it is today, perhaps some might wonder if there really is work for a missionary here. With less than 1% of Japanese Christian after more than 150 years of Protestant missions, the answer is an obvious yes. But just as obvious is the fact that methodology must fit Japan in the same way that it must fit the needs, culture, and realities of any other location and people anywhere else in the world.

Using English as an outreach tool has been one method of evangelism used successfully in Japan ever since Commodore Matthew Perry of the United States steamed into Shimoda Port on the Izu Peninsula in 1854 and demanded that Japan end its 213-year-old isolationist policy and open up to the West. From that moment onwards—with the exception of the World War II years when English was banned in all schools—teaching English has been one of the most common methods of evangelism employed by missionaries of all church denominations and sending agencies operating throughout the nation. More recently, even classes for babies and their mothers have been employed.

It’s a valid method, too. The woman Bernie baptized recently in Kobe is just one example to illustrate. About three years ago, she joined the English-Bible classes at Tarumi Church. The missionary teacher soon discovered that she had deep questions about the Bible and faith in Jesus Christ. In fact, the woman’s questions were so earnest that the missionary soon encouraged her to step over the line from being an interested spectator to becoming a Christian. (Come to find out, she’d attended such classes at two other churches before moving to Tarumi.) Finally on April 28, after years of English-Bible classes and myriads of questions, the 60-something woman was able to declare publicly her intention to live as a Christian for the rest of her life.

Church English-Bible classes taught by missionaries play an essential role in the journey to faith for many Japanese. Emphasizing building relationships with students more than the fine points of English grammar, these classes aren't the only tool for missions in Japan, but they are one that works. We look forward to playing a role in many more harvest stories that emerge from English-Bible classes in our churches in the future. The ABCs have never seemed so exciting.