Better Late Than Never (Japan, Oct. ’22)

In 2019, almost a century ago, I began to pray about the possibility of visiting Mustard Seed Network. Mustard Seed is a network of church-planting churches growing in urban Japan. Both my home church and alma mater are involved with Mustard Seed, so once I started looking, opportunities for connection abounded. I signed up for an exploratory “vision trip” and started the fundraising process (which was blessedly easy, thanks to the generosity of many –– including some of you reading this!). The plan was set to visit MSN in Japan near the end of my final semester… in the spring of 2020.

Needless to say, I did not make it to Japan in the spring of 2020. Despite the optimism of Intercultural Studies professor Chris DeWelt (I remember an early email in which he expressed hope to make it in August 2020, once everything calmed down), the trip was postponed indefinitely. Borders around the world remained shut; the country of Japan, with its densely populated megacities, held some of the longest COVID-19 travel bans. In the meantime, I graduated from Ozark Christian College and moved to Kentucky for a residency at Southeast Christian Church. With the two-year commitment to the 215 Residency, I assumed the Lord was leading me on a path other than Japan. The mental door to that opportunity sort of closed in my mind without my realizing it, as I soon became occupied with my training in the work of ministry in Louisville, KY.

I’ll fast-forward through much that could be written about the last two years. This past spring, near the end of the residency, Chris reached out to me about the possibility of finally visiting Mustard Seed in Japan. I discovered that all the funds raised toward the original trip had been saved to my account, and Chris began making travel arrangements. (Plane tickets ended up being $27 less than they were for the same flights in March 2020!)

The mental door to Mustard Seed began to slowly creak open again. It seems like a looming international trip should have been front-and-center in my mind at that point, but through the summer, it was mostly background noise. Many other noises drowned out that one. It’s been an interesting few months, to say the least; uncertainty has filled this season more than any clear next steps. (Certainly more than any viable source of full-time income, much to my mother’s chagrin. He didn’t put that line about “daily bread” in there for no reason, I guess.) When the time came to actually pack for the trip, it still didn’t feel… real. Uncertainty and doubt turned up the volume. I almost backed out at the last minute, thinking I was no longer in the right spot to be considering overseas church-planting. Through some panicked conversations the day before my long flight across the Pacific, it was resolved that I could go, even if the only takeaway would be a fun travel experience.

So I got on the plane. Grad school homework kept me busy for a while, until I caved to watch four consecutive movies from Delta’s in-flight library.

Looking productive before a movie marathon.

Upon our arrival in Tokyo, some friends helped us stay awake by showing us around and taking us out for Indian food (my first authentic Japanese meal!). We slept well that night, jetlagged and full of curry.

Delaney, Tanner, me, Carol, Chris, Gabe, and Jesse at dinner near the hotel

The next few days were overwhelming in the best possible way. There was so much to absorb about the culture, language, and environment!

Approaching Shibuya Crossing, the busiest pedestrian intersection in the world!

One big culture-shock was how polite everyone was, as odd as that sounds. People had told me about the friendly politeness of Japanese culture, but it was another thing to experience firsthand how it actually plays out. It was more pronounced in some settings than others, particularly in public spaces. For example: I think it’s fair to say that I am a pretty quiet person. I was shocked at how many times I felt like I was the one being too loud. There was an observable cultural caution against being disruptive or causing issues for the whole group – even issues like noise on the train at rush-hour.

Personally, I can get on board with that kind of caution – I already prefer to keep my head down and go with the very organized flow! My introversion could thrive in Japan. However, as with any place, there are downsides… especially if your mission in that place is to share the gospel. 99% of the Japanese population is non-Christian; most of those 124 million people have never heard the gospel of Jesus Christ. Gospel-oriented conversations need to be struck up!

Another example of overwhelming culture-shock & need for the gospel stood out from a conversation about the Japanese language. On this quick trip, I only really got to practice the phrases “thank you” and “excuse me” (for restaurants and the train station, respectively). However, I got to spend a lot of time with people who are actively learning Nihongo, which allowed me to ask questions out of my own fascination and confusion. I learned that there are three alphabets used together in Japanese. The katakana alphabet is used for the pronunciation of words and names which are transliterated from foreign languages. The lead pastor of Mustard Seed Tokyo, Jay, pointed out that the name “Jesus Christ” can only be communicated through katakana, emphasizing that Jesus sounds foreign from the first time his name is spoken. In Western Christianity, it might be easier to become accustomed to and even forget the fact that we worship the name transliterated from the Greek of the New Testament: Ἰεσούς Χριστός. In Japan, extra steps are vital to emphasize that Jesus is for the people of Japan – steps which include learning the language well!

Speaking of Greek: I happened to see this statue in downtown Tokyo and got to use my first-semester seminary skills to do some Japanese-to-Greek translation. I don’t know what this “love” statue is about, but I was excited to recognize it!

Sharing the gospel in a place like Japan has its challenges. At MSN’s all-staff retreat, I talked with Tanner after a session about the role of evangelism in discipleship. Honestly, I was a little shaken by my own lack of evangelistic practice. Moving straight from Bible college to a place on church staff, I have been almost constantly surrounded by Christians. Of course, this is amazing for lots of reasons! The community of believers is the environment we’re intended to thrive in while we wait in this world. At the same time, though, this community is called and commissioned to go and make disciples, to share the gospel to the ends of the earth. As Jay exhorted staff in one session, “How long do we have to hear this before we go?”

Tanner pointed out that, because evangelism and discipleship are essentially two sides of the same coin, we grow as disciples through our evangelistic efforts. There may be more particular aspects to discipleship as our understanding and enjoyment of God deepen, but when we lose the emphasis on evangelism, we lose the motivation of God’s heart. When we drift from Jesus’ commission to a lost world, our discipleship grows stagnant. (I’m preaching first and foremost to myself here!) We must resist the temptation to assume that the people around us – and even we ourselves – do not need a fresh presentation of the simple gospel. The Son of God left glory and took on flesh, lived a perfect life, suffered death to free us from sin, and conquered death when he rose to life three days later –– all so we could be with him. People need to hear that truth in Kentucky, USA just as much as they need to know it in Tokyo, Japan.

On the road to Mt. Fuji!
The view from the retreat center. It stayed cloudy most of the retreat, until…
Clear skies on the last morning! We got to see Mt. Fuji in all its beauty before heading out.

Despite the challenges, the potential for the gospel in Japan is also incredibly exciting. In a way, that temptation towards evangelistic stagnancy might be easier to resist in Japan, where Christianity is more likely to be viewed as harmful to the collective whole, than it is in the “Bible Belt” of my home country, where Christianity is more or less assumed as at least the nominal baseline. In Japan, it’s harder to forget the need to share the good news! Jay also pointed out that in the USA, we don’t realize how much incentive there is to be a Christian. In Japan, all cultural incentive is gone; the only motivator, the only thing to cling to, is the gospel itself.

I felt the weight of that statement while walking through a Buddhist temple, observing traditional practices and worship from the sidelines. I saw a glimpse of the immense need (and potential!) for the gospel from the top of Shibuya Sky, from which just one of many cities stretches as far as the eye can see.

Mustard Seed Tokyo is located 1) across the street from the Shibuya Sky building, 2) above one of the busiest train stations in the world,  and 3) within eyeshot of Shibuya Crossing, the busiest pedestrian intersection in the world.

It is so exciting to think about what God is doing and will continue to do among the people of Japan! I invite you to join me in prayer in a few specific ways:

  • Pray for the people and country of Japan, that Christ’s love would be known and his name would be glorified.
  • Pray for the staff and leadership of Mustard Seed Network as they participate in God’s work in Japan. Pray for the faith of new Japanese Christians as they grow in knowledge of God, and for their boldness to share the gospel with others.
  • Pray for me as I continue to seek God’s will for next steps. Pray for His provision in His good timing!

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