I first came to Japan in 2004. A decade later, my wife and I were praying about planting a church here.
We started by simply opening up our home in order to disciple a group of people who’d never heard of Jesus. We didn’t know what we were doing, but we were confident that God had a people for himself (Acts 18:9–10), and that our job was to make disciples (Matt. 28:18–20).
We also started meeting with musicians in studios and other venues across Tokyo. As many Jazz musicians came to play together, we had countless opportunities to share the gospel. But the spiritual soil here in Japan has been hard ground.
Perseverance Amid (Perceived) Fruitlessness
In the first two years, we saw no visible fruit. This was hard, and we were discouraged. But in the fall of 2016, one of our friends, “K-san” (pseudonym), professed faith. He was the first convert among this group we’d been meeting with. And when he came to Christ, he immediately started telling his friends about Jesus.
In Japanese culture, which is very group-oriented, people are mindful of others. Putting the group’s interests ahead of personal interests is of the utmost importance. While this is a beautiful thing, it can also foster a culture where approval is idolized and rejection is feared.
But the gospel addresses both idolatry and the also fear of man. For K-san, coming to know the Father’s approval of him in Jesus Christ freed him from living for the approval of others. And in this, we rejoice.
Weakness in a Culture of Strength
When I was an assistant pastor, it was easy to hide my weaknesses. I was able to serve largely in my own strength, and the other pastors I served with made up for areas where I was weak.
But church planting changed this dynamic. It exposed my weaknesses and forced me to depend on Christ’s strength.
Japan is an honor-shame culture, and therefore men rarely show their weaknesses in the workplace. Not only is it unprofessional to show weakness, it’s even deeply shameful. If you want honor, you do not show weakness. You maintain an aura of strength.
Japan is an honor-shame culture. If you want honor, you do not show weakness. You maintain an aura of strength.
Sadly, this only compounds the already incredibly demanding working culture in Japan. More than 40 percent of Japanese men suffer sleep deprivation due to work-related stress. As a director of a Tokyo telephone helpline put it, “Men are especially reluctant to talk about problems at work. They don’t want to expose their weaknesses. By the time they are middle-aged, they are at their most uncommunicative.”
As you might expect, the church is not immune to these problems. Japanese pastors rarely talk about their weaknesses with others, which hinders others’ ability to speak the gospel into their lives. It took two years for a young Japanese man to ask me if I ever argue with my wife. It was only as I shared openly about how God’s grace addresses my marriage that he opened up about his own struggles.
If your shame is too unbearable, it is often considered more honorable to take your own life in order to atone for your mistakes. But as we set out to plant our church, I sought to lead in weakness. I tried to be intentional in displaying my vulnerabilities. I wanted people to see that hiding weakness is not only unhealthy, it is anti-gospel (2 Cor. 12:9). Pastors should model repentance, both in life and in the pulpit, and this has proven especially important here in Japan.
In order for the Japanese to make sense of the gospel, they must both hear it proclaimed and also see the effects of it lived out. One of the best ways for this to happen is through deep, committed friendship.
Lifelong friendships are highly valued in Japan. We have many people among us who have not openly professed faith, but they also haven’t rejected us or our community, because we’ve sought to develop meaningful friendships with them. At the same time, we’re grateful to see some believers becoming vulnerable and admitting their weaknesses as they become secure in the gospel.
As we set out to plant our church, I sought to lead in weakness. I wanted people to see that hiding weakness is not only unhealthy, it is anti-gospel.
It’s rare in Japan to have a safe place where people can share their weaknesses, confess their sins, and not be shamed or condemned. I can remember waiting at the train station for a Japanese friend who was running late. In this hard-working culture, if you’re late and don’t have a good excuse, there’s no grace for you. Knowing this, I sent my friend a text as I waited for him, reassuring him of God’s forgiveness and grace. When he finally arrived, he said, “すごい心が広いですね” (literally, “You have a big heart, brother”). To which I replied, “神様の恵みによってです” (“it’s all owing to God’s grace”). As we rode the train together, he opened up about some of his fears in life. He felt safe to do this because I hadn’t condemned him for being late.
But this kind of gospel-centered culture doesn’t come easy. It’s a work of the Spirit, and it takes time to cultivate in the life of the church. It’s easy to create a far more superficial culture, by idolizing methods and programs. Creating a gospel-culture requires patience, humility, and prayerful-dependence on God. But I know that it will be worth it in the long run.
Please pray for the Japanese, for whom Jesus gave his life, and for our church plant. Soli deo gloria.