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According to the Joshua Project, the Japanese are the second largest unreached people group in the world. Despite one hundred and fifty years of Protestant evangelism the church of Japan has not really grown significantly. Perhaps less than one quarter of 1% of the people of Japan are Christians. I have several non-Christian Japanese friends who are scared of setting foot in a church. Sadly, if a non-Christian actually does visit a church, they are not always made to feel welcome. Once a church member, the pressure to overextend oneself with various church duties can eventually become oppressive.The list goes on and on.

The first conversation I ever had with my husband was about the church in Japan. We honestly shared our feelings of frustration as we talked about our experiences in various churches in Japan (both very good and very bad). Even now, we can easily talk about the church of Japan until the middle of the night and sometimes have to force ourselves to stop talking and just go to sleep.
This random google image of a church in Japan looks eerily similar to many of the churches I attended, especially with those empty pews and funky, long cushion thingies.

These days I find myself in the middle of several books by Japanese church leaders translated into English by a British publishing company called Wide Margin. I am on a quest to get decent, well-thought answer those huge, looming questions that every missionary in Japan eventually asks. “Why are there so few followers of Jesus in Japan? Why were the Christians I encounter seldom discipled or mentored when they first came to faith in Jesus? Why is the sense of deep Christian community (generally) so weak? What did our forefathers (missionaries from ages past) do right and what did they do wrong? What needs to change and how can it be changed?”

Of course, these issues cannot be answered or solved in one book or even ten, but I am finding a lot of answers to my questions (thankfully). Here are three of the many thought-provoking passages I read this past weekend (both from the book I mention below):

1) “Many [Japanese] do not have the skill of debate and speech as found in the West, and rather tend to avoid using strong verbal interaction as a means to persuade others…one of the problems of evangelism to such people is that they are not used to being persuaded with clear verbal interaction. Needless to say, when non-Japanese and often Japanese Christians evangelize the Japanese people, their communication is normally verbal. Japanese, however, respect nonverbal communication. We have to consider whether or not our communication skills with Japanese are happening in essentially a Western manner. Even if we teach them the concepts of Creator God, sin, salvation, eternity, and so on, they may not be able to accept those ideas with much depth because they are not moved by verbal communication.”

2) “It is difficult for Japanese with their mindset to grant that there is one Absolute and only God who rules everything. This point must be the biggest challenge for Christian mission…Japanese accept or understand religious truth not by intellectual studying but by participating in rituals. Unless they participate and experience something, they will never believe in the truth. Experience is very important for them. We have to think about the way we approach Japanese. Do we try to make Japanese understand truth by intellectual teaching or by experiencing truth?”

3) “In the Japanese context, truth is experimental and personal. Truth as philosophical or conceptual, separated from feeling, is almost meaningless to the Japanese. Thus they are looking for communities in which spiritual experiences are tangible and real. We have to start with personal experience.”

I would highly recommend “Belong, Experience, Believe: Pentecostal Mission Strategies for Japan” by Noriyuki Miyake, translated by Simon Cozens. (FYI, you don’t have to be a Pentecostal to read this book.) Not only will you read a concise history of Protestant missionary work in Japan as well as general history of Japan, but there are numerous practical explanations of Japanese culture and religion that are invaluable, regardless of how much you think you know about Japan. This would be a great choice for a person preparing for missionary work in Japan – you’ll certainly have a heads-up regarding Japanese culture and your understanding of the church of Japan.

Christians being burned along the Arima River