I knew what I had to do. Even so, I had to force my feet forward to where my wife and the worship leader were sitting. When they looked up, I blurted, “I want to join the club.” It wasn’t a very clear confession of faith, but they understood, and I was baptized one week later. Thirty years have passed since that day, but I still remember how uncomfortable it felt to say those words and how I resorted to euphemism the first time I told someone I believed. If a first-time confession of faith is that hard for some Americans, how hard is it for Japanese people?
Four of us stood around the hospital bed as we talked with Fumiko.1 After a few minutes, my assistant from church gently brought Jesus into the conversation. The frail, 86-year-old woman’s face flashed a sudden, conspiratorial grin, “Oh, I believe in Jesus,” she said. Her daughter’s mouth hung open in shock as Fumiko explained that a grade-school friend used to take her to Sunday school. “Since then, I have always believed in Jesus; I just couldn’t tell anyone until now,” she finished. Opposition from society and family had closed her mouth for seven decades, but Fumiko’s faith was real. I baptized her 30 minutes later. Not long after, she went home to Jesus, her secret friend and Lord.
Opposition to Christianity is far weaker now than when Fumiko was young, but it still stops many Japanese people from speaking their hearts. Furthermore, Japan is a land of indirect communication and social nuance. Speaking out about faith draws attention, and few Japanese people feel comfortable being the center of attention.
Isaiah 57:14 (NIV) says “Build up, build up, prepare the road! Remove the obstacles out of the way of my people.” Surely, we can apply Isaiah’s passionate cry to cultural barriers as well as to stones on the road. In the following, I describe a few things I do to lower the barriers in Japan for expressing first-time decisions.
Lay-led small groups
“Last night at McDonald’s, Makiko prayed to accept Jesus!” Our youngest small-group leader gushed her latest praise report. Her Bible study had brought quite a few new people to the church and had been blessed with several first-time decisions. Over time, from observing dozens of lay-led small groups, I have come to three unexpected conclusions:
New Christians with one weekend of training can be successful group facilitators.
Diverse groups—with seekers and believers, men and women, and young and old—have the most lively and fruitful discussions.
Young believers who are responsible for a small group grow more spiritually than those in discipleship classes.
Since traditional Japanese culture respects age and experience, I used to assume that small groups led by mature Christians would be more effective, but my experience has been different. Perhaps it is because newcomers hesitate to ask questions or disagree with elders. Elder-led small groups may be best for teaching information, but knowledge does not always change hearts. Heart change happens more easily when the facilitator has a strong empathy with the questions and feelings of seekers, and this is natural for young Christians. Of course, we don’t want error to creep in, so I encourage the use of prepared materials and tell them, “Never put on the teacher hat.” Instead, “be Bereans” (Acts 17:11). Read or watch the lesson, and then examine the Scriptures together to see what is true. When the group finds Bible truth together, they all own it together.
Of course, not everyone wants to be in a small group or feels comfortable in discussions. Many Japanese people, especially older men, would rather read a book. So we try to provide good resources for them to use in their search for faith. For example, we stock the lending library and a mini-bookstore with titles from authors like Ayako Miura, Kazuko Watanabe, and C. S. Lewis.
Regardless of how Japanese come to believe in Jesus, most of them find it hard to share the news with others. Even in the best small groups, some people will not announce their decision until they are given a specific opportunity to do so. For example, I have seen several Japanese people come to faith during the Alpha Course without telling anyone until they fill out the end-of-course questionnaire. Names are optional and no one will see their answers until later, so they don’t have to worry about becoming the center of attention.
In some Western churches, it is common to ask people to raise their hand or stand if they want to accept Christ, but Japanese culture conditions people against calling attention to themselves. For this reason, I think invitations to express faith are best framed as invitations for all who believe to do something together.
If your church allows it, you can use communion as an opportunity for new decisions. Just say, “All who believe in Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior are invited to join us in communion, even if you are making the decision for the very first time today.” This way, seekers are regularly challenged to decide whether they are ready to believe. If they find faith in their heart, they can express it by receiving.
“Did you see? Last Sunday, Nobuo took communion! I had no idea he was even close to making a decision!” Chieko told me with tears of joy. After 30 years of her prayers, her husband had finally accepted Jesus. Chieko was full of joy then and when Nobuo got baptized. But she still laments, “He never talks about his faith with me.” Even so, Nobuo has come a long way. Philippians 1:6 is a great encouragement: “being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” Nobuo is not alone; I know other older Japanese men with similar stories.
At the end of the baptism-explanation meeting, I passed out applications, prayed for the group, and left, saying, “If you’re ready to get baptized, you can fill the form out today and leave it on my desk, but it’s also fine to take it home and think about it more.” Later, I found three completed forms on my desk—one of which surprised me. Etsuko had been a seeker for some time, but she had never announced a decision. Early in my time as a pastor, I had decided to replace baptism-preparation classes with baptism-explanation meetings. Everyone who wants to learn more about baptism is welcome, and seekers often attend—sometimes they attend more than once. The meetings can be scheduled several times a year, even when we have not received any requests for baptism. At each class, I review the gospel, explain baptism, and answer questions. More than once, I have been surprised when I got the forms back. Some people are just waiting for a comfortable opportunity to say they believe.
How can you prepare more and better opportunities for decisions to believe? The examples I have shared won’t work for every ministry, but perhaps you can find something that works for you and those you are ministering to.
1. Names have been changed to protect privacy.
Photo by Karen Ellrick
Dan Ellrick and his wife Karen came to Japan as missionaries in 1996. Their current focus is resource development. Dan was formerly the pastor of Osaka International Church and is also the Japan representative of International Ministerial Fellowship.