Cross-cultural cooperation in Japan: some views from the ground

To discover what cross-cultural cooperation looks like in Japan, we’ve interviewed three missionaries and six Japanese leaders. Here are their stories.

Kent: A triumph of grace over a difficult experience

Kent Muhling has been a missionary for 13 years with Asian Access (A2). The A2 philosophy is to help Japanese pastors plant and grow churches. “We’re placed in a Japanese church under the authority of its pastor,” explains Kent. “We serve that church in whatever way we can.”

Kent’s first placement started well. “We hit it off really well with the pastor and his wife and thought they would be great partners and mentor couple for us as first-term missionaries. We were looking forward to working with them.”

But then Kent started experiencing problems in his relationship with the pastor.

“It was a combination of cultural differences, personality differences, and sin,” Kent explains. Complicated hierarchical relationships proved to be one of his biggest struggles. As a former naval officer, Kent thought he understood authority, but submission in Japan looked different from what he was used to in the US military.

Kent compares the experience to learning from a sushi master who expects the student to be passive: “You don’t have to understand what I do; you don’t have to think; you don’t have to ask questions—just be quiet, obey, and you will learn.” Things got so bad that the pastor decided to terminate the relationship. “I kind of got fired, I guess,” says Kent.

Fortunately, that wasn’t the end of the story. After a restorative eight months as regular members of a different Japanese church, Kent and his family moved to work with a church in Sendai. Now they have a very good relationship with their current pastor, who is easy to talk to in situations of conflict or difference of opinion. “He understands grace,” Kent says. “He’s able to forgive. And that’s good because there are any number of things that I’ve had to ask forgiveness for. He has a very shepherding heart and he’s pretty humble.”

When asked what advice he would give to new missionaries, Kent stresses the importance of developing trust.

Building trust is extremely important. But it takes a lot of time, so patience is required. Come ready to serve humbly and be patient: wait until you’ve earned the right to be heard because you’ve demonstrated that you are trustworthy, humble, faithful, and dependable.

Another missionary said that serving in a traditional Japanese church “feels like dying.” Kent’s response from his experience?

As Americans, we come to a traditional, conservative, small, maybe struggling, inward-focused Japanese church and we would be like: Wow! The problems seem so obvious to us. Not that everything we think is right, just so different. To come and just serve for two years is so hard for Americans who tend to think they know it all and want to share their many “good ideas.”

But Kent says it’s worth it in the long term.

It changes you as a missionary. Partnering together can help prevent the church becoming a transplant from Western culture. It is a great demonstration of our unity in Christ. In some ways, I think it’s harder; it would be easier just to do your own thing your own way. But I’m not convinced easier is always better.

Bernard: Total immersion

Bernard Barton’s mission, the Church of God Mission, also has a policy of always partnering with Japanese churches. He has served in Japan for 42 years.

Bernard can’t imagine not working closely with Japanese leaders. For him, the benefits are amazing, including knowledge of the culture, the land, the language, and the church itself. “And so they [Japanese leaders] are my teachers,” Bernard says. “They help me know how to serve the church.”

When I was in Kobe, I received more support, help, information, and acceptance from the local pastors’ fellowship than my own denomination. So I think getting involved in the Japanese churches’ work is important. I love missionaries, but I don’t actively seek out missionary fellowship because I feel like I’m more a part of the Japanese church. I feel comfortable in that setting. I feel like that’s where I need to be. I’ve been greatly blessed.

The biggest challenge he faces is the fact that he will never be Japanese. Although his Japanese is very good, he will never be a native speaker. He also notes that being Caucasian can be a mixed blessing: it can help establish relationships with Japanese people, but sometimes Japanese leaders do not fully accept him because they view him as a foreigner. Bernard explains, “That means you’re not always used as you hope you could be. Sometimes your opinions and ideas are discounted because you’re not Japanese. People can assume you don’t understand what’s going on here because you’re not Japanese.”

However, this lack of acceptance is an opportunity to show grace.

“It’s a matter of forgiveness and patience,” Bernard says. As a firm believer that quitting solves nothing, he believes that by seeking healing, peace, and acceptance, with others, the same grace will be shown to him.

Bernard’s advice for missionaries is to “be humble learners and find Japanese people you can relate well to and learn from.”

He advises Japanese leaders to:

Be patient with us please! I’ve been shown a lot of grace by Japanese leaders as well as acceptance, love, support, and concern. I appreciate that so much. Missionaries are not infallible or invincible. We need a lot of care, support, and help. So please continue to provide that. And try to look a little beyond the exterior and accept us as co-workers in the Lord.

Yoshito Noguchi: Working together in community

Yoshito Noguchi, pastor of Soma Fuchu Church in Fuchu, west Tokyo (part of the Acts 29 global church network), never intended to work with missionaries, but God had other plans. “It was kind of amazing,” Noguchi says. “We had no plans to call missionaries, but people overseas heard about our work and came.” Today, his church has about eight missionaries. But his church’s approach to partnering with missionaries differs considerably from that of most Japanese churches.

For a start, the church turns down most applications from potential missionaries, filtering candidates by talking to their pastors and others to learn more about them and their families. Noguchi says, “We’ve learned from past mistakes. Now when someone from overseas comes, we don’t initially give them any leadership responsibility since that can put them under a lot of pressure. Instead, we get to know them and they find out about us.” Their only tasks are to join in the life of the church, become a member of the missional community, and live as a family member and servant, which is true of all church members. They are not given any special treatment or a higher status than other church members. Rather, the church gets to know them and supports them as a family member. Only when it becomes apparent that a person fits well into the community and is suitably gifted do they become a part of the church leadership.

Noguchi emphasizes that it is vital to provide a nurturing environment for overseas people: “We don’t ‘use’ missionaries; rather our responsibility as a church is to love and support them so that they can, in turn, support Japanese people and send them out.”

He gives one example of an American missionary who now serves the church in a leadership role. When he first arrived in Japan, he lived with Noguchi’s family for one month. After that, he moved to his own house and continued to be actively involved in the church. Only after two years, when everyone saw that he was a good fit for the church and met the biblical criteria for eldership, was he made a leader.

Noguchi believes that the benefits missionaries offer vary from individual to individual, just as they do for Japanese church members. Someone from America and someone from Aomori should be treated the same and be encouraged to use their own unique gifts to build up the church.

Noguchi recalls a time when he became frustrated with a missionary at his church because he wasn’t able to do a certain task. But on reflection, he realized that he wasn’t viewing the missionary from the viewpoint of the gospel. Instead of evaluating the missionary’s worth in terms of what he could or couldn’t do, Noguchi should have considered him as a dear brother loved by God. That evening, he repented and apologized to the missionary for his attitude.

Noguchi believes local churches play a central role in both sending and accepting missionaries. Missionaries should be trained and nurtured by their home church and the same should occur when they arrive at a church in Japan. Noguchi worries that some missionary organizations don’t sufficiently evaluate the relationship that candidates have with their local churches and in some cases they send people who aren’t fit to serve, even in their home countries. Much damage can occur when such people are given positions of responsibility. He also has concerns that some missionaries are not seeking to nurture Japanese leaders.

Cultural differences do occur, but the key is to build a relationship of trust grounded on the gospel. In that way, differences can be worked through and the relationship is strengthened. That is why it is so vital to have the gospel at the centre of everything.

Reiko Sugimoto: A fruitful partnership

Reiko Sugimoto co-pastors a church in Machida with her husband. Over the 30 years they have been at the church, at least 10 short-term missionaries have come and served, mostly for two or three years at a time. The missionaries mostly help with English classes, informal friendship ministries, and the church’s bilingual service on Sunday afternoon.

The benefits of working together extend beyond what the missionaries do for the church. “We become friends. I don’t feel lonely and we can pray for each other,” says Sugimoto. She appreciates their spiritual maturity. “Missionaries are sacrificing their lives to come to Japan and devoting their lives for Christ. So I can share some of my struggles and spiritual prayer requests with them.” Almost all the missionaries attend the mid-week prayer meeting—something that is hard for many Japanese church members to do because of long work hours. “The missionaries almost always sacrifice their time to join the prayer meeting, which is such a blessing and encouragement for me.” They also help the church financially, through the English class tuition fees.

There are some challenges. Some missionaries are more flexible than others, and Sugimoto says it can be difficult when someone limits their work to a preconceived vision or calling. Despite being familiar with Western culture, Sugimoto still struggles with it sometimes. “Japanese very rarely come out and say ‘no’ directly; they find a sensitive way to indicate that they would rather not do something,” she says. “But some missionaries say no very straightforwardly. I sometimes feel a bit puzzled and hurt by that.”

Another challenge is when missionaries have health problems and need medical consultation. Most doctors cannot speak English, which makes it stressful for the missionary. Medical terminology is difficult, and treatments seem different from those in the missionary’s home country. Sugimoto recommends missionaries get a health check-up before coming to Japan and bring prescription medicine if necessary.

But she believes the benefits of working with missionaries far outweigh the challenges. For any Japanese pastor considering working with missionaries, Sugimoto says, “Just go for it!” Many Japanese leaders worry about not being fluent in English, but the language barrier is much lower today since there are smartphone apps to help with communication.

Isaac Saoshiro: A valuable perspective

Isaac Saoshiro is a pastor with Immanuel General Mission, which has 115 churches in Japan. The organization works in partnership with missionaries, offering advice about placements and working in partnership with Japanese pastors in Japanese churches. Saoshiro sees the main role of his denomination as providing a place where missionaries can minister.

Saoshiro served as a missionary in Kenya for 18 years and has worked with missionaries in Japan twice: once in 1976–1979 in Sendai and then in 1999–2003 on returning from Kenya. The missionaries’ main role in these cases was to help with evangelism through English services, and conversation and Bible classes.

Saoshiro thinks that missionaries are helpful because they bring a fresh perspective. He says, “Sometimes it makes Japanese people uncomfortable, but I think we need another point of view. They occasionally gave good advice about church planting, ministry, and meetings.” One example Saoshiro gives is that the Japanese style of leadership can be quite autocratic, whereas Western missionaries tend to be more democratic.

Rachel: Trying new things and rethinking old beliefs

Rachel Hughes has been a missionary in Japan with the Church Missionary Society since 2012. Her husband Dene works in student ministry, while she leads bilingual Bible studies, teaches music and English, and helps with a monthly evangelistic event at church for all ages called Bible Adventure.

“I couldn’t possibly achieve anything on my own!” she says. “My understanding of Japanese language and culture is so limited and my brain is so slow to learn. I am constantly aware of my need to be working together with Japanese ministry partners at every step of preparation because I think so differently to them. This also means I feel like I’m gaining a whole new perspective on biblical ideas and a whole new way of thinking about God’s goodness to us.”

Rachel has found language to be a huge barrier, which is exacerbated by cultural differences. She explains that expectations are culturally rooted, and that her first years were full of disappointment and hurt due to failed expectations. She says, “I’m discovering that expectations go both ways—I often realise too late that Japanese leaders had expectations about me that I haven’t met. There are also times when theological differences can be difficult.”

She has worked through those challenges by experimenting with new approaches, including active, game-based learning for youth Bible study. One of Rachel’s first friends at church was Megumi. They  took up jogging together and chatted about Rachel’s ideas for Bible study. Megumi was eager to give those ideas a go. So they started Bible Adventure. “It’s been really freeing to start something new that doesn’t have a set shape,” Rachel says. “When youth weren’t coming, we were easily able to change the purpose and restructure into something more evangelistic for all ages.”

Cross-cultural partnership has also forced Rachel to re-evaluate her own beliefs and thinking, especially when it comes to church, worship, baptism, and discipleship. Sometimes, Rachel adjusts her thinking or challenges the thinking of others, whereas other times she goes along with a plan she disagrees with for the sake of working together.

She advises missionaries to be patient and work at developing friendship. She encourages them to read the Bible together, pray for each other, and “give it a few years to begin to gel.”

Rachel asks Japanese leaders to be patient with missionaries, because missionaries often offend without realizing it: “We just don’t know how to behave appropriately—when, what, and with whom to communicate—and we have no idea of Japanese leaders’ expectations!” She also asks that leaders consider their ideas despite these setbacks, remembering that ultimately, “we are here because we really do want to work together. Let’s read God’s word, learn and grow together so that he may work through our partnership for his glory.”

Megumi: Bringing excitement to the Bible

Megumi became friends with Rachel at church, and together they run a monthly evangelistic event, Bible Adventure. Megumi is inspired by Rachel’s ideas for creative evangelism, saying, “I think that Japanese people tend to focus on the limitations of what we can do, but Rachel comes along with big ideas, like ‘Let’s do science experiments in the church building!’”

Megumi also finds Rachel’s views on worship and church liberating.

She used to believe missing church meant she wasn’t worshipping God, but Rachel pointed out that we can worship God anywhere. “At Bible Adventure we talked about how church is God’s people, not a building. Rachel has helped broaden my thinking about lots of things like this,” Megumi says.

However, she sometimes struggles to communicate Rachel’s ideas cross-culturally. “Rachel always has her mind full of what she wants to communicate,” Megumi says, “but I think that the message everyone receives is different.” Sometimes Rachel wants to communicate complex ideas, and often Megumi finds it hard to translate them into understandable Japanese, particularly for kids. Megumi says, “Sometimes it doesn’t work in Japanese. I know she really needs my help to communicate.”

For Megumi, time spent jogging with Rachel helped build up their relationship. Together, they could laugh at their miscommunications and come up with ministry ideas. “Now we feel like we can make changes if we want,” she says, “and we can laugh at each other’s mistakes. The more time we spend together, the easier it gets to guess what each other means.”

Masa and Chie: A different mentality

Masa and Chie run a bilingual, evangelistic soccer club and minister with their local church. They have cooperated with dozens of missionaries through soccer ministry and disaster relief over the last two decades. Like Megumi, they find Rachel’s outlook and theology expansive and encouraging. Many Japanese people have conceptions about what it means to be Christian, but Rachel and her husband Dene have shared new ways of thinking about Christian life, church, and worship. Their influence has impacted Masa and Chie, who say, “For them, it’s not about keeping rules or a fear of failing at something—they have a fun and positive image of church, based on God’s promises in the Bible. We tend to think that missing worship at church is bad; they think coming to church is great. Both views lead to the same outcome, but one focuses on the negative while the other focuses on the positive.”

Masa and Chie also find that missionaries tend to have a refreshingly different outlook on ministry and church life. Missionaries from Western cultures encourage Japanese people to consider the heart of ministry more than the form.

They say: “There is a different mentality and an expectation that knowing God is love will have a practical impact on your everyday life, and that in fellowship we will understand and experience God’s love.” Japanese people are often afraid “of getting out of sync with others at church or making mistakes (like not praying properly), and so they are afraid of doing the wrong thing in the church community. They also fear what others will think of them and can put the authority of their pastor above their personal relationship with God.” Masa and Chie were careful to explain that, “We know in our heads that God is love, but in our hearts we often feel like God is scary and strict. I think this comes from our experience of church life.”

But their cross-cultural partnerships haven’t all been easy. Masa explains that foreigners and Japanese people alike have trouble reading each other’s facial expressions, and communicating clearly takes time. Expectations are also a major problem. He says, “They have an idea about what they want to do and I have in mind what I want them to do. Often they want to move faster, but we worry and feel pushed.”

They have found that working through these difficulties and ensuring communication is happening and flowing both ways is important. “It is not very Japanese to address problems directly,” Masa admits, so they strive to become better listeners and to be the kind of people who always ask how people are doing.

Masa and Chie ask that missionaries not worry about how many people are being saved, saying, “Please don’t worry about numbers. Don’t be concerned with how many people are saved ‘by you.’ Salvation is God’s work; it’s enough for us all to be sharing the gospel.”

Missionaries should also be aware of cultural expectations, including the condition of the Japanese church and Japanese Christian mentality. Sometimes it’s tempting to assume everyone holds the same ideas of what being a Christian means, but Japanese Christians generally have limited knowledge of Christian history and understanding of the Bible. Masa and Chie say, “Some people think attending church = worship = being a Christian.”

Masa and Chie also advise Japanese leaders to be conscious of cultural differences, and suggest that problems often arise from miscommunication, rather than the intention to cause trouble. They believe it is important for both sides to discuss motivations and expectations.

They encourage missionaries and international Christians to join in the life of their community. They believe it is great to have Christians coming to live in Japan, and not necessarily as missionaries. “Simply living as a Christian in a local community is valuable,” they say, “whether joining in with local events, sending your kids to the local school, or sharing life with neighbours, we Japanese Christians will see that you think God is worth leaving the comfort of your own country and the education your kids might have had, and we are encouraged. Building relationships takes time; it’s like raising kids! But opening your house and spending time with people is a very practical and powerful way to build relationships and open doors to the gospel.”

By JH staff. Published in the Winter 2019 issue of Japan Harvest magazine under the title “Working together: some views from the ground”

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