In the autumn of 2013 I attended a mission training retreat with Dr. Duane Elmer, consultant to numerous multinational organizations including Ford Motor Company, World Vision, Salvation Army, Red Cross, and various churches and mission agencies. During the retreat we focused on the principles detailed in his book Cross-Cultural Servanthood. A number of Japanese nationals serve on our missionary staff, so at one point during the conference we asked them how expatriates could more effectively build bridges to Japanese people. Their suggestions included:
1. Appreciate and engage in “weather talk.”
Conversations need to start somewhere. Often they start with the weather, or some other non-threatening topic. But if you’re like me, you immediately want to steer a conversation toward a “meaningful” discussion. However, small talk is the way into relationships. Relationship building takes time, especially in Japan. And most often it’s through relationships that we gain a hearing for the gospel. Recognize that small talk is meaningful, because it contributes to building relationships.
2. Don’t try to become Japanese. Become like Christ.
There’s nothing wrong with appreciating the finer aspects of Japanese culture and learning to do various things “the Japanese way.” That can be part of the bridge-building process to eliminate barriers and develop relationships. But for Japanese people to taste the love of God, it is more important for them to see the character of Christ shining through you.
3. Show interest by asking questions.
The articles on this website can prompt all sorts of questions you can ask Japanese acquaintances. As you read, type out your questions or write them on a piece of paper and later ask a Japanese person what they know about the subject. You might find an authority. Or your questions might lead to another subject in which they are an authority.
4. Study Japanese culture and history.
If you’ve been in Japan for a while, you know enough about everyday life to avoid the most obvious cultural blunders. But there’s always more to learn. By becoming a student of Japanese culture and history you’ll build respect and deepen relationships with Japanese friends.
5. Make improving your Japanese language ability a lifelong habit.
Once you reach the Japanese level necessary to survive in your ministry or job, it’s easy to plateau. But don’t settle for “good enough.” You show respect for the people you have chosen to serve if you commit to being a lifelong language learner. Yes, there will be seasons of life when you can’t give language learning much attention, and all of us learn at a different pace. But even writing kanji for just five minutes every morning can lead to steady improvement over the long term.
Taking the next step
Did one or more of these areas cause you to respond, “Ouch! I’m weak in that area”? I must admit, several made me cringe. I’ve picked one as my current focus, and I’ve already started working on it. Perhaps you’d like to choose one that convicts you and fit it into your personal development plan. A small commitment today could result in another bridge for the gospel tomorrow.