Missionary is not a word I’d use to describe myself in most circles. The truth is I’m not a missionary—I’m an English teacher. More specifically, I’m an Assistant Language Teacher (ALT) on the JET Program, a Japanese-government initiative to get native English speakers into the classroom. But while I’m not a missionary, I am passionate about Jesus and Japan. And I feel a lifelong call to share God’s good news with Japanese people. Fulfilling this calling as an independent tentmaker has unique benefits and challenges.
Advantages of being independent
Living and sharing the gospel through a secular vocation usually integrates one into the society more naturally than a traditional missionary position does. From conversations with missionary friends, it seems that missionaries don’t spend as much time around Japanese locals as they would like. In contrast, I am integrated into the local education system. I teach at three schools, which have a total of about 150 teachers and 1,500 students. (This doesn’t include my Wednesday afternoons at the board of education at the city hall or several other work-related events at other local schools.) Though I sometimes feel spread thin, I’m always finding new relationships and opportunities for sowing seeds.
I don’t have an official ministry, but by living out the gospel and letting my light shine by wearing my faith on my sleeve in a (hopefully) culturally sensitive way, I can integrate gospel sharing into my life and work. There’s no shortage of relationships for this. Sometimes, it is talking to a fellow teacher about faith. Other times, it means hanging out with teachers from schools that don’t have an ALT. Occasionally, it looks like sharing that I love Jesus in my self-introductions in classes. A few times, it has involved telling some middle-school boys that I’m waiting for marriage because I love Jesus. It happens every week when I go to the local okonomiyaki restaurant and chat with the chef about what forgiveness actually is. It happens when I pray for a fellow ALT who’s sick and who said afterwards, “You pray like you’re skyping your dad!”
One of the opportunities I have had is to witness to a middle-aged teacher. While she’s not an English teacher, she enjoys English and likes to practice by talking with me. I soon discovered that she is a devout Buddhist, unlike most Japanese, who are more nominal in their faith. When she asked for my help in preparing a student for an English speech contest, I gladly lent a hand. She was thankful, and as a result we’ve become friends and have had many conversations, often about faith. She expressed surprise that someone as young as me was so serious about their faith. She even said that she’s a little worried about me being too passionate about Jesus (as if that were possible!).
I’ve tried to share about what makes Jesus special. For example, I’ve found that Buddhists tend to equate God with the universe or creation itself, so I recently challenged her by saying, “If you really think that the universe is God, then your understanding of God is too small.” Looking back, it was a strong thing to say, but I think it impacted her and gave her something to think about. I’d be grateful if you could pray for her as we continue to be friends and have conversations about faith from time to time.
A drawback to being independent
While independent tentmaking integrates one into the local society and culture, it fails to integrate one into the body of Christ. Specifically, I don’t have a team to work with. Traditional missionaries often work as part of a team. Team members can do outreaches together, meet each other’s friends, and fulfill the Great Commission in community with other believers. The people they witness to can see not just the testimony of the believers’ individual lives, but also the testimony of how they love one another. Jesus said, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35 NIV).
Of the eight ALTs in my city in Mie prefecture, I’m the only believer. And there are no Japanese Christians at any of the schools I teach (or if there are, they are too casual or timid to be open about it). I feel that being the only believer in my workplaces has made it difficult to gain momentum in ministry—Jesus sent his disciples out two by two for a reason. Thankfully, I am connected to a local church, and its members are an encouragement to me. I also have missionary friends in Nagoya and an email list of people at home who pray for me and those I witness to. So, although I feel alone in ministry at times, I am by no means separated from the body of Christ.
God is at work
But, even as a lone believer and an independent tentmaker, after just a year in a relatively rural setting such as Mie, I feel like God is moving people’s hearts. Just last night, I had another conversation with the chef at my local okonomiyaki restaurant. We talked for hours about many things: Jesus, sin, purity, Adam and Eve, Abraham, Israel, and Judaism. We touched on the crusades and loving our enemies. The impracticality of being passionate for Jesus also came up. I also told him that I don’t judge him, that Jesus hung out with prostitutes rather than religious Pharisees, and that God is a loving father inviting us home. At the end of the night, the chef said to me, “You’ve given me a lot to think about, Stephen. Thank you.”
Photo by Flickr.com user 弧月いう Yuu Kogetsu