When I do premarital counseling, I tell couples to listen, listen, listen to each other. In Japanese, I write kiku, the verb for listen, three different ways, きく、聞く、聴く. In hiragana, kiku has a soft feel. This points to the need to listen to the emotions behind words. The second way of writing kiku also means to hear or to ask. This reminds us to make sure we have heard correctly and to ask if we are not sure. The third kiku means to make a conscious effort to listen deeply, focusing on the details while also contemplating the whole context. It is how a lover of classical music listens to an orchestra performing Bach. Only after we listen, listen, listen are we able to understand how we should respond.
Listening is very important for good relationships and for effective ministry. Often, we feel eager to speak and explain, but unless we first take time to listen, we will not know what is in the hearts of the Japanese people we want to share with. This principle applies widely—to culture, beliefs, rituals, and relationships. For example, when a Japanese person asks to get baptized, we naturally want to immediately celebrate and give thanks to the Lord, but if we ask a few questions and then listen, the person will often say more, sometimes sharing critical information that might otherwise have been missed. Here are a few examples from my experience.
A middle-aged woman told me that she wanted to be baptized. I invited her to sit down and I poured us some coffee. As we made small talk, I noticed that she seemed anxious. After about fifteen minutes she told me that she had cancer and said, “I want to get baptized in preparation for death.” I sipped my coffee, stalling as I prayed in my heart, then answered, “Baptism is preparation for life, not death.” That started a dialogue about the meaning of new life in Christ. Not long after, she was baptized with great joy. By the Lord’s grace, the medical treatment she received was effective, and she is still serving in the church and praising God.
Another time, a young Japanese woman said she wanted to be baptized, but her parents were against it. As we talked, she said she was not sure why her parents were opposed, so I encouraged her to ask them. She came back and said, “My mother asks, ‘If you get baptized, who will you marry?’ and my father wants to know, ‘If you get baptized, who will bury you?’” They weren’t anti-Christian; they just loved their daughter and were doing their best to protect her future. To them, finding a good marriage partner and having children to lay one’s ashes to rest were essential for happiness. A year later, they gave permission for her baptism and her mother even came to watch.
In both cases, a process of listening, asking, and listening led to a better result than might have come from reacting quickly.
Sadly, I have met two Japanese men who received baptism without believing in Jesus. One was baptized because a missionary had helped him and he wanted to show his gratitude. Another just wanted to experience what it felt like to be a Christian. More questions and deeper listening might have led to real decisions of faith.
Over the years, I have made some progress at learning to listen, but—as my wife knows very well—I still have a lot to learn. However, over the years I have been blessed to meet a few expert listeners who have inspired me to try harder. Have you ever met an expert listener? An hour after you meet them you realize that they know all about you and you know very little about them. All because they asked a couple of questions and then listened with deep interest.
I believe we would all be more effective missionaries if we would learn to truly listen and hear what is in the hearts of those Jesus has given us to love. It isn’t easy, but it is worth it. Listen, listen, listen—you will be glad you did.
Dan Ellrick and his wife Karen came to Japan as missionaries in 1996. Their current focus is resource development. Dan is also the Japan representative of International Ministerial Fellowship.