Running the race
My primary goal in running junior high track was to be chosen to run in the Drake Relays, a major event held at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa. I would be a peer of Olympian Carl Lewis—though not competing in the same events, of course. My dream came true as I joined the 4 × 100 meter relay team. Each runner played a key role in the overall success of our team. It didn’t matter how fast the anchor was if the other teammates dropped the baton. This image is quite fitting for returnee ministry. We are part of a larger team. All of us play our part to see people take steps towards Christ or grow in their faith.
Around the first anniversary of Tokyo Life Church, we had the joy of baptizing two young Japanese: Kōichirō and Asako. While they came to faith at our church, God was working in their lives during their time studying abroad. When they returned to Japan, some friends connected them with our young church. The baton was passed.
In 1 Corinthians 3, Paul points out how some plant the seed, others water it, but God gives the growth. We all have one purpose and will be rewarded for our labor, whether we see any growth or reap the harvest. God invites us to faithfully receive and pass the baton with returnees.
Reaching out to returnees is an incredible opportunity. Many people become more open to faith through some kind of crisis. For most Japanese living abroad, the very experience of moving can be a crisis. They are broken as they find themselves in a new place without a community, struggling with language skills and adapting to a new culture. They are hungry for friendship and connection, and their schedules typically offer plenty of free time and flexibility to meet people and have new experiences. It is incredible to see how Japanese people move towards faith during their study and work abroad.
The goal for our “relay team” is to see Japanese people grow in their faith wherever they are and wherever they go. This past fall, a young Japanese lady we baptized moved to France for an MBA degree program. It is important for new believers to have the encouragement they need to flourish in their faith even if they move away, so I connected with friends in France to find her a great church near Paris. As sad as it is to say goodbye, the dream for senders is to see the Japanese thrive wherever they go. You live with a certain level of uncertainty and trust that the baton won’t be dropped. This church near Paris is a reminder that we want to faithfully receive the baton for those who are sent to us in Japan.
This baton handoff is not simple. Challenges abound. The crisis that some experienced abroad disappears when they come home. They return to their friends, family, and routines. The desire for community and friendship that was fulfilled at a church or with Christians may dissipate. Those free evenings and weekends also vanish. The busyness of work and life can crowd out the priority of church involvement. Old rhythms and routines become the norm. The parable of the sower in Matthew 13 comes to mind. The seeds fall on different soils. Some disappear immediately. Others might take root, but then get choked out as other priorities compete for their attention. Attending church on Sunday is not the normal rhythm for Japanese people as it may be their rare day off or time with family. These challenges are not unique to returnees, but they must be faced and creatively addressed if we want to be effective ministers to this important group.
Returnees, like every person, do not fit into a simple mold. They come in all shapes and sizes. They vary in life stage, whether they are single or have a family. Their cultural identity varies from being very Japanese to more Western, which can affect how they fit into a church community. They will also fall across a spectrum in their spiritual receptivity, ranging from very apathetic to actively seeking, to newly committed Christian. It is critical to be aware of these challenges, to meet people where they are at and walk with them in their spiritual journey.
During the four years of Tokyo Life Church, we’ve been blessed by many experiences with returnees. We’ve also learned some hard lessons along the way. Here are some of our reflections on serving returnees:
1. Meet them where they are at
People come to you at various points of their spiritual journey. It is too simplistic to view people as either non-believers or Christians. Tools such as the Engel Scale and Gray Matrix provide better frameworks to gauge people’s thinking in terms of their attitude towards faith (open or closed) and knowledge of the faith. We’ve known people who come back and are interested but know nothing about the Bible. Taking people through the Alpha Course was a formative step for them as they learned the basics of the faith, built a foundation, and were guided through their questions and doubts. For others, information was not enough since their hearts were not yet open. The Alpha Course connected with both the heart and head. Some were ready to believe but just needed to understand the gospel and be given an opportunity to accept Christ.
People have all kinds of motives for being part of a church community. For those who are just returning, your greatest gift will be to offer an understanding community. They might be dealing with reverse culture shock for the first time. Their family, friends, and co-workers may mean well but can’t fully relate to what they are going through. Parents with third-culture kids may be eager to find resources to prepare them for Japanese school and society. Others may just want a listening ear and someone who can truly empathize with them. We’ve offered monthly returnee gatherings as a way to connect with fresh returnees and listen to them in their adjustment period. The goal is not just to plug them into a program but to meet their personal needs.
2. Relationships are key
Everybody who has served in Japan has learned the hard lesson that trust takes time. Relationships are critical to building that trust. We have found that welcoming people into a small group and serving them vastly increases their chances of getting connected to the church. Depending on their maturity of faith, we might also connect them to somebody to meet regularly for mentoring. People are eager for relationships. We were somewhat surprised by a few returnee families who began regularly attending our small group but not necessarily our Sunday services. In our past experience, people first came to a service then went deeper by joining a group. Here, however, people wanted to belong and connect with others before they believed and came to worship. People are busy. They will prioritize what they value. Attending a worship service every week will likely be a new rhythm for most returnees. The challenge is helping them see the value in the community and prioritizing the church in their lives.
3. Be faithful to the process
Perseverance and patience are two critical traits of ministry in Japan. It is no different when ministering to returnees. Like the seed planted in soil, it takes time and effort to experience the harvest. God calls us to be faithful to the process—to be faithful as we take the baton and run our leg of the race and to do what we can to help these fresh seeds take root and develop. It starts with understanding people’s needs and building strong relationships. Then we can celebrate the small wins as they come to faith or go deeper in it.
On January 2–3, my father-in-law loves to watch the Hakone Ekiden relay marathon. Teams from Japanese universities run a ten-stage, 218-kilometer relay. Each runner is part of the team and must be faithful to their leg and then pass on their school sash to their teammate. Missionaries, too, belong to a larger team working to reach the Japanese. We co-labor with our Japanese colleagues here and with people who reach out to Japanese living abroad. Our call is to be faithful to the leg that God has allowed us to run and pass the baton on to those who will help these returnees take the next step in their spiritual journey.
Grant Buchholtz, along with his wife Miho, founded and lead Tokyo Life Church, a bilingual, international church in Ikebukuro. They are missionaries with the Evangelical Covenant Church. They have two daughters.