When I first came to Japan I often felt like I was dancing in front of a crowd, but didn’t know my partner and couldn’t hear the music. I thought I knew what I was doing, but was confused as well. For example, shortly after I arrived in Japan I ate curry rice with friends. I didn’t understand why Japanese people around me were using spoons. I was determined to use chopsticks thinking, I’m in Japan and Japanese people eat with chopsticks. It was a happy day when I relented and started eating curry rice with a spoon like everyone else.
I keep running into my own false assumptions. Sometimes these false assumptions have been funny and harmless, yet other times they have unfortunately caused pain for myself or those around me.
I came to Japan in 2005 as a church planting associate with Asian Access. I was placed with a church in Minamata, Kumamoto to help with a church plant in the adjacent city of Okuchi, in Kagoshima. (On a side note, I think it is God’s special humor that my first placement in Japan was in 大口市 literally “Big Mouth City.”)
I have a clear memory of writing my vision in my Asian Access small group: “To plant churches, that plant churches, that plant churches, that plant churches, that plant churches, that plant churches, that plant churches, that plant churches . . . ” This vision was shaped by my time in college ministry at Texas A&M University, which prioritized evangelism and discipleship through multiplying small groups. With that college ministry, I went on short-term teams to Ibaraki Ken and Yamagata Ken in 2001, 2002, and 2003. During these trips we saw several of our friends make decisions to follow Christ. Back at A&M, I was discipled by my pastor and other leaders, and talked to the missionaries I knew. In addition, I read every book I could about Japan, cross-cultural ministry, and theology. I came to Japan excited to see God continue what I had experienced up to that point.
More assumptions than I realized
I had reflected on and explored my expectations about ministry. Short-term trips and other training had impressed upon me the importance of that. Therefore, I thought I had a pretty good feel for what to expect. Then one day I saw Japanese people working on the road and thought to myself, “Huh, I didn’t expect that.” Until that point, most of my interactions had been with bilingual, highly-educated Japanese people in the US, and I had subconsciously transferred this expectation to the country as a whole. It wasn’t a huge revelation, but it showed a false assumption that I held.
A turning point for me occurred one time while listening to my Japanese pastor preach. My Japanese was finally at a point that I understood most of what he said and I realized it was a really good sermon. I found myself thinking, Wow, that was a really good point. Then I noticed my surprise. Convicted, I asked, Why am I surprised? Why didn’t I expect to learn from my Japanese pastor? Until that moment, I didn’t realize I felt that way. I was serving at the church, but I had no expectation that I would actually grow in my relationship with Christ as a result of the pastor’s teaching.
I didn’t realize my arrogance (arrogant people rarely do). I thought I was a humble missionary ready to serve the needs of the Japanese church. My thinking was—after decades of work and with less than one percent of the population identified as Christians, the Japanese church needed help. What I didn’t realize was that deep down I thought my Japanese brothers and sisters didn’t know what they were doing. I assumed that if they just understood the Bible like I did and used the methods I liked, they would see revival in Japan.
The apostle Paul saw lots of fruit in some places and little in others. Yet, as a 27-year-old kid from East Texas who thought he had it all together, I figured that if people did things my way they would always see fruit. My intentions were good (desiring to see Japanese people turn to Jesus) but my arrogance and assumptions were ugly, misguided, and—if left unchecked—harmful.
I share this because God used this incident to fundamentally change me. He revealed just enough of my arrogance to begin the process of convicting and humbling me. Before, I viewed Pastor Kamizono as the Japanese pastor with whom I worked. After that time, I began to learn what it means to be serving as a missionary in Japan with Pastor Kamizono as my pastor. That transition from thinking of him as “the pastor with whom I am partnering” to “my pastor” was subtle but significant. It moved me from a posture of thinking the church needed me, to a posture of trusting God to lead me through my local pastor.
In 2012, my wife and I came to Shiogama Bible Baptist Church in Tagajo, Miyagi. While vocational authority still comes through our organization, Ōtomo Yukikazu is our pastor. This fuller understanding of who our pastor really is has been tremendously helpful for me over the last several years. Although I don’t always agree with my church’s decisions, I understand that my pastor is the spiritual authority. It is not my responsibility to “fix” this church, but to join in what God is doing here. This change in posture has also freed me to consult with my pastor when I am personally wrestling with issues. I am grateful to partner with and serve under the spiritual authority of our Japanese pastor.
After nine years in Japan, I continue to discover false assumptions in my approach to life, ministry, and culture. Increasingly, though, I feel like I’m getting to know my dance partner and hearing the music more clearly.
Asian Access missionary Robert Adair serves in Miyagi prefecture through a partnership with Shiogama Bible Baptist Church. He is husband to Roberta and father of two energetic boys. He enjoys spending time in the mountains.