“For 30 years, my husband and I have been praying for a missionary couple to come work with us.” Those were Nozomi Naitō’s words to me and my wife Susan when we first met her and her husband, Pastor Tomohiro Naitō, in August 2013 to discuss the possibility of partnering with them in the ministry of their church, Seaside Bible Church (now Tsubamesawa Church) in Sendai.
However, it takes more than just a heartfelt request for Japanese believers and non-Japanese believers to minister effectively together. Effective teamwork in ministry takes calling, a shared philosophy of ministry, complementary gifts, effort to understand, and mutual encouragement.
Most of the missionary biographies I read growing up were of missionary pioneers going into unreached lands with the gospel. The (usually) Western missionary came with all the resources and know-how for ministry.
But this kind of pioneer is not needed in Japan now. While the number of Christians in Japan is relatively low and there remain towns with no church, there is an established church in Japan. Many Japanese pastors appreciate not only what missionaries have done in the past, but also what missionaries continue to do. However, that does not mean a Japanese pastor is personally willing and able to work with foreign missionaries.
“We’ve never worked with missionaries before, but we want to.” Nozomi’s words were key to us. Even with uncertainty about what it would look like, Pastor and Nozomi Naitō desired to work with a missionary couple. Meanwhile, Susan and I knew we were called to work with our Japanese brothers and sisters to evangelize the spiritually lost in Japan. Since the beginning, we had intentionally sought out ministries led by the Japanese. This sense of calling, of strongly desiring to work together with Japanese leaders, is vital for a successful ministry partnership.
Philosophy of ministry
In Japan, Susan and I avoided English-teaching ministry. In our minds, it was not reproducible since only native English speakers could do it and it was limited in whom it could reach. (I know a lot of Japanese people who do not like English and have no interest in learning it.) We had seen and heard about cases where the Japanese pastor relied on the missionary, usually through English programs, to attract unbelievers to the church building. I was not interested in working with a church whose mindset was for the missionaries to be the main ones to attract unbelievers to church.
In contrast, Pastor and Mrs. Naitō saw their role as doing outreach, and this attracted us to work with them. During the 2011 Tohoku disaster, Seaside Bible Church, which was also the Naitōs’ home, was swept away. When they had to move inland and rent a café for services and for hosting volunteer teams, the Naitōs looked for ways to reach out to the new neighborhood. Nozomi noticed children passing the café as they walked to school. Nozomi can bake, so she put out a sign inviting children to come in and bake with her. The first week, no one came. The second week, one girl came. By the time we met the Naitōs a few months later, half a dozen children were stopping by, some with their mothers. Susan and I were impressed that the Naitōs were not inviting us to do outreach for them; they were inviting us to do outreach with them. That was essential to us.
Too often we assume that a shared vision or philosophy of ministry means the team will possess the same gifts and abilities—especially in a small local church or new church plant. Thankfully, Pastor Naitō does not see things that way. He once commented, “I like rice; my wife prefers bread. That doesn’t mean we have to fight. It’s not that one is right and the other wrong.”
It is refreshing to know that I do not have to be able to preach as well as Pastor Naitō or in the same way. The Naitōs are more comfortable with ministries based in the church building. On the other hand, my wife enjoys ministry in our house, while I really like going out into the community and connecting with people.
These differences can either become a source of conflict or a blessing of complementary gifts. Pastor Naitō does not force me to be in the church building all the time. In fact, I’m usually only there on Sundays and Thursdays. I don’t even attend prayer meetings because I go to an English circle in Sendai where I’m often the only foreigner and the only Christian. I return to the Naitōs with stories of opportunities I’ve had to talk about Jesus in this group, and the Naitōs praise the Lord. They tell me other ways the Lord is answering prayer, and I praise the Lord.
Susan now teaches English in the church building, and as she does so Nozomi talks with the waiting mothers and children. Susan’s teaching ability complements Nozomi’s hospitality and evangelistic gifts. It works because we appreciate the value of each other’s gifts and often see their connection for building up the church.
Effort to understand
There are two aspects to understanding one another. The obvious one is the language barrier. The Naitōs know very little English and, like most missionaries, our language ability falls short all too often. When I commented to the Naitōs about how difficult it must be for them to work with us, Nozomi said, “We feel bad. We ought to be able to communicate in English with you or communicate more clearly so you can understand.” Such humility.
The second area of possible misunderstanding is when others act differently. Once, as Pastor Naitō and I were driving down the street, I waved and called out greetings to children walking home from school. He scolded me and said that Japanese don’t do that. But over time he has come to understand that I’m not Japanese, and because of that I have freedom to behave in different ways in order to connect with others. Similarly, I once thought our worship services were too formal to attract young people. How surprised I was when a non-believing high school student came and commented, “I love it here. It’s so warm and friendly.” I saw then that the Naitōs have worked to create a comfortable atmosphere where all sorts of people can feel welcome. Some of that is the cultural aspect of ceremony and formality mixed with warmth and fellowship. Learning to understand each other’s way of doing ministry is essential to successful partnership between Japanese and non-Japanese Christians.
Self-doubt or lack of confidence describes how we feel about being missionaries, even after more than 20 years. So it is empowering to hear a Japanese pastor say over and over how valuable we are to their church. After nearly every event, we thank each other.
I am also encouraged by the Naitōs’ commitment to the church—not just in shepherding the flock but also in evangelism. Their prayers, plans, and discussions with us are often about unbelievers we know through various ministries (café, English classes, Kids Club, etc.) and others we don’t know yet. They started this church over 35 years ago, and to see them still so enthusiastic encourages me greatly. They even talk sometimes about starting another church!
To survive and thrive, we need encouragement. Certainly, Scripture gives it to us. But we also need it from the body of Christ. It shouldn’t be just one way; it should be both ways—from missionary to Japanese pastor, and from pastor to missionary.
We have served with the Naitōs for five years now. What has made this such a rewarding time of ministry in Japan and a successful partnership? I’ve concluded that it has been these major contributing factors: a shared calling to work together; our compatible ministry philosophy; our complementary gifts; the effort we take to understand one another; and mutual encouragement.
Now a third couple is working with us—from Hong Kong. Partnership continues to be great!
John Edwards and his wife, Susan, have served in Japan since 1993 with Hi-BA and now with SEND International. They grew up in rural New York. They currently lead the Tohoku D (discipleship) House internship and cooperate with Tsubamesawa Church in Sendai.