Missionaries and Japanese believers are doing a good job of seeking to reach the spiritually lost through outreaches held in church buildings and at Christian camps. However, I’m concerned about the many Japanese people who will never enter a Christian gathering place to hear the gospel. Inspired by the way Jesus initiated conversations with the lost (such as Zacchaeus and the Samaritan woman at the well), I’ve endeavored for the last 15 years to take the gospel to unbelievers where they live out their lives.
English conversation groups outside of church
Churches have long used English teaching as a service and outreach to the local community, as we do at our church. But I also go to English conversation groups that don’t meet in church buildings and aren’t sponsored by Christians. These groups are held on neutral ground such as bars, cafés, and community center rooms. I pray for opportunities to talk about my faith, but I do not force the topic. The owner of the café where we meet asked one of our current interns many questions about her faith and Christianity. The owner also assigns participants to my table when she finds out they are interested in Christianity. Last month, one regular sat at my table and started out with, “How do I become a Christian?” She wasn’t ready to become one, but she wanted to know practically what it looks like to become a Christian.
For me, there are great benefits in joining English conversation groups. First, I don’t have to prepare (except to pray). Second, I get to meet a lot of working adults (especially men), graduate students, and others who are often not available during the day. Third, I can take my non-Japanese-speaking interns (short-termers) to participate and they can learn about Japanese culture directly from Japanese people and have opportunities to talk about their faith. Nearly everyone asks, “What are you doing here in Japan?”
Other ways to serve the community
There are many other ways to serve the community besides English classes. My wife and I volunteer an hour a week at the local community center for children (jidōkan). We mostly just talk and play with the children. Out of that, we’ve been asked to participate in a couple of special events. A missionary in a neighboring community has been asked to give an Easter presentation at his local jidōkan.
A colleague was helping farmers in her community. When a big job came up and the farmer was ill, she called me to see if our interns could come and help out in the fields for a day. Another couple serves their community by helping with seaweed harvesting and oyster farming. Working side by side with unbelievers gives us opportunities to show as well as to tell the gospel.
Engaging in hobbies and activities
Sports, music, dance, and art are just some of the many hobbies that Japanese people engage in and that foreigners are welcome to join. Four months ago, I started attending Toastmasters (an organization that helps people improve their public-speaking skills) in Sendai. Through my speeches, and in conversations before and after meetings, I’ve been able to talk about my faith. This group also gives me opportunities to interact with Japanese people working in business and education.
My wife likes to walk, and she discovered that one of the local mothers wants to walk to stay fit. These walks have given her opportunities to learn about our neighbor’s life and to talk about Jesus. Another missionary I know finds tennis circles to join. He also likes hot springs and has made friends and enjoyed conversations while having a good, hot soak.
Being intentional in everyday routines
My wife will tell you that I am a person with routines. It’s just my personality. I’ve been able to take this quirk and discipline it to engage unbelievers. I do the same things daily, or weekly. I run the same route every weekday morning at the same time. I stop by the same kindergarten and daycare center. The teachers usually open the sliding door so I can greet the children. We have to move from our current rented house this summer. When I’ve informed people on my route, they ask: “Will you be moving far?” and “Can you continue to come here even if you aren’t in the same community?” After over five years of jogging, I know people and they know me.
I call our local McDonald’s “my office” and I usually go there on Tuesday afternoons to read or prepare a message. Before going, I pray: Lord, send someone for me to talk with and give me courage to start the conversation. And he does. In March, I caught the eye of a mother and her young daughter. “Hello,” I said, in English. The mother asked if I spoke Japanese and I told her I did and gave her my business card. She saw the photo of my wife and me, our mailing address, and the name of the church we work with on the card. She knew the church and asked if I knew a Japanese woman who lives in that area (who isn’t a believer). When I said I did, she really opened up.
While in McDonald’s, I deliberately look around from time to time. Whenever someone is going to sit at a table next to me, I look up and greet them. Often that leads to a conversation, which frequently includes an inquiry about why I’m in Japan, and I can sprinkle bits of the gospel into my reply.
Sharing the gospel while learning the culture
I often take our interns to cultural sites in Sendai. The cheapest and most efficient way to do this is to take them myself. However, the Sendai Tourist Information Desk offers some cultural tours and experiences for a fee. I frequently choose some of these so that I can develop deeper relationships with the staff and so I can hear (and let the interns hear) about Japanese culture directly from Japanese people. On one walking tour in Sendai, we went to a little shrine. I had done this tour on my own a couple months before to help the Information staff take promotional photos (they needed foreign-looking faces) and to see if it would be a good tour for the interns. The second time I took the tour with the interns, a new staff member was leading the tour for the first time and didn’t know much about this shrine. So I interjected a few facts I had heard the first time I took the tour. One room contained statues of the Chinese zodiac animals, and the guide started to look up our birth-year animals. One of the interns learned that she was born in the year of the sheep and started talking about how she really is a sheep but has a Good Shepherd. For several minutes, I translated for her. That guide became Facebook friends with all of us! She has since moved to Tokyo, but she still follows me and I sprinkle bits of God’s Word onto my Facebook page along with family news and Japanese cultural tidbits I’m learning.
For my benefit and the benefit of our interns, I attend a Japanese-language tutoring group at Tōhoku Gakuin University. Our interns have befriended their tutors, and some have even maintained a relationship for months after leaving Japan. Our summer 2018 interns have a group video chat nearly every week. A colleague of mine attends a community Japanese tutoring group in Tokyo and invited his tutor to church, and he came.
Many of the ways I’ve discovered to engage the unreached have been wonderful accidents (God-given opportunities, to be more precise). The simplest way to engage the unreached is to greet people. But to do that we must be in the places where unbelievers are. We missionaries can do many things to engage the unreached. The temptation is to do much of the above within church walls or campground boundaries—my church has English classes and cultural seminars at church. However, my plea is that we strive to do some of these things among unbelievers—realizing that many of them will never walk into a Christian gathering place without first coming to know a Christian personally.
Box image “LHR out-of-the-box” by Flickr user Antonio Valente
John Edwards and his wife Susan have been missionaries in Japan since 1993 and have been with SEND since 2002. They live in Sendai, where they lead the D House internship ministry and cooperate with Tsubamesawa Church.