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The importance of time

CMS missionaries Brad and Michelle Jackson recently returned to Australia after 13 years serving in Japan. Michelle shares how God was at work as she sought to build deep relationships with women in her community.

Challenging soil for the gospel

Japan is known as hard ground for the gospel, as family and cultural expectations block people from even considering Christ. In the 16th century the Shogun Tokugawa, reacting against Christianity, declared: “Japan is a nation of the Shinto gods and the Buddha.” This attitude prevails today. To embrace Jesus is seen as a rejection of Japanese identity, a turning away from family and a betrayal of ancestors. A woman I was reading the Bible with expressed this, saying: “If I wasn’t a wife, a mother and a daughter I’d become a Christian.” 

Over the years I often heard friends share their hesitation in becoming a Christian because of their fear of telling their families. Mrs J expressed: “My parents are old and not in good health, they live in the countryside and won’t understand.” She held back telling them of her faith for fear it would send them to an early death.

Another barrier is the difference in approach to religious life. Japanese often don’t hold deep beliefs so much as deep habits. In Japanese religion what you do is more important than what you think. While we were walking in the mountains near our home, we observed friends offering prayers to a local god. When we asked who the god was, they were not ashamed to say that they didn’t know. We met many people who didn’t understand the reason behind their religious practices. In contrast, Christians tend to focus on belief and truth. Our natural emphasis is learning to think rightly, or ‘orthodoxy’. We needed to demonstrate that our loving actions were tied to our beliefs in a God who loved us in Christ.”

Building relationships

As we served in a culture so resistant to the gospel, I invested time in building friendships and earning trust. Practicing hospitality and activities such as walks, lunches, dinner parties and picnics—both privately and through the church—were very important. Yes, five-hour lunches in Japanese were exhausting. But over time God gave me wonderful opportunities to share my faith and invite non-Christian friends to join Bible studies.

Reading the Bible together

We were surprised by just how many Japanese women were willing to regularly attend Bible studies, often over a period of years. At first, they were very clear in stating that they had absolutely no intention of becoming a Christian. They were just curious about the Bible from an intellectual standpoint. Yet gradually, God’s Spirit worked in their hearts, faith took root and buds of spiritual life formed. Three of these women developed genuine faith in Jesus. They grew to understand Christian faith as less of a religion and more about a relationship with God. All three were deeply concerned about telling their families they had become Christians. One was physically assaulted and rejected by her family members—before she even became a Christian. But the sapling kept growing and healthy buds were forming. Two of these dear friends will soon be baptised.

For others who attended Bible study for years, even though they said they believed the Bible’s teaching, they didn’t feel free to surrender their lives to Jesus because of the strongholds their families had over them. Eventually they had to stop attending and their faith withered.

Another friend, a young Christian, disappeared from church when her husband banned her and her young children from attending. Her parents-in-law had hired a private investigator who reported that our church was a dangerous cult. She hopes to be free to attend again when her sons have graduated high school.

All three were fearful of telling their families they had become Christians. One was physically assaulted and rejected by her family members…”

Reflecting with thanks

What have I learned about mission in Japan? Building genuine friendships over the long term through living in the community is vital. I met women while watching our children at soccer clinic, through pre-school and school, through English classes at church and even in a local café. We got to know each other and eventually I would offer to read the Bible with them.

English ministry was also surprisingly effective, especially the two mothers’ classes that allowed women to bring their babies. Over the years several women moved from English class to Bible study and some then onto faith. We talked, laughed, shared life and spoke English. They became genuine friends and their babies are now high school students.

At Bible studies, remembering they knew nothing, we would try to explain the new words and ideas before we read the passage. We also used simple illustrations to explain the gospel and shared how it made a difference to our lives in practical ways.

I am thankful to have co-led with Mrs H, Mrs O, Mrs K and Mr U, and that all four groups are continuing. These co-workers are far more capable at communicating in Japanese than I could ever be. And what a joy it was to hand over some of my ministry responsibilities to the women who had recently become Christians.

Pray

Michelle asks us to pray for the past and present participants of the Bible study groups she was involved in—that God would plant the seed of the gospel securely in their lives, enabling it to flourish, bringing a harvest of righteousness that will produce fruit for generations.