A discussion with Japanese ministers

Theo Badenhorst

A part of this article was presented as an introductory talk to a discussion group of Japanese ministers, from various denominations, including a Roman Catholic and a Seventh Day Adventist.  The group functions in and around the city of Kochi (Kōchi) on the island of Shikoku, in south western Japan.  The reactions of group members are rendered as a summary in a different letter type.

I was asked to give a few impressions about our stay in Japan. I would like to limit myself to the church (churches) in Japan.  Maybe you can help me clear up some things about which I have questions too.

First I would like to read with you 2 Corinthians 2:14-16.  I think this also accounts for the church in Japan.  “I am grateful that God always makes it possible for Christ to lead us to victory….”

Next I would like to mention that there are some things that I notice in Japanese Christianity that I value very much.  I notice some deep devotion among many Japanese Christians.  Some churches also really try to stay pure, like in the matter of transferring and accepting membership.  It is also very encouraging that small churches support their pastors financially.  Further:  The small churches also mean that there are churches in many places.  If there were only big churches, the presence of the church would not be so clear all over.

Now I would like to carry on with a quote from Philip Yancey’s book, Prayer (2006), pp 38-39.  Yancey is somewhat familiar with Japan and Japanese Christianity, and he has visited Japan quite a few times.

"On a trip to Japan I found myself  at one of the largest churches in  Tokyo (which isn't saying much, since the average congregation numbers thirty, in a nation where Christians claim only 1 percent of the population). I had flown in that morning and had already endured a rigorous day of meetings. I wanted to check into my hotel room and go to sleep, but Japanese hospitality required this courtesy visit.

The pastor pulled out a sheaf of papers and, through an interpreter, told me that during his entire career he had worried over this one issue but was afraid of speaking to anyone about it. Would I listen? I nodded for him to continue and reached for a mug, breaking my rule against late-night coffee.

For the next twenty minutes without interruption the pastor poured out the agony he felt over the 99 % of Japanese who had not accepted Jesus."

This Japanese pastor was agonizing over the position of Japanese Christianity, but he did not speak to anyone about it.  My question is:  Why could he not speak to someone?  I have heard of another pastor who had worked in a missionary capacity, and for 20 years he had only preached to his own family.  Did he talk to anyone?

I would like to ask you a few questions with the first pastor’s agony in mind?

(The discussion that followed was more frank than can usually be expected in Japan, maybe because the discussion took place in Kochi, and the Kochi-ites are known to be more direct in speaking than other Japanese.  The interpretation was given to me by an American missionary whose Japanese is very fluent, Rev Ken Reddington.)

1.  What is the case with pastors like you here?  Do pastors address this problem, and how?

With many Japanese pastors there is a feeling of helplessness, because of the poor progress of the Christian faith.  This can be a reason why many do not talk about the situation.  For Japanese in general it is hard to share their weaknesses and failures.  They are brought up to say that life is OK.   Of course Japanese pastors would talk to God in private about their situation.  Also others are generally not easily trusted with one’s heart.  Japan has a shame culture, and this has intensified in recent times.  That is part of the ‘Japanese mind’.  The pastor in Yancey’s quote is an exception.  As he is with a big church, he may have more time to think about the big picture, while most Japanese pastors are in small churches and very tied up with running issues.

There is a resignation in Japanese Christianity.  They think:  There are three religions in Japan:  Shinto, Buddhism and Christianity, and Christianity is the smallest, with one percent.  “That’s how it is.”  The Japanese history also plays an important role.  Christianity has always been viewed as a foreign element and is not to be taken seriously by Japanese.
(‘Japanese history’ may refer to the persecution by the Tokugawa Shogunate - before 1868 -, as well as by the Japanese government during the Pacific War – Th B).

In general evangelism in Japan has had very little effect.  There is a great reluctance in taking steps, like getting baptised. (This may also be part of the Japanese mind.  New views on life are viewed with great suspicion.  To accept new life views is seen as un-Japanese. Th B)

Still, more people are reached by the church’s teaching than just her members, like in ‘Western’ wedding ceremonies.  In a recent Gallop Poll in Japan 7% of respondents mentioned that if they should choose a religion, they would choose Christianity (taking into account that about 70% of the Japanese sometimes see themselves as non-religious.  In another type of poll – by the Daily  Yomiuri - 15% declared that they have an interest in Christianity.– Th B)

2.  How do pastors like you and the Japanese church pray for the salvation of Japan?  Is there a united concern about the lack of growth in the Japanese church?  Do churches talk and pray together about this?

Some prayer happens in this way, but on a very small scale.  Usually pastoral care and local concerns get preference.  The Japanese are mostly concerned about details, not so much about the big picture.  Prayer for matters outside the local congregation is normally also locally focused, like for neighbours and their situation.  The big situation of Japan at large is too overwhelming.  The local church usually does not think in terms of responsibility for the whole of Japan.  As far as the United Church of Christ in Japan (Kyōdan) is concerned, they played an important role in the restoration of Japan after World War II, but that time is long past.

Now I would like to give some impressions about Japanese Christianity from my short experience.  I know that these impressions are highly subjective.

1.  The church in Japan is in a struggle for survival – already over a long time. I think this causes that the church is very concerned about internal (and often local) matters, while trying to cope and survive.  Although churches usually are small, ministers have to deal with all church matters, with no help from other staff.  These might be reasons why I don’t notice many efforts of the church to reach out and look beyond her own circle.  (I read about American Christians who started a caring action for vagabonds in Tokyo, and Japanese Christians were surprised and appreciative of that.)

2.  I further notice a lack of boldness, a timidity among Japanese Christians.
Maybe this comes from the background of persecution of Christians in Japan.

(The following point was not mentioned at the discussion, but I had heard thoughts like these in private discussions with some ministers).
3.  Some ministers in Japan think that certain theological approaches might hinder efforts of evangelising and united prayer. In certain circles of the Japanese churches there is a legacy of what may be called liberal theology, which does not emphasize evangelism clearly.  Sometimes an overemphasis of the church’s social responsibility occurs.  This is labelled by some as ‘social gospel’. Often the social gospel and liberal approaches are combined.

Afterthought (also not in the discussion):

The question is often asked why the progress of the gospel is so slow in Japan in comparison to that in South Korea and also China nowadays.  I have heard about focused efforts in the Chinese church, a church under much pressure, to pray for the church in Japan.  With the matters mentioned above, I think it becomes clearer why the united prayer efforts from the worldwide body of Christ are needed in aid of Japan and the Japanese church. 

*Theo Badenhorst is an ordained minister of the Dutch Reformed Church (NGK) in South Africa and currently working with his wife, Marlène, as a teacher of English in Japan. Hierdie e-pos adres is teen spambotte beskerm, jy moet JavaSkrip op jou webblaaier ontsper om dit te kan sien