Making disciples of all nations is a work of love. Because we’ve been redeemed and changed by God’s love in Christ, we’re willing to follow Jesus in sacrifice so the lost may find their home in him, too.
This is what church planting is all about and why Acts 29 exists. Throughout the biblical narrative, gospel proclamation happens through God’s people—the church.
But Spirit-empowered love must shape how we engage the world. Church planting is not about setting up camp in a new place, pulling out our megaphones, and shouting at people until they repeat the sinner’s prayer. Church planting requires the effort of truly knowing and loving those we seek to reach.
Joey Zorina pastors The Bridge Fellowship, an Acts 29 church in Tokyo, Japan. Originally from India, Joey has been living in Japan for 18 years and planted The Bridge in 2017. I asked about sharing the gospel in Japanese culture, and his answers model the missional power of loving and thoughtful contextualization. Church planting is not about setting up camp in a new place, pulling out our megaphones, and shouting at people until they repeat the sinner’s prayer. Church planting requires the effort of truly knowing and loving those we seek to reach. Click To Tweet
Is Japan mainly secular, religious, or mixed?
After 18 years of living here, it appears most Japanese are spiritual rather than religious. According to the Cultural Affairs Agency, more than 180,000 groups are registered as religious corporations. But Japanese people tend not to associate themselves with organised religion.
Even those who identify as Buddhists or Shinto are nominal. Going to shrines or temples several times a year is part of their cultural heritage. Many are born as Shinto, marry in Western-style wedding chapels, and receive a Buddhist funeral.
Most of my Japanese friends do not adhere to a set of creeds like in Christianity. They’re not against our faith when we offer to pray for them or share our lives and beliefs. Generally speaking, Christianity doesn’t have a bad image in Japan—though it’s often seen as a Western religion. Perhaps, however, that image of Christianity as Western is becoming shattered by the dozens of Koreans, Chinese, Filipinos, and Brazilian Christians and missionaries—or even a Northeast Indian, like me.
What do you love about Japanese culture?
Common grace is so beautiful in Japanese culture. The elegance and aesthetics of the tea ceremony remind me of the cup in The Lord’s Supper—though the significance of our Lord’s cup is incomparable (1 Cor. 11:23–26). The Sakura tree blossoms in the spring remind me of the future tree of life that will ultimately heal the nations (Rev. 22:2).
Japanese people are polite and kind. We’ve often been the recipients of their Omotenashi (hospitality). They go the extra mile to help a confused and clumsy gaijin (outsider). Japanese people intuitively place the interests of others ahead of their individual interests. They respect people’s feelings and seek to honour other’s interests. Years before COVID-19 hit Japan, Japanese people wore masks voluntarily, for the sake of their tonari san (neighbour). The Sakura tree blossoms in the spring remind me of the future tree of life that will ultimately heal the nations (Rev. 22:2). Click To Tweet
They do their best to maintain harmonious relationships to avoid unnecessary conflicts. Their culture reminds me of how the gospel brings true harmony and redeems a new group identity, the body of Christ, where we learn to seek not only our individual interests but the interests of others (Phil. 2:1–11).
What makes gospel proclamation difficult in Japan?
Gospel contextualization is more than language acquisition (Acts 17:22–34). It takes a while to speak into the heart language of the Japanese. This involves bringing the power of the gospel to bear on their nightmares, hopes, dreams, and aspirations.
For instance, globalisation causes younger generations to find traditional cultures restrictive. They assume individualism is the key to ultimate freedom. But only the gospel of grace gives us a new individuality and true freedom. There are long-standing cultural barriers, personal idols, sinister warfare, and the high cost of living in Tokyo. It takes time to plant gospel seeds, plough patiently, hit lots of rocky soil, and water the seed. The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are still few.
Also, since our church plant was largely outward-focused, it took a while to form and establish a core group. There aren’t enough Christians in Japan to grow by mere transfer growth. It can take time to become a self-sustaining, self-propagating church, independent of outside financial support. Therefore, it takes both the church-planting team on the ground and outside partners persevering together to grow a new church. We need extraordinary prayers and absolute trust in God’s sovereignty. He has a people for himself here in Japan. Click To Tweet
Japanese have a word, kizuna, meaning bonds or connections between people. We need multiple gospel bonds with our global family of churches. Gospel work tends to be slow, and missionaries who are in a hurry can be very discouraged, often leading to burnout.
Finally, a healthy rhythm of work and Sabbath rest—missing in the culture—and ongoing gospel renewal in the heart are essential to missional longevity. It takes time to build gospel culture in a church plant, where the aroma of Christ is present in the atmosphere. We need extraordinary prayers and absolute trust in God’s sovereignty. He has a people for himself here in Japan.
Though we’re all in different contexts, Joey’s answers encourage loving engagement with whatever culture we’re in as we hold out the Word of life. Driven by the outpouring of our Father’s abundant love in Christ, may we plant churches that effectively proclaim the message of salvation to the ends of the earth.