One of the books on my to-read list is called “Church planting is for wimps”. Somehow the title just really resonates with where I am at the moment. We have completed our 4-year training as new missionaries with OMF in Japan and have been assigned to a task that fills me with both excitement and terror at the same time. Two Japanese words describe my split emotions: waku waku (ワクワク) meaning excitement. And bibiru (ビビる) meaning nervous or frightened. Why feel excited? Well because I believe that Church planting is the best way to reach new people with the Gospel. In a country like Japan where there are so few Christians, church planting provides opportunities to reach people who are not currently being reached by existing churches. For someone who loves the Gospel and longs to see others realise its beauty and importance, church planting is an exciting prospect. I am also excited because I have seen and experienced the life-giving benefit of being part of a Christian community. As a kid who was bullied at school and living with insecurities, church was the place where I felt appreciated and cared for. I have heard many testimonies of people who came to faith because of the love they felt in Christian community. Church is a place where the Gospel is visible in many areas. Through the singing, through the preaching, through service, through fellowship, through giving, through the sacraments, through prayer for one another etc. etc. I think that the gathered church is a place brimming with opportunity. This is where eternal truths are declared, true love is experienced and wounded hearts are mended. Church has been a blessing in my life and the prospect of sharing that blessing with others is exciting!
But on the other hand, the prospect of planting a church also sends shivers down my spine. For starters, I have never planted a church and never had any training in church planting. I have no idea what it takes to plant a church in my own country, let alone a country like Japan! There are so many thoughts running through my mind. Am I a good enough leader? Am I spiritual enough? But I’m not an extrovert. But I’m not yet fluent in Japanese. When I dwell on these thoughts, I begin to say to myself: What on earth did I sign up for! So how do I counter these negative thoughts? Let me share a few thoughts that have helped me.
- Others are nervous with me. I am not alone in this. I remember speaking to the Japanese pastor of the church with whom we are partnering to plant. When I told him that I am scared, he said “I am too. Let’s be scared together”. Just those words were a tremendous encouragement to me. I am not the only scared one, God has given me friends to be scared with me.
- You cannot fail when you attempt something great for God. One of my fears is “what if I fail?” This can be a debilitating thought, but I have been encouraged by another church planter friend who has “failed”. But it’s actually not failure. How can we call it failure when seeds were planted, when people were ministered to and when profound lessons were learnt? What looks like failure to us, is not necessarily failure to God. A great burden is lifted when I confess that “failure” is possible, but even what we call failure can be used by God.
- The most important thing is no good strategy or giftedness. I do not deny that these things are important, but they can be a distraction when too much emphasis is put on it. Church planting is not like starting a business. It is a sacred work that requires the hand of God. (Acts 11:21). I have spent much time fretting about my inexperience, wondering about what training to do, what books to read etc. where I should be spending more time in prayer and placing my trust in the Lord. Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. Psalm 127:1
Often people from churches we visit ask me; “Are you going to be the pastor of this church?” “What is you plan to reach people?” At this moment I have no idea! It feels like we are on a road that has a turn ahead and we don’t know what is waiting for us there. All we have is a dream to plant a church with our Japanese friends. As we wait on the Lord, we will probably continue with feelings of waku waku and bibiru. We feel like wimps punching way above our weight. But we also know that the Lord of salvation is with us and will guide our steps as we trust Him for this great task.
Someone once said that a missionary lives a life that is filled with goodbyes. Looking back at the last 4 years, there were indeed many difficult goodbyes. We said goodbye to our family before leaving in 2018. I still remember the tears, those hugs where you don’t want to let go, the last look before walking through departures. Those are tough times. After landing in Japan, we spent 2 years in language school and our teachers and fellow missionaries became like family to us. We shared wonderful times together and enjoyed close friendships, but of course, the day came when we had to say goodbye, another tear-filled farewell.
Then there was also saying goodbye to churches. I never imagined that we would be able to connect so well with Japanese Christians, to the point where saying goodbye was incredibly hard. There were two churches in particular where upon leaving, we received letters, gifts, prayers, and emotional expressions from so many people whom we have grown to love. I can say that it is indeed true; the missionary has to say farewell a lot.
However, there is also great joy in farewells, that being reunions! Just as I won’t easily forget the pain of saying goodbye to my family 4 years ago, I won’t easily forget the happiness of our reunion last month. The excitement when the plane landed. Seeing everyone’s smiling faces. The tight hugs; the whispers of “I missed you” followed by the sweet realization that we are here not to say “goodbye”, but to say “hello”. We have enjoyed this reunion for the past 3 weeks now and it made me think of what Paul says in 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17:
For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord.
The joy I felt in reuniting with my family, as wonderful as it was, does not compare to the joy believers will feel when we are reunited with the Lord, and with loved ones who have passed away. On that day, the arrivals terminal in Heaven will be a place of jubilant celebration. The sadness we feel now for not being able to see family who are living abroad, the pain of not being able to hug or talk to a loved one who has passed away, these feelings will be eclipsed by radiant beams of joy when we are reunited with them. But even more than this, amongst the numbers of friends and family waving cheerfully in reunion bliss, our eyes will gaze upon Him; the Lord Jesus himself – the one who laid down His life for our salvation, the one who guided us through life and carried us through every trial, the one whom we prayed to, the one whom we gazed upon through eyes of faith will then be gazed upon in-person; face to face. No reunion will be as sweet as this one, where the Lord himself stands ready to receive us. Ready to embrace us and say “hello”. Ready to welcome us into our real home.
Until that day comes, there will be more sad goodbyes. There will be more difficult farewells. But take heart – reunion is coming!
Earlier this month I was asked to join a 納骨式 (noukotsushiki) for a young church member’s mom who passed away earlier this year. This is a ceremony where the deceased person’s bones are brought from the family’s home to be placed in a tomb. By attending and asking questions I was able to learn quite a bit about how death is handled by people (especially Christians) in Japan and thought I would share some of my findings.
No individual graves
The graveyard we went to was massive and looked like a small village, complete with street names, rest areas and of course, vending machines. I immediately noticed from the rows and rows of tombstones, that none had individual names with birth and death dates, instead it only had family names. After asking, I was told that in Japan people are buried together in a grave owned by the family. It is also common for churches to own a grave-site to use for burying its members. Such was the case for the ceremony I attended.
The deceased’s remains
In Japan, more than 99 percent of the dead are cremated. The cremation ceremony itself is also unique in that after the cremation the family will use chopsticks to pick out bones of the deceased and place it in an urn or wooden box.
BTW, sometimes two people will work together to place a large bone in the container and for this reason it is a huge social faux pas to pass food to someone with your chopsticks. It reminds people of this funeral tradition so please never pass food with chopsticks in Japan!
After the cremation ceremony, the bones are taken to a remaining family members home and kept there until the bone placing ceremony.
The bone placing ceremony itself was very short, only taking about 20 minutes and consisting of some hymns, a short devotion, and prayer. The graveyard staff then moved a large flat stone covering the grave and one man went down a ladder to place the remains on a shelf along with the urns of other deceased members.
A Christian testimony
When comparing our church’s grave with those surrounding it, I quickly noticed a number of differences. For starters, there is no altar for burning incense. Every other grave I saw had an incense altar that would be used for Buddhist prayers and ancestor veneration. I also noticed a symbol of the cross which marked the church’s grave as different from those around it. The church’s tombstone also had these words engraved: 「我々の国籍は天にあります」meaning: “Our citizenship is in Heaven”. I thought that it was pretty significant that even after death, these brothers and sisters continue to stand out as different from those around them and still give testimony to the grace of God in Christ.
The importance of being remembered
I’ll never forget what a pastor once said at a youth camp in South Africa. “What is the first thing people do after a funeral? …They eat cake”. He was explaining that after death, everyone just carries on with their lives and forgets about you. It was pretty hard-hitting words and made me think that in South Africa, funerals only really exist to help the living move on with their lives. In Japan, it’s the complete opposite. Funerals mainly exist so that the deceased can be remembered. To be remembered after death is incredibly important in Japan and the act of remembering does not only happen once at a funeral service. Apart from the 4 different ceremonies that make up the funeral, all the churches we have been to also have a yearly church service dedicated to remembering the deceased and thank God for their lives. Photos of the deceased as well as their hand written testimonies are put up in the church. Later in the day there is 墓前礼拝 which is a worship service held in front of the church’s grave-site. Church members sing hymns, listen to a sermon, and pray whilst remembering the deceased and thank God for their lives. There is no belief that the spirits of the dead remain on earth, but this service is simply a way to show love to the deceased, remember their example of faith, and thank God for their lives.
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, Hebrews 12:1
Death is an incredibly difficult situation to deal with, but I have been encouraged by the faith of my Japanese brothers and sisters and their deep desire to be good witnesses of the security and life we have in Christ. Although funerals are very different here, it is the same Christ who gives them hope in times of grief.
Last week Aven and I went to a flower shop to buy some flowers for a Japanese friend who had a birthday. It was our first time in a Japanese flower shop and after looking around for 5 minutes or so, we picked a bunch of flowers we thought looked pretty and went to the counter to pay. I picked out a happy birthday sign and asked about wrapping the flowers in nice paper. Thankfully the lady at the counter did not leave us in our ignorance but informed us that the flowers we chose are actually flowers that people use to place on grave sites. We then received a short but helpful education on Japanese flower culture. The florist who made a special bouquet for us asked about our friend’s age and what kind of relationship we have with her. Apparently this changes the kind of flowers that are appropriate to give. We were very thankful to be spared the embarrassment of giving funeral flowers to our birthday celebrating friend! If you ever have the need to give flowers to a Japanese person, make sure you double check which flowers are culturally correct!
Over our 3 years in Japan, we saw God at work in the small things, the small moments…
“It’s like I’ve woken up” he said. We were having a time of sharing before we prayed together and the gentleman I had been partnered with excitedly shared his revelation. “Every month, I look forward to the missions prayer meetings and when I get home I like to look for the countries in my world atlas. I look up what language they speak and what the population is.” Once a month we would do a missions prayer meeting. Aj would give a devotion and I would share about a country before splitting the group into pairs to pray for the people group and each other.
“Now, sometimes when I pray, the names of some of the missionaries you told me about naturally come to mind; I pray for them and wonder how they are doing,” he continued. I wonder what you think about missions involvement? The gentleman in my story is 83 years old and he would often comment that there isn’t much he could do for missions. He could only pray. But the reality is, that’s not all he was doing. In actual fact, he was using the information I presented each month as a base to do more research and pray for the people group with even greater insight than my short presentation allowed. He would excitedly share the things he learnt with his friends in the church, encouraging them to pray. When he told me was still praying for missionaries working in fields I had mentioned months before, I would send word to them and they would in turn be encouraged…
Dear friends, don’t you agree this man was involved in missions? He wasn’t just praying, he was learning and helping to send others by encouraging them. He also mobilised his friends to know more. This is a man with no internet connection but who serves a God who delights in the small things. You may feel like the only contribution you can make is very small but, let me encourage you, God delights in the small and is in no way limited by them.
OMF has produced some resources with the 6 ways anyone can be involved in missions. Follow this
link to see more https://omf.org/us/6-ways/
For whoever has despised the day of small things shall rejoice, and shall see the plumb line in the hand of Zerubbabel. “These seven are the eyes of the LORD, which range through the whole earth.” Zechariah 4:10
This week I came across this verse in Zechariah that encouraged me during a time of great discouragement. Here, Zechariah received a vision from God regarding the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem. This was set during the time after the Israelites returned from exile in Babylon. These exiles returned to a city that was still mostly in ruins and the very centre of their faith; the temple was in pieces. “How can we ever rebuild this?” “How can we believe that God will be faithful to His promises?” “The task is too great!” “What if we fail?” I’m sure these were the kinds of complaints heard all over Jerusalem at that time. Even after the foundations for the temple were laid, there were still people who were sceptical. “This is just a drop in a bucket!” “There is still a mountain of work to do!” “This just isn’t worth it!”
Ever feel like this? Ever started something only to wonder; how on earth will I do this? Ever feel like your ministry, church plant, job is just a drop in the bucket? Ever feel like it just isn’t worth the trouble? Well, I know how you feel!
Lately I have struggled to find joy in the small things. I often feel like what I am doing in Japan is so small and insignificant. I only preach once a month and it takes me so long to prepare! I am only doing Bible study with one non-Christian. Having conversations is scary and I still make so many mistakes! Some days on my calendar are completely open and I honestly don’t know what to do! Would I not accomplish more if I just went back home? The COVID-19 situation has made it especially difficult for many missionaries who are no longer able to do the ministry they came to do. Perhaps a missionary friend is reading this right now and you are also thinking…am I doing something worthwhile?
Let us find encouragement in the fact that God often does great things by using what we call small things. Do no despise the small things! If the small foundation was never laid, the temple would not have been rebuilt. If the small lunch was never given, the young man would not have seen 5000 people fed with his meagre contribution. (John 6:9) If the 2 coins were never donated, the disciples and us would not of had an example of true giving. (Mark 12:41-44)
Also consider: But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; 1 Cor 1:27
Do not think of your gifts to the Lord as small things. Think of what great things they become when entrusted to an all-powerful God. Also remember that God does not ignore the small things. He sees that small lunch, he sees that small foundation, he sees those two coins. He hears those fumbling prayers. He smiles at that that one Bible conversation you had. He rejoices in that encouraging message you sent. He is the God who sees and rejoices in the small things. Therefore, tomorrow when you wake up, wherever you are; in faith remind yourself – What I am doing for God today is important! Even though you might not see the results today, in the end it will be beautiful!
Even after living in Japan for over 2 years there are still things that absolutely amazes me in ways that I am unable to process. This week Aven and I took a trip to a park that has special eggs that light up in the dark…weird right? You can bounce light onto other eggs by pushing one which creates a cool kind of light ripple effect. Check out the pic!
However, this was not the weirdest part of our trip. We had to park our car in a huge complex called Sakura Town which is across the street from the park. The complex had massive and interesting buildings including an anime hotel and a strange comet shaped museum which we thought was weird but kinda cool.
We then noticed something we have never seen before. A modern and slick looking Shinto shrine. Instead of the traditional wood or concrete torii gate this shrine’s gate was shaped out of wire.
However, the strangest thing was this lantern…
It basically identifies the area as a holy site for Japanese anime. After doing some research online I learnt that there are 88 anime holy sites that form part of a pilgrimage for anime lovers. I think ’88’ was chosen since there is also a famous temple pilgrimage in Shikoku, Japan, which also include 88 holy sites. What makes these sites holy? Well apparently it needs to be recognized by many anime fans as a venue or model of anime work. For example, the scene from this anime takes place by a famous landmark in Kawagoe which is now recognized as one of the 88 holy sites.
Above pictures taken from animetourism88.com
So, what do you do at these sites? Basically, anime lovers can get a special stamp at each venue as they continue on their pilgrimage. These holy sites are also places where people come to do cosplay and where special anime related events take place.
To me, this little learning exercise was interesting for two reasons. Firstly, I was reminded of the huge influence anime and manga has on Japanese culture and tourism. Where else in the world can you find anime manhole covers, theme parks, hotels, robots, cafes, and holy sites!
In addition, Japanese anime is a nearly 20-billion-dollar industry and draws hordes of anime loving tourists into the country. Certainly this was one of the main reasons for setting up the anime88 pilgrimage, to get more tourists into more parts of Japan.
Secondly, I cannot help but notice how much of a spiritual influence anime has on Japanese culture. The fact that there is an 88 holy site anime pilgrimage similar to the temple pilgrimage in Shikoku is proof of this. Apart from this anime pilgrimage, the actual stories and characters in anime influences people. I have watched a number of very popular anime movies which have very strong religious undertones; especially to Shinto, Japan’s indigenous religion. I also have Japanese friends who quote famous lines from anime they watched as children when they are facing a particular challenge. Of course, not every person in Japan is an anime fanatic, however anime is very deeply connected to Japanese culture on a number of levels. I remember that before Aven and I got married I used to go to her house regularly to watch anime. I think her mom thought we were quite weird…adults watching cartoons??? Well, I think it is safe to say that it is much more than just cartoons. People who are students of Japanese culture can learn a lot about Japan through anime. What are the underlying desires or hopes that drives someone to visit 88 anime holy sites? Is it just a love for anime or is it something more? A need for community? A desire to escape the unsatisfying normality of life? At the end of the day, everybody is searching for their own slice of happiness, that thing that will bring them fulfilment and satisfaction. My guess is that many people search for it in anime. These anime holy sites are simply external markers which demonstrate the significance of Japanese anime. What do you think about this anime88 pilgrimage? Marketing gimmick? Innocent fun? Some deeper spiritual significance?
When I was in South Africa I preached fairly often, like once a week at once stage. It took me about 10-12 hours to prepare and I got into a good rhythm with regards to planning, writing, and preaching sermons. I knew my way around commentaries and word study. I knew how to explain doctrines and put big ideas into words that could relate to peoples’ lives. Preaching requires a pretty advanced level of language because it includes a lot of abstract ideas and images, knitted together with teaching, exhortation, application, illustration, storytelling, and other advanced levels of language use. Not only that, but there are also are a number of below the surface cultural aspects to be considered as well. For example, the fact that different cultures listen differently, apply ideas differently and respond to criticism or rebuke differently. This has all played a role in the development of different preaching styles which is tailored to specific groups.
When a missionary begins to preach cross-culturally, they are hit with a barrage of language and cultural challenges which can be extremely discouraging. I thought I would share a few of my ideas and lessons learnt as a new cross-cultural preacher in Japan. Hopefully, it can encourage others preaching cross-culturally, as well as help others understand a bit more of what cross-cultural missionaries go through.
- Stick your pride in your pocket and get ready to eat humble pie
I have only preached about 5 times in Japanese but can already tell that it is a very humbling experience. I remember spending hours and hours working on my first sermon and when I finished, I thought…these poor listeners! This is absolutely normal, especially for those who are adept at preaching in their own language. We want to preach at the same intellectual level we used to but sorry; not gonna happen! My first sermon was one I loosely translated from an English one I preached before and I used very basic level Japanese. In spite of sticking to basics, I had to use the dictionary countless times to look up words that I have never heard before such as Water Jug, Torch, a crowd of people etc. It is normal to get frustrated and it is part of the learning process. Just keep going.
When it came to actually preaching the sermon, I was so terribly nervous. I think I went to the toilet like 5 times on that Sunday morning. During the sermon, I forgot how to read one of the kanji characters and I had to stop the sermon to ask someone in the congregation to help me read it. It turned out to be a funny little joke afterwards that the young people enjoyed teasing me with. Overall, it went pretty well but I can tell you, many parts still felt awkward and embarrassing.
- Being humbled pays spiritual dividends
In my struggles with learning to preach cross-culturally, I have been reminded of the need to depend on God’s Spirit. I often lay out my sermon manuscript and pray over the pages, asking God to help me just read it well; never mind delivery style. I often look at those Japanese characters thinking…Oh God help me! More than when I preached in English, I feel a tremendous need for grace and assistance which has helped to deepen my trust in the power of God’s Word and the convicting work of the Spirit. When I receive any positive feedback, I can only but smile and be blown away again by the Spirit’s work in making those feebly crafted sentences into something meaningful. Be encouraged with those feebly crafted words because God multiples it far more than we can imagine! Also, in the struggle to preach better sermons in Japanese, God is working on YOU the preacher. Making you more humble, godly, and ultimately a better disciple.
- You need the help of others
For those of us who preach, we had to learn from lecturers, other preachers, books on preaching etc. As much as these are necessary, it is not enough to preach cross-culturally in Japan. Those books do not teach you how to preach in Japanese, or to Japanese. Learning to preach in Japanese requires lots of…you guessed it…LEARNING. For this reason, I don’t think it is helpful to straight out translate your English sermons into Japanese (I am slowly weening myself off this method). It’s not that simple. We need to think about what unique challenges Japanese face, what moves them, what interests them etc. And for that, we need to have conversations with them about our sermons and sermon ideas. I have a great opportunity to learn from a great evangelical preacher whom I am serving under in a local church. After I finish preparing a sermon, I send it to him to check. We then spend about 2 hours talking about various parts of the sermon and then I get behind the pulpit and preach to him. After this, we sit down and he gives me more advice about my delivery. This has been a great help to me and I would strongly recommend asking people for help when preparing your sermons. If you do not have a Japanese pastor who can help you, make it a point to ask someone to go through the sermon with you BEFORE AND AFTER you preach it. Get critique; we absolutely need it. (Later I include a few lessons I learnt from my Japanese pastor about how I preach)
- Set realistic goals
We need to be realistic and confess that we are preaching with limited language ability, limited cultural understanding, and strange accents. None of this will go away anytime soon. Therefore; please do not attempt to preach complicated texts or deep theological ideas when you are still a beginner. There is a saying in Japanese: シンプルイズベストmeaning: “Simple is best”. When I preach my objective is to preach for 20-25min, from a simple text, explaining what the passage says and giving one focused point of application. There are many, many things I would love to preach but I feel my current language level is not ready for that. That is something we can surrender to the Lord. Thankfully, there are many wonderful and simple passages that we can use to explain the Gospel message. In my experience, I have found the Gospels and Acts to be a good place to start. Plenty in there to keep us busy for a while!
- Learn from you mistakes
Making mistakes is a natural part of language learning but every effort should be made to avoid making the same mistakes over and over again. One way that I have found helpful is to ask whoever is helping me correct the Japanese in my sermon to leave the mistakes and add the correction beside it. This way I can see exactly where I have gone wrong so I don’t repeat mistakes. It is also helpful to read previous sermons and review mistakes before starting to prepare a new sermon. That way the mistakes you tend to make are fresh in your mind and thus more difficult to repeat.
LESSONS FROM MY JAPANESE PASTOR
I really enjoy the time I spend speaking about my sermons with our Pastor. These are a few little pointers I have learned which have helped me a lot in preparation.
- Don’t include too many quotes from other parts of the Bible. These often distract from the main message in your text by demanding extra explanations.
- Don’t expect people to take for granted what you take for granted. For example, in one sermon I referred to the Holy Spirit as 聖霊 which simply means “Holy Spirit”. But in a culture of many gods and spirits, this could be understood simply as a good/clean spirit among other spirits. Therefore, we need to say 聖霊なる神様 meaning “God the Holy Spirit”.
- Be precise in the way you reference. When referencing other passages be specific every time you do it. I would often just say something like “Back at the start of this chapter…” or “In verse 10…” (without mentioning the chapter since I assume the listeners will know it’s the same chapter of the chosen text). Japanese people, however, want to know the specifics and should not be left
- Preach simply with lots of concrete examples. When we preach in the West, we tend to give broad ideas and we then leave it up to our listeners to know how to apply it to their lives. Japanese people listen more concretely rather than abstractly and so the preacher needs to give many practical examples and simple explanations. One missionary explained this to me with a helpful picture. The way Japanese listen is seen in the way they like their steak 😊 In the West we like big slabs of steak and we cut it up and eat it the way we like. In Japan, you hardly ever see big slabs of steak. They like their steak already sliced up ready to grill and then immediately eat as bite-sized strips. When we prepare a sermon, we can’t simply cook a delicious steak, we have to cut it up into bite-size portions.
- Don’t apologize. In my first sermon at our church, I wanted to start off by apologizing for my bad Japanese and that I hope people will be patient with me. The pastor told me to erase that since it is God who places me behind the pulpit and therefore there is no need for an apology.
- Don’t speak too casually. After spending some time doing student ministry my Japanese tends to be more on the casual side. This crept into my preaching which the pastor had to correct. Especially when there are older people listening, polite speech should be used in preaching. It is unlikely that anyone will say anything to you if you don’t use polite speech in your preaching, but be sure that it will put certain people off from listening to you.
- Focus on preaching evangelistic sermons. At first, I did not agree with him but after his explanation it made sense. “As a missionary, you will want to invite Japanese friends to come and listen to you preach right? Well then prepare a sermon as if that is the only sermon your Japanese friend will ever hear. What is it you want him to hear that in that sermon? Preach that!”
I’m sure I can think of more to say but those were the freshest batch of memories in my mind. The important thing is that we need to be humble and teachable as cross-cultural preachers.
And finally, …
Here is a very brief summary of how I prepare a sermon in Japanese.
- Choose a passage that is simple to preach evangelistically.
- Read the passage in Japanese at least 5 times and look up any words I don’t know.
- Read some commentaries (In English) and get a good understanding of the passage.
- Write an introduction with 3-4 outline points (In Japanese)
- Slowly start to fill in content under each outline point (Japanese) and make notes about ideas to use for illustrations (English). (This takes about 10-12 hours to complete over the course of 1-2 weeks depending on what else is happening)
- Finish up the document, read about 2-3 times to double-check for any errors.
- Email to the pastor to check.
- Feedback meeting with the pastor
- Apply pastors’ feedback to the sermon and make suggested changes
- Resend to pastor
- Preach sermon in the church to pastor only
- Receive feedback and make final changes
- Practice preaching sermon about 4-5 times
- Go to bed early on Sat before and don’t look at the sermon again before preaching it at church
- Receive final feedback from the pastor the week after
In total it takes about 20 hours to prepare a 25 min sermon in Japanese.
This blogpost has been an encouragement to me as a reminder that it is normal to struggle with preparing and delivering cross-cultural sermons. It takes many hours of hard work, lots of discouragement is part of it too. Also, there are no shortcuts. The only way to get better in preaching is by preaching. If you are a cross-cultural preacher starting out like me, don’t get too discouraged, keep going, keep learning, God is at work in spite of our weaknesses. And if you have read this blog as someone who does not preach cross-culturally, remember to pray for us. Pray that we don’t get too discouraged, and pray that the Holy Spirit will make our feeble efforts useful and glorious.
This pdf copy of my last sermon should give you an idea of what an intermediate-level Japanese learners work looks like.
So, a few days ago I accompanied Aven to the local home & garden store to buy a few things she needed to start growing herbs and vegetables from our garden…um I mean balcony 😊
What kind of sand? What size pot? How do you read that Kanji? We were a bit lost and so ended up asking the cashier for help. Turned out we needed to buy more stuff! A very kind lady gave Aven a quick crash course while I took a load of soil, stones, herbs, plants etc. over to the car. As I was pushing the trolly across a road with lots of foot traffic, disaster struck. My carefully packed mini-mountain of agriculture fell down a small incline and things got scattered everywhere. The heavy sandbags fell and squished some of our precious plant babies. Pots went rolling merrily down the hill. Awkward! Now I don’t know about you but one would expect somebody to stop and help me pick up my things but nope, this is Japan. People carried on walking straight past me pretending not to notice. It reminded me of our time in Hokkaido where I once slipped on the ice and fell. Nobody around checked if I was okay, they just pretended not to notice. If it wasn’t for the fact that I have been living here for 2 years I probably would have gotten upset. But I know now that different cultures have different ways of showing politeness. In some cultures, it would be polite to stop and help someone who had an embarrassing or awkward experience like myself. However, in Japan, you show politeness by not interfering. Jumping in to help someone could make that person feel even more embarrassed or uncomfortable so just carry on and mind your own business. While I had my accident at the home & garden, the friendly assistant was going out of her way in showing politeness in helping Aven understand the different kinds of soil and explaining the Japanese writing. It’s not that the Japanese are impolite; they just have a different way of showing it within different contexts. This is a small example of one of the many ways in which missionaries and other ex-pats need to adapt to living abroad. It is important to look for core values before judging based on exteriors. A lesson we need to learn continuously.
Our world has been turned completely upside down by covid19 hasn’t it? All the plans we had for 2020 have been royally messed up. Then there are the worrisome thoughts that creep into our hearts…will things ever return to normal? What will happen to our economy? Will I still have a job? Is this God’s judgement? Is this the end times!? What am I supposed to do? How am I supposed to think about this!?
I think it is safe to say that many of us are feeling nervous and on edge about what is happening right now. I have been feeling edgy myself! Being in a foreign country, and on top of that moving into a new city just as this disaster struck. However, I have also heard many good stories about people who continue to learn and grow in spite of the pandemic chaos. I decided to join in and write down some thoughts about what I have been learning personally these days.
- Be careful how you listen
The pastor of our church in Japan preached a sermon on the parable of the sower, reminding us of Jesus’ words: “Take care then how you hear”. We know that in this parable, the seed (God’s Word) falls on different kinds of soil which each represents how different people respond to God’s Word. The point of the passage is not the importance of God’s Word, but the importance of hearing it properly. I have been challenged because although I believe in the importance of God’s Word, I don’t think I have been hearing the way I should. I have allowed distractions to creep in and affect the way I respond which is not good at all. I have opened my ears too much to social media, news and other forms of noise; riding the waves of worry instead of focusing on the Word of God. After a decision to be more intentional in my Bible reading AND listening, I have been amazed at the ways in which God has spoken to me through Scripture. I am learning that it’s not simply about reading a passage, but reading it and actively listening, actively asking God what He is telling me today.
- My senses are often dull to kingdom matters
Too often I get stuck thinking about my own plans instead of thinking and praying about what God is doing globally through this pandemic. I was very frustrated that I am not able to do the ministry I planned to do. What kind of missionary sits in the house all day!? How am I supposed to share the Gospel if I can’t have gatherings or meet up with people!? I’ve been stuck in my own narrow world instead of thinking more about what God is doing globally. I have been frustrated in my own situation instead of seeking to join God’s kingdom work today through prayer and by changing my plans to suit His. The biggest adventure is to serve where God’s Spirit is moving, not where I selfishly want to serve.
- I suck at resting
I know the importance of rest but realized that I am simply not good at it. Believe me, I am very good at wasting time, but wasting time and rest are two completely different things. We live in a culture where rest is seen as laziness or lack of dedication but its actually essential to our well-being. Now that I have more free time than usual, instead of resting in the Lord and trusting Him to fill my schedule, I run around trying to fill my schedule myself. I panic whenever I have an open diary and get stressed out for not being busy enough. This is not a healthy lifestyle and its an important lesson I am learning in these days. I am far from mastering the discipline of rest but at least I am more aware of its importance in my life.
- The internet gives loads of opportunity for good ministry
Lately, most churches have been forced to move all their ministry online. Our Church has been doing the same thing and so every week we do a streaming service and I upload a children’s message to my YouTube channel. These videos have been watched by hundreds of people in various countries and the reach is by far wider than what I could do preaching at a single venue. It has been encouraging to hear about non-Christians who don’t go to church watch these videos online. Through the internet, an opportunity has been given to reach people we would not normally be able to reach and I wonder how the kingdom is advancing through these means.
What kind of lessons have you been learning in these days? Take time to think about it and write it down. It might be that there are ways you can grow, and things you can learn in these lockdown days that you may not be able to otherwise. Things about yourself. Things about God. Things about the needs of the world. Let’s keep our eyes, ears, and hearts wide open to what God would reveal to us.