In the missionary life, it’s easy to get lazy. We’re used to struggling with everything— figuring out whether we’re buying fish or laundry detergent at the grocery store; dedicating significant thought to even the smallest events, because we don’t want to accidentally destroy fledgling relationships; running away from the telephone because it’s so scary to get calls from someone who’s talking a-mile-a-minute while we’re still trying to figure out whether they said their name at the start.

Somehow, if we have any hope of surviving on the mission field, we eventually come to a point where we’re okay with our own lack of—well, anything. Being overwhelmed with language, relationships, and culture are a natural part of the missionary learning experience. The biggest thing we learn is that we know nothing. Five-year-olds are more proficient than we are.

But it is tiring. It’s tiring to always question every little assumption that we were born and raised with. It’s tiring to be exposed 24/7 to a language and culture we don’t understand. It’s tiring to never be able to fully relax, or let our guard down.

And this is how shortcuts become so enticing.

If there’s something that we can do to make our lives easier, we should take it, right?

Over the past several years, we’ve come across missionaries from many different countries, from many different walks of life. However, we’ve noticed that those who have come from “Christian” countries tend to proliferate their culture as well as their faith. They set themselves up as “experts” in following Jesus, because they’ve come from these “Christian” cultures. The Japanese are particularly susceptible to this mentality because of the master/student social construct already present in the culture.

In Japan, lifelong apprenticeship is a way of life here, particularly for the oldest traditions. A student may study under a master for 50+ years before himself becoming a master. How does the transition between student and master occur? The previous master must die before the student takes his (or her) place.

Great honour is given to masters. Those in the position of “student” afford them great respect. They listen closely, and try to emulate the master. Christian missionaries usually buy into this approach because it becomes very easy to teach those under them about Jesus if they are viewed as experts.

However, there is a sinister side to this approach. Yes, teaching may become easier, but what about when the teacher is no longer available? What about when the missionary finally returns to his or her home country? What about when the missionary actually has a false notion of what the Bible says? How are the Japanese equipped to deal with these eventualities?

When missionaries set themselves up as masters, they are disabling the people they teach from taking ownership of their own faith. In general, Japan is an exceptionally homogeneous society. Over the past several centuries, it has developed an impressive resistance to allowing foreign cultures to penetrate its own culture too deeply. Japanese people are remarkably curious about foreign cultures—but though they might be interested in learning a few notable things, they are remarkably uninterested in allowing the foreign things they learn to change them.

When missionaries try to export their faith, using the same methods they use to export their culture, they are doomed to failure in Japan. It’s practically built into a Japanese person’s DNA to resist anything that might disrupt the social harmony of homogeneity (the “wa”).

When missionaries set themselves up as masters, they disable the people they teach from thinking critically about their teachings. They are the masters, after all. They are the authority on God and His Word. If a missionary teaches “forgive and forget”[1] as having come from the Bible, Japanese preachers will teach this for years to come. (We’ve seen this happen!) This can have devastating consequences for the person who underwent horrendous abuse as a child. He can never forget what happened—does that mean that his attempts at forgiveness have failed?

When missionaries set themselves up as masters, they disable the people they teach from contributing their unique perspectives to the worldwide body of Christ. Japanese people are reluctant to share the things that God is teaching them, because they’re self-conscious. They are not masters, so they have little to contribute—or so they sometimes think.

To combat the disabilities imposed on the people we’re working with, I’ve started using a different approach. Over the past several years, I’ve been meditating on the similarities between the culture of biblical times and the Okinawan culture. I’ve started teaching people about these similarities, and showing them how they are sometimes better-equipped than I am to understand the cultural and relational dynamics of the Bible.

For instance:

  • Okinawa is very hot. There are certain climate-based aspects that Okinawa shares with people in Palestine.
  • Okinawa uses indirect communication—a lot. So do many Middle-Eastern cultures, including that of Israel. Okinawans may well understand those instances of indirect communication better than we Westerners do.
  • Okinawa used to be its own kingdom. It has been taken over by the Chinese, the Americans, and most recently by the Japanese. Sound like another kingdom we know of, in Jesus’ time?

These are just three, but there are many more examples of these sorts of similarities. I’ve not yet had a chance to teach this way on a broad scale, but when I do follow this approach I have noticed a little light come into the eyes of the people I’ve talked to; a little sense of pride and value. Wow! I also have something to contribute, their faces seem to say.

I recently met a missionary couple for the first time, over lunch. At one point, our conversation turned to philosophies of ministry. I started to bring up the damage that an “expert” mentality can have on the people we serve. I wasn’t able to get very far before the lady abruptly changed the subject.

I don’t know if this idea was too elementary for her, or if she didn’t like what I was saying. But I do know that we all need to have this conversation.

Japan is a unique country, but many of these principles may carry over to other countries as well. Many other countries have similar “group” mindsets, indirect communication, and the idea of respect for experts. So, missionaries, please take note. Today’s shortcut may result in tomorrow’s damage or stunted growth.

The struggle is worth it. Embrace it, and allow it to teach you of the struggle that Jesus went through—for us. “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” [2]


[1] “Forgive and forget” does not come from the Bible. It is, however, a proverb in Western culture.

[2] Philippians 4:13, NKJV.

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