The Labor and Benefits of Language Learning

Our family has lived in Japan now for 6 months. After spending our first month adjusting and getting our house and life set up, for the past several months I’ve been ensconced in Japanese language school, studying what has been rated the most difficult language in the world for English speakers to learn. By God’s grace I have completed more than one graduate degree in the past, and this is now the seventh foreign language I’ve studied, and I must say that I have never worked this hard before. Both the language itself and the pace of the program I’m enrolled in are very difficult, which can at times feel overwhelming and discouraging. Progress often feels like it moves at a snail’s pace. Nevertheless, we press on because we believe that this is where God has called us to serve.

As we’ve found ourselves amidst this new culture and struggled to understand the language, I’ve begun reflecting more directly on why we need to learn Japanese. Why go through all this effort to become proficient in a language with three alphabets and whose syntax is as far away from English as the east is from the west? Interpreters are available; shouldn’t we just “get right down to ministry”?

The obvious answer is that language acquisition makes life easier. Learning your host nation’s language means you don’t have to rely on others to go to the doctor or read forms from your children’s school. And of course, knowing the language enables one to engage in ministry more directly and effectively. But beyond these reasons, I can think of at least four less obvious and less frequently discussed benefits to the labor of language learning.

1. Language learning is humbling

Missionaries can sometimes enter the mission field with the mindset that they are there to give and teach, while nationals are there to receive and learn. Although it is true that missionaries are vessels of gospel proclamation for those who have not heard (Rom 10:14-15), when not appropriately balanced this mindset can create a subtle superiority complex that is dangerous and unhelpful. Beginning one’s missionary career as a language learner fosters humility, since we are placed in the position of a student. We are here to learn first, and out of that humbled position we will be better suited, both personally and professionally, to serve as a vessel for the gospel message we seek to communicate.

2. Language learning teaches us patience

In our digital age we often don’t have to wait for anything. Services like Amazon, Wikipedia, and Google Translate provide instant products and information that we have learned to expect in a matter of seconds. This immediate access to anything and everything has had a side effect, though: we are now very weak in the area of patience. We want what we want and we want it now, and this has occasionally crept its way into our view of missions. We want to serve; we want to teach; we want to be useful; but focused time on language study often means that we must wait for these things. Although ministry is obviously a very good thing, if we pursue it impatiently we are not pursuing it in line with the Spirit’s fruit in our lives (Gal 5:22). Language learning provides a healthy and useful opportunity for us to develop patience, to wait, and to grow as we seek to acclimate to our new country. This fruit of the Spirit, in turn, will yield greater results in the long run as we seek to serve and minister.

3. Language learning demonstrates a servant heart toward those whom we seek to minister

This is the other side of the coin from number 1. Not only does language acquisition cultivate humility within us internally, it demonstrates externally to our host people that we are willing to learn from and about them. We are willing to serve them by learning their language, their culture, what they value, what they fear, and what they hope for. We don’t expect them to communicate to us in our language; we make every effort to learn theirs and thereby place their needs above our own. This is significant, since gospel ministry is not simply data transfer; communicating a message to a recipient. It is conveying the hope of the gospel to real people, and inasmuch as we move toward and serve those people in real, tangible ways, we will highlight the servant-hearted nature of the Savior whom we proclaim. Learning their heart language is a significant way to do this.

4. Language learning embodies the gospel to which we witness

At the bottom line, this is the most important reason to engage in the labor of language learning: it is a reflection of the gospel which we seek to proclaim. In order to redeem us, God came to us, adapted himself to us in the incarnation, served us on the cross, and spoke to us in words that we can understand. The labor of language learning pictures this truth insofar as we come to a foreign place, adapt ourselves to it, serve the people there, and speak to them in words that they can understand. For the missionary, then, language learning is an extension and embodiment of the gospel itself. May those of us who serve overseas make every effort to maximize this opportunity for Jesus’ glory.

Posted in Gospel Living, Missions, Theology of Missions | Leave a comment

Our new home in Japan

As the time comes for us to move to Japan (flying out March 1!), we thought we’d share some photos of our new home with you. This house has been a huge provision; it’s only 3 blocks from our language school and 3 blocks from Lydia’s kindergarten. We are very excited about being able to walk most places we need to go!

2 OutsideThis is a shot of the outside of the house (the front door is on the left behind the wall). It’s on a corner lot, with mostly other homes surrounding it. Behind this camera shot is a small apartment complex, so we’ll have lots of neighbors!

1 OutsideThis is a view of the back of the house. We have space to park two cars, though we’ll probably only own one. On the second story you can see the nice, large deck that connects to both upstairs bedrooms.

4 Entrance8 Entrance Hall

To the left is the front door and to the right is the entrance hall. People don’t wear shoes indoors in Japan, so the entrance hall is where everyone will remove their shoes before coming in.

12 room2This is one of two bedrooms downstairs, known as a tatami room. Tatami refers to the type of flooring in the room. The house has two bedrooms downstairs and two bedrooms upstairs.

15 DiningThis is the dining room, which is right next to the tatami room in the picture above. Easy access to breakfast for whoever ends up with that room!

20 toiletLast but not least, here is a pic of the bathroom. On top of the toilet you can see a little sink. In Japan, when you flush the toilet, this little sink runs water, which you then use to wash your hands as you straddle the swirling toilet bowl!

It’s an interesting experience the first time you do it, though it certainly is space efficient!

We are very thankful for God’s providence in this and look forward to making this house our home!

Many thanks to Yasuyo Kawai, who has done a ton of work for us to get this house and very kindly took all these pictures.


Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Missions and (Grand)Parents


Gigi, Caroline, and Lydia on their way to a fancy tea party!

We in the Newkirk clan are nearing our departure for Japan, and as we stand here toward the end of this preparation journey, I thought I’d say a word about missions and (grand)parents. I say (grand)parents here to refer to the parents of missionaries and, more significantly, the grandparents of missionary kids.

As we have gone through this season of support raising, it has become very clear that this whole missions thing is not something we have gotten only ourselves into. It is something that substantially affects our larger families, and our parents in particular.

We currently live about 15 minutes from my (Matt’s) parents, and over this last year and a half they have played a critical role in helping us get ready for the mission field. There has been practical support, such as the multitudinous times they have taken care of our kids so we could travel to an agency training event or attend to something in town that we both needed to go to. But equally as important, they have provided consistent emotional support as we have traversed the peaks and valleys of gathering a support team.

All of this has been enormously significant, not only because of pragmatic needs on our part, but because my parents are essentially helping us take their grandchildren away from them. They are serving us in order to sacrifice proximity to every empty nester’s dream: grandbabies. Of course, they have other grandchildren in town, which I’m thankful for, but it is no small thing to bless and assist the removal of one’s grandkids, period.

In contrast to this, I’ve heard multiple stories over the years of would-be missionaries who were discouraged and sometimes even dissuaded from moving overseas because of pressure from their parents and guilt over “taking the grandkids away.” While this type of sentiment is understandable from a worldly standpoint, ultimately it does not rightly prioritize God over family. In Matt 10:37 Jesus says,

Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.”

I think we can safely extend this principle to include, “whoever loves grandson or granddaughter more than me is not worthy of me.”

If you are the (grand)parent of a missionary or potential missionary, you are in a unique position either to supremely bless or deeply discourage your children as they respond to God’s call to the mission field. For those who are inclined to try and retain proximity to your children and grandchildren, think about what Jesus will say to you when you face Him beyond this life. Could it be said that you loved Him more than son or daughter, grandson or granddaughter? Will you joyfully bless and assist your children in taking your grandchildren away from you for the sake of the gospel and the glory of God?

I hope you will, and I am forever grateful that my parents have modeled this kind of sacrifice for us.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Learning to put doubt where it belongs

trashIn my last post I mentioned that we were at 50% of our monthly budget, and I reflected on some of the things I’ve learned during the first half of support raising. The first thing I listed there was how unbelieving I have been that our budget will be met.

Today, only four weeks later, I am blown away that we are now (unofficially) at 68%! We have had several people register pledges this past month, and we received a particularly sizable pledge today that has left me absolutely awestruck at God’s providence.

As I sit here, grateful that God’s faithfulness and provision is not contingent upon my feeble faith, I’m reminded of Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount:

Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Matt 6:28b-33).

Applying this to myself, I should not be anxious, saying, “Where will our support come from? How is this ever going to happen?” Rather, I need to learn to put my doubt in God’s  provision right where it belongs–in the trash!

And so we continue to press forward, by God’s grace and in his strength, to seek first his kingdom and his righteousness. Join me in giving thanks to God and praying that he will continue to astound us by his great providence.

Posted in Gospel Living, Missions, Support Raising | Leave a comment

Halfway There!… And What I’ve Learned Along the Way

50-yard-lineAs of this week we are (unofficially) at 50% of the monthly partnerships that we need in order to serve in Japan! A big THANK YOU to those who have discerned God’s leading and have pledged to partner with us. We are so grateful for your generosity and your desire to invest in the spread of Jesus’ kingdom. It’s been encouraging to see God provide His people with resources and then move in their hearts to give those resources away for the glory of His name. Praise God!

We also continue to covet your prayers that God would reveal the right timing for those who have a desire to partner in this work but haven’t had a chance to pledge yet (which you can do HERE🙂 ), as well as for future opportunities and appointments – that the Lord would raise up the resources we need to be fully funded.

In addition to this brief progress update, I thought I’d take a few minutes and share five things I’ve learned as we’ve voyaged through this first half of our support raising journey. There is more that could be said, of course, but these five things are some of the most prominent that come to mind as I reflect upon this process so far.

1. I am full of unbelief.

To be honest, I can’t see where the second half of our budget is going to come from. In my heart I have deep struggles believing that it will actually come in, and this often causes me to feel helpless and discouraged. I’ve come to realize that I find it easier to talk about trusting God to provide than actually trusting Him to provide. This season of gathering support partners has forced me realize that this well of unbelief has always been there in my heart, lurking below the surface, only now a spotlight has shone on it and brought it to light. Consequently, this season has been not only one of raising funds but also learning (read: struggling) to grow in faith.

2. I have a deep-seated love of control.

In line with revealing my unbelief, this first half of support raising has also exposed the white-knuckle control grip that I prefer to have on my circumstances. Simply put, I am currently not in control of my own timeline, and I have been surprised at what a struggle this has been for me. It’s not that I don’t like this season of life or am dying to get out of town–after all, we love living near family, we love our church, and we have great friends and community here–it’s that I am more clearly aware than ever that I am not in control of the success or failure of this venture that we are on. I am completely at the mercy of God’s provision and other people’s participation. Of course, at other times of life I have certainly not been in control of my circumstances the way I thought I’ve been–it was just harder to see this truth behind the veneer of self-control that I had erected. But now this veneer has been torn down and the cold hard truth has become evident: I am not in control, and it’s hard for me to accept.

3. I am very prideful.

This past year has been the first time in 20 years that I have not been employed somewhere “earning” an income. Ever since I started as a busboy at The Hamburger Factory at age 16 I have had a job, with only  a couple of brief “between job” stages. Now, technically I am an employee of Mission to the World, and technically I am working full-time gathering a support team for our service in Japan, but it doesn’t feel like I’m employed anywhere, and that has picked at my pride. Apparently I have been drawing much of my self-worth from my ability to excel at things that generate a living for myself, but now I am not doing that. During this stage I am dependent upon God and others, or perhaps better said, during this stage it has become more clear than before that I am dependent upon God and others, and this has been a challenge to my prideful thinking that I provide for myself.

4. I am often paralyzed by fear.

I am not fearful of speaking in front of large groups about our work in Japan and I don’t mind meeting one-on-one with folks and inviting them to invest in this gospel work–I actually quite enjoy these things. But what I am afraid of is failure. I have a fear that we will fail at this task (as if it were up to us anyways!), and I fear what people will think when we do. And too often I let this fear have a stranglehold on my joy and debilitate me. Now, at other times in life I’m sure that I have struggled with fear, though those times of struggle were clouded by my pride in my ability and perceived sense of control of my circumstances. In this venture, however, I have been forced to face my fear and realize that it is a byproduct of the struggles I mentioned above: my lack of faith, my lack of control, and my unrelenting pride.

5. The gospel is for people just like me.

Although the first four of these realizations are a bit negative, they have the effect of throwing my need of the gospel into sharp relief. Of course, I’ve known before this year that the gospel is for people like me, but given my new-found sparring sessions with unbelief, lack of control, pride, and fear, I’ve come to realize all the more how much I need the gospel. Because Jesus is in control and has promised to build His church, we need not fear and can have confidence that He will accomplish His work in and through us. Although my tendency is to try and operate out of my strength and ability, Jesus tells us that His “power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor 12:9). This is a hard pill for me to swallow, to be honest, but it’s one that I need.

As my wife says to me, going through struggles such as these will help us realize, when God chooses to provide the resources we need to go, that He alone is worthy of all thanks and praise – that He alone has accomplished this work, not us. Our prayer is that this truth will characterize the second half of our journey to Japan.


Posted in Missions, Support Raising | 1 Comment

Do you take the church for granted?

It was most poignantly on a flimsy folding chair in the middle of a dirt “field” in Juarez, Mexico that I (Caroline) began to grasp the concept that the church is far more than a building. It was a Sunday morning, and I was 18, on a short-term mission trip. As our church’s mission team gathered for worship with our Mexican brothers and sisters, I marveled at the bond we shared in Christ that transcended linguistic, cultural and economic barriers. Somehow, too, this experience of Sunday worship felt especially appropriate under a beautiful blue sky–a vaulted ceiling of the most majestic and awe-inspiring kind, created by the One whom we worshiped.

My subsequent college years were ones of concentrated spiritual growth. I was full of insecurities and felt my perpetual singleness (and the sudden loss of my father as an early teenager) acutely, and God met me in the pain, sin, and unfulfilled longings of my heart. A huge introvert, I filled volumes of journals with soul-searching reflections, struggles, and prayers. Although I had been a Christian since middle school, I began reading my Bible almost for the first time. Through my doubts and insecurities, God spoke to me afresh with the soothing balm of the Gospel.

Slowly but steadily, a deepening sense of peace, joy, and purpose in my identity in Him began to quiet my tumultuous heart and mind. He gave me believing friends and roommates who challenged and encouraged me in my faith. Once I realized weakness was an acceptable (even healthy) posture for ministry, I felt free to become involved in a number of ministries in my local church. I learned that I was not gifted in all of them, but I enjoyed each opportunity to serve Jesus through loving the people around me. I grew to deeply appreciate the older men and women, both church staff and lay people, who modeled Christian maturity to me through their words and actions.

In fact, many of these people had been there all along; I had just taken them for granted. In my own family there are generations of believers as far back as I am aware. I was raised in the southeastern U.S. and had grown up going to church. Sunday School, smiles, sermons, singing. Yet now (for a variety of reasons), I was seeing the church with new eyes. As I viewed it through the lens of the Bible and further life experience, it was like a budding flower whose beauty was slowly unfolding. I saw, and rejoiced at the privilege of participating in, the beautiful mess of sinners saved by grace, ministering to others out of their own weakness and God’s strength. I saw a body with many parts, people uniquely gifted and serving in dramatically different ways. I saw a foretaste of God’s coming kingdom on earth as Jesus brought truth, forgiveness, restoration, and hope to people, through His people. And I saw it all over the world.

Every time I traveled, which seemed to be frequently (an interest in missions, a French/Spanish major, and a brother who lived in Singapore contributed to my passport stamps), I rejoiced in the unity of believers in Jesus that transcends all cultural barriers. My favorite part about visiting a foreign country quickly became going to church on Sunday. What did church look like in a Senegalese village suffering from famine? In a tiny farming town in the Swiss Alps? In the thriving metropolis of Nagoya, Japan?

The answer to this last question surprised me. It came in 2008, several years after my college graduation, when I found myself on a “vision trip” to Japan with my husband of three years. Although I had felt God’s nudging toward missions for many years by this point, I was rather shocked that He seemed to be calling Matt & me to Japan, of all places. I had always pictured myself doing some kind of mercy ministry in a developing country. I could speak French (so, Haiti or West Africa seemed reasonable) and some Spanish (hello, Central and South America!). This new sense of call, however, was destroying my missions paradigm. Not only did I not know a lick of Japanese, what I did know about Japan didn’t attract me, given my previous ministry experience and desires. Japan is economically prosperous. The Japanese are very well educated. They’re technologically advanced. They have excellent health care.  They’re quiet. They’re impeccably clean. They’re polite. The whole country runs on time, if not early.  (In dramatic contrast, I will likely be late to my own funeral.) What could I have to offer them?

As I learned some of the statistics on Christianity (and the lack thereof) in Japan, then began to put faces with those statistics, God began working in my heart to show me that the Japanese are among the neediest people on earth when it comes to the life and death matter of knowing Jesus Christ. The spiritual darkness in the country is palpable. There are over 150,000 cults registered with the Japanese government. Japan has one of the highest suicide rates in the world. Voluntary teenage prostitution is common, not to mention the country’s history of human trafficking and child pornography. Did you know there is a large and influential Japanese mafia? There are many wonderful things about Japan, but beneath the country’s veneer of perfection there is a depth of depravity that is only explicable in light of Scripture. Like Americans, the Japanese need Jesus; they’re desperate for Him.  Yet unlike most Americans, most Japanese have no idea who He is.

The evangelical church in Japan is tiny. It has a long history, but has perpetually struggled in the face of spiritual opposition. It is this church our family wants to serve. Humbly, realizing we have so much to learn from our Japanese brothers and sisters along the way. Our primary role of service will be helping to build the Japanese church via the indirect avenue of theological education. Yet, we also desire to simply be present, members of Jesus’ global church, serving in our new local church environment however we can, perhaps sometimes simply by sharing our Christian heritage. Such a heritage probably won’t be taken for granted in an environment where Christian families (in which both spouses know Jesus), much less generations of believers, are rare.

We’ve been told that simply living life as a Christian family, seeking to raise our children in the Lord, and inviting Japanese friends and neighbors into our home will be a huge ministry in itself. As I think of the multitude of believers God has used to influence me spiritually from childhood onward, I can’t imagine where I would be without them. He provided Christian teachers and mentors, friends’ parents and my own, and many other believers, to love, instruct, and encourage me over the years. They showed me (often unknowingly) what walking with God looks like on a daily basis. Countless brothers and sisters in Christ demonstrated His love to my family in a myriad of practical ways following the tragic deaths of each of my parents. What if I had been born into a typical Japanese family and these types of people simply hadn’t existed?

Will you pray for Japan?  Will you consider helping us serve there?

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Does Missions Stop When a Group Has Been Reached?

I recently read an article on The Gospel Coalition website by David Sills entitled, “Missions Doesn’t Stop When a Group Has Been Reached.” Sills begins by noting the standard definition of unreached peoples as “those ethnolinguistic people groups whose population is less than 2 percent evangelical, or those groups without a sufficiently strong presence of New Testament churches or numbers of Christians who could carry on the work without outside help.” As the title of the article suggests, he goes on to argue that the work of missions is not completed once a people group crosses the threshold from being “unreached” to “reached.”

Sills contends that since Jesus commanded his followers to make disciples of all nations and to teach them all that He has commanded (Matt 28:19-20), the work of missions involves not simply converting unbelievers but discipling them. He gives the examples of Haiti, where a majority of people claim to be Christian yet still practice voodoo, and Rwanda of 1994, where 90% of the people were baptized as Christians when the worst genocide of the modern era occurred. The implication is that although these people groups are considered “reached,” there is obviously more work to be done.

Sills then states,

“We have unintentionally created the erroneous perception that missions equals reaching the unreached. If one’s efforts consist of flipping on light switches and then hurrying to the next darkened room, that is not the Great Commission; it’s only half of what we have been commanded to do. Jesus said we are to teach them to observe all that he has commanded.”

What he means by “flipping on light switches” is preaching the gospel and converting people. So here he is saying that we cannot be satisfied with converting a people group, not discipling them, and then moving on to the next people group. Missions must involve not simply conversion but discipleship. He closes by saying,

“Lost people of the world must hear the gospel to be saved. That is true whether they are in an unreached people group or not. Lost people in reached people groups are still lost, and everyone who dies in a lost condition will go to hell for eternity. Their only hope is to hear the gospel and repent. The task of missions is not simply to reach the unreached, allowing every missionary to define what that means for himself; it is reaching the lost and teaching them to obey all that Christ has commanded.”


Several elements of this article seem problematic to me on both missiological and biblical grounds. Below I will focus on only two: imprecise terminology and removal of biblical-missiological strategy.

Imprecise Terminology

Sills seems to use “unreached” and “reached” terminology somewhat imprecisely. As mentioned above, he provides the standard and widely accepted definition for unreached people groups at the beginning of the article. According to Sills, this definition understands an “unreached” people group to be one “without a sufficiently strong presence of New Testament churches or numbers of Christians who could carry on the work without outside help” (typically measured numerically as 2% or less evangelical).

One thing Sills does not do at this point is define what “the work” is that cannot be carried on by such a people group without outside help. However, a well worn understanding of “the work” that unreached peoples cannot carry on is indigenous church planting. The 1982 Lausanne Unreached Peoples meeting defined a people group as “the largest group within which the Gospel can spread as a church planting movement without encountering barriers of understanding or acceptance.” Since church ministry includes both outreach and discipleship–both evangelism and edification–it follows that unreached peoples are those who cannot effectively convert and disciple their own without foreign assistance.

For this reason it seems to be a bit of a straw man to claim that an “unreached people group” focus in missions is like running through dark rooms, flipping on light switches, and calling the work complete. Rightly understood, an unreached people group focus is not against but inclusive of the ministries of discipleship and training. Since effective church planting cannot occur without such discipleship and training, a people group should not be considered reached until it has been so equipped.

If people groups claim to be Christian yet are steeped in voodoo or engaging in genocide,  rather than classifying them as reached and then claiming that missions is not finished there,perhaps we should reevaluate whether or not they are truly in a position for an indigenous church planting movement to be successful. If they are not, then they should not be considered reached. The issue of importance would be how we classify people groups, not how we define missions.

Removal of Biblical-Missiological Strategy

In his closing paragraph Sills notes that people are lost in unreached and reached people groups alike, reminds us that unbelievers in both of these categories will go to hell if they don’t hear the gospel and repent, and asserts that the task of missions is “reaching the lost and teaching them to obey all that Christ has commanded.” This statement, however, removes the guideposts for a biblically informed global strategy for world evangelization. If one were to accept Sills’ argument here–if “missions” is simply reaching “the lost” indiscriminate of where they are and teaching them to obey Jesus–why would anyone choose to cross cultures into unreached territory where such ministry is more difficult and even dangerous?

In addition to lacking support from broader biblical-theological concerns regarding God’s design for his kingship to be recognized and submitted to all across creation, such a definition of missions does not do justice to the Great Commission itself, from which it claims to derive. Jesus commanded his followers not simply to “reach the lost and teach them” but to make disciples of all nations (= ethne), baptize them, and teach them. Given this all-encompassing people group focus in Jesus’ command, it is simply unwise for us not to distinguish between people groups that can evangelize and disciple their own through indigenous church planting movements and people groups that cannot.

Definitions of missions that seek to restrict it to reaching unreached people groups are not opposed to engaging in holistic discipleship but are wisely attempting to preserve the Scripture’s preoccupation with people from every tribe and tongue submitting themselves to the Lamb who has been slain. In distinguishing unreached and reached peoples we are not claiming that no further ministry is needed in the latter; we are simply identifying those tribes and tongues where Jesus’ kingdom will not spread unless cross-cultural gospel workers go there.


To conclude, I believe it is not biblically warranted to lump all people groups into the same missiological category. I would argue that missions does indeed stop when a people group has been reached, but this does not mean that ministry stops. It is important to distinguish “missions” as an internationally expansionistic enterprise from other areas of gospel ministry. If we fail to do so, we will cease to be strategic toward reaching and teaching all nations, as Jesus has commanded us.

Posted in Missions | Leave a comment