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?