In the face of heartbreaking images of damage and destruction in northern Japan, one ministry leader sees an unprecedented opening to reach the Japanese people with the love, grace, and truth of Jesus Christ.
“God is using this tragedy to put Japan back on the map for Western Christians,” says Rick Chuman, executive director of the Japanese Evangelical Missionary Society (JEMS). “Some have thought we’ve put 150 years of effort into reaching Japan and it’s time to move on,” he notes. “So it’s exciting to see it’s back on the radar for Western Christians who now want to pray for Japan.”
Chuman hopes for a very different kind of tsunami to hit Japan. “Now there’s another kind of tsunami – and hopefully it’s the Holy Spirit descending on that country and doing something with the returnees and the in-country missionaries.”
While many Asian countries have large, vibrant Christian populations, in Japan only about 1.5 percent identify themselves as Christian. Some consider the Japanese to be the largest unreached people group in the world.
One obstacle to reaching the Japanese with the gospel is the syncretistic approach they take to religion. Many consider themselves Shinto and Buddhist. “Usually they are married Shinto and buried Buddhist,” Chuman notes. “For us to come in and say Jesus is the only way is hard for them to swallow.”
Some want to add Jesus to a long list of other gods. “Culturally they have 1000 little gods. They assume they can buy into one more God and lump it all together. When they hear he is the one true God they say, ‘That’s kind of a Western religion. It works for you Americans.’”
Chuman is excited by the “Returning Movement,” an initiative to send Japanese who have found Christ in the U.S. back as missionaries to their own people. “It’s their own people coming back to tell them about Jesus in their own language and context. That makes more sense than if Americans try to tell them.”
Another obstacle to Christianity in Japan is a deeply ingrained cultural pride. “They are self-effacing in public. But deep down they are a proud people,” Chuman notes. “They have a public face which is very polite, but their private face may be very different.”
Their pride makes them slow to ask for help and it is difficult for them to accept charity. “It’s hard for Japanese to receive,” Chuman notes. “They are apologetic, feel like they are imposing. Now they have to be on the receiving end – they don’t have a choice. This could break through their barriers.”
“Many have nothing,” he adds. “They will not have a normal life for months or years.”
Some Japanese are pondering eternal questions for the first time. “Many thought they almost died. They are having those questions. ‘What would have happened if I died?’” they are wondering.
The typical Christian church in Japan has 20 members, according to Chuman, and the pastor holds a second job to make ends meet. “A 100-member church would be considered a mega-church in Japan,” Chuman says.
Christians within Japan will also be forced to overcome denominational barriers in response to this unprecedented disaster. “They don’t intermingle too much,” Chuman notes. “If they are Baptist or Brethren or United Methodist, they just stick to their denominations. This will bring the churches together that are in Japan.”
“We’re praying this disaster will galvanize the church in Japan so they can be one voice and one mind so they can make a difference. As tragic as it is we’re excited to think God is really going to do something awesome.”
For earthquake relief, JEMS is partnering with CRASH Tohoku Quake Relief, a group coordinating relief efforts though local churches, along with the Japanese Evangelical Missionary Association.