Pastoral Perspectives

Laying a Stone for the Lord

As I have mentioned in a past perspective, I’ve heard many times both within and without, that Japan has a reputation as a ‘missionary graveyard’. Countless missionaries have come to the country, worked for untold number of years and yet the church has yet to be expanded beyond 1% of the population. In the book, Silence by Shūsaku Endō, Japan is described as a swamp, it is not the type of soil that the tree of Christianity can take root in. While the things we have seen in Japan prove without a doubt that God is at work in Japan, the number of Christians still remains low. Why is that?

A fellow missionary I spoke with recently offered this theory. There are so few Christians in Japan, simply because there are so few Christians in Japan. What exactly did he mean by this?

To him this is what evangelism in Japan looks like:

To a non-christian Japanese person, every encounter with a Christian is like the laying of a single stone. Each stone is part of a bridge that is slowly being built. Every meeting with a Christian is an opportunity for another stone to be laid, and this continues until finally the bridge is complete and they receive Jesus. In this case, God is the master builder, He guides the placement of each stone with great care, ensuring that this bridge will not fail. We don’t know where along the journey they are at, but by faithfully laying each stone one by one, the bridge is slowly but steadily being built.

This, he explained, is why evangelism takes time in Japan.

Even today, many Japanese have never been to a church or met a Christian. There are also very few Christians doing evangelism. As a result, most Japanese have simply never been given the chance to open their hearts to the gospel. Either no stones have been laid or their bridge is incomplete.

Therefore, when churches organise evangelistic events, they do so to make it easier for ordinary Japanese people to come to church or to encounter Christians. Even if the gospel isn’t shared right away, these encounters are important gateways for trust to be built. Each event is an opportunity for a stone to be laid in their bridge of faith.

The testimonies we have heard from every Japanese Christian we’ve spoken to seem to bear this out. Each of them has very vivid memories of their first encounter with Christians or Christianity in general, be it through a bible story they heard as a child attending a Christian kindergarten, through an English class conducted by a missionary, or hearing the story of Jesus’ birth at a Christmas event. Each testimony is unique but each started with a single interaction with a Christian. Through these interactions, the Master Builder kept laying stones in their bridge to faith. God’s handiwork is evident as is the work of the Christians they encountered along their journey.

Evangelism in Japan does not look like evangelism in other countries. Despite years of effort, we don’t expect to see explosive growth as we do in other mission fields. It can thus be frustrating for pastors and missionaries who labour for years and see very little results for their efforts.

However, when I reflected on my friend’s analogy for evangelism here, I couldn’t help but be struck by the similarities in my own slow pace of conversion. Despite attending a Christian school, having numerous Christian friends and attending church for years since my childhood, it wasn’t until my 20s when I was finally convicted of my sinful nature and chose to follow Jesus. I had very few barriers to becoming a Christian nor did I lack access to the gospel. Yet through it all, I believe that slowly but surely, through each encounter with faithful Christians, the Lord was guiding the construction of my own bridge of faith, one that eventually led to my wholehearted acceptance of Christ.

Dear brother or sister, perhaps you have a family member or friend who is also on their own slow journey. If working in Japan has taught me one thing, it is to never give up and to keep trusting the Lord no matter how long it takes!

Also we should never take for granted the importance of our roles in their journey. Our presence in their lives could be an all important opportunity for the laying of one stone in their bridge to faith in Jesus. In this day and age, where being a Christian can often give us a bad rep for appearing backward or irrelevant, sharing about Jesus through words alone can be tricky. However, where words fail, our acts of love, patience and grace still have the power to be light in a darkened world.

Therefore, let’s keep on laying these stones wherever we go. It could take years, but one by one, bridges are being built. We do this not by our own strength but guided by the Spirit and trusting in the plans of our Lord for He is the Master Builder, He is faithful, He is good, and His work will never fail.