Contextualization of the Gospel in Japan

This is a presentation given my a former missionary to Japan. In his early days as a missionary, he said he wasn’t sure what he was doing or what he should be doing. Then he learned that it doesn’t matter what you do, just do something. He talks about how he tried all kinds of methods of evangelism. It wasn’t the method that was so important, but just from being out there, connections were made by God’s providence.

Why is it difficult to communicate the gospel in Japan? Here are three reasons from the presentation:

1. The meaning of God (kami) The word “kami”, the word for God, can mean many different things…it can be a beautiful rock, sunset, lake, anything that stimulates a feeling of harmony with the natural world. It is something that is visible and impersonable. There is no concept in Japanese culture of a personal, invisible God who made the world, knows, and loves, and to whom the world is accountable. Thus, when one begins to speak about God’s love, it is decoded as the beautiful serenity of the natural world. It makes no sense at first. So, we have to begin with Genesis, teaching the story of God’s creation and the story of Israel- the narrative of the story of redemption. We can tell the stories of people and God interacting with them, and the story of Jesus Christ.

Also, the understanding of religion is often thought of to be something to get benefits in this life. For example, it is something to help pass your entrance examinations. People might think God is simply a means to get what we want and be successful and happy- it is a prosperity theology. Although God blesses us in many different ways, but basically there is a misunderstanding. The fact is that we are made by God and for God and for His purposes. We worship Him because of who He is, not because of what He gives to us. The book of Job addresses this, which this missionary often preached from. The book of Job is the defeat of prosperity religion.

2. The Meaning of Sin (Tsumi): Tsumi, the word for sin, means breaking the norms or expectations of your family, or company, or community, or society at large. It is the same word used for “crime.” There is no personal God to whom we are accountable- there is no vertical aspect, just a horizontal aspect with others around us, breaking of societial relationships. If we say to someone that we that God loves you and sent His Son to die on the cross for your sins to bring you forgiveness, it can be decoded as us telling them that they are a criminal, who committed some act against their family. We want to communicate that you are a sinner, not a criminal.

There is an emphasis on social conformity, and also the external, such as rituals for the blessing of new buildings. That has to be replaced with an emphasis on the heart, the conscience, rather than the external. The interior life needs cleansing. All of us failed to lived up to even our own standards, whatever those might be (and I would add, most importantly, that we have fallen short of God’s standards). Christ has come not to give external purity but heart cleansing. This is a message that resonates, because people may not understand the concept of sin but they recognize that something is wrong with their lives. So we want to teach it patiently, humbly, and with love (and in their own language, if at all possible).

3. The Meaning of Grace (Megumi): Megumi means favors offered and received. I do something good for you, and now the obligation is on you to repay. There isn’t a concept of undeserved favor with no expectation of anything in return. Helpful passages in communicating grace are the parables of Jesus, especially the Prodigal Son and the Good Samaritan. These kind of stories can communicate grace.

When we encounter the terms such as kami, tsumi, and megumi, there are two approaches a missionary can take. He can either invent new terms (some missionaries have tried to do this but it has caused confusion), or he can take the available terms and reinvest them and redefine with new meaning- that is what most missionaries do.

It is emphasize that learning the language is very important.

I would also add that these are some good lessons here for all people, not only Japanese.

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