The language bone is connected to the heart bone. That’s what we’re learning. I know that Wycliffe missionaries have been saying it for years – get the Bible into the heart language of the people – but we’re really beginning to see how important that is.
In Japan, a significant percentage of the Christian population are what we call “returnees.” By that I mean that they are people who became Christians in other countries and afterward returned to Japan (see what I did there?).
Many who leave Japan are able to really wrestle with the gospel without all of the social pressure to conform (a.k.a. attending Buddhist and Shinto festivals, going to temple with grandma, staying away from those Americans and their cults, etc.). Others attend church with host families and experience the kind of community they’ve been longing for and give their lives to Jesus.
The point is that once these people return, many of them struggle to worship God in Japanese, because they first met and worshipped him in English. For some it is simply the lure of the familiar… they want to do church like they’ve seen it done and express themselves in worship the way they did in the States or elsewhere. For others, it’s the opportunity for outreach – English is sexy in Japan. One Japanese friend told me that it just feels cultish to read the Bible in Japanese. Whatever the reason, I am learning from my returnee friends that heart and language are intimately connected.
English is not bad, but in the long-run, it could be bad for the Japanese church. Japanese friends who want to have Bible study in English often can’t understand as well as they would if they read the Scriptures in Japanese. Also, indigenous churches can’t be planted unless believers can express their faith in their own language. Furthermore, if young people simply pick up and start their own churches, neither the churches they came from, nor the ones they start will benefit from the health, wisdom, and energy of multi-generational churches. A house divided cannot stand.
I share all of this with you so that you’ll get a window into life and ministry in Japan – an illustration of the kinds of things that missionaries have to consider if their ministry is going to be effective long-term. But I’d also love for you to pray for us. Much of our ministry is done in English. It attracts college students and God is using it to bring them to himself. But we need wisdom as we disciple these students and connect them with local congregations. We don’t want to create an English ghetto that they’ll struggle to leave. We also need supernatural help in our own language learning so that we can really connect with people’s heart bones. Thanks for doing this with us!