Swimming Upstream

This article discusses the possibilities of Filipinos serving in Japan and considers how similar things can be done for workers from the majority world to address challenges of serving in more affluent places. It looks at the need to rethink language learning and to widen the discussion on tent-making and other ways of sending and going.

Andrea Roldan graduated from the University of the Philippines and worked as an architect prior to joining OMF as an Associate in 2005. She earned a BA(Hons) and an MA at All Nations Christian College in the UK and has been serving as International Facilitator for Serve Asia since 2010. She has also been serving as a member of the Lausanne Movement’s Younger Leaders Team, and, recently, OMF’s Global Vision Council.


Swimming Upstream

Mission Round Table Vol. 12 No. 1 (January-April 2017): 30-34

Download this edition of Mission Round Table (2.4 MB)

On Saturday afternoons a group of fifteen Filipino women meet in the sanctuary of a small Japanese evangelical church in the centre of Tokyo. The small fellowship planted by two Filipino missionaries has already planted another small church composed mostly of other Filipino women in another residential area in western Tokyo. One of the missionaries grew up dreaming she would one day become like the OMF missionary who served in her home church. She approached OMF in the past to talk about serving in Japan but was discouraged by the cost and time it would take before she could follow God’s call. Later, she took the route of partnering with an elderly pastor of the small and ageing Japanese church in Tokyo. She challenged a friend to go with her and together these two women set forth five years ago after being commissioned by their home churches, going in faith that God would provide what they needed.

1    The changing face of mission

We now live in the “Great Century of World Christianity,” writes Allan Yeh. Mission is no longer from the West to the rest but from everyone to everywhere, polycentric and polydirectional rather than unidirectional.[1] With vibrant missionary zeal and a deepening appreciation of mission as Missio Dei, majority world churches, lower income churches in high income countries, diaspora churches, and churches everywhere are being empowered to take on the task of mission because they see God leading and inviting them to be part of what he is already doing everywhere and anywhere.

Paradigms are shifting with the result that changes are testing and stretching the structures of older mission agencies that were built, modeled, and developed based on an understanding that mission comes from the West to the rest, from higher income countries to lower income countries, from the privileged to the less privileged, and from the developed to the underdeveloped. Mission movements from majority world countries are challenging how we go and send in mission. As a Fellowship that seeks to see East Asia’s peoples reaching out to their own people and others in mission, we need to ask ourselves whether the structures and processes that we have hinder the mobilization of workers from lower income nations to serve with OMF.

One missionary shared that it has been more than thirty years since the last Filipino couple came to serve in Japan with OMF though the Philippine Home Council has had no lack of inquiries from those who felt called to serve the Japanese. Over the last ten years, a few have joined as short-term workers but, beyond this, enquirers and applicants face a steep climb that ends mostly with a concrete wall.

2    From low income to high income

It’s no surprise that the biggest challenge faced by anyone from the Philippines joining OMF is finance. It’s the same challenge faced by anyone from a lower income nation who hopes to serve with OMF and many other mission organizations. With global economies slowing down, this challenge isn’t confined to lower income sending nations—traditionally higher income nations with shrinking churches and changing church culture also find it difficult to sustain support for the “overseas missionaries” they have, much less send new ones.

As a Fellowship we have held on resolutely that God’s work done in God’s way will not lack his provision. OMF’s history as a mission contains countless testimonies solidifying our belief in this principle. As a mobilizer, I have seen how the principle admittedly served as a litmus test for those hoping to join OMF—if you are called to serve in mission, surely God will provide. If you do not meet the financial clearances and God does not provide, then perhaps you are not called to serve with OMF. Perhaps God isn’t even calling you to serve in cross-cultural missions.

Serving in various roles in OMF and the Lausanne Movement has allowed me to see what God is doing to move his church amongst majority world peoples to further his kingdom and bring the gospel to those least reached. Watching how my father worked—mobilizing Mangyan people to reach out to other tribes in the Philippines, talking to overseas Filipino workers at airports, wading through waters in Myanmar with a Chin brother to reach a village to share Bible stories, sitting with students and young professionals from house churches in an Asian megacity—has also stretched and challenged my own values and presuppositions about how God sends people in mission. Does God’s provision come only through his moving others to give? Must our model of mission only be “out of surplus” whereby a network of supporters fund missionaries and going in mission is dependent on the “charity” of others?[2] When God’s work is done God’s way, can he not provide for our needs in other ways?

My decision to serve in Japan was fueled by a call to pave the way for a growing number of Filipinos hoping to come and serve with OMF in the country, some of whom are young adults I have journeyed with since they were in high school. A Philippine government expenditure survey in 2015 reported that the average Filipino family income in the Philippines is estimated to be around US$500 per month.[3] In contrast, the average Japanese monthly family expenditure is five times more.[4]How then do we facilitate the sending of workers from a lower income nation to a higher income nation like Japan? If we can’t send Filipinos to serve in Japan, does this mean we stop mobilizing for the country? We hope not. But if finance is a hindrance, surely there are ways to address the challenge. Surely God will provide for his work and those he calls; we just need to discern if his provision will be in and through different or new ways.

3    Rethinking language learning

One of the biggest financial hurdles for Filipinos hoping to serve with OMF, and more specifically OMF Japan, is the high cost of language and culture learning. A huge chunk of first-term expenses is allocated for this. Many Filipino missionaries who came directly to Japan to serve without dedicating time for language and culture acquisition subsequently lamented their lack of proficiency. Their low language proficiency limits their work amongst Japanese people and ministry has mostly focused on the Filipino diaspora. Amongst Filipinos already serving in and planting churches in Japan, there is a resounding affirmation of the importance of language and culture acquisition and anyone hoping to serve with them is discouraged from following the same path they took—if only for the sake of the next generation within the diaspora churches who can only speak Japanese.

To help reduce the costs as well as offer options that suit other learning styles, alternative tracks of language and culture learning need to be explored. For example, one possible route is for Filipinos to study Japanese at local language schools where learning in a classroom setting would be at least 50% cheaper than the current model of one-to-one classes. One missionary from another agency shared that studying at a local language school can be quite intense. However, hard work paid off and classes helped him, as well as the others I interviewed, to attain a proficiency level that made it possible to work in Japanese companies and serve in Japanese churches.

When I took my language proficiency test, I talked to a number of Filipinos enrolled in a local language school. Two of them shared with me that they came to Japan by saving up around US $10,000 to cover tuition for their two-year language school and living expenses. Their goal is to gain a level of fluency that will allow them to find work and stay in Japan. Scholarships are also provided by some schools and Japanese institutions so that students do not necessarily need to foot their entire bill. Placement of Filipinos in language schools will broaden their network in the country and possibly even open doors for the gospel to be planted and shared with the growing number of language students who come from countries where the gospel is little known.

Whether funding comes from sending churches or through a scholarship, enrollment in a local language school also serves as means to serve in Japan without a religious visa. Not only does a student visa opens doors for Filipinos to be sent in a “cheaper” way, it also makes it possible for workers from other nations to leave their country without a “missionary visa” stamped on their passports.

One track being explored by the OMF Japan Field is for Filipino enquirers and applicants to attain a functional level of Japanese fluency prior to arriving in Japan. Language learning hence becomes part of preparation along with theological or Bible training. Learning a language prior to arriving on the field has generally been discouraged because of the possibility of picking up bad habits that will be hard to undo. However, the strategy of requiring a high level of language fluency prior to deployment is already being adopted by Philippine overseas employment agencies. My cousin, who recently started working as a nurse in Germany, studied to attain a required level of fluency in German as part of her pre-departure training. Her employment agency journeyed with her and a few of her friends for at least a year before they left, monitoring their progress. Though I am not sure if their language studies in the Philippines were covered by the agency, I think churches can be challenged to support tuition for language classes in the home country for those they want to commission and send.

Learning Japanese in the Philippines is far cheaper than doing it in Japan. Government agencies such as the Technical Education and Skills Development Authority in the Philippines also offer up to 150 hours of free classes for basic Japanese, Mandarin, Arabic, and Spanish language and culture as a means of equipping and encouraging Filipinos to find employment overseas.[5] After reaching a specific level of fluency, whether through language schools in the Philippines or Japan, Filipinos can then take classes focused on language and culture learning specific to the ministries they will be involved in after they arrive on the field.

In addition to a high language requirement and options to undertake language and culture learning through other routes, Filipinos will also be encouraged to come in teams as much as possible so that the cost of language classes can be split between them and shared. There exists a deep regard and respect for OMF missionaries in Japan because of their level of fluency. Finding cheaper ways to address the high cost of language learning does not necessarily mean that we water down the standards. We want Filipinos to minister effectively and with excellence. What we need to do is work out which part of training can only be done well following traditional OMF ways of language and culture learning and then allow other ways or tracks of learning to become an option for subjects that can be facilitated by others at a reduced cost.

4    Widening discussion on tent-making and other ways of sending and going

Once the challenge of language and culture learning costs are addressed we can further widen our discussion to tent-making and other ways of sending and going. Ian Prescott, in a discussion amongst Asian Homeside Leaders in 2016, highlighted that tent-making could be an avenue not just for creative access but also self-support. Tent-making has good biblical precedence, Prescott shared, in that Paul’s tent-making was primarily about self-support and this was also the way missionaries of the early church were funded.[6] Granted that many of those taking paid employment find it difficult to learn the local language and culture, if new workers from developing economies commit time to learning language and culture prior to taking paid-employment, we can hopefully realize the missionary potential of many majority world churches.[7]

There are growing opportunities for tent-making. The tight labor market and shrinking work force in Japan have resulted in more jobs being offered to people from countries like the Philippines. Over the last eight years, the number of foreign workers has doubled and the message from Japan is “send us your construction workers, your care givers, your store clerks.”[8] When I first arrived in the country, most Filipinos assumed that I was here to teach English and I’ve met quite a number who have come as nurses, caregivers, IT professionals, and students.

At a recent gathering, around two hundred Filipinos from fifteen Filipino diaspora churches in Tokyo united to pray and were encouraged to be a blessing and serve as witnesses in Japan. Most of the churches are led by Filipino wives of Japanese men and, apart from a handful of missionaries who have partnered with a Japanese church or are funded by churches they planted, most of the diaspora church leaders and pastors are tentmakers juggling ministry and work. In a neighboring prefecture of Tokyo, a group of friends teaching English put up a roving Filipino restaurant so that they could share the gospel with their students and non-believing friends. One of the leaders reported that discussions about Filipino culture and cuisine allows them to share about their faith in a non-threatening way.

​​​​​​​   Bless Japan Mission and Prayer Summit facilitated by the Japan Council of Philippine Churches in Mar 2017

Across East Asia, governments and institutions, including many in Japan, offer scholarships for graduate study. Doors to come as a student and OMF partner should also be opened. Student partners come with enthusiasm and fresh ideas. They can be directed to an OMF ministry or church plant or connected with a Christian student fellowship or ministry and they can develop networks and relationships. Being part of an OMF team or ministry provides them, in return, with community, encouragement, pastoral care, accountability, and perhaps even training to effectively navigate Japanese culture and language in ministry.

Tent-making has already made it possible for believers to work in diaspora areas. The offer of academic scholarships by prefectures and universities makes it possible for Christian students from majority world countries to come.[9] There are ways to take hold of the resources and opportunities these bring to mission, especially in terms of equipping and mobilizing gospel bearers to be able to communicate and navigate the culture effectively in places untouched, or less reached, by traditional mission.

Exploring tent-making, student partnerships, and other ways of staying and supporting ministry in countries across East Asia will mean rethinking how we mobilize, prepare, and train those coming through these “creative routes.” We can explore ways for Filipinos, for example, to come initially as Associates for language and culture learning and training, after which they can decide whether to come back as full members supported by traditional means, as self-supported tent-makers, or field partners. We must also rethink how we orientate and train those coming through creative routes before they arrive on the field so they can function, understand, and work within OMF culture whilst holding a creative identity and platform. With all the opportunities available, the real challenge is developing responsiveness and implementing structures and processes that facilitate creative sending and going. All this is possible if there is continual openness, dialogue, and trust between both sending and receiving sides across the Fellowship.

5    Partnerships with indigenous mission movements and local churches

Fifteen years ago, a Filipino and his wife moved their whole family from Manila to Tokyo with a vision to reach out to Japanese people. After a meeting with OMF Japan Field leaders, while we were walking back to the train station, he told me he had considered going home many times. Neither his nor his wife’s home churches supported their ministry financially but God’s goodness saw them through. He thoughtfully shared that Filipinos who can come with a mission agency would get the care, encouragement, and support that he had to manage without because he came directly to Japan without an agency.

Coming to Japan has not only opened my eyes to other ways of sending workers from lower income to higher income nations like Japan. It has also opened my eyes to the opportunities to partner with mission movements emerging from majority world nations. Filipinos are now the third largest ethnic minority in Japan and many Filipino Christians are reaching out to their own people and others.

At the aforementioned gathering of Filipino diaspora churches, Rev. Shinagawa, General Secretary of the Japan Evangelical Association, shared that diaspora churches are the fastest growing churches in the country. He added that congregation numbers and current rate of growth means that there may even be more believers within the diaspora churches than in Japanese churches and it is easier for the diaspora and even Japanese people to feel welcome in a diaspora church than in a traditional Japanese church.[10]

The big challenge for diaspora churches, however, is that their second generation mostly speaks Japanese and most of the pastors and church leaders are unable to speak Japanese, let alone disciple in the language. The leader of the Japan Council of Philippine Churches shared with OMF field leaders the need for missionaries to be sent to reach the next generation in Filipino diaspora churches. They have tried planting their youth and children in Japanese churches but this failed. OMF missionaries can come to pioneer work and reach out to the Filipino diaspora’s youth and children, many of whom are half-Japanese and marginalized. They will integrate into the Japanese society and their futures will be part of Japan’s. As a result of dialogue and meetings between OMF and Filipino diaspora leaders, OMF Japan is now hoping to partner to place Filipino missionaries with these diaspora churches to reach out to their Japanese-speaking family members, youth, and children.

By partnering with, investing in, and journeying with diaspora churches, opportunities are being opened to share our resources and journey with them as they seek to effectively reach out in mission to Japanese people and other diaspora peoples. Our hope is that opportunities will also open up for them to partner with the OMF Japan Home Council in supporting and sending Japanese missionaries and perhaps eventually sending their own missionaries overseas.[11]

Placing Filipino OMF workers to shadow and be mentored by other Filipino cross-cultural workers outside of traditional OMF circles also exposes them to Filipino ways of living and adjusting to life in high income countries like Japan. They learn what it means to be Filipino within a Japanese context: What are our strengths and weaknesses in a Japanese context? What does it look like to minister as a Filipino cross-cultural worker and what do we bring to the table of mission and the church as a Filipino believer? How do we appropriately and effectively reach out to Japanese people as Filipinos? If there is only one model of mission, then what kind of missionaries are we hoping to develop amongst those coming from lower income nations? There is much to be learned theologically and missiologically when working in a multi-cultural and diverse context like OMF; not exposing Filipinos to other Filipino mission movements and ways of doing and being runs the risk of developing Filipino cross-cultural workers who either take on western ways of living and being or they end up being unable to function in the long term, losing their identity, and feeling they are unable to fit in because of their Filipino-ness. If we want to see a maturing East Asian church take on the task of mission then we need to permit alternative ways of being, sending, and going in mission that allow East Asians to be rooted in mission as East Asians.

6    Great expectations

Since mission is now from everyone to everywhere and “anywhere to anywhere,”[12] what role will OMF play? How is God calling us to be involved in coming alongside maturing East Asian churches, including the diaspora churches planted in the least reached areas? My experience in the last twelve months of living in and serving from Japan has been an exciting time of seeing with fresh eyes all that God is doing in the country and in the region. God continues to call and send people from the majority world to high income nations. They are going and they will continue to go even if it means swimming upstream and my heart is filled with great expectations for all that God will do in mission and I also have great expectations about how we will respond.

“See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not see it? I am making ways in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland.” Isaiah 43:19


[1] Allan Yeh, Polycentric Missiology: 21st Century Mission from Everyone to Everywhere (Downers Grove: IVP, 2016), 216.

[2] Robert Schreiter articulates one model of mission understanding as “mission out of our surplus” where networks of supporters provide funds for missionaries and the “going” and “sending” in mission are dependent on the charity of others. “Mission from the Ground Up: Emergent Themes in Contemporary Mission,” in Mission After Christendom: Emergent Themes in Contemporary Mission, eds. Ogbu Kalu, Peter Vethanayagamony, and Edmund Chia (Louisville: Westminister John Knox, 2010), 14.

[3] Philippines Statistics Authority, Family Income and Expenditure Survey, https://psa.gov.ph/content/average-family-income-2015-estimated-22-thousand-pesos-monthly-results-2015-family-income (accessed 24 March 2017).

[4] Statistics Japan, Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, Summary of Latest Month of Family Income and Expenditure Survey January 2017, http://www.stat.go.jp/english/data/kakei/156.htm (accessed 24 March 2017).

[5] Republic of the Philippines TESDA, TESDA Language Skills Institute, http://www.tesda.gov.ph/About/TESDA/39 (accessed 24 March 2017).

[6] Ian Prescott, “Unlocking the Log Jam: A New Approach to Tent-Making as Self-Support,” (Paper submitted for Asian Home Leaders Consultation, 22 May 2016), 2.

[7] Prescott, “Unlocking the Log Jam,” 2.

[8] Edna Curran, “Japan quietly accepting foreign workers – just don’t call it immigration,” The Japan Times News (3 November 2016), http://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2016/11/03/national/japan-quietly-accepting-foreign-workers-just-dont-call-immigration/#.WNNqLvmGOUk (accessed 23 March 2017).

[9] In 2014, the Aichi Prefecture offered scholarships to students from twenty-two Asian countries covering tuition, language learning, and living expenses on the condition that they work for local companies after graduation. “Aichi revamps scholarships for Asian students,” The Japan Times News (2 April 2014), http://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2014/04/20/national/aichi-revamps-scholarships-for-asian-students/#.WNSuzPl96Ul (accessed 24 March 2017).

[10] Kenichi Shinagawa, Talk delivered at the Bless Japan Prayer and Worship Summit facilitated by the Japan Council of Philippine Churches, Hachioji-shi, Japan, 20 March 2017.

[11] The question, however, then follows: who processes them? To which home side do diaspora churches belong?

[12] Andrew F. Walls, “Afterword: Christian Mission in a Five-hundred-year Context,” in Mission in the Twenty-First Century: Exploring the Five Marks of Global Mission, ed. Andrew F. Walls and Cathy Ross (New York: Orbis, 2008), 202.

NEWS & STORIES / International / July 11, 2019


ArticleJapanThe PhilippinesBusiness & ProfessionalsMission researchMobilisation

Share this post

Get Involved

Have Questions? Send us an email.

To help you serve better, kindly fill all the fields (required). Your query will be routed to the relevant OMF team.

Contact Form

By clicking Submit, you agree that we may process your information in accordance with the terms in our Privacy Policy.

You’re on the OMF International website.
We have a network of centres across the world.
If your country/region is not listed, please select our International website.