Breaking Barriers Between the Gospel Message and Its Recipient

How do we take the gospel into Japanese society? Of course, we don’t change its content; it’s the direction we approach it from that needs consideration. Many people think that a direct translation will suddenly make sense to the listener. In reality, the way we approach the topic is more than a language issue.

As missionaries, we need to see the world as our host culture sees it and not as if we are in our home country.

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By Alaric, OMF missionary

I have asked this question a lot as a missionary in Japan: How do we take the gospel into Japanese society?

I first met this issue when working with students in northern Japan. While leading Bible studies I talked about sin: where it came from, what it does, the fact that it causes a gulf between me and God, and here is Jesus, the solution—“Won’t you invite him into your life?” This is the standard model I might use in the U.K.

However, there are many assumptions in that way of thinking: that there is only one God; that we all have one ancestor; that I can make a personal decision without reference to anyone else and so forth.

These assumptions can create barriers between the gospel message and its recipient. Over time I have learned that in order to share the message of Christ so that it resonated with a Japanese audience, I needed to rethink the methodology of my evangelism.

The two particular ideas I needed to incorporate were these:

  • Using narratives within Japanese society (e.g., the children’s stories that everyone knows, the nature, the drama, the music, the art, etc.), and
  • Talking about issues that people face regularly.
The Evangelist and Japanese Students

For example, at the university in northern Japan, there was a group of 10 engineering students, all male, who were facing similar issues. They were all keen to succeed in their studies, wanted to become rich, worried about their girlfriends (or lack thereof) and felt concerned about the future.

I began to sense that the traditional evangelism method didn’t resonate, so I tried approaching the issue of sin from a different perspective: from that of the evangelist in Ecclesiastes.

There was nothing he didn’t know about knowledge, money or women, but none of it was ever enough. If I wanted to talk to these students about the big hole of dissatisfaction in their hearts, what better example was there?

Better to be led by their agenda, not mine.

While this approach makes a lot of sense, it can still be challenging for missionaries to appropriate the stories and themes in popular culture for the gospel.

It takes more work to find these things; we want shortcuts and quick results and we fail to realize how much time is involved. Finding Japanese illustrations for my sermons is time-consuming, not to mention the effort that goes into translating my words into the Japanese language. Yet, taking that time is worth it.

The Ultimate Contextualizer

Jesus was born, lived, worked and died in first-century Israel. He knew how people thought. He used the things around him that people knew well to illustrate his truths. He was good at contextualizing the good news. We need to find 21st century parallels to do the same.

We need to see the world as our host culture sees it and not treat others as if they are nationals from our home country. We need to learn how they think, what their values are, what really speaks to them—then use those things to communicate the gospel.

We should be aiming to be incarnational as Jesus was; only then will the gospel have a Japanese shape to it. That is what contextualization really is: trying to see others from within their own cultural framework and interact with them the way Jesus would.