Lessons about multicultural church from a barbeque in the pandemic

Recently, my family invited some boys to our house for a barbeque. Because of the ongoing pandemic and safety concerns, there was a discussion about safety and social distancing. On the morning of BBQ day, my wife suggested several rules which seemed overly draconian to me. “Everyone should wear a mask. Everyone should be assigned a cushion for seating and not move around…” My reaction was, “We already talked about this, and agreed to limit the number of guests. It will be fine. None of us are sick and none of the boys we invited are sick either.” I imagined 4 or 5 boys coming over and having to wear a mask and sit on their cushion without moving. Inconceivable to my American mind! But my Japanese wife imagined what would happen if we did not take reasonable safety precautions and someone got sick. In short, we did not see things the same way.

Our lack of unity was caused by the fact that “reasonable safety precautions” meant different things to each of us, because of our cultural viewpoint. And in the middle of our discussion, my third-culture daughter interjected some wisdom from her own perspective. After listening to each of our sides in this debate she piped in, “Dad, imagine a country where everyone thinks like Mom does. Now imagine a country where everyone thinks like you do. Which country do you suppose will have a higher infection rate?”

Of course, my daughter was right. Japan is a country where most everyone assumes mask-wearing, safety and distancing, are reasonable and 「当たり前」 (which roughly translated means “obvious” or “of course you should do that!”) Americans like myself, on the other hand, can tend to focus more on our personal freedoms. My starting point in thinking about what was reasonable was, “Why should I be required to do something that I don’t feel is really necessary?” I think that is partly my cultural lens. But during the pandemic, Japan has had a total of about 1,000 deaths, while America had about 1,000 deaths yesterday! For a third-culture kid like my daughter, who understands both ways to view the world, it was obvious that these shocking statistical differences are due, at least in part, to the fact that “people in this country think like Mom.”

This started me thinking about how different our thinking can really be sometimes. That is why multicultural marriage is not always easy. When Satomi and I decided to marry in 1987, we knew that it would take a serious commitment to talk things out even when our disagreements were uncomfortable. We made a commitment to work things out for the sake of our marriage and by God’s grace we are still together. We’ve made it this far but even now after all these years, we need to regularly pause and talk things out.

Doing church together in a multicultural congregation may be even harder in some ways, because unlike marriage, the commitment required is not always obvious up front. Unless we do make a serious commitment that our local church is a spiritual body of which we are vital members it may just seem like a lot of work for nothing. It is very easy to get offended by people who look and think just like you, but it’s even easier when they have a totally different way of looking at the world. However that is exactly the kind of church that Jesus started when he commissioned the first believers and sent them by his Holy Spirit to go and make disciples.

The members of the early church in the Book of Acts “were of one heart and soul” (Acts 4:32) and they were extremely committed in their relationships with one another. Acts 4:32 also says they “had everything in common.” Yet this was a multiracial, multicultural, multiethnic, multigenerational congregation. But somehow they operated more like a family than anything else, even in finances.  They knew from the start that it would take a serious commitment to talk things out even when it was uncomfortable. And just like any family, especially a mixed family, those disagreements did happen.

In the verses starting with Acts 6:1, a serious disagreement did come out and we get a peek into it when we read the following, “Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution.” This would have been the perfect time for the Apostles to say, “I think it is best if we have two different congregations.” Or it might have been tempting for the Hellenistic Greek believers to decide to leave the Hebrew leaders and start their own ministry. But that is not how they dealt with it. The bond of love in Christ that held them together was greater. They worked it out. That talked about it. And they stayed together and grew through the situation.

I’m thankful for my mixed family, especially when I see that my kids have learned wisdom from being exposed to more than one culture. And I am also thankful that God has called me to pastor a church in Japan where more people think like my wife than like me. Having a multicultural church is not easy. People do get offended and sometimes they leave. But the believers in the Book of Acts did not all look like each other either, and in some ways they did not all think about things the same way either. How could God use them together in such a powerful way that they became known as, “These men who have turned the world upside down…” (Acts 17:6)? By keeping their focus on honoring God. By listening to the Word of God and the voice of the Holy Spirit. And by valuing their relationships. That is how the church was designed to operate. That is the kind of church that I believe God wants to build here in our city. That’s why we talk about every tribe and every tongue worshiping Christ together here often (Revelation 7:9). And that’s one reason our church is named Every Nation.

All those heavy thoughts came to me through a disagreement with my wife about a barbeque during the pandemic. But it made me very thankful for my relationships. Oh, and about the barbeque – in the end, we talked it through until we each understood the other’s point of view. And it was safe and awesome!

Ministering in Izu, Japan

Mercers and Echas'Yesterday I had the privilege of visiting Every Nation Church Izu with my daughter and the Echas family from Yokosuka. Pastor Dennis and Kaku asked us to come and minister while they are in Michigan visiting their children and grandchildren. Here is the message I shared, called “Great Faith For Izu” along with a testimony from Jay and Diane Echas. This is an international congregation so Alishea translated to Japanese as I preached and one of the church members also simultaneously translated to Portuguese in the back of the room. Three languages – wow!

Do Not Disbelieve, But Believe! Jesus and Thomas.

I was asked to share a message about “Doubting Thomas” at our recent Every Nation Campus Japan Conference in Shibuya. There were about 60 students plus 40 older kids gathered there for two days of establishing, equipping, and empowering. I’ll post the recording here so you can hear how the conference started. Three other pastors followed me and challenged the students to reach their campuses for Christ. There was a great response of faith. Pray for the young generation of believers in Japan!

ENC Japan 2019 Campus Conference Boys

Keeping the Dream Alive (ministering in Shimada)

Recently, I was invited to minister in the Every Nation church in Shimada, Japan. I took two Japanese young men with me. Both are in their early 20s. One grew up in church and one became a believer last year. They shared at the beginning of the message about how God is moving in Japan. This is a bilingual message so you can hear English and Japanese. Give a listen if you want to peek in on a Japanese church. Thank you for your prayers!

It’s Important to Reach the Youth in Japan!

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NOTE: This is an updated version of an article I originally wrote for the Summer 2016 edition of Japan Harvest, the magazine of the Japanese Evangelical Missionary Association. I rewrote some bits and added some pictures to make this more interesting to the people who know me. If you read it please leave a comment!

YOUTH IS A (SOMETIMES NEGLECTED) WINDOW OF OPPORTUNITY

youthBetween the ages of about 12 and 22, people go through a unique season of life where they make important decisions which will impact the rest of their lives. Through their time in high school and university they are being formed and trained systematically. The values taught by their teachers and professors eventually become the values of the nation, as they grow into law-makers, authors, entertainers, teachers, or otherwise influencers in the community. There is no question that the youth in our campuses now are the future leaders of society. Because young people naturally tend to be less set in their ways and more open about spiritual things, the campus age is the best time to present important values.This is the time when young leaders should be considering foundations and making decisions for their future career, relationship, and most importantly their eternal purpose and relationship to the Creator.  In this age of constant online entertainment it is easier than ever for Japanese youth to float through school without ever thinking about the meaning of life. But if we want to reach Japan and see the good news spread, it is vital that we are fully engaged in presenting the gospel to the youth. Every focused and driven leader was once a young person searching for meaning and truth. And the older I get the shorter this opportune season of openness seems to last. They don’t stay young for long.

william clarkA classic example of the value of reaching young people for Christ is the work of Professor William S. Clark, who remains a national figure in Japan even to this day. He was in Sapporo for only eight months from 1876 to 1877 working at what is now Hokkaido University. But during his short time there he prayerfully poured his life into a handful of students. These young men went on to influence Japanese Christianity and Japanese society for generations to come.

Sadly though, the key demographic of campus aged youth is often conspicuously absent from our local churches in Japan today. One Japanese pastor, a mentor of mine in his 80s, shared his concern about this with me. He encouraged me not to give up on reaching out to the youth because they are the future of the church. I am convinced that he was right. When we invest in the youth we are really investing in the future of the church.

MAKING THE GOSPEL ATTRACTIVE

There is a new type of church in Japan now that focuses on young people. Many of the fastest growing churches in Japan fall into this category. They focus on creating an atmosphere which is easy for young people to enjoy. They use the same cutting-edge lighting and video that one would expect to see at a J-Pop concert. Their leaders purposefully dress and talk in ways that appeal to the sensibilities of young working professionals and university students. Before each service, youth in their teens and 20s gather expectantly and countdown the seconds until the worship music begins. They are excited about their faith and they show it in their enthusiastic praise and worship time.

In our furoshiki (wrapping cloth) culture we know that the wrapping is almost as important as the gift inside. So it’s not surprising that Japanese youth appreciate an attractively packaged worship service. We do well if we engage young people where they are; whether it is through their music, or on their campuses, or through life testimonies from their popular heroes. But engaging them with an attractive “wrapping” on the gift of the gospel is just the first step.

They may not express it out loud, they might not even be consciously aware of it, but what young people are really hungry for is a deep connection with God. So how do we get them there? An article published by a church research company in the United States a few years ago claims that those young people who have personal relationship to a pastor are twice as likely to stay in church, and that those who have a relationship with a mentor in the church are much more likely to stay. Relationships are important and even more important in Japan than they are in many other countries. Building deeper relationships with our youth is the first step in moving them to a deeper relationship with God. So our worship services should certainly be “packaged” as high-quality and attractive, but in the long run discipleship-centered relationships are the most vitally important thing in our churches. As new youth are added to our church, our primary responsibility is to build these relationships

CONNECTING THROUGH SMALL GROUPS

small groupThe best way our Every Nation churches have found to reach Japanese youth and build mentoring relationships is by using small group ministry. We have worked hard to make small groups simple and easy to lead so that young leaders can do the work of the ministry. Both outreach and discipleship can and should happen through small groups. First, young believers can pray for their classmates, friends and relatives. We encourage them to start doing this as soon as they themselves are saved. Sometimes the most enthusiastic evangelist is the one who is a brand new believer. After all, if you know what Jesus did for you then you already know enough to pray for someone else.

In small groups, discipleship happens through discussion around what the church is learning from the Bible and how to apply it personally. Because they are praying and encouraging each other to reach out, more young people get saved. As these newer ones are added the leaders have to learn how to mentor and lead them. They have to learn to minister to others.They have to learn to make disciples. Our church family has many strong leaders, but only because at some point someone took a chance and empowered them to lead. Someone took a chance on me when I was younger too and that is why I am a church planter today. Shouldn’t we also be looking for the next generation of leaders in our churches right now?

THE ONLY WAY TO REALLY LEARN IS TO GET IN THE GAME

pbc-bball

The first time I played in a school basketball game I ran onto the court, received a pass, and started dribbling towards the wrong hoop! Fortunately my teammates corrected me and turned me around before things got even more embarrassing. I understood the game well in theory but it was different when I was responsible for the ball in a real game. I know now that if that coach had not taken a risk on me and put me in the game, I would have never really learned how to play basketball. The only way I could learn was by getting in the game and making some mistakes.

All too often in our churches we have believers who sit through years of teaching but who have never really learned how to minister to others. We are ministers today because someone took a chance on us and gave us some responsibility when we were younger. Shouldn’t we also be prayerfully looking for young leaders to put in the game too? Even brand new players become veterans with the proper mentoring relationships. Just imagine a sports team where every single player is only one year away from retirement. The team might look great now but how is the coach going to look next season? He hasn’t spent any time building the rookies and future stars. That coach would probably lose his job!

INVESTING IN YOUNG PEOPLE IS WORTH THE COST

young-peopleWorking with future leaders takes a lot of time and energy. They can cause problems – especially the first time you try to put them in the game. Young people are naturally inexperienced and they do make mistakes. They might need to be taken out and coached for a while before they become successful team players. I have had people tell me that you can’t build with young people. Young people are irresponsible. Young people don’t make as much money as older members so we should focus on the ones who give more. Young people move away when it’s time to go to college. Or, they move away after they finish college.

Why not just focus on the more mature believers who are more stable? Because the youth are the future of the church that is why!  If we begin to reach them now, revival in Japan is not far off. If we ignore them, we are only robbing from our future. It is vital that we pray and ask the Holy Spirit to show us how to build mentoring relationships with the youth that God has entrusted to us in our own context. Will you accept the challenge of equipping and empowering this next generation for the work of the ministry? They don’t stay young for long.

No Idols

I was privileged to be asked to preach at two of the services at Victory Alabang Church when I was in Manila a couple of weeks ago. Thank you Pastor Jonathan Ramirez for inviting me. They are an amazing, discipleship centered church with 11 services every weekend and each service has about 1500 people and sometimes even more. I saw rows of people standing in the back because there were no seats left! Quite different from preaching at home in Yokosuka to a room that can’t even seat 100 comfortably.

I shared, in fear and trembling, about the second commandment – “Do not make for yourself any graven image.” Here is the podcast for posterity.


http://victoryalabang.org/podcast/Ten_Wk2_RayMercer.mp3

Victory Alabang

at Victory Alabang

Another man’s wife?

(Proverb 5: 20-21)
Why, my son, be intoxicated with another man’s wife? Why embrace the bosom of a wayward woman? For your ways are in full view of the LORD, and he examines all your paths.
 
What a great warning in my devotional reading this morning. If I want to honor my father God with my life, why would I ever be intoxicated with another man’s wife? I realized early on that every girl I meet (except Satomi) is “another man’s wife.” Why do I say that? Because after time runs its course they will either marry another man – or be “devoted to the Lord” (1 Cor 7:4) spiritually. I know that God promises to protect all his children from predators (1 Thes 4:6) like a jealous husband.
 
Lord, thank you for the reminder that the thoughts of my heart are always in full view of you. Let me learn to walk uprightly and with integrity. Help me treat younger women as sisters and older women as mothers (1 Tim 5:2) and thank you that I am still very intoxicated always with the wife of my youth. She is awesome! Remind me that other women are all “another man’s wife” even when I am watching TV, movies, socializing, and walking through parts of Tokyo in the evening (like the man walking through town in Prov 7).

 

OMF turns 150 today

J_Hudson_Taylor_1865

150 years ago today, after following the call of God to China, James Hudson Taylor founded what would eventually become the Overseas Mission Fellowship. Because he could not bear the thought that millions of people had never heard the Good News about Jesus Christ, he could no longer stay in his comfortable church in England. Someone had to go. The birth of the China Inland Mission and the tireless efforts of Hudson Taylor sparked a modern mission movement that would change history.

The Great Commission is not an option to be considered; it is a command to be obeyed.
(J. Hudson Taylor)

A little over 28 years ago, I visited Japan for the first time. My initial reason was to see a certain individual Japanese girl who was to become my wife. The call to give my life as a full-time missionary to Japan was more gradual, but sure. About 22 years ago I moved my young family here to Japan permanently because I could no longer stay in my comfortable church in the U.S.A.

Each month, week, and day that goes by brings more conviction from the Holy Spirit that the most important thing I could ever do with my life is to obey the Great Commission and preach the Good News to those who have not understood it.

Some of my greatest living heroes are the missionaries who honor God by following in Hudson Taylor’s footsteps. They go and make disciples in nations that have not yet heard.

On this 150th anniversary of the China Inland Mission and OMF, I pray for a great harvest of souls in Japan and that many millions here will find saving grace and life in Christ. I pray that the hopeless will be lifted out of an empty existence and into a life filled with eternal purpose. I pray that many young Japanese people will hear the same whisper of the Holy Spirit that moved Hudson Taylor to go. That they will hear the same whisper of the Holy Spirit that missionaries, apostles, church-planters, and disciples have heard for over 2000 years now, to go into all the world and make disciples – in Japan, in Asia and everywhere.

“God isn’t looking for people of great faith, but for individuals ready to follow Him.”
(J. Hudson Taylor)