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A Theological/Ecumenical Question

A letter from Thomas Goetz serving in Japan

June 2017

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Randy, not his real name, was in his upper thirties, married with children, and had a desire to spread God’s word in Japan. Coming from a small evangelical denomination, his appointment was contingent upon him securing employment in Japan from which he could support himself and his family. Randy and his wife were on their second assignment to Japan. During their first assignment, they were posted in a different city, working at a local Christian center together with two other long term missionaries from the same sending church. Christian centers in Japan are often concurrently interdenominational and ecumenical. When his first assignment came to an end, Randy returned with his family to the States, where he taught Bible and theology for a number of years at a college related to his sending church.

When he and his family returned to Japan, Randy worked for the Japan English Teaching Program, commonly referred to as the JET Program, a Japanese government-sponsored program that employs native speakers for the purpose of foreign language improvement and internationalization.

The JET Program offers people a chance to teach English in municipal and prefectural junior and senior high schools, develop curriculum, work with children of families who have returned from stints overseas, and help entertain visitors to the city, such as ambassadors and exchange students from various countries. It is a doorway into Japan for all kinds of people, those who wish to teach English and those, like Randy, who wish to evangelize Japan.

Symbol of Ecumenical Movement

Randy and his wife started Bible study classes in their home. They also hosted a bi-weekly Sunday service in English for Japanese people and expatriates in a local United Church of Christ in Japan (UCCJ) church. Anyone who came to the Bible study was invited to church, and those who attended worship services were encouraged to attend Bible study.

During a Bible study meeting, a Japanese non-Christian requested baptism. On the one hand, it must have been a miracle moment, but on the other, her motivation mainly concerned her grave. She thought that if she were Christian, someone would take care of her grave after her death. In Japan, if you do not have children or immediate family, it is considered shameful to die without someone to look after your grave. This woman in her 70s was an only child, was single, and had no children.

Randy baptized her, right there in his home, during the Bible study. Shortly thereafter, the woman contacted the church informing its leaders of her conversion and membership. She also wanted to know about the plans for her grave, what it would look like, where it would be, what documents she needed to fill out, and the overall costs, if any.

This was immediately problematic for the minister and the local church council, as it was unprecedented. Together with another missionary who had ecumenical relations with the UCCJ, I was called to help resolve the problems and find a solution. Decades, if not centuries, have gone into building up partner churches, trust, and mutuality in mission. As such, this situation brought up a host of ethical and philosophical questions.

And so I met with this fellow missionary. What do you think we talked about? How do you think our conversation went? If you were there, what would you like to say or ask? I look forward to sharing more of what happened in my next mission letter, but I would like to hear from you too. Please send me your thoughts by way of the email link provided on my PMA homepage.

For You have been my help, And in the shadow of Your wings I sing for joy. Psalm 63:7 (AMP).

I would hope that we can join together in dialogue and in prayer for those who are responding to God’s call to bring people into the fold. While we may not agree on all things, may we see the Christ in the other as we are united in service. Let’s explore how missionaries of seemingly opposite orientations are able to sit down at a table for a good honest discussion. As Christians in countries where we are a small minority, building each other up is much more important than maintaining the status quo. When problems do occur, we are called to speak with a clarity and an openness that is careful and respectful.

Long-term international volunteers are positioned to engage in theological and ecumenical dialogue at deeper levels that cannot be viewed or experienced easily. And we are positioned to bring Christ’s love to others. Please consider supporting my ministry financially in order to allow me to further God’s mission.


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