Written by: Liam Watts
In 2019, the World Population Review reported that suicide in Japan was bordering on a crisis level, and that it had become the leading cause of death for men between the ages of twenty and forty-four. Many believe this is because Japan has slowly become a country without hope. Exploring this explanation to the phenomenon, Yuji Genda, a professor of Labor Economics at the University of Tokyo’s Institute of Social Science, recently published a study called “The International Survey of Life and Hope.” In this study, Yuji Genda compared and collected survey responses relating to questions of life and hope from citizens in the U.S., the U.K., and Japan. Examining the data, he found that there were only a few people in countries like the U.S. and the U.K. who reported to having “no hope”, only around 7%. Comparatively, nearly 45% of Japanese people responded to feeling as if they had “no hope.” These feelings stem from a number of factors, but one primary cause may more than likely be the absence of the gospel in Japan. In fact, as few as one percent of Japanese people identify as evangelical Christians. In contrast, the primary religion in Japan is Shinto, an ancient belief system nearly as old as the Japanese themselves; however, Shinto is usually blended with elements of Buddhism. Yet, within both of these religions, there is little belief that an individual will enjoy a happy afterlife. For some, this is enough. However, for others, as they may face struggles through their lives, they find little hope in their faith that it might someday get better. All of these elements compound to produce a country that is in desperate need of the love of Christ. So, when OKWU senior and Global Studies major Brittany Sanchez had the incredible opportunity to participate in a growing church plant in Tokyo, Japan, she said yes.
Now, it’s important to know that Brittany Sanchez is not your typical student. As the oldest of thirteen siblings, she has always felt the weight of responsibility. Additionally, having a father who works at a Bible College helped to give her a strong Christian foundation even from an early age. So, after feeling called to ministry through work done by Voice of the Martyrs, she decided to jump right into it. Working in a number of different church programs and even doing overseas missions work, Brittany has always had an openness to following wherever God calls her. In fact, prior to coming to OKWU, she spent time in Lebanon caring for and ministering to Syrian refugees. It was only after returning home that she knew she needed to continue her education. Following two years at Tulsa Community College, Brittany finally found her way to OKWU after a recommendation from her youth pastor. Amazingly, Brittany commutes an hour and a half from home to take her classes! Now, during her junior year at OKWU, Brittany could tell she was being called to go overseas again for an extended period of time; however, going somewhere in Asia was never a thought that had occurred to her. Yet, when some of her friends who were doing ministry in Japan invited her to join them, she overcame her fear and apprehension and agreed.
Uncertain what to expect, Brittany landed in the Saitama region of Tokyo and found herself at a growing church plant called Hope Alive. Here, she met up with their pastor, Heath Hubbard, and had the opportunity to serve in the church, out on the street, and even in people’s homes. Coincidently, the more time she spent working with the Japanese people, the more she learned about them. In doing so, Brittany quickly came to realize that Japanese evangelism comes with its own unique set of challenges. In her own words, “the structures of their religion make it easy to talk about religion with Japanese people, but very difficult for them to comprehend the full surrender of who Jesus is, and the idea of Salvation.” Surprisingly, Japanese people are actually very open to hearing about the gospel and the church, even from a stranger on the street. Yet, they often have a difficult time fully understanding what Christianity means, and, more importantly, why they need it in their lives. To better explain this phenomenon, Brittany told a story.
One of the most common forms of evangelism that Brittany was a part of in Japan was something called “Speak English.” Basically, she would go out into the streets of the city carrying a sign that literally said “Speak English.” When people came up to talk to her, she would use it as an opportunity to learn about their stories while also sharing the gospel. One particular day, while Brittany was out in the city carrying her sign, she met a kind elderly gentleman. As she spoke to him, she was able to tell him about her reasons for being in Japan and the church she was working for. The man, seeming curious, pressed her for more information about her “God.” Feeling a connection to him, she told the man about the gospel and his need for a savior. However, in response the man only laughed. What need did he have for a savior? Speaking plainly, he told her he had lived a good life and done many good things. He told stories about his many adventures, the joy of his children and grandchildren, and the work he had accomplished. No matter what she said or how she tried, the elderly man could simply not see a need for Jesus in his life and eventually walked on. It was moments like these that broke Brittany’s heart as she was learning more about how to do effective ministry in Japan.
If this was the sum of all the ministry in Japan, it truly would be a sad story. However, Brittany quickly figured out what many other missionaries had before her. The secrets to effective ministry are relationship and discipleship. As she puts it, “I went with every intention to learn, and to do whatever it was I felt like God was leading me to do. So, as I was beginning to pick up the habits of the culture and learn my way around, I was also opening my mind on how to best serve this new community. I was learning to reach out to the people who God needed me to minister to.” As she spent more time in Japan, Brittany worked hard to forge these new connections. Within her church she participated in English and music clubs, helped teach in tutoring programs, gave time to family outreaches, and participated in plenty of Bible studies. It was through these that she was able to have the most impact. By spending time one-on-one with others, she was able to build relationships that allowed her to effectively communicate truth and the gospel. Of course, she would also be the first to admit that “building relationships with Japanese people was very hard.” But, through her hard work, “God gave me this little glimmer of hope, that He was working in and through me, and that I was making an impact.”
Still, almost before she knew it, Brittany’s time in Japan came to end. After eleven and a half weeks of adventure, it was time to come home. Speaking of her time there, she said, “the experiences I had and being able to witness the growing Church in Japan was incredible, and I am forever thankful. I still think of the faces I saw, and the stories I heard when I lay in my bed at night. People need Jesus, and it is up to us to tell them.” Although she did not know what God had instore for her, Brittany was faithful to her calling. “God blesses faithfulness” she assures. “There have been so many times in my life God wanted me to do something and I didn’t do it, but when I did I always benefited, grew, and learned from it.” Meanwhile in Japan, Hope Alive continues to grow and thrive. While Brittany isn’t sure what’s next for her or if she’ll ever go back, she does know that if it’s God’s will, she’ll be ready to go wherever he calls.