by Akiba Mutsuko, Kyodan missionary
Ten years have passed since I became the pastor of the Japanese Church in Berlin, Germany. This congregation was started at the end of the 1980s by a Japanese pastor who began holding worship services in Japanese. It is significant that this church began with worship at its center at a time when many foreign-language churches were being formed out of home gatherings and Bible study groups.
The backgrounds of the people who gather at this church are truly diverse: people who have lived in Germany for decades, families of Japanese married to Germans, Japanese students in Germany, young people taking up a new challenge on a working holiday, researchers, and non-Japanese who are interested in the Japanese language and culture, among others. A larger number than expected experience the anxiety of living in a foreign country and visit the church, seeking information and contact with others. Despite the fact that Berlin is the nation’s capital, fewer Japanese live here than would be expected, and Japanese people are seldom seen on the street. Attendance at our Japanese-language service averages only about ten people. The church’s existence is also rather inconspicuous, but while cherishing the hope that the seeds of the Gospel will grow somewhere, we continue to reach out through such means as the Internet and by leaving fliers at Asian grocery stores and in taxis and restaurants.
The stress associated with life involving a different language, food, culture, and customs is great, and one’s identity is called into question. Under such circumstances, having a place to hear the Bible read in your native language and to sing hymns and pray in your native language is a true comfort to Christians living abroad. For non-Christians, it is a place where they can encounter God through worship and interaction with others. The Japanese-language church, as well as my own mission work, are small, but I believe in God’s providence and am committed to walking as a faith community of open worship. However, an overseas foreign-language church has many unique challenges. First, as a highly mobile community, there is a high turnover of membership. In addition, many were baptized overseas in various backgrounds, and so these individuals’ understanding of church varies widely. Together with financial challenges, all of this makes it a constant struggle to build a church. In addition to the problem of maturing in the faith, it takes prayer and time to put together a church organization.
We have been blessed with a great deal of help from outside. For example, the people at the Berliner Missionswerk (Berlin Missionary Society) pray for the growth of our small flock. In addition, at the regular meetings of the Kyodan’s Japan-Taiwan Committee and East Asia Mission, besides the obvious Christian-related topics, we exchange opinions on political, economic, and cultural matters, plan various projects, and make booklets. I admire the high level of consciousness and deep knowledge of Asia of those in attendance (mostly clergy). Several times a year there are symposia and scholarly retreats sponsored by the East Asia Mission Group that offer times for meaningful study and ongoing fellowship.
We also maintain ecumenical relations with the local church that rents us space for worship, and at the same time we share joint Bible study and prayer meetings, worship services, and church bazaars with other foreign-language churches. Every year we have a wonderful and blessed time when 1,000 people or more attend a joint outdoor Pentecost service in which more than 20 churches and denominations participate. In addition, through such activities as a joint Korean-Chinese-Japanese worship service and interactions with various mission groups, we are keenly aware of the great expectations placed on the Japanese-language church and feel acutely the importance of mission work.
Germany is known as a so-called “Christian country,” but individualism, a multiplicity of values, and the increase in people with different backgrounds have led to a gradual weakening of the influence of Christianity and the church. People are constantly leaving the church, and young people stop coming to church after confirmation. As a Japanese pastor, when I introduce myself as a missionary I am often asked, “But what, exactly, are you doing?” The background to this question is probably the thinking that “a Christian country like Germany does not need mission activity.” However, I get the impression that people do not go to church and that their lives are far removed from the Bible and prayer. Today, there are many ways of engaging in world mission. I hope that together with pastoral care and mission outreach to Japanese and through the example of faithful Japanese Christians abroad, we can also become a living testimony to German people. Moreover, nothing would make me happier than if feedback about our work here would serve as a good stimulus for Japanese Christians as well as the vision of Japan’s world mission. It is my prayer that God will freely and boldly use us as a bridge between Japan and Germany. I ask that you remember us in your prayers. (Tr. DB)