During the last 10 days, I have been in Japan, getting to know our SEND missionaries and their ministries in this beautiful, yet spiritually unresponsive country. Over the years, I have heard much about the challenges and discouragements faced by our church planters here, but one thing I had not realized is the challenge of creating a real sense of “authentic community” within a Japanese church. Japanese people are very committed to their work, and with long commutes to work and long hours at work, they often are only available for meetings on Sundays. As a people, they are also committed to preserving the forms and conforming to the expectations of their culture. They find it difficult to leave the safety of this prescribed tradition and truly become transparent with one another. Even believers who share a bond in Christ struggle to get back the polite forms and to allow a brother or sister to see their vulnerable side, their areas of personal need and weakness. Our missionaries long to see believers experience deep friendships that will nurture their spiritual growth and provide support in times of discouragement and anxiety. But how to create this sense of community is a difficult question, and I am encouraged by some of the creative methods our missionaries are trying to encourage this level of intimacy.
But creating a sense of community is not only difficult for Japanese believers. As missionaries, we also often struggle to let down our guard and remove the masks that pretend that everything is going well in our lives and ministries. Even within our missionary teams, we do not nearly always experience this freedom to be transparent with one another. I think our younger missionaries find it easier to share their weaknesses and failures than those of us from the baby-boomer generation or older, and they often have higher expectations of “authentic community” within our missionary team than those of us who have been here a while. Granted, it is not prudent or helpful to show all our dirty laundry to everyone; some boundaries in sharing are appropriate. But for those of us who serve on the same ministry team, and are part of a covenant community, we should be able to find at least a few that we trust enough to allow them to get past our missionary masks to see into our lives – peer deeply enough to be able to help us grow. As we share our frustrations, hurts, and failures, others can encourage, coach, suggest alternatives, maybe even help us see a discrepancy between our values and our actions.
And that is why this post is on a missionary training blog. As I have interacted with SEND leaders about what to include in a leadership development curriculum, I continue to hear that spiritual formation (character development) is an essential part of training leaders. Learning new skills is great, but without ongoing growth in Christ-likeness, our leadership will be weak and ineffective. I have also heard, and firmly believe, that character is not primarily learned from a book or an online module, but in community, in life-on-life interaction with others. Only in healthy, transparent relationships with other believers who share the same commitment to godliness and truth can our desire to grow in Christ-likeness and to overcome our hidden faults be nurtured. Only in community will some of those rough edges come to the surface, and be rubbed off as we learn to live together in unity. Hence, the need for true community to be established on our missionary teams. Our team leaders need it as much as anyone if they are to grow to be the kind of leaders that God intends them to be.