How many people did you lead to Christ in your missionary ministry last year?

A recent conversation with a young Japanese pastor might place this Western “visible, immediate results required” and perhaps critical question in appropriate religio-cultural context.

Over lunch at a ministerial meeting young Pastor O. asked me, “Are you the son of Little-sensei who started the church I now pastor?” I told Pastor O. that I was, and that therefore I had probably met him when he was a toddler because his father was the first Japanese pastor of that church. Pastor O. was a Pastors Kid and I was a Missionary Kid. His father had followed my father in serving that church. While he ate his burger and drank his coffee, and I ate my sushi and drank my tea (I did have my coffee later!), we talked about our current ministries. Then he told me he had something encouraging to share.

He proceeded to tell me that my parents (Lea & Louise Little) had shared the love and gospel of Jesus Christ with a woman in the neighborhood of their house-church way back in about 1967. With a warm smile, Pastor O. told me that she had finally made the decision to follow Christ just a few months earlier.

So the loving and patient salvific work of God the Holy Spirit in this woman’s life spanned 50 years from 1967 when she met Christians for the first time (my folks) and heard from them about Jesus Christ, and then had ongoing contact with the church my parents had planted and Pastor O.’s father had pastored, all the way until Christmas 2017. It took this woman 50 years to finally find freedom in Christ from the captivity of idolatry of Shinto and Japanese Buddhism characterized by fear, deception, and manipulation. During that half century Jesus never gave up on her.

And then as if to bring me back to the reality of doing mission in Japan, Pastor O.’s face clouded and he said, “But the now grown children of the F. family that lived 2 doors down from you still refuse to believe in Christ even though they phone me when they are in trouble.”

Japan is perhaps the second largest unreached people group on planet earth. Its largely affluent young people are the most nihilistic in the world. Its evangelical church is in decline. The average age of Japanese evangelical pastors is almost 60. One missionary church planter God used to start over half a dozen churches in Japan used to quip, “Church growth in Japan is like the fastest moving snail.” It typically takes 20 years in Japan for someone to come to Christ after first hearing and understanding the gospel. Maybe we could increase that number to 50 years.

Why do I get the impression that, unlike Jesus Christ himself who is patiently and lovingly building his church even in Japan, critics who ask the question at the beginning of this post are more interested in success than in humbly learning and experiencing the meaning of faithfulness?