As the Sower leads

Michelle has been actively involved in outreach and church planting in various regions of Japan. She encourages the local churches in rural areas of Mie, despite the challenges and resistance faced in these regions.

“We had been praying for Fumiko*, a friend of my friend,” said Michelle Tan, an OM worker based in Japan. “Fumiko had been struggling with her daughter and her family.”

Michelle’s friend had also been bringing Fumiko for Bible studies in her church. When asked to join them for Bible study, Michelle jumped at the opportunity. She even offered to cook chicken rice, considered one of Singapore’s national dishes, for them.

“When Fumiko ate my chicken rice, she said mine tasted better than the one she ate in Singapore!” Michelle said with a smile.

After a round of conversations, Michelle felt prompted to ask Fumiko, “Do you want to believe in Jesus?”

“Yes, I want to.”

Fumiko had been attending Bible studies for months, yet no one had ever asked her whether she wanted to make this decision. Michelle then led her to pray to Jesus and believe in Him.

“It’s really God’s timing. Thank God I was there at the right moment. I only got to know her through our meal. I thank God for Singapore chicken rice!” Michelle laughed.

Beginning with Japan

Michelle’s journey with Japan started 30 years ago when her interest in Japanese culture led her to pick up the language.

“I wasn’t even a Christian then!” she exclaimed. “Then I got to know of Campus Crusade for Christ (now known as Cru) a year after I became a Christian and joined them for a short mission trip to Japan. That’s where I saw that the churches here are so small, filled with ageing folk. In comparison, our churches back in Singapore are so vibrant.”

Since that first trip in 1998, Michelle always wanted to go back to serve in Japan. Yet, in God’s timing, she had to wait another 12 years before returning. However, being in the field of her dreams did not turn out to be a bed of roses for Michelle.

After arriving in Japan in 2013, her mission journey seemed rather random. It began with her serving at a church café in Kanazawa, where she helped cook, wash dishes and serve customers. It proved to be a very useful platform for outreach.

Michelle frequently befriended customers and invited them to church. On Friday evenings, the café served as a cosy meet-up spot for adults to practise speaking English with Michelle and her fellow workers. On Saturdays, she helped with English outreach to children and their accompanying parents. Come Sunday, the café was used for church services. “It was just a small café, but people enjoyed the friendly atmosphere,” she recalled.

For the next three years, Michelle served as a local volunteer tour guide in Wajima, providing tourists with information in English or Chinese about famous tourist spots, popular souvenirs, transportation and accommodation. She also held English Bible-reading sessions with a few ladies at her home, some of whom did not know who Jesus was.

“I made friends with many locals and still keep in touch with them. I was able to share the gospel and tell them about the local church.”

Later on, Michelle found herself involved in planting a church in Yokohama. “My home church in Singapore wanted to start a church in Yokohama, so I offered to help them,” Michelle said.

She relished the challenge of starting new ministries in the church and shared how outreach opportunities were even more plentiful during her time there.

“Because of the international crowd here, Japanese people (in the city) tend to be more open, sometimes even visiting churches for networking and to practise speaking English. We also minister to homeless people in Yokohama,” Michelle added.

“Some of them sleep on the floor of the underpasses of train stations. We cook simple onigiri or rice balls and soup for them. We give out the food and say ‘Hello’ to them. During winter, we distribute socks to keep them warm. These are the little steps we can take for the least in our city,” Michelle said.

A heart for rural outreach

Although she had a city ministry, Michelle’s burden was for those living in rural Japan. Thankfully, an opportunity arose for her to encourage the local churches in the rural villages of Mie, a prefecture in the Kansai region of Honshu. The culture of these villages was a stark contrast to that in the city; Michelle saw that much could be done there.

“The older generation (of people here) have hardly heard of Jesus. And because they are very close-knit, they resist any outside influence,” Michelle explained. “The people here don’t want to look any different from the rest — they don’t like being asked, ‘Eh, why do you go to church?’”

“The ground here indeed is very hard.”

While building relationships with the churches in Mie, Michelle discovered that the local churches often did not share her enthusiasm about outreach and missions. Many did not dare to think beyond existing. Most churches she worked with also had ageing congregations, making it even more challenging.

“The churches here prefer not to ask people if they believe in the gospel. It puts newcomers in a spot.”

Still, there were glimpses of fresh hope. In one of the new churches in Mie, an 18-year-old youth made the bold step to be baptised. The youth had been attending the church at the invitation of Michelle’s OM team leader, who had had a long-standing friendship with him since he was young. His baptism in the Onbe River near Michelle’s village in Reihou was significant and received with so much joy by the community of Jesus followers.

Just being available

To engage further with the local churches in Mie, Michelle once again returned to doing menial tasks to serve them — including grass cutting, tree trimming and window cleaning! Even then, Michelle derived joy from being faithful to what God wanted her to do.

“I pray that there will be a revelation among the churches here, that they will be encouraged by the biblical message of inviting more people to confess Jesus is Christ and be saved (Romans 10:9). Sometimes I feel there isn’t much breakthrough in my ministry, even though I have been here for so long,” she shared.

“I try not to let it stop me from loving them and sharing God’s love with them. They need to hear the gospel — that’s my responsibility.”

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