We met at Trinity Bible College in Chicago and were attracted to each other immediately. I (Del) had just been accepted to Trinity on probation a few weeks into the semester after two years of college fraternity life at the University of Nebraska and a move to Minneapolis. Late one night in Minneapolis,while walking back to my apartment I had been forced to reevaluate my plans to delay conversion as long as possible when I almost stumbled on two very dead, very naked men on the bloody sidewalk. I committed my life to Christ that night and immediately decided to attend a Bible School.
I (Marilyn) was blessed to be raised in a Christian family where I was greatly influenced at an early age by the committed missionaries that stayed with my family. I prayed to accept Christ at seven and at 13, publicly committed my life to full-time service wherever God would lead me. As I got older I started to fear God would ask me to go to Africa or a jungle situation as a single lady. Being a New York city girl, I did not like camping or "roughing it" in any form and just wanted to be married and be a help-mate to my spouse someday. While a teenager, a wise mentor gently encouraged me to trust God for the future and in the meantime pray for a godly mate that would have the same commitment to missions.
Nine months after our first meeting in the cafeteria at Trinity, Del and I got married and moved close to his parents in Omaha where he enrolled at Grace Bible Institute (now Grace University) to prepare for missions. However, the six month gap between schools had caused Del's military draft status to change. Del came home from class one day and received his draft notice in the mail. A few months later we celebrated our first anniversary…Del in a tent in Vietnam and me in tears back home in Florida.
But what seemed like a derailment would in fact turn out to be God's leading. While in Vietnam, Del went to Tokyo, Japan for his R&R (rest and recuperation) and then later for a trip specifically to visit missionaries and see what God was doing there. The trip left a deep hunger in Del's heart to be a part of God's work.
When Del returned from his service in Vietnam, we wrestled with the question of where God wanted us to serve. It seemed like it was always between Japan and somewhere else. The somewhere else usually related to the most recent missionary speaker at the school. These uncertainties frustrated us and made it difficult to study or keep focused on our current educational objectives. We finally prayed one night, "Please Lord, give us a clear sign. We are willing to go anywhere, but we want to know where you want us."
The next day, we received a large manila envelope from Japan in the mail! It contained pictures of Del and places he had visited with missionary friends. Enclosed also was a note that said, Please come over and help us! What truly amazed us was that this envelope had been lost in the mail for several months and arrived in perfect timing as an answer to our prayer. That was a real miracle for us and confirmed our calling to serve in Japan.
Prince Charles and Lady Diana
After we had been in Japan for about nine years, we returned home to Florida for what would be our only full-year home service in the States. During our stay, we were given an interesting challenge that would change the trajectory of our ministry.
I (Del) had been asked to direct a 10-week program designed for missionary candidates as a required part of their preparation for the field. Each week had a special focus in training the candidates to be effective missionaries. One week the speaker was Dr. Victor Oliver, an anthropologist, author, and publisher. While having dinner with Dr. Oliver and his wife, Vic challenged us to pray that God would open for us "a great door for effective work" quoting 1 Corinthians 16:9. He challenged us not only to pray for open doors spiritually, but to pray specifically that God would meet a current cultural need in a way unique to our gifts. Paul says in Ephesians 2:10 "We are God's masterpiece created in Christ Jesus to do good things he planned long ago." So we started to pray for an open door into the Japanese culture.
In the church-planting evangelism we were doing in Japan, we had used many avenues to reach people such as teaching English, a coffee house, outdoor evangelistic services and concerts. Early on in our ministry, though, we both felt strongly that our home should be our main outreach. We made conscious efforts to open our home for Bible Studies and frequently invited neighbors to come for meals and fellowship. When counseling couples we have taught them that their love for each other should always be "second to one". Christ must come first, then your mate and then your children. Now, we felt God leading us into a new approach to meeting and sharing Christ with young couples.
As I rode the commuter trains in and out of Tokyo, I suddenly became aware of an abundance of posters advertising Western-style weddings. The young girls in the advertisements were in white wedding gowns and the men in tuxes. This was a surprising change from the traditional Shinto wedding pictures we had seen. We began to research this and found that the televised "wedding of the century" of Prince Charles and Lady Diana had spurred a growing cultural shift and many couples were desiring a chapel or church ceremony.
By contrast, the Shinto wedding is a very closed affair only for family and usually the father's business friends. It is a ceremony of very little meaning for the couple themselves. Young Japanese rarely wear kimonos and the wedding kimono is especially uncomfortable for the girls. Recently they have added a ring exchange and candle lighting to compete with the desirability of the Western ceremonies.
As we researched we learned that many hotels and conference centers were creating a place for these weddings and that most were performed by retired priests or pastors as a part-time job for some extra income. No pre-marital ministry or counseling was being offered. No one was using this opportunity for evangelism.
As we diserned how we might respond to this shift, we considered the following points:
- God desires that these young couples would come to know him and establish Christian homes.
- Marriage in Japan is one of two major events in life. Involving the Japanese in a Christian ceremony would intersect Christianity with a deep part of the Japanese culture.
- Even though their motives might be questionable, the couples themselves were choosing to embrace a Christian wedding and rejecting the Shinto wedding, in most cases with their parents' blessing.
- Premarital counseling explaining the ceremony would make the wedding more meaningful and create interest in Christianity.
- The Christian ceremony has much meaning and symbolism that could be used in sharing the gospel and helping them understand what the Bible says about love and marriage.
- Our being foreigners might work in our favor for this type of ministry.
- This would be a ministry that we could be involved in together. We could be a living symbol of Christ's love as they witnessed our marriage.
An Unbiased Opinion
Because it was a little bit off the wall or beyond comprehension of most missionaries, we wanted to get an unbiased opinion. We wanted to speak with a well-known Japanese Christian leader and get a national's opinion of our concept. Through a Japanese friend who was the head of the largest Christian publishing company in Japan, Del scheduled a meeting with Kishi-sensei, who was the only Christian psychologist in Japan and therefore, highly respected.
We met him for coffee and I explained how we had come to that point in our lives. I shared our vision for ministry and told him that we wanted his honest opinion, stressing the need for honesty, because the Japanese propensity for saying what they think you wish to hear. Neither of us were prepared for his response. He got extremely excited and said that there was a great need for a program like this in Japan. He also said that we, as Americans, could originate this new concept of evangelism in a dynamic way that a Japanese pastor probably could not.
He went on to say that for this vision to work, we needed the input and blessing of several Japanese Christians and named the four most well-known Japanese Christian leaders in Japan who we knew by name and reputation only. Kishi-sensei then further astonished us when he said, "These guys are all my buddies. I will get them all together for a meeting. I want you to come back and share with them just what you have told me."
At the meeting, these Christian leaders all encouraged us with their full support. They said that while they did not have time to sit on an active board, they would function as an advisory committee and we could use their names for credibility.
How it Worked
We developed a Japanese premarital counseling course that included a clear presentation of the gospel of salvation during the counseling sessions and explained the symbolism of the Christian ceremony. The couples appreciated our personal interest in them shown in our counseling. Premarital counseling became a new means of evangelism as we trained both Japanese pastors and missionaries to use the materials.
To begin the wedding ceremony, I (Marilyn) led the guests in singing the old hymn, "What a Friend We Have In Jesus" which we chose because the melody is also used in a Japanese song which everyone knows from childhood. To show honor and formality in the ceremony, Del wore a pastoral robe and stole even though he would not normally do so as a Baptist pastor. The father of the bride was often the most nervous of the wedding party. For this reason we showed him great respect and I showed him how to escort his daughter down the aisle. In his message Del explained that in order to comprehend true love we need to grasp how Christ proved his unconditional love for us.
The Japanese friend and publisher who introduced us to Kishi-sensei printed special white Bibles which included a marriage certificate in the front. Del read from it during the ceremony, underlined the verses read, and signed a wedding certificate in the Bible as part of the ceremony.
For the next 5 years our team counseled and married over 600 couples. We were able to follow up with many of the couples through parties and other special events throughout the year. Before we returned to the United States we trained about twelve other Japanese pastors and missionaries to continue to reach couples in this way.
Pray for a Specific Open Door
We want to challenge you, just as we were challenged. Pray that God will open a door for sharing the good news that is specific to you and your culture. Consider your personality and spiritual gifts and how God could use you where you are in perhaps a new and unique way. Be willing to adapt to the culture while sharing Biblical truths. Remember Ephesians 3:20, "Now glory be to God! By his mighty power at work within us he is able to accomplish infinitely more than we would ever dare to ask or hope."
Del and Marilyn served with SEND International for 18 years before returning to the United States. They've written on their experiences in missions in Precious Stones.