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Summer/Fall 1999
Volume 4 Number 2

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Christian and Kay Zebley Reach Out to Japanese Youth

By Barbara A. Chaapel

Christian Zebley, Class of 1996, will be spending the next two years of his life learning to speak Japanese.

For him, it will be literally a full-time job!

Zebley and his wife, Kay, are mission specialists with the Presbyterian Church's Worldwide Ministries Division, called to develop youth ministry in Japan. But before they can begin that work, they must immersezelbeys_japan.jpg (27537 bytes) themselves in learning their new language at the Japanese Missionary Language Institute in Tokyo. Only after they are fluent (Kay already has a head start because she grew up in Japan) will they begin their assignment for the Nihon Kirisuto Kyodan - the United Church of Christ in Japan.

It will not be an easy task, Zebley explained while back at PTS last summer with five Japanese Christians as part of a Neighbor to Neighbor church-study delegation from the Asian island nation. "Very few young people in Japan are interested in the church," he says. "There is no youth ministry in the churches; only 1% of Japanese are Christians."

And those who are Christians usually encountered Christianity not in churches but in the non-church movement, which Zebley describes as having "no members, no buildings, no programs."

Japanese churches are small, and individual mainline denominations are united in one ecumenical body. It is in the church-related colleges and universities started by American missionaries that the Zebleys will begin to find youth to talk with about Christ.

"Although not Christian, many Japanese students are searching for meaning," Zebley says. "We want to work with missionaries at church-related schools to do evangelism, and to work with Japanese pastors and their congregations to reach the young people. Our work will be a national effort to develop both youth ministry in congregations and student evangelism in church-related schools."

Japan is primarily a Buddhist country, where religion, both Buddhism and Shintoism, is controlled by the government, according to Zebley. Both Christians and Buddhists have historically been persecuted. "But there is great respect for life, and for the customs of daily life," he said. "It is a very peaceful country, so in a sense Buddhism is woven into the fabric of life in Japan."

In this context, the Zebleys say that as Christians they have the opportunity to let the Japanese "see Christ" in them. "It's the opportunity to be willing to be a child, to be open, to make mistakes, to develop relationships through your weakness, your struggle with language, your minority status," Kay explains.

christian in class.jpg (27813 bytes)It is relation-centered ministry that the couple will rely on in their approach to youth. They live in Kamakura (having recently moved from Morioka, where they taught English and Bible when they first arrived in March of 1998), a coastal city just south of Tokyo that is a center of Buddhism but also has many churches. ("There is no one in Kamakura who does not believe in God," Christian says.)

The city is also in the heart of Japanese youth culture, and the Zebleys are planning a gala retreat on the beach, where hundreds of young surfers "hang out," in the summer of 2000.

Once they can light a spark among the youth, Zebley hopes to interest American seminarians and pastors in coming to Japan as summer interns. "My dream is in two years to have a missionary or an intern working with youth in every congregation in Japan," he says.

And he hopes some of those will be from Princeton Seminary. While in Princeton in July, he met with Dr. Kenda Creasy Dean, assistant professor of youth, church, and culture and codirector of the new globalization program of the Seminary's Institute for Youth Ministry,girls in classroom.jpg (21793 bytes) about how that program could support youth ministry in Japan. Since the globalization program is high on Dean's list of priorities, her eyes gleamed when she talked with the Zebleys.

"I think Princeton will have an important role to play in the future of Japan's youth," Zebley predicts.  Readers can reach the Zebleys at [email protected]

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