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Give the Gospel for Christmas
February 01, 2009

Japan: A New Generation

God's servants in Japan are engaging a new generation of Japanese through new ways and means of expressing the Good News. 

  • Generations

    Tradition and cultural values dictate that young people respect their elder family members, yet the communication gap between generations is evident. Many young people question their parents' sacrifice to company and country, but struggle to step outside the economic security the former generations provided.

  • Symbol

    In the city of Tokyo, a major hub of international commerce, stands the Tokyo Tower, a symbol of Japan's prosperity.

  • Looking for Hope

    Buddhism came to Japan in the sixth century and merged with the indigenous Shinto religion. Prayers are written on pieces of paper and offered to deities in hopes of bringing good fortune.

More separates generations than a few decades. The passing of time is continuous and gradual, but the changing of a generation marks a definite shift, a punctuation in the order of things and the sense of a new beginning.

That doesn’t mean that all is lost from the previous generation or that everything new is all that different, yet the recognition of profound change is very real. 

Newly arrived workers, Matt and Christina Reed, are keenly aware of the process. They consider themselves "third generation missionaries" in Takamatsu, Japan. Ralph and Stella Cox pioneered the church planting work in this coastal prefecture after World War II. They recruited Mike and Barbara Gray who in turn persuaded the Reeds to join the work. Although Ralph recently went home to be with his Lord, Stella continues in ministry and the three generations are now working side by side. The challenges and the opportunities are huge: learn from the experience of others and continue doing what works, yet with the clear understanding that new times require new approaches. 

Matt sees the generational segmentation clearly, “We are focused on the school-aged. There were really two waves of missionaries to Japan. The first after World War II and the second again in the mid-80’s when the Grays came. It trickled off after that, and from our generation (really anyone from 2-30 years old) there is a lack of ministry. Japan has been hardened to the gospel and breaking through it will probably have to happen with the young generation.” 

Stella views her ministry partners in terms of family generations, “It’s unbelievable how the Grays, because they are such wonderful parents, can raise their family and just carry on the ministry. When they came back to Japan everybody wanted them but they said 'we want to go where we know someone.' They had been here before as short-termers and they wanted their kids to have a grandpa and grandma.”

Mike feels the weight of continuing the Cox legacy, “Ralph’s shoes are very big shoes to fill. At first, I was overwhelmed and now I am numb as I understand the height, breadth and depth of the ministry here." Barbara adds, “We knew their vision. We had worked under them and been a part of it, so that wasn’t difficult, but there were so many things that they did that we couldn’t see ourselves doing. We share their vision and have similar personalities, but we are not the same people.” 

Barbara Gray tells the story of their calling to Japan. A casual social visit while the Cox’s were home in the States included an explanation about the desperate spiritual needs in Japan and opportunities for short-term workers to help. Sitting in the driveway after their visit, Mike and Barbara looked at each other and said, “ We can do that!" “We didn’t pray about it, ask anyone for advice, we just called Ralph and Stella the next day and said that we were coming to Japan." When the Grays arrived in Tokyo, there was no one to meet them and no directions about what to do and where to go. Barbara explains, “I guess that we were so focused on getting to Japan that we didn’t plan things out or communicate with TEAM, our missions agency, very much.” Just on the verge of getting back on a plane for home, Mike was able to contact someone at the TEAM guesthouse in Tokyo. That was the beginning of a short-term project in Japan that has now become over twenty years of service to the Japanese people.    

While in Virginia on a TEAM-Japan recruiting assignment, Mike and Barbara met the Reeds. They shared a passion and burden for Japan like Ralph and Stella had shown to them, inspiring the young couple to serve in Japan. Observing their work and talking with Stella, the Grays, and the Reeds, differences are obvious. As she has done for decades, Stella draws groups of women to her kitchen for cooking classes where all hear the gospel and some make decisions for Christ. Her kitchen counter is famous as the place of more new births than almost any church in Japan! The Grays are happy using their musical background to reach out. During the Christmas shopping season, they can be found at a local mall singing Christmas carols and distributing invitations to activities at their small, yet active, church. I went with the Reeds to Harajuku Station in Tokyo, famous for the teenagers who dress in outlandish costumes and hang out. There we asked young people what was most important in their lives and what concerned them most about their future. 

But there is much more to this picture than just three generations reaching out to their own age group utilizing different methods. The partnership in Takamatsu is characterized by fellowship and unity among the Body. In fact, six independent churches are working together in one unified effort to reach their city for Christ. They offer each other support, share resources, and gather at designated times for worship and encouragement. Their approach is about finding a way to finally break through the wall that, despite sixty years of missionary effort, has kept the Japanese people from embracing the light of Jesus. 

With 127 million people but less than 600,000 protestant believers, Japan remains one of the least evangelized countries in the world. Since World War II, there have been no blatant restrictions on missionary work or the spread of the Japanese church, yet the gospel remains marginalized in Japanese society, and churches are small and often isolated. Missionary efforts around the world today are largely focused on places where the church is established and growing or on unreached areas where the gospel has never been widely presented. As a result, the number of missionaries and resources available in Japan is shrinking. 

Some are asking why we should continue to exhaust human and financial resources in a place where the gospel has been made available yet rejected, while other places are responding to the gospel or have never had the opportunity to hear it. The question is valid and no one thinks about it more than the missionaries currently serving in Japan. In reality, the gospel has been present in Japan for many decades, but it has never penetrated the culture and most Japanese have never heard the gospel in a way in which they can respond with understanding. The dedication of persistent missionaries and committed Japanese Christians has established churches throughout Japan, but for many reasons, some understood and some still a mystery, these churches remain as small pockets of believers largely cut off from the greater society. 

Not one of the missionaries or Japanese believers we met in Japan believes that God has given up on the Japanese people or abandoned the Japanese faithful. They are incredibly expectant with a quiet confidence that the Holy Spirit is preparing the way for God's great work in Japan. The unknown on everyone’s mind is the when and how. Doing whatever it takes to be prepared and seize the coming opportunity is the overriding concern. Young people especially are responding with enthusiasm and passion denied to them by the traditional hierarchy and customs of Japanese society. At the same time, these empowered young leaders are looking to the experience and wisdom of their mentors for encouragement, because the work is still slow and difficult, and for knowledge, because Japanese society is complex, and it is vital to understand its history and foundations in order to penetrate the culture. 

Japan is rapidly changing. Japan Ministry Area Leader, Steve Baughn, observes, “People are uncertain. Young people especially are just lost. They saw their parents and grandparents dying for the company and they don’t want to do that, but they don’t know what they do want to do. Older and middle-aged people used to have lifetime employment. But in today’s climate, the job they thought was their solid rock may be gone. Older people are basically wondering who is going to care for them. People are saying 'Where is our country going?' Things that we have built the base on are disappearing.”

Ask a young person in Japan what concerns them most and you get a uniform answer. It’s the economy. Their parents' generation gave their heart and soul to the company and in return they enjoyed tremendous economic growth and prosperity. They also counted on the mutual loyalty of an appreciative employer and hardworking employee. Those securities are now gone. With more than a decade of economic stagnation, Japanese companies are shedding workers to be more competitive and adaptive in the world economy. Japan remains one of the largest economies in the world and its citizens enjoy relative prosperity, but the promise of a secure future is vanishing. 

Trapped in a materialistic lifestyle yet worried that they will not be able to maintain it, Japanese young people have deep anxieties and paralyzing fear. Japan has one of the highest suicide rates in the world and many struggling to cope with the pressures and uncertainties simply retreat from society. This withdrawal syndrome is given the name hikikomori which basically means to pull away. Many young people remain in their rooms absorbed in a fantasy world of manga and anime or they take on hidden persona in a virtual internet and computer game world. Other young people suffering from anxiety and fear hide behind the masks of costumes (known as “cosplay”) and seek approval in small groups with like interests. 

But it isn’t just the pressure of economic success that drives young people and older people to despair. There is a sense of hopelessness that permeates Japanese culture. Buddhist and Shinto religious practices are largely ritualistic without relevance to their spiritual needs. And, with traditions that emphasize the group over the individual, Japanese culture fails to offer much hope for personal fulfillment. In order to suppress personal aspirations, Japanese culture often uses shame to remind people of their responsibilities to society. This sense of condemnation combined with hopelessness helps to drive both the extreme work ethic that has produced Japanese wealth as well as the desperate behaviors that have led to high suicide rates, drug addictions and mental disorders. 

Screenwriter, Yu Shibuya, offers this explanation of the spiritual dilemma felt by Japanese, “The Japanese heart is essentially empty. There are two conflicting ways that we deal with it. We constantly change what is 'in' so that we feel as though we are being renewed. We don’t know how to renew ourselves so we change what is around us. Yet, we also are very good at preserving the traditional without really knowing why. It is because we are afraid that the emptiness will be exposed. Both responses come from the central gaping void that we try to ignore.”

Over 33,000 Japanese take their own lives every year and the number is rising by 3% annually. One survey reported that as many as 20% of all adult Japanese have considered killing themselves. More than 1,000,000 Japanese may suffer from severe social withdrawal such as hikikomori. These statistics are for the second richest country in the world where the people enjoy a standard of living far above most of their Asian neighbors! 

Yu speaks to the pervasiveness by which these pressures affect the Japanese people. “I’m not too much of an outsider in that area myself. I don’t struggle with hopelessness so much as a believer, but I struggle with shame and I can’t explain it except at the end of the day I think it must be in my blood or something. I agree that this exists and even as a believer who is given the ability to transcend it, I don’t know yet how I am supposed to deal with that.”

While materialism, self-sufficiency and cultural cohesion have made it difficult for the gospel to take root in Japanese society, the rising tide of discontent and desperation is opening a new door. The needs of the Japanese people are great, making them more open and more vulnerable. The Christian response is not to exploit people in times of weakness or gloat over their failures. Rather, Christians are responding with compassion and humility. The Tokyo Metro Ministry Initiative (TMMI) was founded out of a deep sense of compassion. In fact, this ministry that now envisions reaching diverse communities all over the vast Tokyo area began as a casual conversation between two missionaries. 

Steve and Kelly Baughn wanted to start a coffee shop where conversations could last longer in a relaxed setting and the shop would create a presence in the community and establish relationships with people of all ages and backgrounds. The key for Kelly was putting her shop in a Tokyo community. 

“We feel like there is a great need for something innovative, that Tokyo is ripe for evangelism, and God has things that He still wants to do here. There are three things that are unique about this ministry; one is community: we want to have a presence in the communities and say that we are one of you, giving us things in common. And, secondly, we want to show compassion so that people will ask, 'Why are you being so kind? What makes you different?' The next thing is partnerships. We want to partner with churches in the West that feel ownership with the ministry and support us, and partner with Japanese, so that from the ground up we have relationships with Japanese Christians working hand-in-hand as a team. From these approaches we want to create the kinds of places that draw people to them and eventually birth churches.”

Talking with TEAM missionaries from Australia, Owen and Sarah Ames, the Baughns discovered that their vision and philosophy of ministry was not singular to them. The two couples are now the nucleus of the TMMI team.

As one of the busiest metropolitan areas in the world, Tokyo is not known for hospitality and warm relationships. In one rail station alone, more than 3 million passengers hurry past one another everyday without a word of communication or even eye contact. The pace is maddening and the sea of human faces overwhelming. The feeling of being crushed together with others while at the same time remaining isolated from them is the worst kind of loneliness. It is particularly hard for older people who find themselves outside the workplace and social networks connected to the business centers. 

TMMI is reaching out to people who need a community of fellowship. Tokyo is not just one sprawling urban area with identical streets and buildings. It is a connected series of communities where people live, work, and struggle. Sometimes it is hard to distinguish between different communities among all the frantic activity, and many pressures are breaking down the social bonds of traditional family and community life, but Christians willing to become part of the local community can find opportunities to make an impact. It takes passion and innovative approaches, but it also takes an investment of time and effort to learn the unique culture, language, values, and circumstances in that community. TMMI is seeking to reach this city of 30 million by becoming intimate members of one community at a time.

Many of Japan’s most distressing problems are hitting squarely on the family. Husbands that place career above all else are disconnected from their wives and children. Lonely wives who lack close relationships obsess over their children. With an absent father and doting mother, children grow up without discipline and social coping skills. The harsh reality of the competitive education system and demanding job market drive many of them to suicide or extreme withdrawal. Indulgences such as pornography, materialism, and fantasy games replace healthy relationships and self-esteem. Infidelity and promiscuity are largely unchecked. Young people often frequent upscale hotels that exist primarily to provide temporary privacy and sanction for their indiscretions. In the midst of a quickly deteriorating situation for the Japanese family, Family Forum Japan (FFJ) offers hope for rebuilding relationships and establishing trust in the family. 

Gerald May who works with FFJ asks us to look at the situation this way, “The perspective that Japan is a cohesive society with strong family values is something that you need to rethink. It’s dissolving, it’s breaking down unfortunately. That value of the home is breaking down under the economic and social pressures. Divorce is on the increase; immorality, teen pregnancies, and parent-child conflicts are all here. The Japanese may be very good at creating a veneer that everything is good, but it doesn’t take much to scratch behind that and see that Japanese society has some real needs. We have the opportunity to meet those needs.” 

There is a great demand for books and materials on strengthening the family and on abstinence programs for young people. The FFJ radio spots run in two large markets of Hokkaido and Okinawa where they reach more than 2 million listeners. Requests for more help are overwhelming the small staff as the economic recession makes it more difficult for Japanese churches and international sponsors to support the work. At the time that its services are most critical, FFJ finds itself with the least amount of resources to meet the needs. It is a frustrating situation for FFJ director, Tim Cole, and the staff, but they are trusting that when God opens a door to ministry, God provides the means to get the job done.

Radio host, Koji Kaneko, describes the ministry in this way, “Our goal is to lead people to the Gospel, step by step by first meeting their practical needs. But, the reality is that there are few Japanese Christians to support the ministry. What we are doing is vital for Japan and we will do everything that we can to keep it going, even if the staff is forced to take on lay jobs to support ourselves. There are many books, DVD’s, and materials that we need to produce for the family and the only thing holding us back is a lack of finances.”

Penetrating the culture and becoming relevant in the lives of Japanese is a persistent obstacle to effective evangelism. Christianity is most often seen by the Japanese as a psychological crutch that weak people need or a backward cult out of touch with modernity and science. For 250 years the Japanese nation sealed itself off from the outside world and developed a culture that was unique and insular. During the Edo Period of the Tokugawa Shogunate rule, foreign influence was extinguished. Christianity was banned in 1612 and Japanese Catholic Christians in rebellion against strict treatment were massacred in 1638 when 37,000 died in Shimbara. There was a brief period during the reinstatement of the Emperor known as the Meiji Restoration when outside ideas made a huge impact on the country. Modernization of industry and the military, adoption of Western dress and business practices, and new forms of government bureaucracy transformed Japan into a regional powerhouse. Yet, Japan absorbed all these foreign ideas on its own terms. Iitoko-Dori is a word that describes the Japanese practice of taking innovations from the outside world and making them uniquely Japanese in character and then refining them to near perfect detail. 

Japan is better known for adopting and refining things than for innovation, and many churches established after World War II have been preserved in a form that sometimes resembles a church in 1950’s America more than a 21st Century Japanese church engaged with the surrounding culture. 

Outsiders (gaijin), no matter how well they learn the language and adopt the customs, are never fully accepted into the core of society. Therefore, missionaries have great difficulty breaking through to the deepest levels of communication. These seeming problems are actually the catalysts for new approaches to reaching Japan. Reliance on partnerships with young Japanese believers, production of culturally relevant and inspirational art, and new models of a Biblical church in the Japanese context are becoming leading initiatives in ministry to Japan. 

There are two ministries that are targeting real needs in Japanese society: the Christians in the Arts Network (CAN) and the Christian Life Training Center (CLTC).       Often Japanese churches rely heavily on translated hymns for worship, and translations of the Bible that are difficult to understand. The language is constantly evolving, importing foreign words and changing nuances of meaning with words and phrases. This means that old translations of texts, hymns, and materials are difficult for people to understand. Liturgy and lessons are also slow to change as churches lack the financial and creative resources to develop new materials. CLTC and Alleluia Seminars were founded by Nancy Nethercott as an extension of her doctoral studies in church worship. She studied approaches to worship that emphasized the importance of public Bible readings and music in the expression of corporate worship. 

“Our goal is to find different ways through training and leadership development to see renewal in the life of the church in Japan. It seems that there is a lot of ritual in worship but when I ask people why they do what they do, I get blank stares. So my passion is to see Christians and churches grow in their life of worship.” 

Nancy’s husband Paul also sees music and the arts as integral to worship but his focus is not just inside the church building but outside in the larger society. CAN is a network of artists, musicians, filmmakers, and writers, or actually anyone with an artistic gift who wants to use his or her talent to impact the Japanese culture. The network serves to communicate and coordinate as well as offer support to Christian artists in Japan and connections beyond. On a recent conference call to discuss CAN’s mission statement, Paul gathered Japanese believers and international workers in the CAN office along with American and Australian partners via internet video for a brainstorming session. One of the priority projects for Paul is making feature films for the Japanese market that reflect a Biblical worldview while addressing Japanese culture and society in an engaging and entertaining manner. 

Concerning the concept of a ministry network, Paul explains, “In today’s highly networked world, a lot of things happen on that level. Relationships are built, contacts made, ideas shared and things get moving. We also want to be part of what’s going on in the culture but do it differently, positively. We want to impact culture, for example, with film projects. So we have to make films that have really good stories and films that people want to see.”

That vision for making films is what attracted screenwriter and Christian, Yu Shibuya. Yu relates how he has tried to work with Christian groups in the past who wanted to make redemptive films, but he was disappointed when the films failed due to lack of support or simply because they lacked relevance and interest for the Japanese public. 

“It ends up with this thing where you try to staple the Ten Commandments to people’s forehead. My question always is, 'at the end of the day, if I had $18 (cost of a theater ticket in Japan), would I pay that amount of money to go see this material?' Jesus himself told a lot of interesting stories and that is how he drew crowds.”

Yu recently completed writing a screenplay entitled “The Bicycle”, and film students from Biola University are coming to Japan to make this movie. The story, however, is not the only positive ministry surrounding the film. The leading role will be played by a Japanese actor who is not a believer. Working very long days together on the set and bringing in many cast and crew are also ways to demonstrate the Christian faith as Yu and his fellow workers try to be the best artists they can be and at the same time be a light of the gospel through their profession. 

“Satan is very good at using anything in the culture that he can to draw people closer, and unless we really figure out what those things are, then we will always be behind the dark forces of this world, and I don’t want that to be true anymore.”

Several hours away by bullet train from the greater Tokyo area, Jon and Tammy Junker are also searching for ways to engage Japanese culture. However, Nagano prefecture is a traditional area where people can be wary of outsiders and new ideas. Jon and his brother Dan know the area well because their parents helped plant some of the first churches in and around the prefecture capital of Matsumoto. Jon respects his parents' work greatly and has continued in starting new churches. He has recently taken on responsibility for reviving one of his parents' early works that is struggling. The Abundant Life Church is very traditional, from the architecture of the building to the stacks of hymnals and its organ for worship. It stands in contrast to his own church planting project in Azumino city just a few miles away. The Azumino Family Chapel thrives on community, contemporary worship, family activities, and use of multiple leaders. Yet, being culturally relevant applies to all ages and mindsets. 

The Abundant Life Church serves an older demographic and one of their main concerns is a safe place for their bones to reside after death. The Japanese custom is to cremate the body using a process that leaves the bones largely intact. The family honors their dead relative by taking care of the remaining bones. It is a practice foreign to Westerners, but in reality not that different in principle to the practice of embalming and burying the remains of loved ones in a safe cemetery location. The church decided to build a closet where bones could be safely kept. It was an effective gesture that removed an obstacle to many people’s fear about getting involved in the church. The idea was so profound that Jon adapted it for the Azumino Family Chapel. When they added a new section to the church for fellowship, English classes, and education, they also built a bone closet. It was quite a surprise to the volunteers from the United States who worked on the new building.

The more ground-breaking idea that Jon has instituted in Azumino is a multiple leadership model. In Japanese churches, the pastor is often expected to carry essentially all the responsibility for ministry and leadership. The pastor also assumes all the decision-making authority. The lack of mentoring and dispersed ministry experience is creating a crisis of new leadership in the Japanese churches. A recent survey sample of 100 Japanese pastors found 11 over the age of 80; 28 from 70-80; 25 from 60-70; 20 from 50-60; 12 from 40-50, and only 4 under the age of 40. That’s 64% over the age of 60. 

Jon doesn’t worry about that problem at Azumino. For starters, he has shared the pastoral ministry with a young Japanese pastor named Ken Koiwai since early in the church’s formation. This challenges the stereotype for church planting in Japan in two ways. Traditionally, missionaries attempted to establish a church and call a Japanese pastor as soon as possible, allowing them to move on to a new project. That system worked very effectively as missionaries such as Jon’s parents, Cal and Pat, were able to begin many new churches. Yet, Jon realized a neglected value in staying with the church longer and working with his Japanese partner to build a healthy and reproducing church. Shared ministry doesn’t end with the two pastors, but the model extends to include all church members in many aspects of ministry and leadership. Secondly, the model of shared leadership was so different than the hierarchical Japanese system that Jon had to invest time in modeling this new way. Jon doesn’t expect everyone to adopt his view, but it is certainly the right approach for his community where Azumino is a healthy growing church. 

Jon also enjoys the mentoring role. The Nagano area is mountainous, as many may remember from the 1984 Winter Olympics, and also known for therapeutic hot springs. Jon and Pastor Koiwai have developed a routine of meeting at the hot springs to relax and talk about implementing new ideas or deal with problems. Both men have young families and the mutual support and sharing is invaluable to keeping the right balance in life. 

Jon realizes that one key to balance is recognizing that one person cannot do it all. “I’m not doing all the pastoring, the people are pastoring. That is a healthier way to deal with problems because I can’t meet everyone’s needs.”

Pastor Koiwai extends that balance to his family because the Japanese church often views the job of the pastor’s wife as something all-encompassing just like the traditional pastor’s role. “The title of Pastor’s wife doesn’t have a meaning. She is my wife and mother of our children. She can be a minister but as a sister in Christ using her unique gifts.” 

He also reflects on his partnership with Jon in a similar no-nonsense manner. “I knew that typical Japanese pastors worked by themselves, not with co-workers, but I needed a team to work with me. I know some young Japanese pastors burn out. I was protected from that burn out.

“It is difficult to work with missionaries from different cultures, but I noticed in the Bible that Jewish Christians worked with Gentile Christians and I thought, huh, that is Biblical, that is the way of God. So when someone receives Jesus, it is not one person that has that joy, but it is a team that shares the joy.”

Jon’s brother also worked with the team at Azumino Family Chapel until he recently got the opportunity to pursue a lifelong dream. Growing up in the breathtaking Japanese Alps, Dan loved winter sports and outdoor adventure. He envisioned a place where young people could escape the pressures and expectations placed on them by Japanese society. That vision became a reality when he was able to move the ministry into a beautiful mountain location. North Star is a winter and extreme sport retreat housed in a beautiful chalet adjacent to pristine mountain wilderness and ski slopes. The purpose of this innovative new ministry is to offer an unmatched sporting experience that creates a bond between the North Star staff and its clients. That bond of friendship and respect is the context for sharing one’s personal Christian faith. 

Seth McAllister is an instructor at the retreat and also handles the marketing. He has found the perfect place to fulfill his calling. “I can’t imagine anything better. I work at the camp from morning until dinner but my wife and son can come over anytime from our house across the street. We get to live in this amazing place and reach out to the local community. It is pretty cool. I’m teaching snowboarding and mountain biking, helping with the webpage, doing photography and organizing community outreach events. By bringing people back to the beauty of nature and a real simplicity in life we have the chance to share the gospel.” 

Making chances to share the gospel is a thread that runs through the story of Japan. Japan has no base of Biblical knowledge or concept of one creator God. It has not been a place that is predisposed to the gospel message of personal salvation and forgiveness. Prosperity and self-reliance have pushed the voice of Christian witnesses into the background as irrelevant and naive. No one is shocked that missionary work has been difficult and slow to see a harvest. What is perplexing is that in the face of growing crises, Japan continues to ignore the message of hope in its midst. 

Hope Bible Church in Tokyo doesn’t see the slow penetration of the gospel message in the past as an excuse for expecting small things in the present. As an established church, it might be easy for Hope Bible Church to be satisfied with its small congregation in the affluent Mitaka neighborhood. Located only a couple of blocks from the TEAM Center it might also be easy to rely on missionaries for leadership and resources. Yet, Hope is breaking new ground in developing young church leaders and bringing vibrant worship into church life. Chuck and Diana Jordan are late-career missionaries who stepped unexpectedly into the role of leadership at the church when a family emergency called another couple home to America. Without experience in the language and culture, the Jordans wondered how they might be able to serve the church. One of the obvious answers was to develop Japanese believers to take up leadership. 

Chuck describes how that happened in the area of worship. “People in Japan are very much committed to tradition, form and ritual, but we were seeing young people in the church take on responsibility and several of them saw the need for a new praise and worship service. They alone were responsible for putting it together. It provided a wonderful opportunity for us to open the doors to our community and say we have a victorious and joyful experience in Christ.” 

Barbara found herself reaching out to students studying English with her. “They are innately polite and respectful so they listen to you. Then when they see that you genuinely care and are interested in them, you can break the ice, so to speak, and can share with them. Some of my students have become my best friends.”

Developing leaders and building relationships extends to the training of new pastors. Manabu Matsumoto is an accountant who found Jesus while searching for the meaning of life. “Nobody could tell me, what is the meaning of life? I read lots of books and considered going to India to find something spiritual or philosophical, but it was the power to see Jesus change people’s lives that finally brought me real hope.” Manabu is still pursuing his dream of being a success in the world of finance, but he says, “The more I know Jesus, the less important it is to make lots of money. I just want to do something that will help me spread that hope to people around me.” In addition to his professional goals, Manabu is getting on-the-job training as a pastor in Hope Bible Church.

One of his mentors, TEAM missionary Tom Sloan, sees young men such as Manabu as the key to changing the way the church is expressed in Japan. “We need people who will lead the church in a new manner, who are outgoing, innovative and bold, who will forge new pathways.” One of the ways Manabu is making a new path is meeting with his business friends for informal discussions about their concerns and then reflection on what the Bible says about those issues. 

In spite of the many difficulties confronting Japanese society and churches, it is still a country blessed in many ways. Religious freedom, accountable government, and economic means are similar to the privileges enjoyed in Western democracies. The landscape is diverse and majestic and many aspects of the culture are refined and beautiful. One young Japanese Christian reminded us that the Japanese are very adaptable to changes when necessary and open to the global world. With vast financial resources and a versatile, educated, and talented population, a revived church in Japan would create an awesome missionary-sending movement to the rest of the world.

Hopefully changes in methodology, innovative approaches, maturing partnerships, the promise of a new generation, and renewal among Japanese churches will begin to make a difference. Ultimately, hope does not lie in those things, as necessary and inspiring as they may be, but hope lies in the truth that believers from every nation and people are being called out to know and worship God. Japan is intimately part of God’s plan. Being part of that plan is an incredibly exciting privilege.

-Written by Ray Scott
-Photography by Robert Johnson

[Originally published in TEAMHorizons, February 2009]

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