This was when it was left reeling from the triple disaster of a powerful earthquake, a devastating tsunami and a catastrophic nuclear accident. Seven years later, Japan is gearing itself up for a happier return to global attention – the Rugby World Cup in 2019 and the Olympics in 2020. Sporting occasions can be a fantastic opportunity to bring a nation together in unity and celebration.
But what’s the news about the state of the church in Japan? The bare statistics paint a discouraging picture.
Facing the facts
The total number of all Christians (Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox) is estimated at 0.84% of the population, with just 0.22% of the population in a Protestant church service on any given Sunday. Although there are over 9,000 churches (of all three denominations), 24 cities and over 1,800 rural areas (including towns and villages) are still without a church of any description. The churches that do exist are usually small; 82% have under 50 regular attendees, 62% under 30 and 31% less than 15 people in regular attendance. There is also a developing crisis in leadership: while the large majority of church leaders are Japanese, 72% of pastors are over 60 years old, and with a chronic under-supply of pastoral trainees, many churches seem likely to become pas-torless over the next ten to 20 years. The gospel has been at work in Japan since it was first brought here in 1549, and the country has had an open door to Christian workers since the 1850s, but Japan is still said to be the second largest unreached people group in the world.
Church and mission leaders are acutely aware of the challenges of planting gospel seed in Japan. OMF International has been working in Japan since 1951 and is thinking and praying strategically about the future. Chris Pain* (UK) was appointed Field Director in December 2017 and has worked with the leadership team to map out some of the areas where OMF wants to invest its efforts over the next 12 years. Under the heading ‘Building for the Next Generation’, he has highlighted what are key tasks for strengthening the church and reaching out to the nation.
1. New churches
Reaching a nation with the gospel requires a multitude of complementary approaches, but the central task remains the establishment and growth of church congregations. If the primary task of God’s mission is the building of his church, then establishing new churches must be a priority for Christian workers too.
Existing Japanese churches want to grow; many are reaching out to their communities with vision and courage – but they feel their lack of ordinary resources. Chris Pain says: ‘Some Japan pastors have said to me “We want you to go and plant churches for us because we can’t at the moment, we just don’t have the resources; but one thing that would help us is to have more churches that would be part of our network so that we can partner together”.’
Over the last four years OMF workers in Hokkaido have responded by working with local pastors to start and grow a new church in the northern city of Nayoro; Tim and Miho Walker (UK) have led the work on the ground and will hand over to a Japanese pastor this summer, with prayers for a further church plant in Wakkanai, the island’s northernmost point.
Long-term relationships matter in Japan; building partnerships with existing churches and local church leaders is key to seeing new churches planted and established. Missionaries can have a talent for seeing new opportunities and being innovative, but they need to work in tandem with local Christian leaders who also understand and respect the past. The future of Christian work in Japan needs to be built on strong partnerships between the church in Japan and Christian workers from churches around the world.
2. More workers
The pressing need for new leaders for existing Japanese churches, alongside the urgent task of establishing new congregations in as-yet-unreached areas of the country, underscores the ongoing need for Christian workers in Japan. Along with great spiritual need, Japan also has a wide open door; missionaries are welcome and are free to be fully engaged in evangelism and church work. Yet, after peaking in the mid-1980s, for some reason missionary numbers are now in decline. Most mission agencies have seen membership levels decrease, and some have merged or closed. Against this backdrop OMF has surveyed the obvious spiritual needs and opportunities, and committed to build for the next generation of mission by praying for many new workers. The first prayer target is ‘200 by 2020’ – asking the Lord to grow OMF’s membership to at least 150 long-term and 50 short-term workers over the next two years, and beyond that for another 100 or more by 2030. In the current climate these look like impossible goals – but if there is to be a harvest in Japan, many more workers are needed. OMF is also working with Japanese Churches to think about how to raise the next generation of Japanese gospel workers.
3. Focused prayer
Christians and Christian workers in Japan have long been praying for God to pour out his Spirit in increased measure – and are asking for a new partnership in prayer with the worldwide church. Ideas such as establishing a Global Day of Prayer for Japan, and a worldwide Japan Prayer Network have been floated, with the desire to see much greater prayer for Japan. OMF has recognised the potential of social media to stimulate and fuel prayer, and has collected a range of short stories from Christian workers in Japan at https://omf.org/asia/japan/blog/, with more pictures on Instagram (omf_japan) and Facebook (@OMFJapan). OMF UK has been sending a prayer team to Japan over the last few summers, bringing enormous encouragement to the Japanese churches they visit, and sending the participants back to the UK with a much deeper grasp of the spiritual needs in Japan and a passion for raising a new generation of pray-ers.
The big sporting events of the next two years will put the spotlight back on Japan again – briefly. What the nation really needs is not the short attention span of the world’s media, but the long-term commitment of the worldwide church, to partner, to send and to pray.
Martin Seccombe is an OMF missionary in Japan
*Chris Pain will be in the UK for Home Assignment from July 2018 and is willing to share about the needs of Japan. Contact him via OMF UK.