Six Reasons Japan is Overlooked

Six Reasons Japan is Overlooked in Global Missions

I've been thinking a little bit recently about why Japan, with having the largest city in the world and being one the most densely populated nations in the world has been overlooked in regard to Christian mission. A tweet from the Gospel Coalition International Outreach feed yesterday further affirmed my suspicion that most Americans just don't have Japan on their missional radar as a nation to be reached. So why is that? I have a list of a few reasons I believe Japan has been overlooked by American churches and mission groups. This isn't a criticism for why we have overlooked Japan in favor of other places (the whole world needs the gospel so we better go to the whole world) but I think these are some prominent reasons Japan has largely been ignored.

  1. Racism. To my grandparent's generation Japan was the enemy. They blew up and killed thousands of Americans at Pearl Harbor and brought us into a World War. Shortly after WWII the American Mission Movement occurred sending career missionaries all over the world with the gospel. Except Japan. I think there is a link.
  2. Affluence. Japan is wealthy, technologically advanced, literate and industrious. There won't be any photo ops with starving children there. You don't have anything to take to them or fix for them other than their souls. Bummer.
  3. Thrill Factor. You won't get killed or even kicked out of Japan for sharing the gospel. At the most you might get ignored and left alone. If anything we like the thrill of the dangerous place where we can say to our churches "I can't tell you where I'm going because I might get killed." That's not to say that doing mission in dangerous places isn't needed or good. We must be in those places too. However, Japan doesn't afford that kind of reality. So, where's the fun in that?
  4. Long-Term. You probably won't make 30 converts in your first week of mission in Japan, let alone your first year. Maybe if you spend ten years there you might. But, we like our mission trip trophies ("I preached to 500 and saw 534 get saved while I was in South America for two weeks"). You won't have any merit badges of ministry in Japan unless you're there for a long, long time.
  5. Expensive. Yes, Japan is expensive. Ridiculously so. You have to raise a lot of money to go there for a long-term assignment. Housing costs a ton. It's just not cheap to do mission there. American churches can probably only send a small handful of missionaries to Japan whereas they could send a ton of money to other places and have a larger number of workers in other places. In the land of "more is better" you can see how that value works itself out.

I mention these things, again not to downplay the other places in the world where missionaries are going and are sent. I am glad they do that. But for the American church there is a value of "Bang for the Buck, Get A Ton of Convert Trophies, Thrill-Seeking" Mission. Japan won't give you any of that. It won't even give you poverty to take a picture of and say "I can fix that!"

If anything mission in Japan looks more like what William Carey had to endure going to India for the first time. A rejected, long-term, low-fruit, costly-life. This is so counter-intuitive to American discipleship that I believe it is one of the main reasons Japan has not seen a large amount of missionaries sent to work there. All you can do is take the gospel and be there for a very long time. Maybe the American church needs mission to Japan to teach us about discipleship more than Japan needs American missionaries.

There is one more reason Japan has been overlooked in regard to Christian mission. Calling. Maybe it hasn't been the right time. Yet, I think today we're on the cusp of that calling being worked out. Today the Lord is raising up and calling men and women everywhere to go to Japan with the gospel for the glory of Jesus. Today is the day of salvation. So for us today we can go to Japan, labor there for the long-haul and see the name and fame of Jesus gloriously spread in the Land of the Rising Sun. Christians, let's put Japan on our radar as a place to pray, support and send people for the duration of their lives, for the sake of the gospel.

Jet Set Japan: ReTrain Rendezvous

Two Years Later: The Fruit of ReTrain

Almost two years ago to the day I sat in a small class room at the Ballard campus of Mars Hill Church in Seattle with the nine men that made up the "Global Massive" cohort. Our assignment at that meeting was to spend twenty minutes presenting a final project that encapsulated our year at ReTrain. I can't say that I remember well all of the presentations given, but there was one in particular that I do remember and served as a bit of a catalyst for me ending up for ten days in Japan. That presentation belonged to Steve Sakanashi.

Steve is a fourth-generation Japanese-American. From the first day I met him at ReTrain in August of 2010 he was talking about his passion and the need that Japan has for the gospel. His aim was to do whatever he could, however God led and called him, to reach the nation of Japan as a church-planter. So in that small little room at Mars Hill Church as Steve shared his vision and plan to plant a church and make disciples in Japan I wrote down one note to myself in my notebook, "Steve is going to be the William Carey of Japan."

What I didn't expect in the two years between that presentation and today was that I would get caught up in the momentum of the Holy Spirit to reach Japan. I always figured I'd run into my ReTrain brethren at different Acts 29 Network functions or in Seattle whenever I had the chance to get there. I never figured my next rendezvous with Steve would happen on the soil of the country he was so passionate to reach.

Since that presentation Steve will tell you that a lot has changed. He is now married to a lovely lady and is expecting their first child. His vision has been sharpened and his skill as an entrepreneurial leader has magnified.

Today Steve is leveraging the few commodities that Japanese students eagerly desire to have from American's to place them in contact with faithful Christians. As a business leader Steve has developed a model of "faithful presence" that puts the Japanese in contact with American's to learn English and to give Steve and his team a relationship that is long-term and sustainable with these Japanese college students. He is leading entrepreneurial workshops for Japanese business leaders and venture capitalists.

Steve has launched the Megumi Iniative which includes Sekai Creator an entreprenurail training course for Japanese business leaders and Eigo Partner. On Wednesday Steve met up with our team in Tokyo to cast vision for us about his ministry. That conversation reminded me a whole lot of the vision casting Steve did two years earlier to his whole cohort at Retrain.

Honestly, I don't think I would have ended up in Japan this time if Steve hadn't been the first to call out the need of Japan to me. Sure I knew that Japan was out there, but I didn't have any sense of what it's spiritual condition or need was. Steve identified those needs to me. Now my adventure in Japan has come full circle with the vision Steve set forth two years ago. He has moved forward in accomplishing what God has called him to and he has helped me see a place that needs the gospel so deeply and is so unreached that I won't stop ringing the bell for mission work in Japan until that nation is reached.

I would like to ask you too to put your life and resources into the gospel-work being done in Japan. One of the ways you can do that is by supporting guys like Steve and others financially and with your time. You can support Steve financially by following this link. You can support his work with Eigo Partner by enlisting to be an English conversational partner.

I'm thankful for friends like Steve, thankful for his vision for Japan, and thankful that God allowed our lives in intersect two years ago in Seattle and then once again Wednesday in Tokyo.

First World Resources for First World Problems

One of the observations that I've been able to make while here in Japan is the complete lack of need for anything, except the gospel. Japan, like so many parts of the West doesn't have a need for the physical resources that developing countries do. You can drink the tap water, WiFi and cellular service are abundant. Japan has one of the lowest unemployment rates of anywhere in the world. We've heard several times that the average Japanese family has somewhere close to forty thousand dollars in savings alone. While not every person in Japan is affluent and rich, the physical needs of the country and not as noticeable as they are in other places.

So often, in the West we then assume that since this country has plenty in terms of material possessions that there is then no spiritual need. However, the lack of physical need, to me anyways, makes the spiritual need all the more pressing and abundant. They have come to the climax of the book of Ecclesiastes. They have everything but all of it apart from Christ is meaningless.

I have no beef to pick with churches that support and send and work with missionaries in developing countries. These are essential and needed. The gospel is for the whole world, especially the poor, orphaned and broken. However, as I have come to see, there is enough bandwidth for First World churches to reach First World countries. In fact, the burden of responsibility in my book is on countries like the United States to direct their resources in both people and finances towards these places that are so hard to reach.

Japan is expensive to live in. We stood in a small three bedroom apartment in Tokyo that cost $3600 a month to rent. The apartment was less than one thousand square feet. For a church in the middle Africa to send financial support and means to Japan just wouldn't work or be remotely enough. Yes that can be multiplied by the power of the Lord, but it seems to me that the provision Christ has given in the church is for wealthy nations to reach the most expensive, financially difficult place to reach. Christ has raised up First World churches for his glory, and he has gifted First World churches with financial resources to supply the mission to the First World countries like Japan. So let's do it.

As I met with Michael Oh, the CEO of the Lausanne Movement, today he made it abundantly clear that now is the time to financially resource the mission of God in Japan. Now is the time to put all our chips in and see the Lord of the Harvest go to work in bringing people from death to life. So let's do it. Let's be obedient to the call of God and give what we have for the sake of the gospel among the largest unreached people group in the world.

Jet Set Japan: The Church in Miyota

Every time I have the opportunity to visit another country and happen to be there over a Sunday I try and meet with the gathered body of believers from that area. I've been with the church in South America, Mexico, China, India, and now Japan.

Our vision trip today allowed us to meet with the believers that make up Shinshu Community Church in Miyota, Japan. We didn't see a large, mega-church full of programs, paid staff and nice facilities. We saw a small (think less than 30) church of believers learning to grow as gospel-centered and gospel-fluent people for the sake of their city and region. The church is led by an American missionary and a Japanese man that he has trained to be the pastor of the church. Their vision is to be a church that grows and replicates itself in making disciples and planting church within the region. What I love so much about this vision is that it is a vision to be the faithful, fruitful people of God in the midst of a region that deeply needs the gospel.

It was beautiful to join with them in praising Christ, to see them humble themselves to the Word and to engage in community with one another. The church, although small, is working to see the gospel impact every area of their lives and culture. I was so encouraged to meet with like-minded leaders who are working towards gospel-centrality in their churches and cities whether they are in the largest of cities or the smaller less populated regions of Japan.

Jet Set Japan: Shinto and Saku

It's late here on Saturday evening in Japan (yes I'm still living in the future) but I wanted to share a brief reflection about today. In both Tokyo and Saku we visited local sites of worship associated with the Japanese amalgamation of Bhuddism and Shintoism. I'll have to address what these two interwoven religions believe another time, but the practice of worship and the presence of the spirits is very real.

In visiting these places today I observed people sincerely worshipping what they believed to be gods. However these "gods" as I have posted before are merely the demonic enemies of Christ. Yet because of our fallenness and our rebellion against God we choose to substitute worship of the Creator to worship a created thing. We ascribe power to another being that is really due only to God alone. So being religious happens. We're all religious in one way or another and it is a reflection of our bent natures and broken condition.

So today I saw elements of worship at the temples and shrines. Incense was burned to obtain a blessing. Water was poured to purify oneself. Prayers were made to the specific deity that fit whatever your need was. Offerings were given to support the priests and "ministry" of the shrine. Crowds were gathered to chant and sing the religious songs appropriate to the local religion. These places were filled with worship and religion.

For the Japanese however they would not tell you that they are "religious" people. The practice of Bhuddism and Shintoism are so deeply ingrained into their societal culture that they would not consider it religious but rather part of what it means to be Japanese. Like a fish in water so a Japanese person must worship at the shrines and temples. They must celebrate the dragon that gave birth to their village and pay homage to their ancestors lest they bring shame to their family and earn a lower spot in the afterlife. They might say or believe they are religious, but it is very much part of their everyday normal life. Even students pay to buy prayer cards to ask the gods for enablement to pass their exams well. Religion is found in everything.

As we continue to explore Japan and its need for the gospel as well as see where the Holy Spirit is at work today brought into focus the depth of need spiritually that the Japanese people have. The spiritual darkness of this land is great, and the obstacles that stand in the way of the gospel in their culture are great too. But the cross and resurrection of Christ are far greater and compelling realities and are worth us laying down our lives in a long obedience for the love of God and the people of Japan.

Jet Set Japan: Tokyo Hustle

Welcome to another brief report from Japan and my daily experiences. The short version is that we spent the greater portion of the day traveling to and investigating a particular area of Tokyo. To say that we experience the whole of this city of 34 million people or that we even grazed the surface would be far from the truth. Reality settled us in a smaller portion of the city center and learned about church planting from Seima Aoyagi as he is planting in the Tokyo region of Toyosu. As we traveled from Chiba to meet Seima we encountered the most efficient and arguably busiest public transportation system in the world. Spending an hour in Tokyo station itself was a hustle of millions of people each day. The labyrinth of tunnels from one line to another would bring one who doesn't know the layout or language to their knees. It was incredible.

A few stats stood out for me from my interaction and discussion today.

  • Tokyo is a city of over 34 million people.
  • There is probably two tenths of a percent (.2) of Protestant Evangelical Christians in Japan.
  • In terms of Tokyo that means for every 500 people there might be one Christian.
  • Conversely in the US it is estimated that for every five people one is a Christian.
  • If my church reflected the ratio of Christians to non-Christians in Japan the church would have to double in size before we'd have one Christian.

Those kinds of numbers and ratios blow me away here in Japan. I see the largest pagan city in the world and feel the same concern for this city as God did for Ninevah in Jonah 4. "Should I not pity that great city?" I think about the task here and the deep need for the gospel that this culture has and I'm compelled to pray that the Lord would send forth laborers into this field. The gospel is desperately needed.

Jet Set Japan: Chiba City

As I woke up this morning at about 5am Japan time two things settled into my mind. First, it was still "yesterday" in the US. I am living in the future. Second, I'm in for a whirlwind of meeting people, learning as much as I can about Japan and the need for the gospel here. Today didn't disappoint.

I won't share everything that there is to share about my day except that I met some exceptional people and the Lord grew my heart for this nation even more today. The enduring theme for the day the entire day was simply "A Long Obedience". That's what it takes to plant a church in Japan. Results won't be quick in coming (one leader here shared that it was four years of ministry in this country before he saw one conversion) but faithful men who will work at gospel ministry for the long term is desperately needed here. I plan on reflecting on this theme of a long obedience more later, especially as I am reading Eugene Peterson's book A Long Obedience in the Same Direction while I'm here but today in Japan has challenged me to see that gospel ministry must have this as an enduring quality or it won't be lasting, regardless of where I am.

I am grateful for the work here and am eager for tomorrow to enter into Tokyo and see the city itself in full swing. Just like yesterday here are a few of the sites from today for you to enjoy.

Jet Set Japan: Pre-Flight Checklist

Tomorrow morning the majority of our team from Journey the Way and Karis Community Church depart for Japan. While there we will be visiting several different cities, meeting numerous leaders and seeking to discern the Lord's calling and will for us as individuals and churches. The central mission for our team is to gain a sense of the movement of the Holy Spirit for planting churches and partnering with pastors and leaders already on the ground in Japan. As we depart here are a few ways you can pray for me and the team while we are away:

  • Pray for discernment, wisdom and spiritual understanding of the needs of Japan while we are there.
  • Pray for clarity in conversations and meetings with leaders in Japan.
  • Pray for mercy in our travel, health and engagement of the Japanese culture.
  • Pray for unity on our team.
  • Pray for a movement to grow of churches planting churches in one of the least reached countries of the world.
  • Pray for my family that is remaining behind in the U.S. while away.

Thanks for your prayers. I'll be posting frequent updates here while away but if you want to follow more of the action be sure to check out the Karis Japan page as well.

Jet Set Japan

Four weeks from today I will be setting foot on the other side of the globe once again, this time in Japan. To say that I am a bit excited about this trip is a little bit of an understatement. Ever since my friend Steve Sakanashi started telling me about his heart for Japan and the need there for the gospel I was burdened. Japan itself is one of the least reached people-groups in the world with the gospel. Around 1% of the 126 million people that live in Japan are Christians. It's one of the most difficult places to plant a church and to see the gospel advance, and yet at its cultural core there is fabric that is in line with the gospel itself. My friend Steve has been referring me to the code of bushido as a reference point for that. Steve's also written some excellent posts on how bushido is fully realized in the person and work of Jesus.

The purpose of my trip in a few weeks is to understand the nature of the church there in Japan and meet with church-planters and Christian leaders and understand their needs and vision for the country. In some ways I feel a bit like an apostolic tourist trying to get a better feel for the culture, people, needs, and opportunities for the gospel and then to come back and formulate a plan for Journey the Way to be involved in seeing the gospel spread in Japan.

Not only am I going as a representative of Journey the Way, but I am also excited about going with my good friend Kevin Larson and Karis Church in Columbia, MO. Kevin was kind enough to invite me and a couple others from Journey the Way to come along with them to Japan this year. One of the things we are eager to see built is a networked partnership of churches eager to see the gospel spread and churches planted in Japan. As two Acts 29 churches we are excited that there seems to be a growing interest, and a movement of the Holy Spirit to send and resource planters for Japan. Karis has set up a website for this trip to Japan as well as a way to give financially to support the cost of the trip for the ten members that are going.

In the next month would you please pray that God prepares the ten members of the team that are going? Pray God would give us wisdom, a heart for the nation, and a clear sense of calling to serve and invest in Japan for the sake of the gospel.

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