Japan Church Planting Institute celebrates 25 years

In October 1994, 29 people gathered for the first CPI (Church Planting Institute) event. Steve Childers presented his church planting materials, and it was an incredible event that I think anyone who was there will never forget. 

This had come about because Dan Iverson, impressed by Steve at a US church planter training event, invited him to come to Japan and help us out. But Steve hesitated; he’d never trained people outside of the US. We had no idea what God would do with those first baby steps. Years later, in this, its 25th year, CPI has trained 3-4,000 people, from over 90 mission agencies and 60 Japanese denominations. They’ve come from practically every prefecture in Japan and over 30 foreign countries. No one planned for this to happen, and many were unsure it would work.

That first gathering was a tremendous event in my life in several ways. First, I had been church planting for quite a while, but I was very discouraged and I had lost direction. I was overworked and approaching burnout. That first CPI seminar rekindled my vision for God’s kingdom and a passion for evangelism. So much of what was part of my early Christian life was revitalized and reborn. Second, what I learned there continues to guide my ministry to this day. I was very familiar with church planting materials at that time and I had taken lots of church planting training in the past from very notable trainers and teachers. After one CPI session, I approached Steve Childers and asked him about the difference between his church planting training and a famous training notebook. I will never forget his answer. He said the big difference between that notebook and what he was doing was two words: “the gospel.” Since that time I have learned more of what it means to be “gospel-centered”—to be Christ-centered and grace-based in all aspects of ministry: worship, service, discipling, leadership, evangelism, and fellowship. 

CPI vision

Vision has always been a very important part of CPI. Early on in our movement we plastered the CPI vision statement all over the conference venue: “Advancing God’s kingdom by mentoring leaders to be part of a movement that is multiplying churches that are multiplying disciples through the power of the gospel.” We want to be about advancing the kingdom of God, not just our denomination, organization, church, or network. That has led many people to cross denominational and agency lines to work together and assist each other in the planting of churches and other ministries. We also want to see disciples, leaders, and churches multiplied. Many believe that these multiplying church movements are the answer, not just for Japan, but for the entire world.

It is thrilling to realize that over the last 25 years of CPI, by God’s amazing grace, there has been unprecedented unity and partnership built around this grand vision. Majoring on the majors has drawn many of us together who would not necessarily have worked with one another otherwise. A Japanese leader at one of the earlier conferences really appreciated CPI because it had two things: a mission spirit (宣教スピリット) and a gospel spirit (福音スピリット). The same vision for church planting multiplication and gospel renewal is obvious to all who attend.

The gospel

Our CPI vision statement says, “through the power of the gospel.” The emphasis is that the gospel was not only for the conversion of those who did not yet know Jesus, but also for the empowerment of every Christian in any Christian ministry. The same gospel we declare is the gospel that motivates and empowers us. 

I remember one particular evening message at a conference—we were challenged to understand our heart idols and see the sin beneath the sin in our lives so that we could ask Christ to deliver us and grant us more freedom. Afterwards as we were dismissed to small groups, I overheard someone say, “Does this mean we’re going to our groups and everyone has to repent?” I do not know that I directly answered that statement, but I sure thought—That couldn’t hurt. We are always need of learning to be “chief repenters” (see 1 Tim. 1:15). 

So CPI has offered the “gospel track” with a manual published in 2013 entitled “Walking in the Gospel.” More recently CPI has added Grace Week, an intensive one-week course in gospel renewal. Thus far we’ve held one in Japanese and five in English. God has touched hundreds of people who have attended CPI over the years and have been blessed with the gospel content and the refreshment that it brings.

Movement growth

Growing from 29 people in 1994 to over 600 at the 2017 CPI Conference has been exciting and challenging. In many ways, the exponential growth of CPI mirrored what we wanted to happen with Japanese churches. It seemed like every two years we would outgrow a conference venue and have to find a bigger place. In 2019, for our 25th anniversary, we decided to take a risk and move to another prefecture, Shizuoka, and meet at a larger venue—the Tsumagoi Resort.

Risking change

After CPI had grown for several years, some consultants advised us to not meet nationally every year but to convene every other year so that we could devote some of our energies into smaller training courses with more accountability and mentoring. So we took the risk, and in 2005 we began regional training throughout Japan. And we changed to only having a national conference every two years. Some years we had quite a few regional seminars and the total number attending those seminars was larger than a national conference. We are able to reach even more by working in this way.

When CPI was almost canceled 

If you were in Japan on March 11, 2011, you remember the triple disaster in the Tohoku region. We were already planning for the next 2011 CPI conference in the fall, but every one of our leaders was heavily involved in disaster relief ministry for their organizations. There was discussion of whether we would have enough leaders and workers to be able to put on the 2011 conference. The discussion did not go on very long before we realized that the one thing that was most needed after a disaster like Tohoku was a Christian presence through healthy, growing, and multiplying churches. I think everyone who attended that conference was encouraged that we did not cancel it, because many of them were weary from working in the disaster and needed new focus, new energy, and a reminder of core priorities.

The future

Over the years many have commented on their event evaluations how helpful CPI has been. We know participants have been blessed by God through a renewal experience—understanding more deeply the gospel of God‘s unconditional love, learning healthy rhythms, and gathering ideas and tools for effective ministry. All aspects of church planting training will lead to a larger vision, more focused application, and a confirmation of their strategy. 

I will never forget one couple’s transformation. As I sat at my dining room table reading through the evaluation forms to glean new lessons for the future, one brought tears to my eyes. One couple wrote that they had been about ready to quit ministry, and the CPI conference was the last chance they were giving God to change them. Well, God got a hold of their hearts and they were going to stay. I thought all the work and effort for that one couple was worth it. 

Only God knows how many people have been touched and blessed through CPI. One of the most encouraging things I heard from the last several conferences was from the three-year-old son of one of our key trainers. Every morning this little boy would pray, “God, please don’t let CPI go bye-bye.” I pray that God continues to equip and encourage those in ministry, that the power of the gospel would be evident in the lives of all the workers, and that Christian ministry would transform them and their communities. If CPI continues to help build the kingdom of God then we praise God and thank him for his faithfulness.

Published in the Autumn 2019 issue of Japan Harvest magazine under the title “CPI celebrates 25 years of God’s grace”

John Wm. Mehn from Chicago has served in Japan with Converge since 1985 in church planting and leadership development. He has a D.Min. in Missiology from Trinity International University.

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