Introduction – Lessons from Japanese leaders

Reproducing Churches

I passed two personal milestones last December. First, I became a grandfather for the first time. Second, I completed my doctorate. To be honest, being a grandpa is a greater honor. There is something about seeing the reality of the next generation, which instills in us tremendous pride and hope for the future. The same is true for the church. During this crucial time since the triple disasters in March, I think all of us have had a heightened concern and interest in the church of Christ as the only hope for Japan. We want to see the church grow in the wake of these disasters and flourish through reproduction.

I have worked in church planting and leadership development in Japan for over 25 years. Like many of us, I have been looking for good models of gospel-centered church multiplication. We want to learn from the best models of ministry. For over 25 years I have followed the growth—or the lack of growth—of the church. I started asking around and doing some database research on churches that were not just bigger than normal, but were reproducing. I have always believed that church reproduction and multiplication is the best method of reaching Japan, or any other people, with the gospel of Jesus Christ. This is the drum we continually beat at the CPI (Church Planting Institute) conferences. The purpose of my research was to discover and describe the characteristics of Japanese leaders reproducing churches.

What I found was good news. Research showed that in spite of some downward trends in the growth of the church, there are at least 60 churches reproducing churches in the Japanese culture. A careful study of 6 of those churches found that in 20 years they had started at least 62 churches between them. That is an average of over 10 churches per church. One church of 40 worship attendees that was only 3 years old had already established 4 churches. And the total worship attendance at all the daughter churches was 1,244, or an average of 20 per daughter church. Praise the Lord!

There Are Reproducing Churches in Japan

When I first told a pastor of a large healthy church about this proposed field research, he responded, “Are there really reproducing churches in Japan?”

The knowledge that there are reproducing churches and leaders in Japan will bring renewed hope to the church.

Thanks go to Seiichi Toyama at the Christian Shimbun, Yukio Hanazono, the director of Church Information Service (CIS), and the JEMA community for helping find reproducing churches in this CPI endorsed research.

When I shared some of the results with one leader, he insisted that I must be talking about the church in America, as this could not be happening in Japan. I feel there is a spirit of discouragement within the church and among Christian leaders in Japan. This erodes our faith and our vision of what God can do. Maybe you are like me as I constantly struggle with what I know God wants to do, and my unbelief that it will happen or that it will happen again.

In some sense we should not be surprised that there are reproducing churches in Japan. God is blessing Japan, building his church, and using effective leaders. This information should jolt us into greater belief that God can and will reproduce his church here in Japan. So do not give up on church reproduction. God has not given up and neither have some Japanese church leaders. What many of us dream to accomplish is indeed happening.

Reproducing Churches are “Everywhere”

One Japanese leader asked me, “Is there one regional area where these churches are more numerous?” My reply was, “Nope.”

For the purposes of the research, churches were asked to complete a questionnaire to determine basic information on church reproduction. To eliminate other reproduction factors besides leadership, I narrowed down the number of churches for in-depth study. There are certainly many contributing factors that provoke a church to reproduce, but I believe the leadership factor is key. The final six churches were from figuratively “everywhere” on the spectrum.

  • Six of eight different geographical regions of Japan were represented.
  • The “mother” churches were established between the late 1950’s and 2005.
  • The churches exist in rural, prefectural capital, suburban, and urban contexts.
  • They vary in size as the average worship attendance of these churches ranges from 40 to 250.
  • These six churches are from four separate Japanese church denominations and two independent churches (one which belongs to a loose network).
  • They represent various church models including two cell churches, two churches with small groups, and two that would be considered standard models. (Unfortunately, no house church leader was available for the final stage of the research.)

It is true that Christ will build and reproduce his church–wherever. God will work where you are and with whom you are working. Knowing that the Japanese are reproducing churches should encourage us to ignite a new vision to attempt ministry that effectively mobilizes and empowers others for church reproduction.

Leaders for These Reproducing Churches Seem a Bit Different

“That is quite different from a typical pastoral leader in Japan,” has continually been a comment by leaders when they heard the research results.

Six churches were selected and in-depth interviews were conducted with six primary leaders and eight secondary leaders. My real fear was that the responses would be too varied, but the leaders gave the same message. I am pretty sure three of the leaders have never heard of the other three that I studied. Clearly God has been speaking to them and reminding them about his true purposes for the church.

But these leaders are Japanese, have similar backgrounds, and are much like many other church leaders I have known. These are indigenous Japanese leaders reproducing the church in the Japanese context and planting in Japanese soil (the study did not include foreign missionaries or overseas churches). They share having a clear vision, a good understanding of the church and of leadership, and their unique role in church reproduction.

These leaders are reproducing a church, which is encouraging and hopeful. There are leaders out there doing what needs to be done.

The research found six leadership characteristics that were common to these reproducing leaders. However, I will warn you ahead of time against selecting your few favorites from the list. These six characteristics seem closely interrelated and all work in concert, so they should not be considered individually.

  1. Receive ministry vision from God
  2. Exercise risk-taking faith
  3. Envision the church as a dynamic sending community
  4. Develop lay people for ministry
  5. Lead relationally through encouragement
  6. Implement aggressively through practical ministry

Through the coming series of articles I will outline my research findings and the implications for each of these characteristics. I will explain how different these leaders really are. I will also contribute my impressions on developing leaders for reproducing churches in Japan. There are many implications for us personally as well as for our ministry. As we take this journey together, feel free to write me with questions and comments and we can explore the answers together.

There are real challenges for the church here in the cultural soil of Japan. In spite of Japan’s economic strength and technological development, it still remains one of the least reached countries in the world. We must understand this background in stark contrast to the larger religious climate of Japan. Both the Gallup and Elijah Group studies show there is far more interest in Christianity than what is commonly believed. Many are sure that after the recent triple disasters, Japanese are now more open than ever to the gospel. From my field research I found that there are reproducing churches in Japan in many places and humble men of God lead them. May God grant us repentant hearts as we root out unbelief and believe again in his promises for the church. May God bestow new visions on the entire church that it may be healthy and reproduce in every nook and cranny of this great nation, and beyond, that the Name of Christ may be worshipped in his Kingdom through the church.

About John Mehn 8 Articles
John Mehn and his wife, Elaine, have served in Japan with the US agency Converge Worldwide (BGC) since 1985. John’s ministry has been in church planting and leadership development, and he has served as the chairman of the leadership team of the JEMA Church Planting Institute (CPI). He has a Doctor of Ministry in Missiology from Trinity International University.