1 – Lessons from Japanese Leaders

God-given Ministry Vision

Leaders have vision. With the recent death of Apple business leader Steve Jobs, many have talked about his visionary leadership. Talk to anyone about leadership today and one important topic that arises is leadership vision. Studies of effective business leaders have found that “inspiring a shared vision” is a key to effective leadership.1

International studies surveying leadership in dozens of countries have concluded that developing a future vision and communicating that vision to followers is one key characteristic of a “transformational leader.” This is true for global business leaders and for Japanese leaders in particular.2

In the church as well, leadership studies reveal that vision is a vital component of effective leadership.3 Vision studies on Japanese church leaders show that those who have a large vision are very effective in church planting and reproduction.4 Respondents expected leaders to have been called by God and have a vision and a direction for ministry. Pastor Tanaka said, “A local church is built according to the plan of God. If you do not know God’s plan, you do not know where the church should go. An important role of a leader is to learn the direction [of the church] from God and clearly show it [to the people].” 5

For many ministering in Japan it is hard to see God’s horizon for our ministry when we are face down in the mud of difficulty. Some of us are able to look up as we slog knee-deep in the mud, but for many a long range vision of what God wants to do in our ministry is unclear and difficult to discern.

Yet in beginning this research6 I was sure vision was an important factor in the leadership of these Japanese church reproducing leaders. I was surprised by how they got their ministry vision and where it came from.

1. Listen to God

Very challenging for me spiritually was these leaders’ spiritual sensitivity (binkan); their openness to God and His Spirit. If vision is best caught (uketoru) rather than taught, who better to listen to than God? Pastor Abe affirmed, “It is more than that we have a plan; it is that we have God’s plan. Pray and keep quiet before God. Listen to God.” This quality of spiritual sensitivity was also confirmed in interviews of other leaders who knew these pastors. Receiving vision from God grew out of these leaders’ prayer life. Pastor Tanaka prayed weekly and Pastor Suzuki prayed for two or three months until God revealed his vision. Pastor Watanabe spent two hours at a seminar listening to God about the direction of his life. He felt traditional [leadership] style was “restricted” in listening to God for direction: “Although we were working very hard, we neglected the practice of listening to God to receive his direction. It is important to have a firm relationship with God and listen to him about what he wants in his ministry. Whether [a leader] fasts or prays all night is a free choice dependent on the culture of that church. But I think the first step is to receive the vision from God in living relationship with him.”

Learning about listening sensitively to God left me with many questions. Could it be that the normal spiritual disciplines taught in Japan are not as broadly covered as they could be? On the topic of listening to God, Foster’s Celebration of Discipline included meditation, fasting, study, and solitude in addition to Bible reading and prayer.7 Dallas Willard also includes silence.8 How spiritually sensitive am I personally? How do leaders learn spiritual sensitivity like this? Who has been modeling this for them? How do we identify leaders like this? How is spiritual sensitivity developed?

2. Reflect on Scripture

I expect leaders to have many influences in their life, but when it came to vision for these leaders none was greater than Scripture. “As for influences on church multiplication, I don’t think that anyone taught me about this method. I feel that this is something God showed me,” said Pastor Fuji on his impressions from the Book of Acts. In only a short time, his church of only 40 people had remarkably reproduced into five churches.

These leaders don’t just listen to God in prayer in a subjective or intuitive approach alone. They also reflect on God and his purposes revealed in Scripture. Pastor Abe, when asked whether the vision was from the heart or from faith, replied, “No, it was from the Bible. The vision was based on biblical principles.” When these leaders discuss the topic of the church, they do not reach for their textbooks, quote their denominational line, or mention some other pastor. They come at it from their study of the Scriptures. “Since our vision must be God’s vision, we must gain it from the Scriptures.”9 That is why in our CPI training on vision we ask participants to view key scriptures like Matt. 16:13-19; Matt. 22:37-39; Matt. 28:16-20; Acts 1:8; and Matt. 9:35-10:16 with a view to ministry vision and strategy. How much of our vision is influenced by God’s revealed Word? God would speak to these Japanese leaders through Scripture, and the extent of the vision was not just for their church, not just for Japan, but a global mission (senkyo) vision.

3. Embrace church reproduction

“Essentially [the] church . . . is a mission planting other churches” (Pastor Kubo). For several leaders, reproducing their church had not been their original plan. Rather, it had been to evangelize or build a big church. Pastor Kubo said, “We gave no thought to building (tateru) a reproducing church.” It was later that many of these leaders embraced a vision for church reproduction as described in Scripture where the church is a dynamic sending organism. This church reproduction vision will be discussed further in a later article on these leaders’ view of the church (kyokaikan). What leaders are we listening to? Are we listening to Japanese leaders like these that have a mission (senkyo) vision for increasing evangelism, multiplying disciples, developing leaders, and reproducing churches? Leaders with this vision and accomplishing this senkyo vision are the ones we want to invite to speak and train at CPI events.

Still, all of these leaders realize that God’s ultimate vision is not just church planting and reproduction but the end is bigger (God’s glory, will, and Kingdom) and church reproduction is a means to the end. “The vision must outlive the life of the leader and live in new generations of leaders, continuing until the return of Christ,” said Pastor Watanabe. What visions will outlast you as a leader?

4. Obey the vision

To these leaders, just receiving God’s vision and understanding it is considered insufficient. Like Paul in Acts 26: 19, “I was not disobedient to the vision from heaven” (NIV), these leaders saw obeying the vision as a natural consequence of receiving the vision.

“The Great Commission as church reproduction is God’s will. We are to follow God’s will and obey him zealously,” said Pastor Abe. Pastor Suzuki conveyed well-rounded advice, “Listen to God through worship, prayer and fasting. He will guide you. Then obey him without question and overcome anything that gets in the way of obedience.” A few years ago the CPI Leadership Team met with two key church growth leaders in Japan. Their advice to us was not to simply talk about church reproduction but to focus on just doing it. These are still stinging words to me. Could the answer for church reproduction in Japan just be simple obedience? How can we identify people who are visionary in this way? How can we help people become more visionary? Are you a leader with this kind of vision? Are the leaders you are working with visionary?

God-given ministry vision was the first characteristic of these Japanese leaders who are reproducing churches. In general, secular studies affirm that vision comes from the leader, his intuition, creativity, and personality. For Christian leaders, the vision comes from God and is articulated by the leader for God’s people through his gifts.

These leaders received God’s vision for their ministry through their personal ministry calling, their habits of listening to God, and their reflections on Scripture. The vision they received was to be subsequently obeyed until ultimately fulfilled. This broad topic of vision is intimately related to the topic of faith, which is the second characteristic of reproducing leaders. We will look at the unique aspects of faith in our next article.

Endnotes

1. James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner, The Leadership Challenge: How to Keep Getting Extraordinary Things Done in Organizations, (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1995).

2. Robert J. House, Paul J. Hanges, Mansour Javidan, Peter W. Dorfman, and Vipin Gupta, eds., Culture, Leadership, and Organizations: The GLOBE Study of 62 Societies, (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2004).

3. George Barna, “The Vision Thing,” Leaders on Leadership, ed. George Barna, (Ventura, CA: Regal Books, 1997), pp. 47-60.

4. See Dafinn Solheim, “Church Planting in Japan Since 1945,” Church Planting Patterns in Japan, ed. Carl C. Beck, (Tokyo, Japan: Hayama Missionary Seminar Report, 1986), pp. 7-19; Ralph Cox quoted in Stan Guthrie, “Mavericks in Japan Bucking for Change,” World Pulse 30, No. 11 (July 1995); Hiroshi Kawasaki, “Church Multiplication Through Networking,” Japan Evangelism, 2002 CPI Conference special edition, (Tokyo, Japan: Japan Church Planting Institute–JEMA, 2002), pp. 45-49; Japan Evangelical Association, JEA Church Planting Survey Committee, Church Planting Survey: Interim Report (1988), JEA Consultation on Evangelism, (Karuizawa, Japan: September 1988); Kokunai Dendo Kai [KDK] (National Evangelism Association), 1986 Survey of Kokunai Dendo Kai (KDK) Pastors: Summary of Responses Having Potential Significance, (unpublished manuscript, 1986); Tokio Satake, “A Successful Church Planter,” The Harvester’s Handbook: Evangelism and Church Planting in Japan, compilation by the Japan Evangelical Missionary Association, (Tokyo, Japan: Japan Evangelical Missionary Association, 1994), pp. 40-42.

5. The names used in these articles are fictitious. Due to the nature of this research the true names of these leaders cannot be identified.

6. For the background on this research, please refer to the first article of this series, entitled “Lessons from Japanese Leaders Reproducing Churches” published in Japan Harvest Fall 2011.

7. Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline, (San Francisco: Harper, 1978).

8. Dallas Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines, (San Francisco: HarperOne, 1990).

9. Haddon Robinson in Aubrey Malphurs, Developing a Vision for Ministry in the 21st Century. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books), p. 9.

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.