3 – Lessons from Japanese leaders

Envision the church as a dynamic sending community

If someone asked you to describe the local church, how would you respond? Would you describe a building, a group of people, or leaders? For church leaders it is vital to be clear about our view of the church. How do you and your leaders envision the church? How would this view compare with that of Japanese leaders of reproducing churches?

We have been taking a look at six characteristics of Japanese leaders reproducing churches (discerned from field research, see Fall 2011 for the background to this research). The first characteristic was “God-Given Ministry Vision” (Winter 2012) and the second, “Risk-taking Faith” (Summer 2012). In this article we look at the leaders’ view of the church that is molded by this vision received from God and applied by courageous faith.

Envision the church as a dynamic sending community

Every leader remarked on their “view of the church (kyokaikan).” This was the most unexpected result of this research, because these church leaders weren’t specifically asked about their “view of the church,” but they emphasized it strongly. Their comments were more than reciting textbook ecclesiology since they envision the church practically as a spiritual, organic, dynamic sending community spontaneously growing and reproducing. In some sense, their rich and deep view in defining the church goes beyond church reproduction. In these leaders’ Biblical understanding of the church, the people of God, unbound by cultural Christianity, missionally send others out in transformational ministry.

A relational community

These leaders see the church as a kaleidoscope of people in association, the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:27- 28). They picture the church as primarily people, not an organization or club. Several leaders used the Biblical concept of community (kyodotai) as their most prominent visualization of the church. These communities form and increase naturally. Pastor Tanaka<sup>1</sup> said, “When the gospel is preached it forms a community of Christ. It is essential that many of these communities increase wherever it is necessary.” The church is to accomplish all that is necessary to be a healthy community and body of Christ.<sup>2</sup> This church view means a community is simply “to be,” not necessarily to complete a task, like church reproduction. Rather church reproduction is seen as a natural function of this dynamic community: growing, and reproducing.

Checkpoint #1: Is your view of the church a place you go, an event, or the people of God?

A dynamic, living organism

These reproducing leaders view the church as a living, dynamic organism—healthy, growing, increasing (fuyasu), multiplying (fueru), and expanding (hirogaru). Pastor Kubo pictures the church as a flowing, growing river from the book of Ezekiel where a river emanated from the temple (Ezek. 47). Like this image, the church flows, moves (ugoku), and “the church cannot stop.” These dynamic understandings of a spontaneous church resist the preservation of a static ministry of stability or security. This has implications for planning and forming strategy. Pastor Kubo summarizes, “We do not plan anything. So for instance, we do not plan that we need to start a church there or here . . . We just go with [the] flow. When God is doing some work in that area we just go with it.”

Growing organisms are sometimes hard to define due to their fluid nature. Christian Schwarz has written that the church as an organism should not be defined solely by its structure. While organization may help grow the church today, it may hinder the growth tomorrow.<sup>3</sup>

Checkpoint #2: Is your view of the church largely dynamic, stable, or static? Do you often think of organization, or organism?

A reproducing church

Having a healthy and growing church does not only mean becoming larger. Several of the pastors said they were first interested in growing a large church. Then they had a transforming experience in which they realized they also must reproduce many churches. These leaders insist reproduction is central to the Scriptures and God’s primary strategy for the local church to complete the Great Commission (Matt. 28:18-20). Several leaders deliberately discontinued their desire to grow a big church so they could have a bigger impact through church reproduction.

These leaders believe the church to be reproductive in its essence. In their view churches are not manufactured, but multiplied as a natural result of a dynamic organism expanding and reproducing. This is naturally in the DNA of the church with the hope that every church will reproduce. For these leaders, the time for reproduction is now. As Pastor Suzuki said, “we were not waiting until we became large.”

Stuart Murray affirms reproduction is essential to defining the essence of the church.<sup>4</sup>

For these leaders, reproduction is normal and natural. When asked why their churches are exceptions in church reproduction, the leaders said they doubted they were exceptions. They said they have done only a minimum or they are simply ordinary (futsu). Church reproduction according to Pastor Kubo is “natural if you are a church . . . This is something the church does. Reproducing churches are nothing special . . . It is normal, it is standard and average.” Not to reproduce would be unnatural and abnormal.

Checkpoint #3: Do you view the church as naturally and normally reproducing?

A sending mission

For these leaders the church is imagined as a sending mission that grows from the church’s deep evangelistic purpose and motivation as well as the practical need for evangelism in Japan. This missional spirit moves the church away from being protective (mamori) and defensive.

Pastor Fuji described his church’s mission philosophy as, “We are not defensive. ‘Offensive’ does not sound good, but we are not becoming busy inside the church but trying to do things outside . . . if we go out, there are plenty of places for ministry.”

Being missional means to aggressively reach out and look beyond one’s own activities. The directional orientation of the church is outward. The Biblical local church, by its very nature, “is seen as essentially missionary.”<sup>5</sup>

Pastor Watanabe shared a transformation in his church where instead of inviting people to worship in a building, “we started having the image of going. In order to influence this community we did not [continue] the ‘please come’ [approach].” Rather than gathering and attracting, the missional church engages in scattering and sending. The church as a missional group becomes a development center to send its own to evangelize and reproduce the church.

Pastor Suzuki explains, “We expand churches to reach those who do not know Christ, which is why people are sent.” This mission of sending is accomplished by evaluating those who have the desire and burden to plant new churches.

Then according to Pastor Tanaka, “people are trained and sent out.” Many of you reading this article are missionaries. Would you send out your church all-stars, like Paul and Barnabas of the Antioch church (Acts 13:2-3)? To the Japanese leaders we interviewed, the church is to continue in its basic mission of evangelism, train disciples, raise people up, then send them out to reproduce the church.

The church is like a relational community, says Pastor Kubo. The church is “always going out, sending people out, and expanding [ministry].”

Checkpoint #4: Does your view of the church include this same mission orientation of sending and scattering?

Conclusion

These reproducing leaders envision the church as a dynamic relational community growing naturally and reproducing itself by sending community members into like-minded mission. These churches and their leaders continually refresh and reform themselves by reflecting on the Biblical principles for the church. These reproducing leaders challenge the common understanding of a local church. They are not satisfied until their vision of the church is seen in reality.

The practical leadership of these leaders of reproducing churches “grows out” of their applied theology of the church. So how does your view of the church stack up? Where could you challenge your understanding of the local church, from these reproducing leaders and through studying Scripture?

This unique view of the church (kyokaikan) means these leaders must also have a different “view of the pastor (bokushikan).” Pastor Kubo believed his major role was to win, disciple, and send others into ministry. For these church leaders their theological view of the church and their role as a sending agency means mobilizing lay people who have gifts for church reproduction.

The next article will delve into how these reproducing leaders develop lay leadership for new churches.

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1. The personal names used in these articles are pseudonyms. Due to the nature of this research the true names of these leaders cannot be identified.
2. Craig Ott and Gene Wilson. 2011. Global church planting: Biblical principles and best practices for multiplication. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 15.
3. Christian A. Schwarz. 1996. Natural church development: A guide to eight essential qualities of healthy churches. St. Charles, IL: ChurchSmart Resources, 30-31.
4. Stuart Murray. 2001. Church planting: Laying foundations, North American ed. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 62-63.
5. David J. Bosch. 1991. Transforming mission: Paradigm shifts in theology of mission. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 372.    

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.