4 – Lessons from Japanese leaders

Developing Lay People for Ministry

Field research has identified six key characteristics of leadership that contribute to reproducing churches in Japan (see Fall 2011 issue for the background to this research). Over the last several articles we have seen how vision (Winter 2012), risk-taking faith (Summer 2012), and a unique view of the church (Autumn 2012) are key characteristics of leaders reproducing churches in Japan.

The church, as a dynamic sending community, is constantly developing and mobilizing people. When asked about how Japanese reproducing-church leaders enable people to catch shared vision for church reproduction, all six primary leaders interviewed confirmed the importance of developing and mobilizing lay people. These leaders develop lay people by sharing ownership of the reproduction vision, preparing them for practical ministry, and entrusting responsibility to them.

Mobilize lay people: Let my people go!

In Japan, there are not realistically enough professional pastors and missionaries to fulfill the Great Commission by planting churches. Japanese lay leaders must be developed and mobilized to do the ministry.1 Hesselgrave believes the church in Japan does not mobilize lay people because of a lack of Scriptural understanding.2 However, the pastors interviewed defended their leadership practices from Scripture, clearly understanding “laity” with the original meaning “the people of God” called to ministry (1 Peter 2:9–10).3

More perceptively, Ohashi suggests a clergy-laity “gap” remains a systemic problem in training church leaders and traditional church structure where some are viewed as elite and others more common.4 According to Pastor Abe, this clergy-laity gap does not have to exist as, “Ordinarily the essential principle is we are mutually equal on the same basis as the Lord’s people under God’s authority. Equally, the pastor and the believers are the Lord’s people . . . The pastor is not the only leader in the church; it also extends to the lay people.” The relationships, authority, and structure of the church are affected when leaders mobilize lay people. But many Japanese churches continue to struggle to overcome the perception of leadership roles belonging to the “elite” in the Church.

Checkpoint #1: What is your theology and practical view of lay people in church leadership?

Share ownership of the vision

These leaders declared many times the value of nurturing joint ownership of vision for reproducing churches. Workers get involved not based on the leader’s goals but, according to Pastor Watanabe, the leader is to “share together with them about the vision and the purpose given from God.” In a sense, the leader’s role is both vision-catcher and vision-caster. Tanaka shares, “An important role of a leader is to learn the direction of the church from God and clearly show it to the people.” In order to grow vision with believers one leader mentioned his church often discusses in small groups how to fulfill God’s plan and purposes.

The purpose of vision sharing is to nurture joint ownership (共有する kyouyuusuru) for God’s vision.

Pastor Abe mentioned how sharing his long-range church planting dream with his church has nurtured a growing ownership. Several pastors discussed the importance of the leadership team members sharing the pastor’s church planting passion and being actively involved. This casting and catching vision must permeate various generations. Pastor Fuji mentioned in his interview how this began with a missionary, then was passed to his pastor, and now this leader is passing on the vision to young people in his church. “The pastor’s influence is to cast the vision and spread it.”

Checkpoint #2: How do you share vision with others committed to your ministry?

Prepare people for ministry

Leaders mobilize people for ministry by helping lay people discover God’s intended service for them, and by preparing and deploying them. As people want to be used by God, every believer should be mobilized, whether or not they end up planting churches. Pastor Tanaka describes the overall process of preparing people. “Evaluate those who have received the burden to plant churches from God. Evaluate their desire if it truly comes from the Lord. Then have the people around them also think about [their suitability] . . . Then if it is okay, we will send them out.”

These leaders accept lay people as full leaders and deploy them to establish and develop churches. Their qualifications for leadership selection are very simple: They are persons who have a calling from God, have spiritual character, and are gifted by the Holy Spirit. Such persons are then affirmed by the church for ministry. They are encouraged to seek God’s vision, understand their gifts and ministry opportunities, and are encouraged to venture out in service. These lay leaders are respected as equals with the leadership team under the sovereign control of the Chief Shepherd.

Preparation begins with a worker’s ministry call. Workers are called to evangelism as God prepares people to cooperate in fulfilling his plan. This is often based on their personal desire to do something for God. As each leader has been given gifts for ministry and work, leaders need to use their gifts in ministry in order to make the greatest impact in the community. Whether church planting or any other ministry, when people work in areas of their giftedness they are more contented. Unexpectedly, it was found that these pastors spend large amounts of focused time with leaders providing practical training to prepare them for church planting.

The teaching and training model is from:

1. experience,
2. what the leader is learning, and
3. practical ministry.

Much is hands-on training. One church has workers lead a cell group to help them develop a burden for church reproduction. One pastor insists on always doing ministry with others and many workers learn from the leader modeling. Another example is Pastor Watanabe who takes members with him to evangelize, but he has the believer share his testimony rather than sharing himself.

To provide or support this preparation, several churches have their own in-house “Bible schools” or are closely related to a local seminary for training while in ministry. These reproducing leaders shared in very clear steps a Biblical assignment of leaders in the Japanese context. This is done practically by giving them a chance to teach, then placing them in ministry and observing them (in one case for up to two years), and then receiving confirmation by the church. The desire is to develop leaders who share the same burden for church reproduction. As a mobilizer of people to start new churches, the leader’s ultimate role is sending out workers.

Checkpoint #3: Following Ephesians 4:11, what are your own ministry practices “to prepare God’s people for works of service” (NIV) and sending them out?

Entrust ministry to others

These primary leaders receive ministry visions from God and they consequently also encourage their members to receive God’s vision for their personal ministry. One example was a secondary leader who was encouraged by her pastor to catch God’s plan for her, listened to God’s voice, and developed her ministry by being sensitive to the needs around her.

To give members freedom and trust them to work interdependently takes great risk-taking faith by the primary leaders. From the beginning, enjoying an open relationship of trust (信頼する shinraisuru) between the leaders and the believer is crucial in freely entrusted service. Pastor Watanabe explains, “Even though they do ministries freely, they thoroughly talk it through with the [directors] and ministries are handed over based on trust relationship” (信頼関係 shinrai kankei). In order to entrust ministry properly, leaders must share the desired expectations and philosophy before starting. Several secondary leaders explained that this “setting the table” was extremely helpful preparation. These leaders skillfully give others responsibility and insist on freedom of action for the sake of the ministry. One lay leader related, “Pastor said, ‘Then go ahead and try it.’ He gave me the responsibility and the freedom. He entrusts (任せる makaseru) us with it.”

Leaders are not to restrict others, short of retaining the ultimate responsibility when there is a failure. Pastor Watanabe says, leaders “provide them with necessary help for them to carry out the ministries because the members cannot do the ministries without being helped.” In many cases, this is coaching, advising, or going and helping them. This process of being truly entrusted led one secondary leader to say, “We need more leaders like this.”

The entire entrusting process is to develop teamwork in mobilization. Lay leader Hachikura explains her story:

I feel that my relationship with the pastor has been changed . . . It was about five years ago when I started to do the ministry God called me to do . . . and we started to work together. Before that, I tried to do what the pastor told me to do. There used to be a string attached to me, as the helper of the pastor. I used to move when the pastor pulled the string up. Then one time I cut the string. I want to do what God tells me to do.

Checkpoint #4: In your ministry, how could you better entrust others?

Final thoughts

Lay people are mobilized for ministry by sharing and nurturing ownership of a church reproduction vision. They are selected based on their calling, giftedness, and practical experience. They are then prepared through practical hands-on training and eventually entrusted with ministry. According to Pastor Tanaka, “Disciples are born, raised up, and sent out in this great work. They are sent out to many places, including the workplace.” He insists the pursuit of developing people and entrusting them with ministry is strategic to growing and reproducing churches.

If a person wants to multiply churches [as the leader of the church], he needs to actually do it and also develop people. [He needs] to develop people who can be responsible for church planting. I think this is the key for everything. If the person does not think about planting churches, he will put the people he developed under him and make them his subordinates. Then church planting does not happen. It is important to develop people for the sake of church planting and send them out. Unless we keep developing people, church multiplication will not occur. (Emphasis by author.)

Leadership style and the lack of lay mobilization are recurring themes in research on the church in Japan.5 Both Japanese leaders and those outside Japan repeatedly mention these as a reason for the lack of growth in the church over the past few decades. The key question is why has it not changed? Unless there is a previously undiscovered barrier related to leadership or culture, there are really only two possible answers:

1. Pastors and other key leaders are actually unwilling to change. They refuse to allow lay people to minister alongside them as partners, change their leadership system, or their leadership style.
2. Pastors do not know how to practically develop and mobilize lay people. They are willing, but are not effectual.

Checkpoint #5: What do you think is the correct solution to each of these problems?

As would be expected, to reproduce and train lay people, a leader’s role must be adjusted radically from the more traditional approach. In the next article we will study a highly relational role of leading and empowering people for ministry.

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1. Richard Bruce Pease, “Japanese Leadership Styles: A Study in Contextualizing Leadership Theory for Church Growth in Japan” (ThM thesis, Fuller Theological Seminary, 1989), 113.
2. Mitsuo Fukuda, “Nihon ni Okeru Kaitaku Dendo ni tsuite: Hesselugrabu Hakase e no Intabyu” (Regarding church planting in Japan: An interview with Dr. Hesselgrave), in Senkyogaku Ridingusu Nihon Bunka to Kirisutokyo (Readings in Missiology: Japanese Culture and Christianity), ed. Mitsuo Fukuda, (2002) 172-178. RAC Nettowaku (RAC Network). Hyogo Ken, Japan, 174.
3. Cf. Eddie Gibbs, Leadership Next: Changing Leaders in a Changing Culture (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2005), 132-133.
4. Hideo Ohashi, Kyokai Seicho Dokuhon (Church Growth by the Book). (Tokyo: Inochi no Kotobasha, Word of Life Press, 2007), 142-143.
5. Neil Braun. Laity Mobilized: Reflections on Church Growth in Japan and other Lands. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1971); OC International Japan. Establishing the Church in Japan for the Twenty-first Century: A Study of 18 Growing Japanese Churches. (Kiyose City, Tokyo: OC International Japan, 1993); Richard Bruce Pease.”Japanese Leadership Styles.” (1989); Michael John Sherrill. “Church Vitality in Japan.” (PhD diss., Fuller Theological Seminary, 2002).

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.