2 – Lessons from Japanese leaders

Risk-taking Faith

In this series of articles I have been highlighting characteristics I discovered during my doctoral research of Japanese leaders who are reproducing churches. The first article revealed that there are many reproducing churches in Japan. The second discussed characteristic number 1—leaders receiving God-given vision and their obedience to that vision.

This article focuses on courageous, risk-taking faith. Several of these reproducing leaders became models of vision and faith. For Pastor Suzuki1, “Vision and faith are very important. Even in difficult times, God will くださる” (kudasaru – provide). Church planting demands a lot of faith—church reproduction even more so. Pastor Suzuki says, “Faith has to be first,” because man cannot accomplish church planting. Pastor Kubo summarizes, “I cannot do anything; faith does it.”

Reproducing leaders exercise faith that overcomes obstacles and even their own weaknesses. Their faith battles discouragement and potential failure. It leads in risky directions. Vision for God’s church requires great faith. This faith is not inaction but springs leaders into action, according to church leader Mr. Kubota.

Assume Ministry Risk

Are you a risk-taker? Most people seem to have an aversion to risks. However, Japanese are even more reluctant because of their shame-based culture and group conformity. Risk means uncertainty, and Japan has been categorized as having a culture that greatly avoids uncertainty.2 Japanese “feel threatened by uncertain or unknown situations.”3

Church planting is fraught with ambiguity and risk, church reproduction even more so, especially in a culture so traditionally resistant to the gospel. A reproducing leader, in the same way as an entrepreneur, must be skilled in “overcoming the traditional riskadverse culture.”4 It is expected that courageous faith and uncommon tolerance for risk would result in more effectiveness.

These reproducing leaders assume ministry risk on the basis of faith in God and his promises. “God’s will is a higher priority than our plans. The basic approach becomes accepting any risk for the sake of [God’s will],” says Pastor Watanabe.

In one-on-one interviews, leaders were asked about how they take unique risks in faith. Pastor Abe shared about giving up key leaders, money, and gifted people to reproduce churches. He said that leaders must always risk for a larger principle, and always have a risktaking attitude and 姿勢 (shisei, posture). Pastor Fuji quit his previous job just because God asked him, and then much later became a pastor. Church leader Mr. Shimuzu described his pastor as a “risk-taking pastor in a good sense.”

These reproducing leaders move away from security and predictability toward the adventure of following God. “It is God’s will; we will assume the risk,” said Pastor Abe. Are we willing to risk our reputations, our positions, the approval of others, time, money, and energy for the vision God has given us?

Overcome Reproducing Obstacles

One of the interview questions asked what hindrances and obstacles these reproducing leaders confronted in church reproduction, and how they overcome them. I expected to hear about developing contacts, discipling believers, growing leaders, and securing a meeting place. I have heard many church planters share their “if only” stories—if only they had ten believers, a building, so much money, or more leaders in their church. It surprised me that the leaders I interviewed considered this type of thinking decidedly negative and normally would not participate in these discussions.

These reproducing leaders use faith to simply overcome these obstacles. They did not want to dwell on potential obstacles but did chat briefly about the issues of buildings and property, funding, and personnel. Many commented that hindrances are normal and you simply expect to meet them. The issue was not if one would confront obstacles, but rather when.

Pastor Suzuki impressed his church by not accepting, “That’s impossible.” Instead, he challenged others to think beyond the impossible. Many leaders find solutions to hindrances and obstacles by being creative, flexible, exploring solutions, and—like Pastor Abe—by using wisdom and being joyful when hindrances are overcome. One leader stated that his pastor, “期待してく れる” (kitai shite kureru, expects things to happen).

Focusing on obstacles and hindrances obstructs church planting. We often desire to have ministry safe and predictable rather than taking risks in ministry. Are you focused on the negatives and have doubts as to why things cannot be accomplished in ministry? Or do you have an expectant heart? Let’s develop our faith in believing the possible and that God will work.

Resist Personal Discouragement

The reality of discouragement in ministry is very common for church leaders in Japan. Often ministry accomplishments don’t meet our expectations. Burn out is also common.

I asked these reproducing leaders, “How do you keep from being discouraged, as well as gain self confidence and grow in faith?” I was amazed that the predominant answer for discouragement was their personal walk with God, their devotional life, and prayer.

Pastor Suzuki outlines how a leader’s personal walk with God grows faith and overcomes uncertainty:

Our spirituality is related to our 関連 (kanren, connection) with Jesus. We are to develop a trusting and loving 関係 (kankei, relationship) with Jesus. We develop power while we worship. This gives us freedom, a lifeline, and 勢い (ikioi, inspiration). When the power comes [from God], as a result, we relax. When we become relaxed before God, then God uses us. This is where quiet inner confidence comes from.

Just like Jesus, these leaders’ walk with God is the power source for their ministry. They are deeply spiritual people. That deep faith is not developed overnight. What are your spiritual disciplines that help you grow in your faith in God? How are you modeling for others faith as a leader?

Challenge Potential Failure

Church ministry and reproduction are minefields of potential failure, especially in a shame-based culture like Japan. These reproducing church leaders share a different perspective and procedure when facing potential failure, as explained by Pastor Tanaka:

Faith encompasses active obedience, not fear. “Like in the book of Acts, we looked for God’s ‘go signs’ of opportunity in ministry,” says Pastor Abe. Confident faith allows Pastor Suzuki to say, “God will always lead his church to be the body of Christ.” Because of faith, these leaders are able to attempt great ministries with courage and even turn potential failure into a positive outcome.

Faith is a Christian virtue which we all, especially leaders, are expected to develop and exercise. We all know that faith develops from the “tough stuff” of trials, difficulties, and frustrations. If you knew you could not fail, what would you do for God?

Conclusion

These courageous leaders take God’s promises seriously and, in faith, depend on God to supply all that is needed to be obedient to the Great Commission. This is the kind of faith we as leaders are encouraged to imitate (Heb. 13:7).

By assuming ministry risk, overcoming obstacles, resisting personal discouragement, and challenging potential failure, these reproducing church leaders exercise their faith. Hebrews 11 constantly repeats the phrase, “in faith.” Without God’s power through faith, leaders cannot build the church—because God alone builds His church.

For the next article I will look at these reproducing church leaders’ applied theology of the church. Molded by the vision received from God and an inner-faith confidence in God, these leaders apply their unique 教会管 (kyokaikan, view of the church) to reproduce 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. Geert Hofstede. 1984. Culture’s Consequences: International Differences in Workrelated Values. Abridged ed. Vol. 5, Cross-cultural research and methodology series. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications. 123.

3. Geert Hofstede. 1997. Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind. New York, NY: McGraw Hill. 113.

4. Marilyn M. Helms. 2003. Japanese managers: Their candid views on entrepreneurship. Competitiveness Review 13, no. 1: 24-34. 24. Photo on page 31 by Tracey Brown Just do it [church reproduction]. You may succeed, or you may not. It does not matter. But if you do not do it, you do not even fail. If you do it and fail, it is a great resource. There is no greater resource than failure . . . As we fail over and over again, we reflect. There is no guarantee that church planting will succeed . . . We make a lot of mistakes while we plant churches. Faith encompasses active obedience, not fear.

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.