Eighteen hundred towns and villages in Japan have no church, and increasingly, established churches are declining. Parachurch organizations can speed the process of establishing churches in unchurched areas and help revitalize outreach in areas with declining churches. However, it’s important to do so in ways that don’t hinder long-term evangelism. Here are various ways this can work.
Different ways to partner
Assisting pioneer church plants
One full-time church planter can plant churches simultaneously in a cluster of nearby unchurched areas if they receive assistance from other churches or parachurch organizations. Examples of such support include:
Churches within a two-hour radius offering to send helpers for things such as playing guitar or kid’s ministry. This assistance is best done under the church planter’s leadership. I’ve used this approach before and after 3/11 with diverse interdenominational involvement both in disaster zones and unimpacted areas of West and East Japan. Such back-up churches don’t need to be large; some of the steadiest help has been from churches with 15 members.
Churches further away in Japan and abroad offering to assist via regular short-term teams. Think what could happen if churches repeatedly sent short-term teams to assist specific pioneer church plants at the rate they did to assist disaster relief in Tohoku. After hosting hundreds of short-termers, one trend I have observed is that smaller teams sent regularly from a given church or group are more effective than large one-time teams.
Cross-agency placements. Mission agencies seconding first-term missionaries as interns to a pioneer rural church plant. This provides additional manpower to the church plant, and on-the-job training to interns.
Retired pastors or missionaries offering to help a pioneer church plant.
Proactively bridging contacts made by media (e.g., radio, internet, tracts) with local churches
Christian media generates interest across a geographically broad area. But even when such groups proactively work to connect people to local churches, lists of local churches are often incomplete, leading to missed opportunities. Key needs are:
Development of complete locally-verified lists of churches and church plants.
Pre-evangelistic tracts that pique interest, a series that builds gradually over time, and large-print tracts for use in aging rural areas.
Equipping established churches to evangelize their own community
Missionaries can offer to equip churches to do evangelism, but should avoid becoming long-term staff of established churches. They can also temporarily fill in during a transition, crisis, or sabbatical.
Parachurch groups could equip declining churches to evangelize in ways that won’t create ongoing dependence on outside evangelism. For example, only teach English if it is just one aspect of a diverse outreach program.
Campus ministries, Christian schools, hospitals, and facilities for elderly can welcome involvement of nearby churches and encourage students or clients to commit to a local church.
Raising up, equipping, ordaining, and releasing lead church planters to go to unchurched areas
Providing Christian social services through and in the name of local churches
When the local church or church plant is seen as central to relief work, it is viewed as more relevant to its community, making coming to faith more socially acceptable. It is strategic when social services by parachurch organizations, such as relief work, are conducted as much as possible through the leadership of the local church. In this way, locals connect the worldwide body of Christ’s response to a disaster with their nearest local church, not primarily with Christians from far away. Bonds are also formed with the local pastor and church members through their participation in relief work, which is key for follow-up after mid-term workers leave the area.
Robert Lupton said, “When we do for those in need what they have the capacity to do for themselves, we disempower them.”1
Parachurch groups serving the interests of local churches and pioneer church plants can positively contribute to evangelism in diverse ways. Proactively and integrally connecting their activities to the pioneer church plant or established local church or churches is powerful. It can maximize kingdom growth as the local church, as the long-term presence of the body of Christ in its community, carries primary responsibility for community evangelism and service. JH
1. Robert D. Lupton, Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help, And How to Reverse It. (HarperOne, 2012).
Dawn Birkner, planting churches in rural Japan since 2001, pastors Kita Sanriku Christ Church (Iwate: Iwaizumi, Omoto, Tanohata, Fudai, Noda), leads relief work (tsunami/typhoon), coordinates Rural Japan Church Planting Network, and directs Reaching Japan Together.