Early every Saturday morning around 100 people gather in Yoyogi Park for worship. Most of them are not even believers yet. Many hear the good news for the first time. Regardless of the weather they gather to pray, sing praises, recite Bible verses, and hear testimonies and a biblical message. The participants then gather in small groups for prayer, discussion, and sharing. Does this sound a lot like church?
This gathering started out being called Sidewalk Church. The founder, Josh Park, who died in 2013, was working with a team to facilitate a “house church.” He called it Sidewalk Church because they were reaching people without homes. Since then the name has been changed to Tsūro Chapel or Sidewalk Chapel.
Christians from about 20 different churches and mission organizations work together to facilitate Sidewalk Chapel. Twice a week, Saturday 7:00 a.m. and Monday 3:30 p.m., at the South Gate of Yoyogi Park, we gather volunteers and homeless people to worship. Afterward, while sharing a cup of hot coffee or cocoa, participants gather in small groups to discuss the Word and the topics raised. In these small groups everyone is encouraged to share their hearts and thoughts; they are also boldly encouraged to pray simple prayers and have faith in Jesus as their Lord and Savior. Many are coming to faith and finding discipleship through Sidewalk Chapel.
Parachurch organizations are ministries that come alongside the church. They often work in places or ways the institutional church may find difficult. Sidewalk Chapel is an example of a parachurch ministry. As well as local Christians, we frequently have short-term volunteers from around the world. We are parachurch-like in the way we operate, but we are working toward increasing the body of Christ. We always seek to lead those who are interested in Christ and especially those who trust in Jesus as Lord into a local church. We do not practice the ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper outside the context of a local church.
There is a certain level of freedom and joy at working in a gathering of the body of Christ without the constraints of an institution. Those who serve (and there is a wide diversity) all call Jesus Christ their Lord and believe the Bible is God’s Word. Sidewalk Chapel continually proclaims the good news to those who have never heard. We are seeing Japanese men and women coming to faith in Jesus Christ, their hearts and lives transformed.
Homeless people are physically hungry and we are meeting their immediate physical needs by providing bread donations from Costco and food stuffs from Second Harvest Japan (2HJ). We regularly distribute clothes, shoes, and sleeping bags. We also seek to meet their emotional and spiritual need for someone to talk with by listening, not just speaking. The gift of time to a hurting person speaks volumes. Most who come are not in a hurry to leave and would gladly visit for a long time.
Proclamation of the Word is the most foundational and important aspect of what we do. Participants hear the Word of God read and clearly or simply explained, both in testimony and message form. Participants are given the opportunity to consider a different truth from that taught by their culture and own expectations. The word of God is active and alive. God says, “my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it” (Is 55:11 NIV). Participants read or recite Psalm 23 each week and eventually memorize these timeless words. Most can already recite the Lord’s Prayer and are learning Proverbs 3:5-7.
Simple and heartfelt prayers are the glue binding all activities together. Of course, we have opening and closing prayers, but while volunteers are working they actively seek the presence of the Lord in mighty ways. Individual workers ask participants before, during, and after how we can pray for them. In small groups we encourage simple prayers—just honestly calling out and asking the Lord for help. We tell them to ask the Lord to reveal himself. He does.
Participants have the freedom to share their feelings and hurts in a small group. There are those who say the anticipated excuses, but more often than not, people are honest with their anger, hurt, and shame. They see transparency on the part of those leading and feel the freedom to express their hearts. In most cases, their culture, beliefs, and support systems have let them down. There is freedom in expressing one’s true feelings and, in a community of Christ’s love, there is often at least the beginnings of healing. I believe this small-group dynamic coupled with prayer and proclamation is the reason we saw 15 Japanese men come to faith in Christ in 2016 (11 were baptized into a local church).
One homeless man said in his testimony that what attracted him was that the volunteers learned and used his name. For one who is often present but seldom seen by the millions who pass by, this spoke to him. Personal encounters, getting to know individuals and knowing and using their name, is so important. Everyone wants to know and be known. Not only do we learn and use their names, but we introduce them to Christ who knew their name as he hung on the cross. That knowledge draws people to him.
Partnering with a broad variety of Christians is not only a joy, but so important in the context of ministry in Japan. The work is hard, can be lonely, and often we feel unsuccessful. By the grace of God, lots of volunteers show up, get their hands dirty, and expose their hearts to the hurt around them. Valuing, thanking, and giving people a job to do is imperative to seeing our ministry grow and be effective. Mentoring and discipling are key practices we intentionally value.
Maybe by seeing these key ingredients you too may be able to meet the needs of hurting people around you (they don’t have to be homeless). We are surrounded by hurting, anxious, hopeless, depressed, fearful, or suicidal people. They need healing, restoration, love, and grace. They need the healing, restorative, loving, and grace-filled relationship with their Creator God through faith in Jesus Christ. Our task, whether in the church, or outside the church in parachurch ministries, is to bring them the good news where they are in their everyday lives.
Photo by Mark Bello
Mark John Bennett (D. Min., Fuller Theological Seminary) has been with the International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention since 1990 with his wife Sharon. They have served in various roles and are currently ministering to homeless in compassion/mercy ministries.