“Church planting is the most effective means of evangelism under the sun.” I first heard this statement 25 years ago at the inaugural JEMA Church Planting Institute (CPI). Is this true? If so, how should this affect our ministry and budget priorities in Japan?
Operation World lists Japan as the only large nation in Asia with a current decline in the percentage of evangelicals. One reason for this statistic seems to be that fewer missionaries and Japanese Christian workers are planting churches. Youth ministry, publishing, seminaries, and other ministries are, of course, important, but we need a return to the biblical priority of church planting. The fact that there are both indigenous and missionary church planting networks in Japan seeing consistent, healthy growth should encourage us to prioritize church planting.
Church planting is biblical
The biblical priority of evangelism and church planting for kingdom expansion is seen in Acts with the Christians going to new places proclaiming the gospel, baptizing, and starting churches. “Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went” (Acts 8:4-5 NIV). And the result of this was that “the church throughout Judea, Galilee, and Samaria . . . was strengthened . . . and grew in numbers” (Acts 9:31).
Tim Keller has written that church planting is both biblical and effective today for kingdom growth worldwide.1 He shows why church planting leads to more conversions and growth, and how proactive church planting is actually the best way to help revitalize the existing church. For example, Keller teaches that older congregations generally have pressure to focus on their own needs rather than on reaching the lost. Church plants have less of this internal pressure and can focus on new, creative ways to reach non-Christians that are often difficult in an established church.2
Examples of growth in Japan
Today, even in Japan, we are seeing significant kingdom expansion through intentional Church Planting Multiplication (CPM) efforts. My research with multiple church planting network leaders in Japan shows that networks intentionally focused on CPM generally see steady kingdom growth in contrast to the overall 0.4% decline in evangelicals for the rest of Japan.3 Rev. Yoshiya Hari of the Japan Church Multiplication Vision Festa has stated this in discussions I’ve had with him. John Mehn, CPI leader, gives examples of kingdom progress in his book Multiplying Churches in Japanese Soil.
An example of growth through CPM is Grace City Church Tokyo (GCCT)4 and their Grace Church Planting Network (GCPN).5 GCCT was the first Tokyo church plant connected to Keller’s Redeemer City to City Church Planting Network.6 In 2010, after several years of leader selection, training, and evangelism, Makoto Fukuda and his team of Japanese and missionaries began worship in Tokyo’s city center with about 30 worshipers. By God’s grace, the GCPN was born and has grown to seven church plants with over 450 worshipers as of December 2018.
The Mustard Seed Church Planting Network in Nagoya and Kansai has seen similar growth through church planting since the launch of their first church plant in 2009. They are now planning to send out teams to plant in Yokohama, Chiba, and Tokyo.
What can we learn?
Common themes with other growing networks include outward-focused missional DNA, effective leadership development, zealous and biblically contextualized evangelism, and proactive intentionality.
These networks have struggles and weaknesses, but there are principles they are using that we can learn from. Granted, these examples have been graced by God with gifted leaders, significant resources, and are in large cities where there is often more fruit. But we also see the same church planting principles working effectively throughout Japan in the suburbs and countryside. There are many concrete examples of the kingdom expansion through intentional CPM throughout Japan.7
It is exciting that we are seeing a common thread of principles and progress that transcends denominations and mission groups, and includes both Japanese and missionary church planting. Let’s study these together at the CPI National Conference this November, as more than 500 of us gather to worship, learn, and pray for Japan.
Church planting is difficult, but it is good stewardship of our kingdom resources. May the Lord bless the Japanese church and our Japan mission groups with the Holy Spirit’s power for a church planting multiplication movement throughout this land.
1. Tim Keller, Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012), Chapter 29. This must-read book will be out in Japanese in 2020.
2. Ibid, pp 359-361.
7. For other examples from across Japan of significant kingdom growth through proactive church planting see John Mehn, Multiplying Churches in Japanese Soil, (Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 2017), 77, 87-88, 105, and 113.
Dan Iverson and his wife Carol (US) planted Oyumino Church in Chiba in 1992. They retired from the now three-site church in 2018 and Dan currently serves as MTW Japan Director. They have 9 children and 27 grandchildren.