Two decades of family ministry in Japan

“Your broadcast saved our marriage.”

“We had no idea how to be parents until we read your book.”

“I never understood God’s plan for gender until we attended your seminar.”

These are some of the comments we hear from people whose lives and families have been touched by the ministry of Family Forum Japan (FFJ). FFJ was founded in 1996 for the purpose of “strengthening and supporting Japan’s families and churches through biblical values and principles.” By God’s grace, FFJ has ministered in more than 500 of Japan’s churches and aired radio broadcasts in Tokyo and six other prefectures. We’ve produced scores of books and media resources on family issues and pioneered in developing biblically based sexual “abstinence” education and gender education in Japanese.

FFJ’s staff and board are passionate about this ministry because it:

  • meets a strategic need in the Japanese church—the need to inform and strengthen Christian homes and to ensure the passing on of the Christian faith to the next generation;
  • provides a more effective tool for churches to reach their communities than some other methods employed in the past; and
  • speaks to Japanese culture as a whole, pointing the way to the truths of God’s Word.

In Hokkaido and Okinawa, FFJ’s radio broadcast Family Talks commands top listenership among several age groups. Program host, Kōji Kaneko, has become a popular figure in those prefectures’ “speaking circuits,” addressing audiences as diverse as Buddhist priest associations, cosmetics sales ladies, and PTA associations. Two years ago, Kōji thought his invitation to speak to a radical feminist organization must have been a mistake, but at the conclusion of his talk, the leaders exclaimed, “We’ve never heard gender presented from your viewpoint [i.e., biblical viewpoint], and it makes so much sense!”

Meanwhile, churches that have replaced their annual evangelistic meetings with community-friendly family seminars featuring FFJ speakers have seen the number of newcomers triple or quadruple. For three years straight, I was asked by a church in Tachikawa to give family seminars as one of their annual outreaches. In the second year, a couple came up to me and asked if I remembered them. I did (very vaguely). They told me that the previous year, on the very Sunday I had given the first family seminar, they had come to this church “by chance” as a final effort to save their marriage. They said, “What you said last year changed the course of our marriage. We are Christians now and attend church every Sunday.”

Japanese people don’t read books or even watch DVDs like they used to, but Facebook has provided a powerful tool for FFJ to disseminate biblical truths about marriage, parenting, sexuality, gender, worldview, and, of course, the gospel of salvation in Jesus. During this year’s spring vacation, FFJ missionary Jonathan Benedict posted daily excerpts from his book Futari No Tame Ni (For the Two of You), which averaged more than 1,300 views a day. By offering our seminar content on Facebook as live videos, we can reach Japanese people wherever they are in the world. Furthermore, streaming technology will enable us to minister in multiple small churches in remote areas, which don’t have the financial resources to have us come in person.

The great thing about family ministry is that churches and missionaries can do it with a minimum of expense and expertise. FFJ, Alpha Marriage, WLPM, Harvest Time, and other ministries have CD/DVD series, texts, and online resources. These resources include content for marriage-enrichment programs and parenting groups and seminars on topics like gender, sexual morality, and dating and romance.

In some churches, the ladies have invited the mothers they know to a weekly parenting discussion group and used Barbara Bauman’s bilingual workbook Discovering the Joy of Parenting/Mitsuketa – Kosodate no Yorokobi. To attract newcomers to Sunday services, some have used FFJ’s DVD series Seisho Ga Kataru Renai Kekkon Kosodate (The Bible Speaks About Romance, Marriage, and Parenting by yours truly) or Miryoku Afureru Katei Seminar (Abundantly Attractive Family Seminar by Patrick McElligott) for a special outreach series in place of normal Sunday messages.

The word “counseling” implies the presence of counselors with credentials, but the Japanese phrase “family sōdan” connotes a more informal listening ear. Some churches provide a free family resource library and a sōdan hour manned by mature believers—a place for people in the community to come and share their family struggles and be prayed for. Other churches allow their facilities to be used by various neighborhood groups, such as mothers’ parenting groups or support groups for family members of persons with addictions. Increasingly, the needs of the elderly are also opening up new opportunities for churches to minister to families in ways that make a huge difference.

When we were church planting in northern Nagano, after using many evangelistic approaches with little success, we switched to a whole new strategy—using our little group of four believers. We asked these believers if they would be willing to host two or three informal tea times in their homes, which we would attend. Three of the four believers agreed to do this and they invited their friends, neighbors, and relatives to these tea times. Five to seven guests attended each tea time, and we simply sat and listened while people talked about their lives and what was troubling them. Inevitably the conversation turned to family issues—struggles with marriage, parenting, in-laws, and the elderly. And without fail, someone would turn to us and ask, “What do you think we should do?” Doors began to open. In each case, the group asked to meet again, and soon each group was meeting regularly to discuss family matters. Soon someone would say, “You keep mentioning the Bible . . . can you tell us more about the Bible?” And the topic switched from family issues to basic biblical teachings. Within two months, many of those guests had started attending our church meetings and a high percentage were saved.

Like disaster relief, outreach to homeless people, and other forms of social ministry, family ministry requires patience and persistence. It gives credibility to the Christian message through tangible expressions of biblical love and wisdom. We need to first listen to understand the needs of those we’re trying to reach and then offer understanding. Finally, a little at a time, we need to provide advice. As trust and relationship build and as folks realize we’re not manipulating them or pressuring them into a religion, they will often begin to seek spiritual answers, as they’re inspired by the wisdom and relevance of the Bible. For many we are trying to reach, family issues are a shortcut to the heart. An added benefit is that they begin the process of healing and restoration, even as the gospel is being introduced.

TEAM missionary Tim Cole lives in Karuizawa and works with Family Forum Japan. He is a US citizen but was born and raised in Japan. He is married to Katie and has five adult children.

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