Across the landscape of Japan, the powerful message of Calvary’s cross is still changing lives and building God’s church. Regardless of the soil or the circumstances, God is still guiding his church in nationwide ministry.
However, the soil seems to remain hard and the ministry difficult. Japan’s church growth over the last five decades has been slow and evangelistic efforts rather unsuccessful. We know that “God so loved the world [yes, including the islands of Japan], that he gave his only Son” (John 3:16 NIV). He looks for dynamic witness and abundant harvest.
As the total number of missionaries in Japan decreases, maybe it’s time to think seriously and prayerfully about a paradigm shift in missionary purpose and objective and to consider the basic principles of indigenous church ministry.
The same God who called many missionaries to the shores of Japan can also call Japanese leaders to raise up indigenous churches across the nation.
“Indigenous” could be simply defined as that which grows naturally in its local soil. An indigenous church is one that finds within itself the ability and grace to govern, support, and promote itself.
Japan has proven its incredible ability in massive commercial ventures, industrial mega institutions, and expanding national economy. This same nation that has built Toyota cars, Sony televisions, and Canon cameras can and must produce its own Spirit-empowered pastoral leadership.
Indigenous church example in Japan
Many Japanese missionaries have heard of pioneers Charles and Lette B. Cowman. Living in Chicago, enjoying a comfortable lifestyle, they encountered Japanese evangelist, Rev. Jūji Nakada. He had come from Japan to Chicago to find the secret of Dwight L. Moody’s evangelistic success.
Through Rev. Nakada’s plea and the deep conviction of the Holy Spirit, the Cowmans soon experienced a compelling call to go as missionaries to Japan. In 1901 on board the ship China Maru, they earnestly prayed for Japanese souls. But they also prayed that as God changed lives in Japan, he would also call out Japanese workers for the harvest. From the beginning they worked in partnership with Rev. Nakada to evangelize the nation. Miraculously, a downtown Tokyo meeting place was secured. The Nakada-Cowman team began preaching the gospel of Jesus, telling about his power to forgive sin and to change lives. It is reported that during the next several years, up to 15,000 Japanese people came to faith in Christ.1 Many were called into Christian ministry and trained in the Bible Institute that had been formed (it’s now called the Tokyo Biblical Seminary). Japanese workers were commissioned to plant Japanese churches. These new churches were supported by Japanese congregations and multiplied by Japanese witness. This seminary continued to send out hundreds of pastors and Christian leaders.
One such leader graduated from that seminary and in about 1970 became the pastor of a church in Kanagawa Prefecture. This church, now called Yamato Calvary Chapel,2 expanded rapidly to become a congregation of several hundred members.
Recently, I was planning to visit an engineer friend who lives near the Chapel. I called the pastor, whom I had not seen for 30 years. “On Thursday,” he suggested, “come for a visit to my church. I will be teaching some members of my congregation a course in Christian discipleship. We will all eat lunch together in our church cafeteria.” So about noon on Thursday, I was invited into the spacious 1,000-seat auditorium. The discipleship class consisted of about 200 church members! I was then told that the pastor conducts three Sunday morning services to accommodate the crowds. I was utterly amazed! Could this really happen in Japan? Later I heard of a dozen daughter churches that this church had planted across the nation.
In seminary, this pastor had worked with the missionaries and Japanese professors in his Biblical training. Now God was dynamically using him to reach Japan for Jesus. What an exciting harvest! What a concrete example of working together for dynamic church growth.
Biblical church planting example
Let’s look at a biblical example of indigenous church planting in Crete. The missionary is Titus, Paul’s “son in the faith.” When reading through the short 46-verse Pauline letter to Titus, it’s easy to miss the dynamic cultural context.
Crete was famous for its debauchery, pagan immorality, and wickedness. Its many coastal inlets became favorable harbors that welcomed trading vessels plying intercontinental commerce from Europe, Africa, and Asia. Paul quotes Epimenides, one of Crete’s own poets, who wrote, “Cretans are always liars, evil brutes, and lazy gluttons” (Titus 1:12).
But then came the grace of God and the gospel of Jesus. Paul, apparently, was soon called away for other ministry demands, leaving Titus alone in Crete to complete the task of evangelism.
It is thought that the island consisted of 90 towns or “Greek city states,” each with its own local political independence. Paul tells Titus to commission elders to go out to every town (1:5). How would Titus find 90 elders? Would they come from Ephesus, Corinth, or Rome? No, they would possibly have been the saloonkeeper, the owner of the brothel, or some of its patrons. They may have formerly been evil brutes, drunken sailors, pagan priests, or shrine prostitutes. But the story of the cross of Christ had made a profound impact. Paul writes that Jesus “gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good” (Titus 2:14). What an incredible miracle! Cretans transformed. Lying, lazy brutes became godly pastors and church leaders. Out across the island of Crete, these messengers preached the good news and built strong indigenous churches.3
A more recent Japanese example
In 2014, a successful Japanese businessman felt that divine tug on his spirit to leave his business and enter Christian ministry. In seminary, Japanese teachers working together with missionaries gave this man strong tools for ministry. The program Train and Multiply (T&M) uses biblical principles of lay witness and has been translated into Japanese and adapted to Japanese culture. In March 2018 this businessman graduated from seminary and has since become a national leader in this training program, taking these God-ordained principles to pastors and churches across Japan. He has held workshops in cities from Naha to Sapporo. One man, trained by Japanese working together with missionaries to produce a leader in this dedicated Japanese businessman!
Fields ripe for harvest?
Maybe this is a divine moment for aggressive, passionate, Spirit-filled Japanese ministry across the nation. Congregations are being challenged and trained to take their witness to the streets and homes of their respective communities. As I see God beginning to raise up a national Japanese church, I am encouraged. When I see Spirit-empowered congregations take Christ to the world around the church, I am encouraged.
If we consider the woman at the well in John 4, we watch this broken lady who had encountered Christ leave the well. She turned and carried her experience with Jesus back into her city. Soon crowds were streaming from the city gates. Jesus looked up and exclaimed to his disciples, “open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest” (John 4:35).
This is Japan today—fields ripe for harvest. I firmly believe that our great God is hovering over these islands, wishing to bring his powerful message of redeeming grace to thousands across Japan. Let us trust God for an abundant harvest. Let us prayerfully, passionately work together for a new ingathering of souls for God’s kingdom across this nation! To God be all the glory!
Originally published in the Winter 2019 issue of Japan Harvest magazine under the title “A call to dynamic indigenous ministry”
1. Stanley Dyer, From the Northlands to the Nations (Guardian Books, Belleville, Canada. 2001) 17.
2. Despite the name similarity, Yamato Calvary Chapel and its daughter churches are unrelated to the worldwide Calvary Chapel movement out of California, which also has churches in Japan, some of them planted by Japanese.
3. “History of Christianity in Crete,” Christians in Crete, accessed Nov, 14, 2018,
Stanley Dyer ministered in Japan with OMS International for 26 years. He also taught at Tokyo Biblical Seminary. He served as Executive Director of OMS-Canada from 1990-1999. He currently lives in Canada.