One of the most encouraging activities in the church planting training sessions run by the Church Planting Institute is when participants are asked why they are engaged in church planting. The answers are varied, but many have said that they find great encouragement in Jesus’ promise: “I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it” (Matt 16:18 NIV). This promise strikes a chord in my heart, and I’ve meditated on it throughout my Christian life. Why is it so important to many church planters?
A personal promise of Jesus
Many ask me whether the church is growing in Japan. Overall the Protestant church is declining. However, some churches and networks have been continually growing. Many are unaware of healthy, growing, multiplying churches in Japan. Did you know that over 100 churches in Japan have multiplied themselves at least three times? I recently heard of a church that has already started three churches in its 14-year history. Though these mini-movements are not well-known, they affirm the promise of Jesus, “I will build my church.”
The church’s assurance
There are many implications of “my church” in Matthew 16:18; here are just three.
First, what is the church? The word “church” is only used in two places in the gospels: in Matthew 16 and 18. Matthew’s use of the word “church” (ecclesia) implies a believing family who are bonded together for a common purpose.
When Jesus says “my church”, it means we should not add baggage when defining the church. In Japan, three requirements are often added. If you are trying to establish a religious organization with a building and full-time paid pastor with formal theological training, then maybe you are making church planting harder than it needs to be.
Second, whose church is it? Jesus says it is “my church.” It is not the denomination’s church or the pastor’s church. It is not your church. It is Christ’s church. If you have a modicum of success, it is not because of you. It is Christ’s work. Humbling, isn’t it?
Third, it is his church, so we do it his way. I recently heard of two growing church plants. In response to growth, one started an additional worship service while the other moved to a larger space. They could have taken the easy way and just sat on their “success.” But Christ calls us, whether in difficulty or not, to follow him in his way. Exegeting the Bible as it relates to your ministry context and yourself is a daunting task. Could Jesus be calling us to radically change our way of doing church?
The church will triumph
While we long to see Japan have as many churches as convenience stores, the task of planting 50,000 effective churches is colossally intimidating from a human perspective. But Jesus promises us that the church will overcome. Instead of taking a defensive position, the church should take courage in Jesus’ promise. Church multiplication is challenging—a minefield of discouragements and setbacks—but nothing will prevail against Christ’s church.
Still, a cloud of doubt can neutralize this promise. Unbelief is contagious. Sometimes I meet people who are risk-averse and doubt any positive outcome. At times, I have entertained doubts about the church; maybe you have too. However, like many other promises in Scripture, we know how history will end. The Bible is full of promises claiming God will triumph. And Japan is full of Christ followers who believe this to be true.
In some places, the church is growing remarkably. People are discovering afresh the truth of Matthew 16:18 for Japan. In obedience, many are boldly stepping out in faith. Jesus said: “I will build my church and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.” What a tremendous promise. I believe that the reason some Japanese leaders can start four churches in only five years is that they believe these promises. Meditating on God’s promises increases our faith and vision for ministry. I think this is what those church planters were feeling. What do you think?
John Wm. Mehn has served in Japan with Converge since 1985 in church planting and leadership development. He is the chair of Church Planting Institute (CPI), a JEMA ministry. He is the author of Multiplying Churches in Japanese Soil (Wm. Carey Library).