I asked Pastor Keishi Ikeda, senior pastor of Hongodai Christ Church in Kanagawa Prefecture, about his experience with sports ministry in Japan. He’s been the senior pastor of the church for five years, taking over from his father who pastored the church for 45 years.
Marty: How did you get involved with sports ministry?
Keishi: Before 2002 I had no idea about sports ministry. With the Soccer World Cup coming to Japan and Korea in 2002, I was invited to a meeting where I heard a vision for sports ministry. I thought, Well, let’s try it and see what is possible here in Japan. I joined a team in Yokohama which ran a two-day soccer festival. We had 3,000 people turn up. Near the end of the festival, I watched the son of one of my church members run to his mother. “Mum,” he said, “my friend got a copy of the Bible and received it with joy!”
I knew the boy was shy about his faith and didn’t talk about being a Christian at school. Yet, because of this event, he was part of ensuring his friends received a Bible. This sports outreach enabled a shy boy to be an evangelist. From that moment I saw the possibilities of sports ministry.
Marty: What happened next?
Keishi: A missionary friend invited me to meet with a former national soccer player from Argentina called Ortega. He’d moved to Japan after a pastor he met on the street told him he had a word from God for him. Ortega told me that the pastor had said, “You have to go to Japan because there is something you have to do for God.” So he came.
I couldn’t believe it. I was amazed. He told me how he had said to God, “I want to do something for Japanese young people through the talent you gave me.”
In May 2003 we decided to start a soccer academy called Esperanza.
1 It now has 350 boys, teenagers, and emerging professional players. Many are from non-Christian backgrounds. The coaches pray with the students before practice. One day a week, we have a small worship service. During Easter and Christmas, our church runs a larger worship service for them. On average 100 players have come to faith each year. We began a baseball ministry through a former major league American baseball pitcher, Mickey Weston, and have reached over 1,000 kids who play baseball. This baseball ministry is spreading out across Japan. We have helped produce a Baseball Bible and Rugby Bible with Fellowship of Christian Athletes.
Marty: How did this vision of sports ministry for Japan first come to you?
Keishi: At the 2013 International Sports Movement conference in Orlando, I was invited to a national leaders gathering during the conference. They asked me to share a national vision for sports ministry in Japan. I hadn’t thought very much about it, so I shared the vision of the soccer academy to send Christian players to the professional world. One of the participants at the conference challenged me by saying that my vision was too small.
That night I prayed. The equation “10×10” came clearly to my spirit.
“What does this mean?” I asked God.
I then tried to press in with God. As I meditated, I felt God speaking to me in this way—“10 represents 10 years, ‘times 10’ means 10 times blessing. I will give Japan 10 times blessing.”
“What is 10 times blessing?” I asked.
“Ten million followers of Jesus in Japan by 2024.”
Wow! I thought I should not tell this to anyone, because ten million Jesus followers is a big vision for the church and pastors in Japan. If I was to say that in these next ten years God will give us ten million believers, it might be viewed as silly, especially as I am just a young pastor. But I realized I was afraid. I called two friends, other church leaders involved in sports ministry, and shared it with them. They both said, “This vision is from God. We have to do it.”
So, we are committed to this 10×10 vision of 10 million believers across Japan. I met with the leader of a global sports movement. He said to me, “Don’t work just for 2020 but towards 2024 when the next Olympics is held. Build a legacy from the Tokyo Olympics.”
Marty: How do you think momentum can build for this coming Olympic year?
Keishi: We plan to train people over the next 12 months in festivals and sports ministries. We want to grow community festivals. As well as reaching out to the community, they are an effective way to raise up young leaders. We will continue to run festivals for four years. We plan to train over 100 sports leaders to train and develop sports communities. Specifically, we want to work in 500 communities across Japan, each community reaching 2,000 people so we reach one million people in 2020.
We know it is important to build strong connections and networks through the churches. The Rugby World Cup has given us the valuable experience of hosting a major sporting event with many teams from around the world coming to serve local churches.
Marty: What is your dream for the Olympics?
Keishi: Imagine ten million Christians in Japan by 2024. This would change Japan. And not just Japan, for we could send teams from Japan into other countries as our passport is powerful. This is a wave; we need to ride it. The Rugby World Cup, Olympics, and Paralympics are significant events that God has been preparing us for. We want to ride this wave for as long as we can so we can reach as many people as possible.
1. Esperanza Sports Club: https://esperanza-sc.com
Marty Woods, an Australian, has been involved since 2000 in ministry at international sporting events.