With the “less than one percent Christian” statistic haunting missionary work in Japan for decades, we are continually reminded that the greatest days for the Church in Japan still lie ahead. Timothy Keller believes that “the vigorous, continual planting of new congregations is the single most crucial strategy for the numerical growth of the body of Christ.”1 While I wholeheartedly agree with Keller, I have been asking myself recently whether there is a better way to plant churches in Japan than the method I learned when I first came to Japan.
When I joined my mission team in Japan 32 years ago, nearly all our missionaries were in church planting. The system was that a missionary would plant the church, and then after the church had enough members to sustain itself, the missionary would transfer the church to the national church who would assign a national pastor. That was the pattern I followed in Hokkaido and Hokuriku. In some cases, this system worked well. In other cases, the churches struggled to transition from an American missionary to a national pastor. In worst-case scenarios, the churches actually closed.
In recent years, a new trend is emerging where the missionary works with a Japanese pastor to pioneer a new work together. I have recently begun using this ministry pattern and am already sensing the great benefits of working as a team. Having experienced two ways of church planting, I would like to share about the benefits of working with the national church from the beginning.
The two case studies below are drawn from my experience. The two churches are not “American” churches or “my” churches but truly are Japanese churches sown using current Japanese trends, methods, and styles.
Case study 1: Tokyo Blessing Church
In 2016, I learned that Pastor Hiromasa Amano (lead pastor of Riverside Chapel in Sōka, Saitama) was eager to begin a church plant and that God had already provided the rental location in Ochanomizu. Two years earlier, God had shown me a multistory building in a dream and said, “I have already prepared the building.” We excitedly formed a team and began meeting in a room at the Ochanomizu Christian Center from January 2017. We have been able to rent the room for three hours on Sunday mornings.
Our initial team consisted of six people: a young Japanese first-time pastor and his wife, a Japanese believer from Riverside Chapel, a retired pastor and his wife from America who had come to serve for two years, and me. Our goal was to build each other up, pray for the start of the new church, and get used to working in that building. The two pastors and I took turns preaching, and team members took turns leading worship. We worked together to find the name “Tokyo Blessing Church” and the church’s slogan, which is “Blessed to bless.” This church is an official branch of Riverside Chapel. The mother church covers rental expenses, while my missions account covers other expenses such as honorariums and supplies.
We held our official opening service on April 16, 2017, Easter Sunday. Each team member had family or friends who came to the opening service, allowing for a glorious mix of missionary and national connections.
The American pastor and his wife later moved to their permanent assignment elsewhere in the country, while the three Japanese and I are continuing the work. From the outset, I wanted the church to carry more of a Japanese flavor than an American one, so I requested that the Japanese pastor preach three times a month and I only once a month. The church is growing slowly but steadily. If I needed to leave, I believe the church could continue on its own.
Case study 2: Garden Hills Church
Although Tokyo Blessing Church was doing exceptionally well for a young church, I found myself anxious to do more. Since I had many more hours available to serve, I talked with Pastor Amano about the possibility of opening another church—one that meets on Sunday afternoons. He was thrilled and introduced me to three members of his church who were ready to dedicate themselves to a new ministry.
We began to meet weekly in my home, and then rented a place in Aoyama on Sunday afternoons. We agreed to target university students. One team member had already been going to that area to do prayer walking every Sunday for four years. His prayers had tilled the ground and prepared it for this new season of sowing seed. We held our first official service on April 8, 2018 with a special guest singer and over 30 people in attendance.
After only two months, the team needed to be reshuffled. As Riverside Chapel is the mother church, they put together another powerful team. The new team now consists of a recent Bible school graduate (who is the associate pastor at Riverside Chapel), a current Bible school student and his wife, a university student, an associate pastor in his forties, and me. I serve officially as the pastor. Focusing on students, our team has discovered that special events work well to attract people. We regularly have guest speakers and singers, and add delicious food to the mix. Thanks to social media, new people often show up.
As with Tokyo Blessing Church, Riverside Chapel foots the bill for renting Garden Hills Church’s room three hours each Sunday afternoon. Likewise, my missions account covers additional expenses that arise out of ministry needs. Our team meets monthly at my home to pray and strategize about how to best reach university students. This is an age group I have never specifically worked with, and I am amazed that after three decades of ministry in Japan, I am being stretched to new levels because of team ministry.
Indeed, we are better together. Each team member is well aware that we are not competing with one another but, rather, completing one another. We are remembering to include that most important letter “L”, which stands for love.
Key benefits to working together:
- Each team member is able to do so much more than they could possibly do alone.
- Blending the God-given talents and spiritual gifts of team members works organically to expand the reach of the church.
- The only star of the team is Jesus Christ. The church is not riding on a personality or one way of doing things. There is truly a cooperative spirit to fulfil the Great Commission.
- The national church has ownership in the work from its inception. Therefore, if the missionary needs to leave the field, the church will survive.
- The stress level of each team member is significantly lower than if we were all going solo. The burden is lighter in all areas of ministry, including financially.
As an aging missionary, I am keenly aware that the day will come when I will no longer be serving the Risen Son in the Land of the Rising Sun. Working with the national church in teams to plant churches is a better way. It assures me that when the harvest comes—when the revival that we have all been longing for is on the horizon—workers are already in place to make disciples who will make disciples. I am continually praying for more workers, with the understanding that some of the greatest workers for the nation of Japan are already here. What a great privilege it is to work as a team to reach this nation with the gospel.
Originally published in the Winter 2019 issue of Japan Harvest magazine under the title “A better way to plant churches”
1. Tim Keller, “Why Plant Churches?” Redeemer City to City, accessed 13 Nov, 2018, https://www.redeemercitytocity.com/blog/why-plant-churches
Shelley Carl, an ordained minister, is from Rochester, New York, and has served with the Assemblies of God Missionary Fellowship in Japan since 1986, primarily in church planting in Hokkaido, Toyama, Kyushu, and Tokyo.