Japan pastors: 50 years of Western missions and still building trust

Japan Baptist Church Association (Rengo)

The Japan Baptist Church Association (Rengo) is celebrating 50 years of church planting in one of the world's most unchurched countries. Started by Converge missionaries in 1948, Rengo began in 1964 and now has over 60 churches nationwide. Five pastors came to Transform, a networking gathering for Converge church leaders, in Garden Grove, California, to celebrate what God is doing through their ministries.

Hiro Yonai pastors Kokubunji Baptist Church people in west Tokyo. Many in his congregation of about 150 are international students. Yonai says the Christian population is so small, it's easier to reach young students.

"Last year we had five baptisms. Every year we have baptisms it is huge blessing to us," he said. "The younger people are the ones being baptized."

Handyman repairs as practical outreach

Sakae Yokota also pastors a church in Tokyo, with a smaller congregation of about 30 people. He took over the church from Converge missionaries seven years ago. He says it's not easy to bring people to Christ in Japan.

"We've been struggling and not growing," he said. "I wondered what God would do through our church, but I came to a vision of how we can be salt and light in our community by starting a social business."

Yokota says he's seeing new excitement through this business, which he describes as a handyman service. He advertises to people in his community by word of mouth. Many Japanese are growing older and live alone. They are isolated and many need help with household tasks.

"We use our collective hands, so we have a purpose to connect people to people and connect them to God at the same time. We have seen many connections made in the community," Yokota said. "That's just the beginning. We are not aiming for the short term, but looking at the long term, trying to build trust in the community by doing practical help. We want the church to become valuable to the community."

Trust: a high hurdle to clear

Trust is just one obstacle to planting churches in Japan. There is more crime than there has been in the past. As a result, parents are more protective of their children, making it even harder to reach them. Pastor Arata Kurashima works with college students, and pastor Yoshiya Kanemoto works with children.

Kanemoto just took over his church as pastor in the past year. His former pastor was involved with social issues and his focus on the children. His church has 32 years of history in his neighborhood, and young families currently are moving in.

"Japanese society is getting worse and it's hard to ask kids to go play. So I just try and connect with them," Kanemoto said. "It's hard to find the time to get together and start church activities for kids."

Kanemoto held a Christmas event specifically geared toward children, but saw only two show up. He says many in his neighborhood didn't even know about the church and that it was a safe place to play. Kids who missed the event want him to start a program they participate in.

"We have to develop trust in the community because of the growing number of criminals," he said. "You have to get in and open the door for parents. They also don't know about different religions, and it's not easy to trust Christianity. Even church people doubt their own people."

Kurashima is working with college students at the local university, in part because that's how he came to know Christ. But it also encourages other young Christians to disciple their friends.

Aging churches seeking to reach the young

"One big issue in Japanese churches is there are no young people. Churches are aging," he said. "We are trying to train the college students, who can reach out to their peers, who will then reach out to non-college students. They will make an impact as a witness of Christ in their jobs."

Despite the difficulties of evangelizing Japan, the groundwork that began in 1948 is paying off according to Yonai. Four years ago, after a devastating earthquake and tsunami hit Japan, many people were looking for hope. The relief efforts forced the church go outside of the building and engage local communities.  

“Many people think they can’t find hope and the future without something good. But Christians have a real hope and a real future,” Yonai said. “People wonder what Christians have and how they live in a bad situation. It’s been opportunity for us to show them we have hope in Jesus Christ.”

According to a recent Gallup Poll, the Japanese are beginning to have more respect for Christian teachings. Yonai sees this as a positive sign for his country. Kurashima also stressed the need for missionaries. The Japanese tend to trust Western missionaries more than their Japanese counterparts.

“It would be great for missionaries to come help and work together. Japanese doubt Japanese pastors,” he said. “Traditional religions have a long history here, and Christianity is still new.

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