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Taking root in a land of thorns


OKLAHOMA CITY — Describing more than 100 years of mission efforts in Japan, Akira Hirose used a word that would sting Japanese ears — “inefficient.”
“Japan is a land of thorn bushes — of fetishism, polytheism and community-consciousness,” said Hirose, an elder of the church in Mito, Japan. “Even though Christians work very hard … few have been saved.”
Churches of Christ entered Japan about 1890 through missionaries including W. K. Azbill and J. M. McCaleb. Evangelistic fervor gripped the Eastern island chain in the days immediately after the Second World War. From 1948 to 1952, ministers reported 1,000 baptisms per year and a new congregation started almost every month, according to longtime missionary Dwight Albright.

But today church of Christ members throughout Japan number about 1,050.

So, should churches of Christ abandon the nation, focusing on fields with higher numbers of baptisms — such as Africa or India? Never, said Hirose, quoting Churchill’s famous speech about fighting without surrender.

“Japan is one of the ends of the earth where the Gospel should be preached,” said Hirose, chairman of the board of directors for Ibaraki Christian University, a school founded, in part, by church members. Hirose spoke during “Mission Focus: Japan” at Oklahoma Christian University, Oklahoma City, Jan. 28.

About 90 mission supporters attended Hirose’s keynote luncheon during the day-long Mission Focus, which served as a reunion for Japanese Christians and North American church members involved in short and long-term missions to the Eastern island chain.

Christ through English

Despite the hardships, Japanese Christians find it difficult to contain their enthusiasm about the future, thanks in part to strong relationships with North American mission efforts that focus on education. Oklahoma Christian’s exchange program with Ibaraki, now 30 years old, has placed multiple American English teachers in Japan’s public schools.

The Japanese government allows — and even pays — Associate English Teachers (AET’s) to teach in area schools without proselytizing. But their presence has led to increased curiosity about churches of Christ.

AET’s also teach English using the Bible outside of the classrooms. Many are former Oklahoma Christian students who became interested in the mission during their time at Ibaraki through the OC’s exchange program or its Pacific Rim semester abroad.

After graduation, English teaching in Japan can be a tempting vocational ministry.

“The government is paying us to do mission work in Japan. Isn’t that wonderful?” said Joe McCormack, Oklahoma Christian professor emeritus, who has assisted in the program.

At the Mito church, which sponsors language studies at its facility, the programs are leading to conversions.

“It is almost a miracle to see 120 non-Christians come to church every Sunday to study the Bible,” Hirose said.

Other programs, including Fort Worth, Texas-based Let’s Start Talking (LST) and Adventures in Missions from Lubbock, Texas-based Sunset International Bible Institute, have generated interest among Japanese who seek to learn English through Bible studies.

“We had great debates here on this side of the ocean about whether or not this would work,” LST Executive Director Mark Woodward told the audience in Oklahoma. But today — when he thinks back to that first LST program — he refers to it as “the Japanese miracle.” More than 50 people signed up for classes, and the studies led to 12 baptisms.

Today, LST teams work with 12 Japanese churches, and 50-70 workers from North America assist with the ministry’s Japanese programs and “FriendsCamps” — retreats designed to help those studying the Gospel to make connections with the local congregation in their city, Woodward said.

American students involved in such ministries have returned to Japan as full-time missionaries. Four students from York College, York, Neb., participated in a 1998 LST trip, then formed a mission team and moved to the Japanese city of Sendai in 2002.

Missionaries Matt and Kara Huddleston, in the Mito area, have launched a Web site, www.teach.ebc4u.org, recruiting English teachers from the West who can reach out to Japanese students through the Internet.

“I think Japan is ripe and ready for the harvest,” Matt Huddleston said. “(It’s) a culture resistant to change.

“We’ve got to hit Japan with a lot of different approaches.”

Thinking in different terms

Holding up a glass, Huddleston asked his Oklahoma audience if the glass looked half-empty or half-full. Ever-optimistic, most of the room replied “half-full.”

But to the Japanese it’s neither “half-empty” nor “half-full,” Huddleston said.

In their minds, it’s both.

Japan is among the richest countries in the world, but its people are among the poorest spiritually, Hirose said.

Most of the Japanese people have a healthy respect for religions — even those conceived to be “Western.” But they tend to view faith as an academic subject with little relevance to their daily lives, Albright said.

“Brand loyalty” to a particular faith is low. Instead of adopting one religion, many Japanese take elements from several. Today a Japanese person — in the course of a lifetime — may receive a baby blessing at a Shinto temple, a marriage ceremony from a Christian preacher, and funeral rites from a Buddhist priest, Hirose said.

Japanese Christians are “easily converted, but easily deconverted,” said Tomoyuki Shinozaki, minister for the Numazu church. And when they change jobs and move, it is difficult to connect them with a local congregation — if one exists at all, he said.

As a result, Japan has many “ex-Christians” or “one-time Christians,” said Yukikazu “Yuki” Obata, minister for the Mito church. Japanese may embrace Christianity, or other foreign thought, in their youth because they think of it as something from the West that’s “cool,” Obata said. But as they age, they tend to shun Western things and cast off their Christianity. They reject the faith because “now we’re grown up,” Obata said. They think, “Now I’m rich, so I don’t want to be a Christian anymore.”

But once they become believers, according to Albright, “Christians of any length of time in Japan have strong faith and a desire to see the church grow.”

To foster that growth, Christians must address their faith in Eastern terms, said Bob Waldron, executive director of Missions Resource Network, a Dallas-based ministry that assists church-planting efforts.

“The Gospel must be addressed in a Japanese context … a more contemplative Christianity,” Waldron said. “Buddhists accuse us of not doing enough to strengthen the inner man.”

“Americans need to teach in more non-verbal ways,” and focus heavily on mentoring, Waldron said.
Training for the future

Naoyoshi Fukushima, minister for the Tachikawa church, Tokyo, spent the Sunday before “Mission Focus: Japan” worshiping with the Memorial Road church, Oklahoma City. With more than 2,300 members, Memorial Road has more than twice the number of church members in all of Japan. Understandably, Fukushima was a bit awestruck as he described the service, which focused on the selection process for deacons.

“They had the deacons lined up,” he said. “They have 70 deacons … and they’re trying to appoint more! Send us some deacons. We, the preachers, end up doing everything!”

Fukushima is associate dean of the Japan School of Evangelism, a Tokyo school designed to assist Japanese Christians as they combat what Hirose has defined as a brewing crisis in the country — aging preachers.

Training programs for Japanese church leaders have produced a few graduates, but not enough to replace the aging ministers who are ready to step down.

“We need your help training new generations of leaders,” Fukushima told the audience at the Mission Focus. “(We need) people who can help the younger generation become strong … (and) train elders and deacons.”

Yuki Obata considers himself a rarity in Japan — a second-generation preacher. His father, Shiro Obata, was a longtime minister for the Ochanomizu church, Tokyo, before he retired and moved to his hometown of Haruna — and promptly launched a church, raised funds, constructed a building and started preaching again. Future work in Japan should focus on church planting, partnering Japanese and American churches, and cultivating a “sense of deep spirituality” within Japanese congregations, Yuki Obata said.

“We are encouraged to see many new Christians in our fellowship because of the English ministry,” he said. “What we need is to provide them with properly contextualized Gospel so that they can truly absorb the heart of the Gospel and become strong and long-lasting Christians.

“Our goal is not just to have 100 non-Christians attending an English ministry. Our goal is to reach out to more than 100 million non-Christians and change the future of the nation, which has 2,000 years of non-Christian background.”

Michael McClain, a missionary in the Hitachi area, said that Japanese Christians (and missionaries) have yet to fully embrace the power of prayer in transforming lives. He also echoed Obata’s sentiment for training future church leaders.

“So often, young Christians are converted to be bench warmers when God has chosen them to be starters,” McClain said. “We have got to break the dependency on the paid ministers to do all of the evangelizing. … Had this been done before, there would not be the vacuum of leadership now felt in Japanese churches.”

Japan needs more American missionaries, specifically teams like the one in Sendai, said Bob Waldron. “It is rather disconcerting to me that in the last 14 years, there have been only four mission teams that have gone to Asia,” he said.

As the Mission Focus concluded, Fukushima reminded the audience of the purpose behind past, present and future mission efforts.

“The only reason I’m standing here is because a missionary came and extended his hand with the love of Christ,” he said. “Your home is not America. My home is not Japan. Let’s finish the work and go home.”

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 Missionaries Matt Huddleston, left, and Dwight Albright discuss future dreams for Japan. (Photo by Erik Tryggestad)

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Mark Woodward, left, Nao Fukushima and Yuki Obata talk about past and present work in Japan at Oklahoma Christian. (Photo by Erik Tryggestad)

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