Rambling Notes from Japan
Here are some blog posts that we hope will make you feel a part of things, and help you understand how to pray better for us and Japan. Please see our external blog in Blogger, if this page does not display correctly.
The 50th-Year Jubilee
Fukushima is hardly a place to celebrate. It’s ground zero for the 311 nuclear disaster. Radiation fears sparked a mass evacuation. Ghost towns abound. But on September 14th, the city became a festive place once again. The body of Christ gathered here for a special reason: our association of Baptist churches turned 50 years old, now with over 3800 members in 54 churches from Tohoku to Tokyo. It’s our year of jubilee! [Photo: our group from Denen Grace]
It was humbling to learn that many of our churches trace their roots back to American missionaries who came and planted seeds. Setbacks, language bloopers and cultural missteps? Yes! Plenty! “But God made it grow” (1 Cor 3:6). This group of 500 believers gathered in Fukushima are a testimony to God’s harvest work!
Seasons of a Church Planter
Although there's still much finishing work to do at Denen Grace Chapel, we've started to look toward to our next church planting work in the area. It won't be easy. But we're praying as a couple. We're communicating vision to Denen church members. We're trusting our Season Changer's guidance and provision. Would you pray with us, too, for the changes ahead?Even as seasons change for us in church work, sometimes we get a slice of several "seasons of church planting" at once (that happens in weather, too). Here's a snapshot of four seasons in the last few months.
How long and hard we've prayed and agonized over our church plant, Denen Grace Chapel! Yet Japanese Christians have prayed and agonized much longer and harder! I was reminded of this at our "Teamwork Meeting" in northern Japan. That's a gathering of our church association pastors and missionaries.
I was challenged anew by our early morning prayer time together. We prayed for Japan. I sat between a pastor weeping and another prostrate on the floor. For hundreds of years, in spite of the sweat of many workers and the blood of many marytrs, the Japanese have only responded in small numbers to the gospel. But we pray and wait. God is working under the surface.
The gospel plant grows best in native soil. So, over the years we've tried to incorporate Japanese culture into our church activities (while being careful to not compromise the gospel message). In this photo, our group of ladies are practicing the art of Japanese writing using Scripture verses. (see photos)
For many in this group, it's their first interaction with the Bible! Toward the end of class, our church member (standing in photo) shared a familiar Japanese rhyme used in writing exercises. Few Japanese know that it was created by the underground church (see website) during the martyrdom of the 17th century. The last letters of each line form the hidden acrostic: "Jesus died for me." That discovery brought some startled response from the ladies! Keep praying!
Recently while preaching at my wife's home church in Yamagata, I was struck by this photo on display there. It shows a tiny group of early church members (including my circled in-laws) surrounding the planting missionary, Joe Meeko. Fifty years later this church has multiplied many times over. It's won to Christ, discipled and sent out many, some even to foreign mission fields! And my life story intersects here, too. Without that missionary's evangelistic work, I might not be married to a Chrisitian woman named Kaori!
Mr. Meeko's faith and dedication was huge, but ultimately it was the work of God that brought my Yamagata family to Christ. I pray Denen Grace Chapel will be the same kind of dynamic, multiplying church here in Kawasaki in the years to come. If God chooses bring much fruit from this work, it won't be because of my ability. Make no mistake: "God gives the growth." (1 Cor 3:6)
Recently on Easter Sunday 2014, I did again what I sometimes do in church. I got out of my front seat and stood in the back. The view from the back is special. Seeing new Christians standing together and worshipping God draws me into deeper worship and thanks, too.
When the week of church planting has been hard, when setbacks seem to outnumber forward motion, when the cultural stress builds up, I like to remind myself of why I'm here. So I go to the back on a Sunday and take a good look. And God tells me, "Always give yourself fully to the work of the Lord [Kevin], because you know that your labor is not in vain." (1 Cor 15:58)
The Forgotten Trawler
Imagine you’re aboard a cruise ship. Together with friends, you’re enjoying a time of refreshment and inspiration. You’ve settled into a comfortable cabin. The boat is full of life and activities. You’ve even been asked to help out with things. Food and laughter fill the air. You’ve been sailing the ocean for quite a while, but not sure just where you’re headed.
One morning as you stroll the deck, you notice a large, strange box alongside the railing. Curiosity gets the best of you. You peek inside. Under a layer of dust, you can see coiled ropes and folded nets. For the first time you notice other such boxes all around you. You can just make out the faded letters stenciled on the side: T-A-C-K-L-E. You ask a fellow passenger what this means. He only shrugs. The cabin steward shrugs. But a ship officer seems to remember a story. Before the cabins and carpeting. Before the pools and deck chairs. Once upon a time this ship had a different purpose.
On my desk I have a boat model to remind me of my task in Japan, which is also the task of the church. It’s a fishing trawler with nets on the side ready to drop into the water. You may not have realized it, but when you placed your faith in Christ and stepped aboard the church, you stepped aboard a boat designed to be a fishing trawler. When Jesus said, “Come, follow me and I will make you fishers of men” (Matthew 4:19), that was also your calling to a specific mission of which you are a special part. True, the church could be converted into a cruise ship, but that isn’t the plan of its Builder. Our Builder, Christ, intended us to be about the task of fishing. He’s supplied us with gospel nets of forgiveness, reconciliation, joy, wholeness, and compassion. He’s given us people who know how to this tackle in creative and effective ways. He desires that we work together to go fishing, to draw all kinds of people toward himself.
It’s important that our church sometimes pause and ask the question, “What is it that we’re really doing here?” Very simply, we're casting nets into the ocean of this world and drawing in people toward Christ. We're growing them to be like Him in every way. Christ will steer the fish, but he needs us to let down the nets. As Jesus challenged Peter, he challenges us, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” Luke 5:4
Church planting is building another fishing trawler. Let’s face it. The amount of fish in Kawasaki (99.5% of 5.2 million people) alone is far beyond what one boat of fishermen can handle. One boat may never catch some types of fish. And one boat alone could never hold them. If a spiritual awakening comes to Japan, what would we do? We need greater capacity! We need new people trained to fish along with us, using their own unique approach, and catching their own unique catch.
Wouldn’t it be great if the church in Japan faced this dilemma of the disciples: “When they had done so, they caught such a large number of fish that their nets began to break. So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them, and they came and filled both boats so full that they began to sink.” Luke 5:6-7
Let’s not forget the purpose we were built. Let’s trust God to bring about a miracle catch. As a missionary family, it is our vision to be sent out from Denen Grace Chapel, to work nearby building another fishing trawler, to be “partners in the other boat” fishing closely in this area together. Would you pray with us? Let’s go fishing!
Signs of the Times?
The signs are lettered in white and yellow calligraphy against a black background. Once they are up, they can remain for decades on end until the structure they are attached to literally begins to crumble. These signs, called "Kirisuto Kanban" (Christ signs), are the work of Christian group called the Bible Distribution Society, founded by a missionary in the 50's and now active only as a loose network of a few people.
The group approaches a particular property owner for approval to post the sign. No money changes hands. In fact, the owner is unlikely to be a Christian. So why would these "unintended evangelists" agree to the cause at all? For some, the presence of the sign on their property functions as a helpful theft deterrent. Others feel they are raising the level of morality in their community. Superstitions abound in rural Japan and so still others may feel that to reject the sign would invite some form of divine retribution. These reasons, along with the group-oriented nature of Japanese in small towns, result in the small signs being posted heavily throughout northern Miyagi, Iwate and Akita prefectures.
If you want a healthy debate on evangelistic methodology, ask a Japanese Christian about the "Kirisuto Kanban." I'm not sure that one can say the signs are unhelpful to the cause of Christ. Certainly they move people to consider spiritual things. One might say, however, that the image these signs convey of Christianity to the average Japanese tends to be somewhat negative. Japanese pastors I've asked agree that the signs create an unhealthy fear and suspicion of the work of the local church. Particularly in the wake of 311, a balanced message is needed. The grieving Japanese needs a sign that reminds him that "Christ brings hope to life!" not simply that "After death comes judgement!"
Future Partners in Ministry
This is true in our ministry. The church plant has grown over the past several years by God's grace and your prayer, but the time is now right for national leadership for the Denen Grace Chapel. But it is critical that the individual share a common vision with those in our church ministry!
Enter Pastor Kondo. He has a vision to work together with a missionary to reach more Japanese for Christ, and plant more churches. He’s spent 18 years overseas, and 13 years in church planting work (a Japanese church in Connecticut). He’s in his 50’s, but has the heart of a teenager in his energy for Christ. Last month, Denen Grace Chapel called him to begin as senior pastor from January 2010.
We had not anticipated God to work this way even a year ago, but Pastor Kondo’s passion for Japanese saved abroad who return to Japan, dovetailed with the vision for Denen Grace Chapel. We look forward to what God has ahead for us together.
Would you hold us in prayer as we discuss how our teamwork can more effectively reach more Japanese for Christ, and lay the groundwork for future church planting together with Denen?
Prayer for Denen's Future
We'd like to ask you prayer for this Sunday as we make a very important decision as a church. In 2007 we charted a 5-year course for Denen Grace Chapel's future with four dimensions:
VISION 2012: As God blesses and leads us, by faith we will pray for the following become a reality in the next 5 years.
1. Emerge from the basement and establish a semi-permanent location or permanent location as a witness in the community.
2. Call a Japanese part-time or full-time salaried pastor-leader to work in partnership with the current missionaries.
3. Grow weekly Sunday attendance to 50, membership to 35, and weekday small group involvement to 40.
4. Establish dynamic partnerships with other like-minded churches to lay the foundation for a daughter church plant.
This Sunday, May 17, we will be voting on #2, the calling of a national pastor. We have been working with a candidate for the last half year and feel he is the right man for Denen's future. However, as you can imagine, supporting a pastor for the tiny membership of a new church is a tremendous challenge on a number of levels. Would you pray that people would allow their faith to be expressed as they vote concerning him?
Easter in Japan
We had many first time visitors on Easter Sunday. And we had a great time of fun together during our Kids Easter Party on April 5. Kids in Japan have no idea that Easter has anything to do with Jesus. But at least a dozen more do now!
Many Happy Returns
You might have guessed that about the guy at the far left in the photo (yours truly). But the rest of this bunch? Yes, this is a group of midwest "Returnees." Every year thousands of Japanese travel overseas to live as students, businessmen, and educators. Separated from the entanglements of their home culture, many Japanese become Christians while overseas. And every year, after 1 year or many years abroad, thousands of Japanese return back to their homeland as changed people.
The fact is that MANY MORE Japanese become believers while outside their country, than those who remain in Japan! Nearly 80% of all Japanese who become Christians, became Christians while they were overseas. The difficulty becomes connecting these new believers to a church where they can continue to grow when they eventually return home. Often, Japanese "Returnees" find that they cannot really relate well to a traditional Japanese church. They are not understood, and not accepted. Often shortly after returning they uproot their faith from a local church altogether and blend back into society.
This is a great spiritual tragedy in the evangelization of Japan! If all these new believers were to remain in the church and grow strong in their faith, the Japanese church would be many times it's paltry 1% of the population size.
This past week I attended a conference here in Saitama, Japan that focused on the Returnee challenge. Naturally it was attended by returnees of all ages, including many young returnees, new believers and just back in their homeland. "All Nations Returnee Conference" had some 500 returnees in attendance for three days of sharing, worship, message, and strategy. I was blessed and encouraged, and renewed in my effort and desire to reach out to this unique demographic in Japan.
We want to be a receiving church for Returnees. Our church has at its core Returnees: probably 70% of the church has the experience of living from one to ten years overseas. Would you pray that we would continue to bring in and care for returnees, regardless of whether they have yet made a decision yet for Christ, so that a great harvest of souls result, and the church in Japan would grow strong?
How to decide just about anything in Japan
We might think this game is an American invention, but the story goes that jan-ken-pon is based on an ancient game in Japan involving gestures for a snake, frog, and slug. Don't ask me to tell you how one decides the winner of that kind of battle, but perhaps it was an enjoyable picnic game back then, too.
Thanks from Navotas to Denen
In November, our church hosted an outreach made for Japan. One of our ladies in church is a gifted calligrapher. She taught a class on how to prepare the traditional yearend POSTCARDS using Japanese brush design! This type of Japanese calligraphy is very hard to emulate, much less read, when it is done correctly. But it is a respected and beautiful part of Japanese culture and tradition.
Kaori spoke on the Biblical roots of some of these letters, giving a good gospel message that was well-received by the group. We had a good turnout: 22 people, including 14 unbelievers.
Many of the Japanese letters contain Christian ideas. For example, the Japanese character for "righteousness" pictures the symbol for lamb covering the symbol for myself. The character for "forgiveness" includes the symbol of beating and the symbol for red (blood). The character for "tree" includes a person and a cross. There's a story to be told that dovetails with the gospel message.
Why are these ideas in the language? It is thought that the Apostle Thomas brought the gospel into Asia, including parts of China. Japanese borrows heavily upon the Chinese writing system.
We were surrounded by other families enjoying the day outdoors, but our focus was on our own family today...we enjoying being together as a church. After a time of singing, message, and worship, we enjoyed a few simple games together, then a meal, then sports and more games. It was fun to interact with people in different ways (hitting some balls, kicking a soccer ball around, and games like the one shown above) and in a different setting (in the middle of God's great creation). We even had a first-time visitor, a mom with her three kids came and joined us from the worship time!
Guess Who Came to Church on Sunday?
As part of the 60th anniversary celebration, Hans Finzel, president of of our mission, WorldVenture, came to Japan and spoke at several gatherings, including our humble church plant, Denen Grace Chapel. We were privileged to have Hans and his son, Jeremy, spend the day with us. Hans shared a message with us from Luke 5:1-11 and spoke on the "long chain of partnership" (the many missionaries to Japan from our mission since 1947) that has served as a foundation for the harvest work we are part of here. As a living example of this chain of partnership, Betty Duncan (seated next to Hans in photo), who served for many years as a WorldVenture missionary in the Fukushima area, also joined our service along with her son. Our people were thrilled to interact with both Hans and Betty. We really do have a great heritage as a mission here. Kaori and I are honored to be a part of this chain of partnership.
Hey Youth! Let's Go Camping!
We arrived safely, made something to eat, had our meeting, and retired to bed to listen to the rain pound on the walls of our cabins all night. It was quite a weather experience. But the next two days were the complete opposite. After the typhoon did its worst, God showed his best. The sun and clear blue skies along with cool fall-like weather were the perfect backdrop for outdoor activities, like cycling in this picture (Mt. Fuji in the background).
Two kids (half of our group) were not believers. It was a great time for them to take some steps toward God. We had a great set of meetings and wonderful outdoor activities. Thank you, Lord, for taking care of our group! Today was Sunday and I was pretty wiped out already, but sanctuary setup, Sunday School, Worship Service, lunch, and Gospel Music Workshop people needed our full engagement. It is a good fatigue that I am feeling.