Hokkaido has a unique history which has undoubtedly aided missionary endeavour in the region. Unlike other parts of Japan with thousands of years of history, Hokkaido’s virgin forests and towering mountain ranges only began to be inhabited and developed by Japanese people (as opposed to the indigenous Ainu) in the late 19th century. As a result, religious and cultural traditions are less deeply entrenched than in other parts of Japan. Today Hokkaido has a population nearing 5 and a half million, but 35% live in the largest city of Sapporo which is well supplied with around 170 churches. Outside Sapporo there are only a handful of cities and vast country areas where the main occupations are fishing, agriculture and tourism. There are no churches at all in 62% of the prefecture’s towns and villages.
The thrust of OMF’s work in Hokkaido since the 1950’s has, for many years, been pioneer church planting. By God’s grace more than 40 churches have been planted and most passed over to Japanese leadership. Most of these churches belong to the country wide Japan Evangelical Churches Association (JECA). Church planting still remains the focus of OMF’s ministry but as the number of churches and Japanese pastors has increased, the pattern has gradually changed from pioneering by missionaries alone to partnering with Japanese churches.
Partnering can take many forms. Japanese have worked alongside missionaries in preparation for eventual leadership when the missionaries move on. Many missionaries are being trained in Japanese churches for their first 2 years out of language school and some will continue to work under Japanese leadership. The most recent church plant is the result of a cooperative vision by both OMF and JECA with many Hokkaido JECA churches supporting the work financially and in prayer. At the moment it is OMF missionaries who are on the ground, but it is hoped that a JECA pastor will soon be added. The whole work is backed by a representative JECA/OMF committee from other parts of the island.
Many churches in Hokkaido are tiny especially in the smaller cities with declining populations. The island has around 400 Protestant churches but the average number of Sunday service attendees is only 30. Some JECA churches are struggling and are pastor-less. The encouragement of stronger churches is vital. A larger church spent a weekend helping a smaller church reach their community. They finished off with a concert and one believer said, “We can do so much more in one weekend when you come to help us. It’s great to work together. Thank you for coming.” Smaller struggling churches are often very encouraged when larger established churches partner with them by sending evangelistic teams.
‘Pioneering through partnership’ encapsulates the work of OMF in Hokkaido. We give thanks for the establishment of many churches and for the strong relationship between OMF and JECA. But with a mere 0.2% of the population of Hokkaido in church on an average Sunday the challenge of reaching the unreached remains as great as ever.