‘How can we do better at planting churches here in Japan?’
OMF Japan Field Director Chris Pain asks this simple – yet hard to answer – question in his introduction to ‘Church Planting and Partnering in Japan: Learning from Pastors’ and Missionaries’ Perspectives’. Released in October 2022, the report is helping OMF and other mission agencies assess their approach to church planting in Japan.
Since starting work in Japan in 1952, OMF has been involved in about 70 church plants.1 However, as Daniel Lau, a Singaporean OMF worker on the research team explained, ‘we noticed that the rate of church planting has slowed in the last few decades. Not just in OMF, but across different mission agencies. We were asking ourselves “why is that?” and “what can we do better?”’ When 18 cities and over 500 towns in Japan still have no Protestant church these are vital questions to ask.2
In 2021 OMF Japan turned to Eido Research, a UK-based Christian consultancy firm, to help get some answers. The review consisted of two elements. First, an online survey of 70 people involved in church planting ministry in Japan – OMF workers, other missionaries and Japanese pastors. Second, a listening project of around 40 detailed interviews with Japanese church plant leaders, missionaries, mission agency leaders and experts on church planting in Japan.
Growing healthy churches
Through the surveys and interviews, four general principles for effective church plants emerged:
Some of these factors are to be expected, but Daniel shares that the principle of methodological flexibility was a bit of a surprise. He explains that it’s common for discussions about church planting to promote a particular model – such as house churches or traditional churches – as a key factor in success.
But as Daniel says, ‘there is no one single right model in Japan’. He has been involved in both house churches in Tokyo and traditional church plants in rural areas so can see the benefits of different approaches. The important thing is finding the best approach for each setting, based on the church planters’ background, experiences and spiritual giftings and the social, economic and demographic characteristics of the community.
Cutting through the weeds
More importantly, the report also reveals the barriers to developing these characteristics in churches.
In the first area of inward health, a major barrier identified was a lack of believers equipped for service and a wider lack of discipleship. Daniel says this was the theme that stood out to him most while working on the report: ‘We really want to see not just churches being planted, but disciples making other disciples. After all, that’s what the Great Commission is. The Church is not just a building. A church is a gathering of fellow disciples on a journey toward Christlikeness who in turn reach out to other people.’
Daniel shared that in the church he supports they have been emphasising that discipleship is ‘for the long haul’. That it is about ‘loving the Lord in obedience out of a heart of gratitude’ and includes all of life, in the workplace and the home.
As Daniel outlines, deeper discipleship not only helps develop internally healthy churches but should lead to a greater outward focus and passion for evangelism. A lack of passion for evangelism was the most mentioned (by 33 per cent of respondents) barrier to churches having an external focus.4
Another factor discouraging church planting is more difficult to deal with. The report explains: ‘Since few Japanese churches were growing, there was limited potential for successful churches to send members to form a daughter church. Many churches also lacked staff and sufficient income to hire a pastor.’ One pastor told the research team that for many Japanese churches, the idea of planting another church just seems unrealistic.5
Yet perhaps the most significant barriers can affect even the healthiest of churches in Japan, which still encounter much spiritual and cultural resistance. The report, which is freely available online, has interesting insights on the nature of this resistance and possible solutions, including greater community engagement and exploring new ministry models.6
“when possible, missionaries should … partner with Japanese churches and Christians”
Working better together
Considering the fourth principle of effective leadership handover brings us to a section of the report that makes for challenging reading. Comparing the responses of Japanese pastors and cross-cultural workers revealed they had different expectations of how partnerships should begin and progress and highlighted the importance of clearly setting expectations at the outset.7 Improving these partnerships will be vital for effective church planting.8
A majority of the pastors interviewed were in favour of working with cross-cultural workers, but made valuable recommendations for OMF and other agencies to consider.
First, the review highlighted that participants felt missionaries’ primary focus should be on church planting rather than training and equipping roles. They also stressed that, although there might be exceptional times when missionaries have to start churches on their own, ‘when possible, missionaries should … partner with Japanese churches and Christians.’9
Second, pastors shared the ideal characteristics of potential partners. Cross-cultural workers should bring experience in church ministry, evangelistic gifting, pastoral ability and cross-cultural training.10 Yet more important than all these was the worker’s character, showing flexibility, humility and a willingness to accept Japanese leadership and vision. Sadly, the report notes 63 per cent of participants who had partnered with missionaries found their inflexibility to be a significant challenge in their partnership.11 Humble partnership, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ (Ephesians 5:21) is the way forward.
Looking to the future
The final part of the report explores future opportunities for church planting. The survey offered several possible future strategies for respondents to choose from, such as targeting towns and villages without churches or focusing on a small number of churches to ensure deep discipleship. However, there was no consensus on one approach to take. Two key areas that were highlighted were the need for church plants in rural areas and meeting the needs of young people.12
Daniel explains that the report’s release isn’t the end of the review team’s work. Now they are engaging with all OMF Japan members on the next steps, reviewing strategies and developing new guidelines for future church planting. He concludes, ‘I’m very encouraged that even though church planting is slow, it is God who plants his Church. So it will grow. We just have to trust him and be faithful to the work he has called us to do.
All page numbers are from the review, available to download here.
2 Figures from omf.org/church-in-japan
3 Discussed in more detail on p.3
5 This theme is covered on p.25
8 Discussed in chapter 5, p.31-38