I was recently invited to write an article for a publication in Japan about my hope for the future of the church in Japan in the wake of the 5th anniversary of the 3/11 triple disaster. You can read the article below:
I grew up in the bible belt of North Carolina with a traditional church background and moved to Missouri for bible college. Like many in my class, I had become disgruntled with the American church. I saw many problems and dreamed that once I had my bible college degree I could begin to undo some of those. That was the idea, until I met a friend from Japan. As our relationship grew, he began to encourage me to come visit Japan with him and presented an opportunity in the form of a short term trip to his home church.
This trip was my first time to ever experience the church outside of America and I was was amazed at what I saw. In my ignorance of the language and culture I naively gave into all that I experienced. It seemed to my 20 year old mind that I had found a church that seemed to be doing right, all the things that I had become disgruntled with concerning the American church. There were early morning prayer meetings, powerful outreach events, and a thriving homeless ministry that welcomed people to live on the church grounds in exchange for labor around the campus. The church was multi-cultural with lots of Brazilians and filipinos joining in worship with the Japanese which all seemed to add up to the perfect picture of community and I wanted to experience more.
So I headed back to Japan the following year this time on a school sanctioned trip that took us around Honshu visiting several different local churches. As we traveled from church to church, I was shocked that the churches we visited had very few members and many of them were elderly. Some churches didn’t even have pastors. You could imagine the dumbfounded look I had when I learned that these were average churches in Japan.
I decided that I needed to learn more so I headed back to Japan that summer. My aim was to spend the summer in Kashiwazaki, Niigata fulfilling my internship requirements for college and hoping to learn more about the condition of the church in Japan while trying to reconcile the differences between my first and second trip. After only 3 weeks my home for the summer was shaken to the ground and the little town of Kashiwazaki was turned upside down by the Niigata Chuetsu Earthquake. I spent the rest of that summer serving alongside the various disaster relief projects around the city and eventually connected with CRASH Japan and landed a job as a teacher at an international school in Tokyo the following year.
At the end of the summer I headed home to finish out my last semester of college and prepare for my big move back to Japan. Throughout the transition I thought a lot about my previous experiences. Through the earthquake I was able the see a hopelessness in many people that resonated with a similar hopelessness I felt in my own heart as a child. It was Christ who rescued me out of the darkness and gave me hope and it was Christ alone who would fill their hopelessness too. Experiencing that was the deciding factor for me to make the decision to become a full-time missionary to Japan. Yet, deeper still I couldn’t shake the fact that I also wanted to understand what was going on in the church of Japan. Why had I seen such a difference between the church in my first trip and the churches visited in the second. I got my answer in the summer of 2008. As I moved to Tokyo I decided to stop through and visit my old friend and experience some nostalgia from my first trip to Japan. I spent a couple of weeks there with him still as impressed with his church as I first was. However, this time I had a better grasp of the language and culture of Japan. Through this, I began to see some holes in the facade I had draped over my thoughts concerning this church. As I looked deeper I began to see and experience things that I had not picked up on my first trip. Further conversations with a few missionaries and church leaders I had come to know would eventually help me come to the conclusion that the reason why there was such a difference between them and other churches is because they largely had roots in the Prosperity Gospel movement.
This realization left me broken. I was troubled to see that the state of the church in Japan was pretty bleak. Churches were unhealthy. Many were dying while others were giving themselves over to false doctrine. As I thought about this, the idols of control and approval began to swell in my heart and the arrogance I had as a young bible college student came flooding back. In my arrogance I began to plot how I would approach the problems of the church in Japan and begin a new church that would become to model for churches in the future. A few years later in the wake of the 2011 tsunami, I was completely broken. I had been given the opportunity to lead a CRASH scout team to the north to survey the situation and through which I was brought to the realization that I didn’t know how to lead. In the months following the church planting team I had put together dissolved and my wife and I found ourselves alone. Through prayer we decided to return to the states where I began walking through a season of repentance. We found a home in Karis Church, back in Missouri. I began an internship at Karis and over the years began to be transformed from a prideful one-man show to a humble teachable team player through God’s grace. As we served at Karis we learned what a healthy church looks like and how to be healthy church members. Karis also began to invest in our calling to Japan and through our partnership with the Acts 29 church planting network we took several trips back to Japan exploring what it might look like for us to return to Japan. These trips enabled me to see a glimpse of the future of the church in Japan and it’s a future i’m excited about. In a way the tsunami seems to have been a wake up call to many of the dying churches in Japan. In other ways it’s helped to raise the awareness of the need for new work to begin in Japan. This past spring I was privileged to glimpse this at meeting of some 14 or so church planters seeking to network together to reach the great city of Tokyo with the gospel. We are preparing to return to Japan this spring and I now have great hope for the future of the church in Japan.
As we labor for the sake of the gospel together in this next season of the church in Japan, let us not forget for whom we are laboring for. “For to this end we toil and strive, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe.” (1 Tim. 4:10)