Missionary Strategy in Japan

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The JEMA Strategy Forum was commissioned to research a guiding strategy for mission in Japan. They’ve done a lot of research and produced a 65-page PDF of raw data, which will be used to create a strategy document. “The final Strategy Statement will be ready for the 2010 JEMA MLC and Plenary meetings.” It’s now obviously mid-2011, and if that did happen, the Internet doesn’t know about it.

But the great thing about having raw data is that you don’t have to wait for other people to do the analysis for you. You can do your own. Here’s mine.

I’m going to skip the first part, the Biblical examination of church growth, because everyone did this in the 1970s and we don’t need to do it again. If you want MacGavaran or Schwartz, you know where to find them.

Part two is more interesting: current church growth rates. Apart from a brief blip in the 1990s, this has been steadily declining since the post-War evangelism boom. I think the report authors are generous and assume a linear, rather than decreasing, growth rate, but the take-away is that the Christian population will double in 100 years if we carry on as we are. And that’s all that section says.

Part three is where I get a bit ranty, because it attempts to draw up several models of evangelism and then extrapolate church growth into the future. For me the key quote on extrapolation remains this one from Bosch:

In the year 1900 the General Secretary of the Norwegian Missionary Society, Lars Dahle, having compared statistics of the numbers of Christians in Asia and Africa in 1800 and 1900 respectively, was able to devise a mathematical formula which revealed the growth rate of Christianity, decade by decade, dur­ing the nineteenth century. It was only logical that Dahle would apply the formula also to successive decades of the twentieth century. On the basis of this he could calmly predict that, by the year 1990, the entire human race would be won for the Christian faith (cf Sundkler 1968:121).

It’s a shame because the section makes an excellent point - without lay evangelism, the church won’t do anything - in quite a shameful way. Under the lay evangelism model, we apparently get to 100% Christian population (o_O) in precisely 100 years. “
If [lay evangelism] were 
results would occur.” It is certain! It would happen! There is no question!

Well, allow me to ask two questions. One, are we comfortable with the idea of representing people, human beings made in the image of God, as predictable and efficient cogs in our grand evangelistic scheme? Doesn’t this mechanise and dehumanise them, which is precisely what the Other Guy has been trying to do all along?

Two, what about demographics? It’s only the most important factor in the Japanese church right now, so it’s surprising that the JEMA report makes no mention of it: the Japanese church is sitting on a demographic time-bomb. In twenty years, between 50% and 75% of the current church membership is going to die and with them, your precious evangelistic work units. And yet the exponential curve marches merrily upwards - why is this? Maybe real life is more complex than neat models.

Nevertheless, the point is made: churches grow faster if more than one person does the evangelism. Unfortunately, the point is pretty obvious. So that’s part three.

In part 4 they asked a bunch of mission leaders what are the barriers to the Gospel in Japan. This is an unfortunate question because people could - and did - answer it in very different ways: some answered from the perspective of foreign missionaries, some from the perspective of the Japanese church and some from the perspective of Japanese society. So it’s hard to give honest percentage figures in summary to this question, because different people answered one of, essentially, three different and incommensurate questions.

This makes it all the more surprising that 60% of all respondents - regardless of how they chose to answer the question - responded with some variety on the idea of the traditional church failing to empower lay evangelism. Of the 21 who responded from the perspective of the Japanese church, 10 - just under half - explicitly called the Japanese pastor a barrier to the growth of the church, as opposed to many others referred indirectly to “insular churches”, “lack of vision” and so on.

The perspective of the majority of mission agencies surveyed, then, is that the church is broken, and half would say that its leadership is broken. In a way this is good, because it justifies missionaries being here. If the church was doing just fine, we could all go home. (For this reason, mission leaders may not be the best people to be answering these questions!)

Part 5 was a more wide-ranging survey on mission in Japan, and was often more interesting in terms of what people didn’t say, rather than what they did - this was in turn caused by some of the canned responses given as options. Often the write-in “Other” answer scored just as much as the canned responses, which means that the answers are in need of recoding. Having done the recoding, in brief, mission leaders think that:

  1. Japan’s biggest social problems are individual psychological issues such as hikikomori and suicide, and the disintegration of the family. “A culture of dishonesty” got zero responses, but this was before TEPCO lied to everyone about everything.
  2. Peer pressure stops people becoming Christians.
  3. Lay evangelism is the biggest need of the church.
  4. Contextualised evangelism and discipleship material is lacking.
  5. Nobody thinks that targeting businessmen is strategically important (!) although “men in general” got 4 votes - as many as “women in general”. The answer to this was inconclusive, although “youth” got a slight edge.
  6. Urban areas were the most strategically important geographic area.
  7. Lay evangelism is the biggest need of the church. (Yes, this is the same as question 3)
  8. Question 8 was inside baseball about the JEMA Strategy Forum itself.
  9. Missions don’t know how to “create a relevant, contextualized, enculturated gospel message for the Japanese.”
  10. The greatest strength of the Japanese church is not “the strong faith of believers”. Zero responses there. Instead, it was split evenly between “dedication of pastors” and “dedication of church members in giving time and energy”.

Some commentary:

2: Well, sure, but what are we going to do about it? Peer pressure only exists when the individual is separated from the group. The fact that peer pressure is a barrier for people becoming Christians reflects the fact that our evangelism is individual-focused in a group-focused society. To get over the peer pressure problem we need to be restructuring our evangelism to work through society, not against it.

5. Again, this is an individual-focused question, looking at people outside of their natural social contexts. Some brave soul did respond that we should be targeting “families”, which shows more of an appreciation for the group-focused nature of society.

6. If you ask someone where they think it’s important to target, they’re going to say “Where we are.” Because if they didn’t think it was important, they wouldn’t be there. So I’m not convinced this is a useful question.

9. Is it the missionaries job to ready-contextualise the Gospel for Japanese? I don’t think so. Obviously we have to present the Gospel in an appropriate way but the job of contextualization is best done by those in the culture - the Japanese people themselves. And they have done! But are we listening to Fukuda, to Miyake, to Miyahira, to Oyama, and so on? If not, why not? I think part of the problem is that written Japanese is still difficult for the majority of missionaries to understand, and particularly long theological tracts. Obviously what we need is someone to translate these into English! (*cough*)

10. I don’t understand this answer. I suspect that what has happened is that the half of missionaries who thought that the pastor was the problem think that the church members’ dedication is the greatest resource, and the other half who didn’t, think that the pastor is the greatest resource. So not conclusive either way.

Part 6 was a conversation with a similar strategic survey of Japanese churches. The by-now-blindingly-obvious conclusion was that we need more lay empowerment and evangelism.

In part 7 we discover that, in spite of this massive, gaping and readily-acknowledged need, no missions are primarily focusing on lay leadership and discipleship training, even though three-quarters of missions work in partnership with existing Japanese churches. Not a single one. On average, missionaries spend 6% of their working time teaching lay leadership and discipleship, compared to 50% of time in church planting. At 9% of FTE time, filling in paperwork takes up more time than discipling lay leaders.

An obvious solution presents itself. If we want to see lay evangelism happening, if we really think that’s the key to church growth in Japan, then, frankly, we probably should be spending a bit more time on it.