One of the questions we are often asked as ministry workers in Japan is why only 1% of Japanese identify as Christians. While this is a complex question to answer in a single blog post, let me toss you a fact and a theory to consider.
Fact: Most Japanese people have little knowledge of the Christian God or Jesus Christ. Now, if the entire country was evangelized and still only 1% of people made a decision to follow Christ, I would say our work in Japan is finished. Our job is to make the gospel known, not to “convert” or “save” people. Salvation is through Christ alone. The work of communicating the gospel, the job of ministry workers and really every Christian living in Japan, is far from over, however.
Which leads me to my theory about being stuck at the 1% threshold. Imagine yourself as a farmer with a huge field that you wanted to grow a crop of corn in. Now imagine that perhaps once a week, you went into your field and dropped a few kernels of corn, kicked a little dirt over them, and went to paint the barn or milk the cows or some other farm related thing.
If the weather was kind to you and provided you some rain, if birds didn’t pick your corn kernels out of the ground, and if weeds didn’t choke your growing corn stalks, at the harvest, you might have some corn. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, 1% of your field.
So my theory is this: Historically, Japan has not invested enough effort in planting the seeds of the harvest to see a greater harvest. And what do those kernels of corn represent? Investment in ministry to the children.
It is said that less than 50% of Japanese churches TODAY provide any sort of children’s ministry: Sunday School, youth programs, Bible camp, etc. With no children’s ministry going on at church, when children hit the age where secular events like sports or school clubs are an option for them, they simply disappear from the church, many of them forever.
I want to be clear that I am not saying this in criticism of the Japanese church. Most churches barely have the staff to support the adult congregation. But I am offering this idea as an encouragement to the churches in Japan; if you invest in children’s ministry now, you will see the harvest of believers later.
I have had countless conversations with Japanese people (and indeed Americans as well) who made decisions for Christ later in life but have clear memories of being taught about a loving Creator God and the sacrifice of Jesus very early in their lives in Sunday School or at a VBS program. Even I heard the gospel many times in elementary school before I made the decision to give my life to Christ in junior high school.
We had the privilege of serving with Tokyo Shibuya Evangelical Church this past week as they provided an English Camp, or what we would call in America a “VBS” program. A team from the Bay Area comes each year to provide leadership and materials for this event. This is the third year they have put on this camp and this year we had 67 children in attendance.
80% of the children (and their families) have little or no exposure to the gospel except through this event. Some parents might even object to a church camp teaching the gospel in Japanese but because it is bilingual, they feel it’s a good experience for their children. Many of the children are repeat attendees from the previous year or two.
One of the personal joys for me this year was walking one boy through the gospel message and hearing him explain the message to me in his own words! Later, I watched as many of the kids were absolutely engrossed in reading their personal copy of “Manga Mission”, a free resource from Next Manga.
Though the children were all offered opportunities to give their lives to Jesus, it would be difficult to confirm which of them did so in faith. Yet, this isn’t even the important thing, as God knows their hearts and true motivations. I believe the most important thing is that the seeds of the gospel were planted in 67 young and tender hearts this past week. God assures us that the word that goes from His mouth does not return without accomplishing its purpose.
If you are not yet familiar with the 4/14 Window Movement that is going on globally to promote evangelism and empowerment to children, I urge you to learn more about this important movement.
Pray with us for these children but also for the greater vision of ministry to the children to grow in the Japanese church. We are seeing many church leaders embracing this new dynamic and recognizing it as a key to evangelizing the nation.