Reflections on CPI 2017

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This was our first year at  the CPI (Church Planting Institute) conference and to be honest, I never felt the need or desire to go in the past. After all, we are technically not church planters, but church supporters, working with an existing church and following the vision of the pastors. We went this year because our organization, JEMS, used CPI as an opportunity to bring together all of our JEMS co-workers in Japan for the first time.

Now I have never been one to love this type of event from the start. As a staunch introvert, the idea of spending the whole day with a large group of people and not even having my own room to decompress at the end of the day sounded more like torture than rest. But God always knows what we need and I was one of the lucky few who was able to secure an individual room for the duration of the conference, which put me much more at ease about going.

The time spent with our colleagues was precious. Two summers ago, we were fortunate enough to be in California for the Mt. Hermon conference with a large group of us, but there were still many who were not able to attend. And in the past couple of years, our executive director has worked hard to add to our numbers, so there were many more team members whom I had never met even on social media.

It was great to catch up with old friends and meet new ones. There is a special bond between ministry workers that doesn’t even need to be established; we simply relate to the kinds of trials that are common to our occupation. So it is easy to pray for and with one another and feel the support of those who have and continue to walk in our shoes.

As for the conference itself, the message really struck a chord with me this year. As basic as it seemed, we were simply reminded to take time to experience the love of God, and given ample opportunity to do so in worship and prayer. And for the first time in what seemed like a long time, I really felt I was able to let the Lord draw near to me and be embraced by Him with His unconditional, infinite love.

As ministry workers, we can talk for hours about God’s love and faithfulness. We drill it into our heads and we try to drill it into the heads of those who want to know it. But we don’t always give people the opportunity to experience it, largely because we may not be experiencing it on a daily basis ourselves. This is the challenge of what we do: maintain a respectable level of work for the Kingdom while nurturing a relationship with God so that we truly can understand the importance of the work we are doing for others.

Coming out of the conference, I’ve been prayerfully pondering how to make the love of God real in my own life and how to relate the experience, not just the knowledge, to those who desire to know God more. I feel there are no easy answers, but at the same time, I also feel that God provides answers to those who earnestly seek Him.

Little Voices Magnified

Yesterday, as I watched the mini-bus full of our Redwood team pull out of the preschool on their way back to California, I felt the tears welling up. For a week, we had transformed the rooms and halls of the preschool, normally unused during vacation periods, into places of joy and laughter for over 200 children. They danced like no one was watching, sang at the tops of their lungs, and gave praise to a God they were only just beginning to know, but One who knew and loved them before they were born.

Their little voices echoed in the hallways of my memories, their little footsteps literally running into the chapel excited to sing and dance their hearts out for Jesus. In those moments, it wasn’t difficult to understand the joy God feels for us, His creation, and what He intended our relationship to be with him: children running with joy to spend time with their Father.

Dozens of volunteers spent hundreds of man hours preparing for and participating in English Summer Camp this year. Many people, most who didn’t even attend the event, gave time and resources to support this event: prayer, financial, labor. And many volunteers here in Japan sacrificed their vacation time to spend time with these children.

I’m so thankful for the breadth and depth of our local volunteers this year. Some came from other churches to help, some from other ministries, like a great group of young people from YWAM. Some were local university students who love children. Some were mothers of participating children who wanted to be more actively involved.

Some of our volunteers said that by participating in camp, they came to a fuller knowledge of who Jesus is and what Christianity is about. A parent said that she had never seen her child as full of joy as they were during English Summer Camp. On the last day, there were already requests to do a mini-camp in the Fall, maybe with a few members of the Redwood Team returning to lead it.

This is all we pray and hope for; the opportunity to build deeper friendships and relationships based on the foundation of God’s love. Through our friendship, we hope to help our Japanese friends gain a clearer understanding of God’s great love for them. We want to stand with them in their times of joy and times of sorrow, their triumphs and trials. For Jesus called us to live out his love in the world in action, and not just words.

Sharing some of the beautiful moments of this year’s English Summer Camp: children worshiping their Heavenly Father and being loved with the love of Jesus through our leaders and volunteers.

 

“The Holey Church”

Yesterday, Mr. S., a man from our church, left from the local train station on his way to his new home in Osaka. Our pastor was there to see him off and snap a photo together on his phone which he kindly posted to Facebook so we could all wish Mr. S. well on this new season of his life.

I didn’t call Mr. S. a member of the church, because he wasn’t. Mr S., as far as I know, is not yet a Christian. But for the past year, Mr. S. has been faithfully attending church, prayer group meetings, and volunteering his time in different ministries the church is involved in. He was a wonderful helper at our English Summer Camp program last year and we invited him to return from Osaka to help us again this summer.

I don’t know the whole story about Mr. S. except that he lived in the neighborhood near our church for decades, and one day, he decided he wanted to come to church. Unable to come to Sunday service, he joined the weekly prayer meeting instead and faithfully prayed for the people of our church and others. He made friends with our pastor and several others in the prayer group.

When Mr. S. realized the needs the church was helping to address, he didn’t stand by and observe. He jumped right in and began to help. When we were short on helpers last year for our first English Summer Camp, Mr. S. was there every day volunteering.

This past Sunday when it was announced to the congregation that Mr. S. would be moving to Osaka, he was recognized for his generous heart of service with a hearty applause. This quiet, unassuming man who simply stepped into our church building one day had made such an impact on the work the church was doing.

At the risk of sounding boastful, this is how church should be done. I’m grateful that our pastors and staff have promoted the idea the “holey church” where people from the community can come into church not just to attend service but to participate in ministries of the church traditionally considered “Christians only”. The idea is that one doesn’t just need to come to church through the front door directly into worship service, but they can come into the church through any number of doors that lead to different ministries and activities, not only as participants but as volunteers and leaders. After all, rare is the person who answers the altar call who hasn’t first experienced the love of God through relationships with Christians through church ministry.

What if prayer meeting was reserved only for church members? What if volunteering for English Summer Camp was restricted only to Christians? Would Mr. S. have even stuck around at a church that appeared exclusive to its members?

Church isn’t a country club that requires membership to join and participate. In fact, I have heard it explained that “the church is the only institution that exists primarily for the benefit of those who are not its members”. But at times, the church as a whole sometimes forgets this directive, and the result is that we miss out on opportunities to minister to people.

Over 40 ministries and activities use our church facility on a weekly basis. Some are church affiliated and some are independent. Most are meeting some need of a group that is in need: young families, single mothers,  the mentally or physically disabled, students who need a safe place to hang out. About 1,500 people come in and out of the church building during the average week to attend or volunteer with one of these activities. That is the opportunity for 1,500 people, the large majority of whom are not yet Christian, to experience the gospel through interaction with Christians in the church.

Mr. S. is just one recent example of those opportunity people, who came out of curiosity, but stayed because they were loved and accepted by Christians. When we think outside the box and treat non-Christian people not as “projects” but as peers, we make it possible to build honest and genuine relationships with them that reflect the love Christ has for us.

Please pray that this attitude of inclusion would permeate the church in Japan and people would see the Christian church as a safe haven where they can be accepted and loved as well as be free to serve without first having to “become Christian”.

A Little Reunion

This month, we were able to host our first “reunion” of our children from our English Summer Camp program held this past August. Our intention was to rekindle the interest in the program for next year as well as to invite kids and families to our many church events during this holiday season: Children’s blessing day, Kids Festival and Christmas Eve candlelight service.

We kept the program very simple with a few songs from the summer program, a photo slideshow, a short message from a visiting pastor from the Philippines, and a fun game with colorful balls. Our partners at Redwood Chapel also recorded video messages to share with the kids.

Flyers were sent out a couple weeks in advance, but we really had no idea how many children would show up, just like in August. We just knew this was something we had to do and to repeat several times before next summer’s English Camp.

A few days before the event we received some bad news: elementary schools in the area were in session on that day, a Saturday! Once every couple of months, elementary school kids have to go to school on Saturday and unfortunately, we picked that day for our event. That meant up to half of the potential kids who could attend would be unable to.

So the day of the event arrived and our expectations were low. A few kids and their families were there early to greet us including some of our volunteers. It was so good to see them and see the excitement on their faces. Most came with their camp t-shirts and one little girl even came with her original name tag.

As we approached the starting time, more and more kids and families came trickling in. In the end, about 50 children came, most with one or both parents. A few of the children had not even attended English Summer Camp but were invited by children who did. In the end, we had a great turnout and a great time reuniting with our kids, their families and some of our volunteer moms.

Once again, we find when we serve faithfully, God takes care of the details for us. A couple of the families who came also came to our Children’s blessing event the next day and took family portraits (which they can pick up at Christmas Eve service). We were so blessed to see how the seeds sown over the summer have already begun to take root. We envision and pray for a generation of children who will know God as the Creator, God as the loving Father, God as the Savior, and perhaps one day, Jesus as Lord.

When There Are No Easy Answers

Recently, my pastor participated in a neighborhood festival and was given the honor of helping to carry the mikoshi.

Once you have read and digested that sentence, you will likely fall into one of three groups of people.

The first group thinks: “That’s nice that the pastor of your church is an active and respected member of the community.” and nothing more.

The second group is horrified, and thinks “What kind of a Christian pastor would participate in a religious festival so closely tied to Shintoism and even went so far as to carry the mikoshi, an act that is more than passively approving of worshiping false gods but actively participating in it?”

And the third group is encouraged, thinking “After decades of making Japanese people feel guilty and shameful about their cultural practices with historic ties to religion, it is refreshing to see a Christian pastor who can look beyond the surface appearance of honoring people by participating in a community festival and see the long term goal of building trust and mutual respect with the community the church serves.”

So which of these three groups of people’s beliefs are correct? The answer is more complicated than you probably think.

Before we dive into this question, I want to say that I am well aware of the fact that this is a controversial subject. I may state things in a way you might find offensive, and though I intend no offense, I do not automatically apologize for it either. Perhaps it is you that needs to reconsider your views of Christianity, missions and evangelism and perhaps that truth can range from irritating to painful. If you are not ready to confront your own potential blind spots in these areas, it is best for you to stop reading here.

Here we have a conundrum. Two of the three possible responses to this situation are in direct opposition to one another, and it would not be surprising for well-intentioned Christians to line up on either side of the issue, ready to defend it with strong words for the other side. And that’s where we’d all be wrong.

The answer to the question, in my opinion, is that all three groups are correct and none of the three are correct, and it depends on the situation and the prayerful discernment of the one who must make that choice. That answer is probably completely unsatisfactory to many of you.

But perhaps that is because we as modern Christians have grown lazy in our spirituality. We expect the Bible to spit out an answer in form of chapter and verse that unequivocally answers our questions of morality. Unlike the spiritual giants of the past who spent hours a day locked in a room pleading for God to speak, we believe the Lord will give us an answer to our deepest questions in a 15 minute quiet time over coffee and a piece of toast.

And we fail to remember that the Bible wasn’t written in chapter and verses, neatly divided up for us to cherry-pick our answers from. The Bible is to be taken as a whole to see the character of God through His relationship with His people and that of His Son, Jesus Christ. In high school government, we learned the difference between the letter of the law and the spirit of the law. When you divide the Bible into verses and take them out of context, it is far too easy to find the letter of the Law without discerning the Spirit, in this case, the Holy Spirit, who will reveal the character and nature of God through the entire text.

So in that context, the Bible does not speak directly to the participation in a Japanese festival, nor should we expect it to. It does speak about worshiping false gods. It also speaks about how Jesus himself broke perceived religious rules to reach people where they were at. When we cherry-pick from either of these verses, we end up in opposition with our own brethren, sometimes to the point of contention.

Much is left out of the sentence that began this division of Christian opinions. One of the major points is the fact that prior to starting relationship building with community leaders, our church was viewed with suspicion and perhaps even enmity in the community. Certainly, there was a lack of trust in the goodwill of the church toward the people in the neighborhood. After many years of actively participating in the community including attending community meetings and events and rising to a leadership role, our pastor was given the honor of carrying the mikoshi in the annual festival.

Now, let’s put ourselves in his shoes for a moment. After investing years of relationship building and trust creation with the leaders of the community, you are offered one of the highest honors they can bestow on you. To these people, they view carrying the mikoshi as nothing more than a symbol of being a leader in the community; there are no religious overtones tying it to Shintoism. But you are aware that some members of your church and the Christian community in general will not see it that way.

What do you choose to do? Do you turn down the honor, which sends a message to the people that while we say you don’t have to be a Christian to come to church, if you are a Christian you can’t be a part of community events based on Japanese cultural traditions? Such a response can easily snowball into the misconception that you are a hypocrite, that what is good enough for the “pagans” is not good enough for Christians.

Or do you accept the honor, incurring the wrath and judgment (much of it in silence, behind your back) of the Christian community who sees your actions as heretical? Do you accept the possibility that some of your own congregation may leave your church because they so sharply disagree with your actions?

As you can see, there is no easy answer. Even if you believe accepting the honor from the community is the right choice, you will have to deal with the consequences. And in fact, there may be cases where choosing not to participate in such a festival is the correct decision. But one cannot discern either decision without wrestling with the answer in prayer and meditation.

Let me end this with one more analogy. For those of us in full-time ministry, we are fighting a spiritual battle against our enemy, the devil and his demons, for the souls of the lost. This is the front lines and though the battle belongs to the Lord, the enemy is using every trick, every tactic to hold us back. One of the greatest tactics he will use against us is to turn us on ourselves. In the stress of the battlefield, it is actually quite easy for him to do this to us. If we’re too busy killing off each other, we have no time to give life to those who need it.

So pulling back the camera and looking at the big picture, are the decisions being made by people furthering or hindering the communication of the gospel to the people who most need to hear it? And if we’re not willing to support one another in decisions that we don’t agree with, can we at least agree not to tear each other down for those decisions when they are made for the sake of the gospel? Let us not become our own greatest enemy, standing between our brothers and those hungry for the gospel.

Free To Be

In a recently published article in the Japan Times, the uncomfortable issue of child suicide stemming from school pressures was brought into the light once again. On the first day of the academic school year in April and again on the first day of school after the long summer break, suicides among students spike, a trend that has gone on for over 40 years.

Though the Japanese education system is a wonder in many ways, it has serious blind spots that put children, especially those who have trouble fitting in, at risk. For students who are socially awkward, terrible and often relentless bullying is common. For students who are not academically gifted, the constant pressures of testing, where your future opportunities can be set for you in the 6th grade is a factor. And for students with learning or behavioral disorders, the rigid structure of public school can be extremely difficult, on top of the bullying and academic performance pressures.

Last year at JEMS Mt. Hermon, I was introduced to a brother who is passionate about giving children who don’t fit into the rigid mold of public education and chance to learn, thrive, and be accepted unconditionally. Moto Kimura is principal of the Keiyu Gakuen free school, a church-based school near Ueno Park in Tokyo. Moto is a co-worker in more ways than one: he is a JEMS affiliated ministry worker.

Moto, his wife, and his two children all serve and attend Keiyu Gakuen along with about a half-dozen other staff members. They serve children from elementary school to high school age. The curriculum is fairly fluid and there is plenty of room for play. Minor behavioral “problems” that wouldn’t be tolerated in public school classrooms, like talking out of turn or getting up and walking around during a lesson, are ignored by the staff. The kids are free to be who they are.

Since last November, I have been serving monthly as a Chapel time speaker and photography teacher, as well as an informal English “coach”. I give a simple message to the children which I usually try to focus on God’s purpose for our lives and our value as His children. Then we eat lunch together and I talk to some of the kids (in English and my broken Japanese) and joke around with them. Every two or three months, we also do a simple photography lesson in the afternoon, which is basically teaching them how to use a camera and taking portraits of each other, which I allow them to print on the spot. The photographs they have taken of each other have become a source of amusement and laughter as we bring them back as slideshow material every month.

I love my time at the free school as I have developed friendships with the staff and kids. The kids may not be perfect students but it is not difficult to see how wonderful they are in the eyes of God. They are full of life and happiness, and being in a safe place where they can be who they are without fear of being disciplined or bullied brings out the best in them.

Sadly, not enough is being done in Japan to help the many children who cannot conform to the strict mold of the public education system. While much lip service is paid to reforming the system, at the heart of the matter, society wants children to be trained to conform, which is the basis of Japanese society being group-oriented, not individualistic. So progress is slow and every year, hundreds of children will needlessly take their own lives in protest of the system they cannot fit into.

Like Keiyu Gakuen, the church can step in fill needs where they are not being met. A free school is a huge resource commitment, but having clubs or making the church a place children can come to feel safe, with adults they can trust and who genuinely care about them can make a big difference. As one director of a Tokyo non-profit said so accurately:

“School shouldn’t be a place requiring children to sacrifice their lives. I want children to know there are places other than school where they can learn and make new friends.”

Please pray for the children of Japan, especially now as they return from summer break, but also every day. Pray they find hope in something greater than academics or social standing. Pray they find their worth in the eyes of the Lord, who gave his life as a sacrifice because of his great love for them and us.

Dream Big Dreams

In many ways, today was the culmination of over two years of praying, dreaming and planning with our partners from Redwood Chapel. Over two years ago, God brought us together with Redwood Chapel as they sought a vision for ministry to their newly chosen unreached people group, the Japanese. At that time, we had not even left America and were still forming in our own minds what long term ministry might look like in Tokyo. One of the few things we were sure of was that we felt God prompting us to reach children and young families with the gospel message.

It was with that in mind that we floated the idea of a partnership to do some sort of ministry like Vacation Bible School in Japan. We knew from experience on a smaller scale that children loved it and even parents were able to learn about the gospel through the simple message of children’s ministry. But our dream was for something larger: perhaps more churches or a larger scale event, and for the ability to replicate a program across the nation of Japan.

When we found a wonderful church, Nerima Biblical Church, with a pastor couple who shared our passion for reaching families in the community, we knew it would be possible to host some sort of event at our church. So we went ahead and started high level discussions with Redwood Chapel.

We explored the idea with small steps, leading to a small vision team from Redwood Chapel visiting our church last October. On that visit, the person in charge of the preschool whose facility we are using shocked us by offering the use of their facilities free of charge. Suddenly, the concept of “large scale” grew even larger. Here was a brand new facility with the capacity for over 500 children, much larger than any church in Japan could host on its own.

From that point on, we moved forward with the plan to host such an event in August 2016. We met on numerous Skype calls and on our own in both Japan and California. A “dream team” was formed by Redwood Chapel with experienced leaders who could lead the initial event while teaching a Japanese counterpart how to lead in future years.

On July 1st, we opened registration with barely any marketing other than word of mouth. We had no idea how many children we should expect to be enrolled. We told ourselves that we would be happy if 50 kids came the first year since nobody knew what to expect. 50 kids were enrolled on the first day. And enrollment continued until we hit 230 at the end of the official enrollment period. We were blown away by what God was doing in our community. It had nothing to do with us.

To say there was spiritual opposition to our English Summer Camp program would be to put it mildly. We faced all sorts of problems, from fierce political fighting at the facility we were using, to horrible automobile accidents involving team members, and even mosquito-induced anaphylactic shock. Little issues kept eating away at our time, our enthusiasm, our sense of unity. But we pressed on with prayer and the little faith we had, knowing that the work the Lord had begun He would see through.

As I stood on the stage today looking out over our 240+ children, 50 volunteers and a number of lingering, curious mothers, I was close to tears. For two years we dreamed of this day, of the hundreds of little smiles, the ring of laughter, the enthusiastic dancing. And today, there it all was, as if God had choreographed it all behind the scenes while we struggled with our faith to expect even 50 children.

Today was day one. There are five more days of ESC this year alone, not to mention the years of partnership with Redwood Chapel yet to come. There will be spiritual conversations with children and parents. There will be real and lasting impact on individuals and families. There will be amazing works in people’s hearts that only happen through Christ Jesus. And it all began with a dream, a dream that we allowed to be big even when our faith would have kept it small. And everyday, I want to relish it all, to breathe it in like a refreshing cool antidote to the hot summer days, knowing the Lord is moving in our community and in this nation of Japan.