I came to Christ as a 13-year-old Junior High School student, as a result of my best friend inviting me to a church youth event. It was probably not his primary intention that I would come to know Jesus when he asked me to come, nor was it my intention to learn more about God. I was there to have fun and he invited me because we were friends, pure and simple. Our leaders at the time, men of God who I still count as friends and mentors 30 years later, never preached at me or coerced me into making any decisions; they were simply there for me, loving me like they would love their own children. Four months after coming to church, I made my decision to follow Jesus.
As it turns out, my story is hardly a unique one in terms of how and when I was first introduced to Christ. In fact, it is estimated that worldwide, 70% of people who eventually come to Christ will do so before the age of 15, and 80% before the age of 20. If you think carefully about the implications of those statistics, a church that is serious about reaching the world with the gospel would invest the majority of their time and resources in youth ministry! Sunday mornings might even become youth events for churches who consider themselves “seeker friendly”.
Obviously, the church isn’t going to change that radically in the near future, if ever, nor does it necessarily need to in order to be more effective at communicating the gospel message. But it does mean this: the future of the church lies with the young. Taking two churches with the same number of members but one has a larger population of people under 20 in attendance and one does not, the former is more likely to thrive in the long term.
This poses a bigger challenge for the average church in Japan. The average age of a member of a Japanese church is growing older each year, now probably in the 65-70-year-old range. While there are many reasons behind this trend, one stands out like a 1,000kg gorilla: over 50% of Japanese churches have no specific ministry for youth.
Young people don’t come to church in Japan because church, in its current state, is not for young people. In America, many churches have youth events, children’s Sunday School, children’s services, and some employ youth pastors. Even with a myriad of youth oriented ministries, dedicated staff to implement them and a Judeo-Christian culture, it is still a struggle to get American kids into church.
Now consider Japan, which has no Judeo-Christian culture, few church ministries tailored for youth, a shortage of youth workers and stiff competition from extra-curricular activities and cram school on the weekends for the already scarce free-time of Japanese youth. It is little wonder why most Japanese churches have a void in the under-20 demographic.
I have often talked about the fact that there are near limitless opportunities to evangelize in Japan, but not every opportunity is equal in value. If 80% of people come to Christ before the age of 20 and most Japanese churches are not doing anything to reach that demographic, there is a missed opportunity for the gospel here roughly the size of a black hole.
Fortunately, in the past year a group of pastors and Christian leaders have started meeting together to address this black hole of ministry. They have started the “4/14 Window Movement Japan“, (4/14 refers to the age group between 4 and 14, where 80% of the opportunities lie) which aims to help churches understand the opportunities and challenges in ministering to this demographic. For starters, they have taken the excellent graphic material from the English 4 To 14 Window site and translated it to Japanese. They are also starting to meet regularly to brainstorm ideas and build networks to turn the 4/14 Window Movement into, well, a movement in Japan.
I am keenly interested in this ministry as a parent of children in this demographic, as a former youth advisor, and as a ministry worker who has witnessed how God works through a youth ministry like Vacation Bible School (VBS) on a Japanese church. For thousands of American children including myself, their first encounter with Jesus came when they were invited to a VBS program at a church in their community. Yet many Japanese churches have no ministries designed to invite children and their parents into the church in a non-threatening way. Could a VBS movement work to “grease the wheels” for the 4/14 Movement to truly be set in motion?
This is a subject I hope to address frequently over the next few months and years. I’m interested in feedback from those with experience in Japanese church ministry. What ministries do you think would be most effective at reaching the under-20 demographic with the gospel?