Chiba Summer Mission: VBS

We exchanged our goodbye hugs in the driveway of the apartment building a couple of hours ago and waved goodbye to our team from California as they headed to Narita for the flight home. After two weeks of ministry together, each and every one of us was both physically exhausted yet spiritually refreshed. The days were so full, it is really only now, alone with just the family, that I can sit down and write a proper summary of the ministry over the past two weeks.

There is so much to share, I thought it would be best to break things down into three different posts covering each of the major ministry activities we engaged in: VBS, the Ichinomiya Gakuen (Children’s Home) and Makinoki Gakuen (Special Needs Children’s Home). This post will focus on the VBS ministry.

This was our second year of VBS and compared to last year, the planning went extremely smoothly between the core team here in Japan and the team in California. There seemed to be much less stress about the logistics of VBS this year which allowed a greater focus on making sure each child was able to experience the love of Jesus in a real way. From the first day, there was more emphasis on helping the children understand that Jesus loves them. Over the course of the week, the fact that “Jesus loves you” was enforced dozens of times. It was not possible for a child to leave VBS without at least having the head knowledge of the love of Christ.

Yet, the children were also able to experience the love of Jesus in very real ways. With a good ratio of helpers to children, helpers were able to give special attention to each child throughout the week. Though some children were “difficult”, we were able to find ways to reach them in a love language that touched their hearts.

The theme this year was based on the VBS program brought from California, called “Weird Animals”. Using rare and unusual animals as examples, the theme helped communicate how rare and unusual the aspects of the love of Jesus are. Though five different aspects of His love are covered, it always comes back to “Jesus loves you!”. This is such a rare thing for a Japanese person of any age to hear! It was so wonderful to hear the children during the in-between times telling each other “Jesus loves you!” Of course, we taught them the meaning of “Jesus loves you” in Japanese so they really understood what they were saying to each other.

We started and ended each day with a praise and dancing time. This was a time for the children to sing and dance to the VBS songs in English. We repeated the same 5-6 songs during the week so they had a good chance to learn the English words and the dances and hand movements. Early in the week, we explained the songs in Japanese so they would understand what they were singing about. Each day, the joyousness of the praise time grew, along with the volume of the singing. On Friday, parents waiting on the other side of the church could clearly hear their children praising God in song in the VBS room.

The highlight of the week was Thursday, when each child was offered a personal opportunity to respond to the gospel. We prayed that one child would respond to the message (remember, less than 1% of Japanese are Christians and 1 in 40 children would be 2.5%!) but as always, the Lord blessed our efforts in abundance. The Spirit moved the majority of the children to invite Jesus into their hearts! What a praise! While not every child’s faith will blossom immediately, we know that by inviting Jesus into their hearts once will make it much more likely for them to make a serious decision to follow Christ in the future.

One example of how the Spirit works came from a 9-year-old girl who attended last year’s VBS and was there again this year. This past Christmas, she and her mother were baptized into the local church. Her family came to a dinner we hosted at the apartment and after a few hours of fellowship time, the family left to go home. However, a little while later, her mother came back with a photo album from her daughter’s baptism. The daughter wanted the VBS team to write her a message in the back of the album because it was because of the previous VBS that she accepted Jesus as her Lord and Savior. It was so important for her to get this message that she sent her mother back with the album to get the team to write in it!

Another praise was that many children who attended this year came from or through the ministries of other churches in the area. Some families drove from an hour away each day for their children to attend VBS. About a quarter of the children came from another local church who had not had any children attend last year. As a result, two additional churches were able to have their children experience VBS and two more pastors will now be very interested in how they might be able to implement a local VBS program.

Of course, while VBS ministry is primarily for reaching the children with the gospel, one of the additional blessings we enjoy is how the VBS program affects the churches and Christian community as a whole. VBS is a special outlet for allowing for church members to serve in ways they may not be able to serve regularly during a normal church service. It is exciting for us to see how VBS unifies local Christians who may attend different churches to serve side by side focused on bringing glory to God. Intra-church activities are a bit of a rarity in Japan, so any opportunity we have to bring different congregations together to serve is an opportunity for God’s glory to shine through.

We also see how a VBS program is an encouragement to churches in how they see evangelism in action. Creating opportunities for church members to interact directly with their community is important for demonstrating how simple evangelism can be and giving individuals a boldness in speaking to their friends and neighbors.

The biggest difference for us this year was the clarity in which the gospel was presented to the children this year. Last year, there seemed to be some hesitation in boldly sharing the gospel message with the children, but this year, there was nothing holding the leaders back. The result was seen in the number of children who individually responded to the invitation to receive Christ!

Please continue to pray for the Misaki and GCI churches, that they would be able to follow up with the children who attended VBS and their families and get them successfully plugged in to other childrens ministries in the area. And pray for each of children who attended VBS that whatever seeds were sown in their hearts this past week will grow to full maturity in the future.

Why A Youth Movement is Key to Sharing the Gospel in Japan

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?