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?

Is Missions For the Young?

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This past weekend I had an opportunity to speak on Missions at a youth conference. Though the conference itself was nostalgic for me (I remember attending a similar event as a teenager many years ago), I have to admit, I initially struggled with how I should present Missions to teenagers. Two thoughts immediately came to mind when I thought of youth as missionaries: most teenagers aren’t thinking of participating in missions and most adults, including their parents, prefer it that way. I realize these are broad generalizations, but I am talking about the majorities, not the total. So stay with me here.

It took me several weeks to even formulate what I felt God wanted people to hear about youth as missionaries and I want to summarize it here for those who weren’t able to attend my workshop (in bullet points, naturally).

  • God has endowed young people with special gifts for missions ministry that adults rarely have.
  • Young people have a powerful advantage in sharing the gospel with other young people, and 50% of those who are yet unreached are under the age of 20.
  • Missions is not just for missionaries. If you are a Christian, you have already been called to Missions.
  • So what are you waiting for? Go to the world and shine!

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The critical point for the youth was that if they weren’t thinking about missions, they need to think about it because as part of multi-generational missions teams, they play a critical role in ¬†connecting with people their own age. But as parents of teenagers or leaders in the church responsible for missions, we also need to change our thinking about involving youth in missions. Youth are not a burden to a multi-generational missions team. They fill a role that adults cannot fill adequately: as connectors to people of their own age group. Adults preach the gospel to children through words; children preach the gospel to each other through their lives.

I’ve served in missions long enough to realize we create a lot of barriers to involving youth in missions. We designate specific missions to the young: low risk, low cost, “easy” ministry. This is a disservice to our children. Instead, we need to consider how youth can be integrated into multi-generational missions teams to give those teams greater reach and impact in the world. As parents, we loathe to send our children into situations where there is an element of danger. As natural as that tendency is, what message are we communicating to them? That our faith is so small that we can’t entrust their care over to God? Believe me, I’m not condemning any parents for thinking this way. I don’t like the idea of sending my children into potentially dangerous situations and I have yet to be tested on this. But when the opportunity comes, I need to be prepared to be obedient and faithful and let them go.

The highlight of the weekend for me was Pastor Tim’s altar call, when he asked the high schoolers who would be willing to serve as missionaries or even full time ministry workers. At least a dozen students stood to commit themselves. Looking back at myself at that age, I would have remained sitting. But the commitment of these young people ready to serve the Lord in missions and ministry just blew me away. These are our future church leaders, our future missions deacons, our future missionaries. As I parent, I felt a great sense of joy that no matter what the world tries to tell us, the world is safe in the hands of this generation.

Faithfully pray for this generation, that they will carry out the task they have committed to and that they will courageously shine the light of Christ into the world of darkness.

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