by Masumi Toyotome
A brand new ball game is beginning in Christian mission. In Japan God is presenting us with a totally new challenge in the history of world evangelization.
A brand new ball game is beginning in Christian mission. In Japan God is presenting us with a totally new challenge in the history of world evangelization.
Before I explain why this bold assertion is true, let me share some new information that should change our whole view of the missionary picture in Japan.
WHY THE DISCOURAGEMENT?
Many Christians are discouraged about the progress of Christian missions in Japan-including missionaries in Japan, their missionary executives in America, and some missiologists who compare the history of missions in Japan with that of other countries. To some extent even the Christians in Japan share this discouragement, especially their leaders, although not nearly to the same extent. They feel apologetic about the fact that there are only 839,401 Protestant Christians in a country of 118,693,000 people, which is only 0.7 percent of the population. The first Protestant missionary landed in Japan in 1859. After 125 years the Protestants are still only a tiny minority. If we go only by these figures, the discouragement is justified.
But now the new data. If we concentrate on the annual percent growth rate since the end of World War II, we get quite a different picture. The Protestant population as a whole has grown at the rate of 4.15 percent compounded annually. This average growth rate in Japan is comparable to the fastest growth rates among Protestant denominations in America. One denomination in Japan has been growing at 9.55 percent a year averaged over the 36 years from 1948 to 1984. Several others are in the 7.0 percent to 9.4 percent range. These growth rates may not be as high as has been reported in Korea, Kenya, or other countries, but what has been overlooked is that there is healthy growth in the Protestant churches in Japan. If this growth rate for all Protestants keeps up, the number of Protestants in Japan will double every 17 years. In 100 years the number will increase more than 58 fold. The rate of growth of the general population was 0.69 percent in 1982. If the growth rate of both the general population and the Protestant population should hold steady, in 100 years the Protestants would be 20.74 percent of the total population.
THE SOURCE OF THE DATA
We Japanese people love statistics and statistical surveys. We will gather and publish statistics at the drop of a hat. We may not know how we plan to use the data, but we will gather them anyway. (I was gathering data and drawing graphs on my own while still a fourth grader in Japan.) So, Japan is always a fertile field for statistical study. A Christian yearbook is published annually in Japan, with a section devoted to detailed information on each of the 123 Protestant denominations. The facts are broken down into 27 categories, including the number of churches, pastors, missionaries, regular members, associate members, baptisms, Sunday morning attendance, Sunday evening attendance, prayer meeting attendance, Sunday schools, Sunday school attendance, total expenditure for pastors’ salaries, total expenditure for evangelism, and so on.
In October, 1983, I visited the editorial office of the "Japan Christian Yearbook" and asked for a complete photocopy, page-by-page, of the statistical section of every edition of the yearbook since the very first in 1948. They graciously assigned one young man to this task for three hours to produce the complete set of data that I proudly brought back to the Research Branch Office of Missionary Strategy Agency at the U.S. Center for World Mission in Pasadena.
The editor of the yearbook told me that I was the only person who ever dared to ask for such a complete set; therefore, it is quite possible that we have at MSA the only complete, compact set in the world. This data is now being stored in the MSA computer data base. Denomination by denomination, charts are being prepared that show in one glance along the rows across the sheet the yearly figures in all of these categories and their annual percentage changes. In the extreme right hand column one can read the average annual percentage changes in all these categories over the 36 post-war years. One master chart presents the composite figures for the total Protestant population in Japan. We hope to make these charts available for a nominal fee to mission agencies, seminary libraries, and anyone interested in the statistical study of missions in Japan.
CONCENTRATE ON PERCENTAGES AND NOT ON RAW NUMBERS
The unfounded discouragement about missionary work in Japan in the past was caused by too much preoccupation with raw figures. One of the lessons we must learn from this missiological study of Japan is the crucial importance of examining the percent annual changes in the various categories of church life.
Recently a group of us were looking at the data concerning one small church in Japan. One former missionary remarked, "Only three persons were added to that church that year. That’s awfully small." Yet, because the membership was only 10, the addition of three meant a growth rate of 30 percent. That is phenomenal growth. We must revise our mentality in dealing with church growth so that we appreciate large percentages and not large numbers.
Let us consider a hypothetical situation. A large church with 1,000 members that adds 70 members a year is only growing at seven percent rate. A smaller church with 100 members that adds ten members a year is growing at ten percent rate. A very small church of 30 members that adds four members a year is growing at 13.3 percent rate. All of these growth rates are plausible. An unenlightened observer would be much impressed by the 70-member growth in the large church and disparage the four-member growth in the small church. Actually, the greater growth is taking place at the small church.
To take the matter one step further, we must become even more concerned about the changes in the growth rate than in the growth rate itself. To put the idea in an enigmatic dictum: we must watch the rate of change of the rate of change.
To take a concrete example from Japan: both the Mormons and the Jehovah’s Witnesses have averaged growth rates of about 20 percent a year for the last 20 years. But while the Mormon rate has stayed above 15 percent for the last 10 years, Jehovah’s Witnesses’s rate has declined steadily to about 4 percent. That is still quite good in comparison to the growth rate of most other groups. Yet if I were the director of evangelism for the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Japan, I would look into the cause of this decline.
One evangelical denomination with 26,000 members (which is large for Japan) was growing at the rate of 11 percent for 15 years, 1954-69. The rate dropped to 2.5 percent during the last 15 years. The increase in membership of 563 during the last year would still be the envy of many smaller denominations, but the sharp trend toward smaller growth rate should be a cause of alarm for the leaders of that denomination. To sum up, the rate of growth is more important than the raw numbers, and the trend of that rate of growth is even more important than the rate itself.
GOD’S STRATEGY FOR JAPAN?
From a careful study of the statistics of church growth perhaps we can discern the subtle strategy of God for the total evangelization of Japan. Several features show that God’s plan is contrary to ordinary human inclinations. The size of the local church has remained very small during the whole post-war period, 67 regular members per church, with only 19 persons in an average Sunday morning congregation. Surely this is not what anyone has desired or planned. At the same time, the number of churches has multiplied at the steady rate of 3.9 percent a year.
Some missiologists in America are advocating the creation of super churches in Japan, like the religious Disneylands we are seeing sprouting across the suburbia in the U.S. Some leaders in Japan are enthralled by the thought. I believe God has a better idea: multiply small churches. Small churches are growing faster than large churches in Japan (and probably in most other countries). One small church began with three members in 1973 and has grown to 25 in 1983 with an average annual growth rate of 27.3 percent. I cannot conceive of a large church matching that rate, not even in Korea. Small churches are also cost-effective. In a country where land prices are out of sight, rare would be a congregation that could purchase a parcel of land big enough for a large church building.
Above all, small churches can minister more effectively to their members. I have lived in more than 80 small churches in Japan in the last 20 years, a week at a time, and have watched the intimate individual pastoral care the ministers are able to give to their members. While pastors of most large churches are busy serving on committees and boards, giving lectures at conferences and writing books, the pastors of small churches are visiting the homes, shops, and hospitals.
In light of my experience of also serving in the largest, so-called "fastest growing" church two weeks at a time for three successive years, I would have to concede that God’s strategy is wiser: multiply small churches in order to evangelize the nation of Japan. (It is remarkable to note that God has raised up ordained pastors in the total Protestant community in Japan at the identical growth rate as for the number of churches over the same 36-year period: 3.93 percent and 3.92 percent respectively.)
We are also surprised by the fact that the number of missionaries to Japan has been increasing over the 36-year period by 12.4 percent a year (17.4 percent during the last 10 years). This is in spite of the fact that most mission agencies consider Japan a finished job. Japanese are not counted among the "unreached peoples." I have not noticed many serious recruitment efforts in the U.S. for missionaries to Japan in the last 20 years. Yet new missionaries seem to be drawn to Japan.
Japan is no longer the "missionary heaven." Whereas missionaries were an economically privileged class 30 years ago, they are the underprivileged class today, mainly due to the shrunken value of the dollar vis-a-vis yen and the highly inflated cost of living. Furthermore, the response of the Japanese people to the gospel is frustratingly slow. Yet they go. This has to be the quiet work of the Holy Spirit, unnoticed for so long. I believe God is planning a major missionary operation in Japan, some intimations of which we should now consider.
A BRAND NEW BALL GAME IN WORLD MISSION
For the first time in the history of Christian effort toward world evangelization we are encountering the challenge of "high culture mission." Up to now missionaries went forth from their background of superior culture to people of inferior culture. Even in approaching China with its cultural history older than the West, Matteo Ricci in the 16th century was able to establish credibility with Western clocks, sundials, and maps. In most other mission fields the missionary could win respect and trust by his medical skills, material generosity, and/or book knowledge. Sometimes the advanced military might of the West caused the nationals to take interest in Christianity.
Those days have passed in Japan. Hereafter, the evangelization of Japan must be purely on the basis of spiritual benefits that Christ can confer on people equally, regardless of their cultural status.
Not only have the cultural advantages of the missionaries been taken away, high barriers imposed by Japanese culture have come clearly into view. This has not received careful analysis until now. Western Christians evaluating Japan as a mission field can make two mistakes. One is to look patronizingly on the Japanese in the old way as people of inferior culture who should gratefully be open to the gospel as the key to superior life. The other mistake is to assume that the Japanese should now be able to evangelize their own countrymen, since they are so capable of producing modern material goods. Both of these attitudes overlook the challenge of the high barrier mission now confronting us in Japan.
One high barrier obviously is the high tech civilization that has developed in post-war Japan. Japan is still behind the U.S. in many areas of technology, but catching up fast enough to make the Japanese feel they will soon be right up with America in every respect. The idea of surpassing American technology is now the national goal in such a key realm as artificial intelligence (fifth generation computers). Another high barrier is the rise of the so-called "samurai society" in business and industry, where the total loyalty of the worker to the company is demanded and willingly proffered. It is not an easy decision for the worker to commit his highest loyalty to Christ instead of his company.
Another high barrier is intellectual. Westerners have come to appreciate the high attainments of Japanese art. Yet most Americans do not realize the high level of literary and philosophical achievements in Japanese tradition. For example, the novel as a literary form appeared in Japan many centuries before it was known in Europe. Another high barrier is the moral and ethical. In many respects the people of Japan display a higher level of morality and ethics than do the people of the West. Japanese people may not have heard of the Ten Commandments, but the Fifth and the Eighth Commandments are observed far more rigorously in Japan than in the U.S. (honoring one’s parents and not stealing). Japanese immigration to the U.S. does not fill the allotted quota year after year because the people in Japan have heard terrible stories of crime and violence in America.
Finally we must consider the high religious barrier. For the first time in the history of Christian mission we are confronted by a highly developed religious system. This was not true in New Testament days. In the days of Greek and Roman civilizations there was not a religious ethos as highly honed and as tightly established as that encountered in Japan. Even before Buddhism first made an impact upon Japan in A.D. 522 there was the traditional primitive religion that underlies Shinto-ism of today. The arrival of Buddhism caused a great upheaval in Japanese culture, at least among the nobility. Buddhist culture was probably imported and assimilated as eagerly then as Western culture is being welcomed and absorbed today.
About the same time, Confucianism and Taoism also penetrated and impregnated Japanese culture. The force of Confucianism is far too underestimated by missiologists studying Japan. These four spiritual forces coexisted and interacted with each other continuously and actively for nearly 1,500 years. None of these religious elements died out. They took turns dominating the Japanese psyche.
The important point is that they tolerated each other all along and formed a cultural amalgam peculiar to Japan. None of them tried to eliminate the others. The populace and even the priesthood of each religion accepted the others in a symbiosis. This coexistence was dynamic in the sense that the philosophy and culture of each was further developed in Japan beyond what was imported. Buddhist philosophy in Japan, for example, moved far beyond anything inherited from China or India.
It was into this religious symbiosis that Christian mission tried to penetrate at the arrival of the Catholic missionaries in 1549. No wonder a vigorous resistance, oppression, and persecution arose after the initial success of the Catholic mission. The persecution of Christians in Japan from 1585 to 1873 was the longest, severest, most sophisticated, and most effective in the history of Christianity, even surpassing the persecutions under the Roman Emperors. Christianity was like the new kid on the block telling the other kids that their games were no good and they should play his game. A strong reaction is likely to follow in such a situation. Even when the new game is far superior, it takes a while for it to become accepted.
The Protestant mission began in 1859 at the most opportune time. The Tokugawa Shogunate was collapsing, the nation was entering into a quiet, nonviolent revolution, and there was a displaced generation of highly qualified, eager, and young Samurai looking for a new purpose in life. Yet the progress was hectic, buffeted by the turbulence of a "young modern" nation trying to find itself. World War II was the last burp of the baby learning to digest modern Western food. Babies do survive their burps and grow. In time they will learn to appreciate the right food. But there may be periods of adolescent resistance and rebellion. The challenge is how to evangelize a young adult who now feels he is equal to the evangelist in knowledge and skill.
We are in a brand new ball game. If we can learn how to play it and win in Japan, we can move on to challenge other teams in other fields, like China, India, Brazil. These nations will be where Japan is today in a matter of a few decades. We must win the first game. Then we can move on to the championship game in the end: world evangelization. Once there, how can we lose? We have the Greatest Coach.
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