by John Wm. Mehn
ARE THERE REPRODUCING churches in Japan? You must be talking about churches in the U.S.” This and other comments revealed skepticism after reporting my field research that uncovered the existence of dozens of Japanese reproducing churches in Japan.
ARE THERE REPRODUCING churches in Japan? You must be talking about churches in the U.S.” This and other comments revealed skepticism after reporting my field research that uncovered the existence of dozens of Japanese reproducing churches in Japan. A more concentrated study of six of these churches revealed the combined reproduction of at least sixty-two churches. Even one church of forty worship attendees, only three years old, had already established four churches!
Now these statistics may not be exemplary in other global contexts. However, Japan is legendary for generating very slow church growth and multiplication. Japan as a mission field is an enigma with a government wide-open missionary visa policy, unrestricted religious freedom, and economic and technical development, yet the Japanese remain the second largest unreached people group with only 0.43% believers in Christ (Joshua Project 2015). More churches are urgently needed as today there are still 25 cities and 1,800 rural areas without churches. This country of over 127 million people has less than 8,000 churches and missiologists report that a minimum of 50,000 are needed.
Many practitioners and scholars have delineated possible reasons for meager church growth in Japan. Some assert the difficulty of contextualizing the gospel message for the Japanese culture; others stress the real challenges of spiritual resistance and warfare. Still others blame the health and relevance of the existing Christian Church.
My chief concentration lies with developing and coaching leadership for church-planting multiplication. Unfortunately, little has been written about leadership and church planting, and any predominant research relates to church planter assessment or developing leaders of growing churches. A wide variety of factors could be studied for church-planting reproduction, but I believed leadership would be a crucial factor.
This research was to assist my ministry of developing leadership for church multiplication, to investigate this phenomenon in Japan, and to benefit practitioners planting churches worldwide. From a broad sample of reproducing churches, a representative cross-section of six churches was selected across all geographical regions, church ages, sizes, ministry contexts and models, and denominational affiliation. Both primary leaders and one or more secondary leaders were interviewed in depth (Mehn 2010).
I uncovered six characteristics of leaders reproducing churches closely interacting in concert with each other, thus creating a unique symphony of church reproducing leadership.
1. Envision the Church as a Dynamic Sending Community
How these reproducing leaders envisioned the church was one of the most unexpected aspects of this research. The average church in Japan has only thirty-five attendees and each church’s mission field statistically is at least sixteen thousand people. Many churches in Japan feel outnumbered and impotent, so consequently they hesitate reaching beyond their church walls and activities. In contrast, these church reproducing leaders had a biblical concept of the Church as the people of God missionally sending others out in transformational ministry. Church reproduction arises not in the conclusion of a church’s mission but simply as a part of a healthy, growing, sending, and dynamic organism (Ott & Wilson 2011, 15).
These church reproducing leaders envision the church as a relational community. Japanese tend to be more formal in social relationships. To these leaders, the church is not merely a social organization, but rather the family of God in community.
Japanese culture is not spontaneous. It is predictable and prefers order, formal structure, and the static ministry of stability and security. However, these reproducing leaders see their churches more as dynamic living organisms than ecclesiastical organizations (Schwarz 2006, 30-31). To them, the church is seen more as a living organism of God’s people where structure is secondary to function. One leader talked about “going with the flow” and compared his church vision with the image from Ezekiel 47, where water emanated from the temple.
Their church concept embraces reproduction as one declared, “Reproducing churches are nothing special …. It is normal, it is standard and average.” In their view, churches multiplied as a natural result of this dynamic organism, expanding and reproducing. Healthy churches reproduce (Murray 2001, 62-63) and a reproducing church stands beyond simply a big church.
Their view of the church as a sending mission runs counter to the normal tendency in Japan to protect and defend the church from the influences of the world and culture. Rather than attracting and gathering, these outward-oriented churches are scattering and sending. They become ministry development centers equipping people and sending them beyond their walls.
To these leaders, reproducing churches are not mere theological concepts but they are applied theology. Their churches function as a dynamic community of God’s people sending others into ministry. The leader begins with receiving vision from God.
2. Receive Ministry Vision from God
Research examining effective leadership in various countries, including Japan, conclude that one essential characteristic of a ‘transformational leader’ entails acquiring a future vision and imparting that vision to followers (House et al 2004, 61). Vision has been shown to be a vital component of any effective church leadership, and particularly for church planting and reproduction (Barna 1997; Ott and Wilson 2011, 168-170). The significance of vision is also a vital characteristic for Japanese church leaders (Satake 1994).
For most Japanese church leaders, the main concept of vision is an overall future plan for their church. Although broad planning is desirable, it falls very short of a compelling God-shaped vision received from God. On their own, spiritual leaders do not intuit or imagine ministry vision. Vision is not received from others in spite of the influence of elders in a Confucian-based society like Japan. These leaders had no substitute for receiving vision from God.
These church reproducing leaders received vision from God through various means. Following their personal ministry calling, they listened to God through prayer and their devotional life. For many, the practice of listening to God was quite new as they were caught up in ministry busyness. Some prayed daily, weekly, or at special times to hear God’s vision for their church.
They reflected on scripture. As quoted by Haddon Robinson, “Since our vision must be God’s vision, we must gain it from the Scriptures” (1999, 9). A big surprise for me as a researcher was that they would quote directly from scripture instead of quoting a textbook, denominational statement, or other pastor. One leader said, “Vision is based on biblical principles,” and church reproduction was part of that vision.
They sought to obey God’s will even if it meant letting go of some of their own plans. One pastor summarized it well: “Listen to God through worship, prayer, and fasting; he will lead you with guidance. Then, obey him without question and overcome anything in the way of obedience.”
Vision leads us to the next characteristic: faith. As a leader affirmed, “Faith moves us toward the realization of a possessed vision.”
3. Exercise Risk-taking Faith
Reproducing leaders exercise faith, leading in risky directions to confront potential failure, overcome obstacles, and even overcome their own weaknesses. Japanese are very reluctant to assume risk due to a group culture emphasizing conformity and harmony. Risk implies uncertainty, and the culture of Japan greatly avoids that uncertainty (Hofstede 1984, 123). Japanese “feel threatened by uncertain or unknown situations” (Hofstede 1997, 113). Church planting is characteristically full of ambiguity and laden with risk. But, as one reproducing leader professed, “If it is God’s will; we will assume risk.”
Their faith overcomes obstacles. Recognizing the hazards of church reproduction, leaders do not focus their energies on preventing possible obstacles, but merely overcome hindrances when confronted. They trust God to provide solutions through wisdom, creativity, flexibility, and exploring options. Their faith resists personal discouragement. Anyone involved in church planting regularly faces discouragements and these are overcome by their personal spiritual walk with God.
Their faith challenges even failure. Church reproduction is a minefield of potential failure, and Japanese avoid failure at all costs. In a shame-based culture like Japan, any failure can cause the loss of face and honor. One leader explained the need to risk failure in order to reproduce this way: “Just do it [church reproduction]. You may succeed or you may not…. But if you do not do it, you do not even fail. If you do it and fail, it is a great resource….There is no guarantee that church planting will succeed…. We make a lot of mistakes while we plant churches.”
These leaders risked much by giving up key leaders, money, and gifted people to reproduce churches. They expect obstacles in reproduction but also expect to overcome them. They challenge potential failure by a confidence in obeying God.
4. Develop Lay People for Ministry
These reproducing pastors understand ‘laity’ with the original scriptural meaning “the people of God” (1 Pet. 2:9–10) called to ministry (Gibbs 2005, 132-133). They also see developing lay people as solving the practical problem of insufficient pastors and missionaries to plant the minimum of fifty thousand churches needed to saturate Japan. For them, church reproduction means leadership multiplication.
The lack of lay mobilization and the predominate style of pastoral leadership are repeated as the frequent reason for the slow pace of church growth in Japan (Braun 1971; OC International Japan 1993; Sherrill 2002). Some believe the deep historical connection to the Roman Catholic Church and Japan’s top-down patron-client culture fosters a role for religious elites, leaving a large clergy-lay gap (Ohashi 2007, 142-143).
Reproducing churches develop lay leadership as seen historically from the Methodist movement to church-planting movements in places like China and Cambodia (Garrison 2004). In Japan, rapidly growing new religions display this dynamic. These church leaders are in practice answering the core issue of developing and releasing leaders for reproduction.
Reproducing leaders develop lay people for ministry by sharing their ownership of the reproduction vision. The leader not only catches vision, but casts God’s vision to others in many ways. One example is a church which regularly has a “vision night” where they seek God’s vision together.
Large quantities of their time prepares people for practical ministry (Eph. 4:11) by coaching and hands-on training. They entrust ministry responsibility to others by releasing them. One person even said, “If a person wants to multiply churches, [he or she needs] to develop people who can be responsible for church planting. I think this is the key for everything.” These lay leaders are affirmed, encouraged, and respected as part of the ministry team as equals under the sovereign control of the Chief Shepherd, Christ himself.
The characteristics of developing lay people for ministry is coupled with the leaders’ view of the church and their role as leaders.
5. Lead Relationally through Encouragement
Leaders of reproducing churches choose a relational leadership style focused on encouraging others in ministry. Church planting and reproduction is a team sport and cannot be done without the encouragement of all team members. Their encouraging leadership role is much like the role of a coach and mentor. As one leader confessed, “They don’t need our lectures; they need inspiration and encouragement.” They focus not on pastoral care, but on equipping others for ministry achieved practically with regular visits to church planters and retreats for leaders.
These leaders exercise authority relationally, not positionally. They are more like spiritual fathers than bosses or supervisors. One leader responded that leadership is “acquired by love…through respecting and trusting others we will also receive trust and respect.” In Japan, the lone autocratic leadership style still remains the norm, often characterized by a lack of delegation, hindering the growth and reproduction of churches (Mullins 1998, 180). Growing churches in Japan are piloted by leadership with relational and spiritual authority (OC International 1993, 14).
In a very formal and structured society like Japan, these reproducing church leaders build trust relationships utilizing less formal structures. In the Japanese hierarchical culture, these leaders flatten and broaden the leadership pyramid, allowing for the growth of more leaders. These leaders release others with little control, as one pastor declared, “If you control, it will die, the fire of church planting will be lost and the multiplication will be stopped.”
They exercise patience in their chosen relational leadership role of equipping. Like a team captain or a spiritual father, they foster encouragement in the Japanese network of complex relationships and expectations.
6. Implement Aggressively through Practical Ministry
These leaders are concerned for real-world results in obedience to scripture, and they implement ministry aggressively. A study of Japanese leadership has found goal-oriented leadership a very positive trait, especially when coupled with caring for the team (Misumi 1985, 12).
These leaders impressed me by not getting bogged down in routine planning details, but instead keeping their hands on the throttle, decisively moving the ministry ahead. They will not delegate the role of reproducing their own church to another agency.
They achieve ministry objectives both practically and realistically for overcoming cultural tightness by utilizing creativity and flexibility. One reproducing leader expressed this spirit this way: “Just do it and find out. I do not believe that if you do this that this will happen. We do not know until you do it. I am a realist.”
They lead in new directions and do not maintain stability. Instability is the nature of new church development and they do not defend or protect what exists. They are people of action who know reality and confront the status quo. They are courageous risk-taking change agents.
My research revealed six characteristics of leaders reproducing churches. These characteristics are closely interrelated and together all work in concert. After the research was completed, the leaders of this study confirmed each of these six characteristics were indeed true for them personally. Comparing similar research in other contexts to these conclusions would be extremely beneficial.
There are reproducing churches in Japan that are greatly encouraging many. I estimate up to five percent of Japanese churches may be reproducing, extending hope for us all, no matter how hard our context. The application of these biblical principles of leadership and church reproduction indeed causes what Roland Allen called the “spontaneous expansion of the church” (Mehn 2013, 172).
For many of us involved in planting or facilitating reproducing churches, there are numerous implications. Those developing and multiplying leaders need to consider how to assess, select, and develop leaders with a rich applied theology of the church, a personal spiritual walk with God, a growing faith capacity, skills in equipping and releasing people, and focused priorities. For all of us, considering these leaders’ priorities, faith, and connection with God challenges us as to how we are growing as leaders.
Barna, George. 1997. “The Vision Thing.” In Leaders on Leadership. Ed. George Barna, 47-60. Ventura, Calif.: Regal Books.
Braun, Neil. 1971. Laity Mobilized: Reflections on Church Growth in Japan and Other Lands. Grand Rapids, Mich: Wm B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
Garrison, David V. 2004. Church Planting Movements: How God Is Redeeming a Lost World. Midlothian, Va.: WIGTake Resources.
Gibbs, Eddie. 2005. Leadership Next: Changing Leaders in a Changing Culture. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press.
Hofstede, Geert. 1984. Culture’s Consequences: International Differences in Work-related Values. Abridged ed. Vol. 5. Newbury Park, Calif.: Sage Publications.
______. 1997. Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind. New York: McGraw Hill.
House, Robert J., Paul J. Hanges, Mansour Javidan, Peter W. Dorfman, and Vipin Gupta, eds. 2004. Culture, Leadership, and Organizations: The GLOBE Study of 62 Societies. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage Publications.
Joshua Project. “Unreached Listings: 100 Largest Unreached Peoples.” Accessed April 13, 2015, from http://joshuaproject.net/listings/Population/desc/25/allctry/allcon/allreg?jps2=5&jps3=5#list.
Mehn, John W. 2010. “Characteristics of Leaders Reproducing Churches in Japan.” DMin major project, Trinity International University.
______. 2013. “Leaders Reproducing Churches: Research from Japan.” In Missionary Methods: Research, Reflections, and Realities. Eds. Craig Ott and J.D. Payne, 157-174. Pasadena, Calif.: William Carey Library.
Misumi, Jyuji. 1985. The Behavioral Science of Leadership. An Interdisciplinary Japanese Research Program. English ed. M. F. Peterson ed. Ann Arbor, Mich.: University of Michigan Press.
Mullins, Mark R. 1998. Christianity Made in Japan: A Study of Indigenous Movements. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.
Murray, Stuart. 2001. Church Planting: Laying Foundations, North American ed. Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press.
OC International Japan. 1993. Establishing the Church in Japan for the Twenty-first Century: A Study of 18 Growing Japanese Churches. Kiyose City, Tokyo: OC International Japan.
Ohashi, Hideo. 2007. Kyokai Seicho Dokuhon (Church Growth by the Book). Tokyo: Word of Life Press.
Ott, Craig and Gene Wilson. 2011. Global Church Planting: Biblical Principles and Best Practices for Multiplication. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic.
Robinson, Haddon. 1999. Foreword to Audrey Malphurs. Developing a Vision for Ministry in the 21st Century. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books.
Satake, Tokio. 1994. “A Successful Church Planter.” In The Harvester’s Handbook: Evangelism and Church Planting in Japan, 40-42. Tokyo: Japan Evangelical Missionary Association.
Schwarz, Christian A. 2006. Natural Church Development: A Guide to Eight Essential Qualities of Healthy Churches. 7th ed. St. Charles, Ill.: ChurchSmart Resources.
Sherrill, Michael John. 2002. “Church Vitality in Japan.” PhD diss., Fuller Theological Seminary.
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John Mehn has served in Japan since 1985 with Converge Worldwide. John is the director of the JEMA Church Planting Institute and holds a DMin in Missiology from Trinity International University. John can be reached at email@example.com.
EMQ, Vol. 52, No. 2 pp. 180-188. Copyright © 2016 Billy Graham Center for Evangelism. All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMQ editors.
Questions for Reflection
1. As a growing leader how is your theological and practical understanding of the local church affecting your ministry practice?
2. Which of these six characteristics is a personal strength? Personal weakness? How could you develop more of these characteristics in your life and ministry?
3. How can you assess and develop these six leadership characteristics in others?