“Japan is a spiritual vacuum,” General MacArthur declared immediately after World War II. “Send 10,000 missionaries to Japan!”
Though 10,000 missionaries never arrived on the island nation, Free Will Baptists responded. In the 1950s, the first wave of Free Will Baptist missionaries took the Good News to this spiritually needy country.
Intent on reaching the neediest areas, they focused on planting churches in the remote eastern part of Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido. They targeted small villages and towns without gospel witness. Early efforts included living in specific neighborhoods, establishing preaching points with “persons of peace,” and using large tents for evangelistic outreach. Though the number of converts was small, the dedicated work of these pioneer missionaries led to people transformed by the power of the gospel.
From the late ‘60s through the ‘70s, a second wave of missionaries entered the spiritual vacuum. Evangelism and church planting continued as the target area grew to include Hokkaido’s largest city, Sapporo.
One dynamic example was “The Good News Team,” an evangelistic team of musically talented Bible college students who took a year off from their studies. Equipped to evangelize in Sapporo, the host city for the 1972 Winter Olympics, they joined the young Free Will Baptist church plants in outreach ministries to the influx of people from all over the world.
Four team members, touched by the spiritual needs of the Japanese people, later returned to Japan as career missionaries (Dale and Sandra Bishop, Judy Smith, and Mirial Gainer).
At the same time, missionaries began church plants in Tokyo, the nation’s populous capital on the major island of Honshu. God’s direction clearly added urban ministry to the Free Will Baptist vision for Japan. Today, 92% of the country’s population is urban.
What’s the present challenge?
More missionaries joined the force in Japan in succeeding decades, actively starting churches and developing outreach programs. Yet, the task in Japan remains far from finished. In fact, the Japanese are the second largest unreached people group in the world. Even though missionaries have served in Japan for many decades, less than half of 1% of the population are evangelical believers. The 125 million-plus Japanese people (the 11th most populated nation) desperately need to encounter the gospel.
Part of the reason Japan has been so resistant to the gospel is the deep-seated role of Japanese religions. Buddhism, Shintoism, and Confucianism hold a strong grip on the Japanese mind. Essentially, to be Japanese means one is Buddhist and Shintoist. These religions are inseparable from the culture.
Japanese desire to respond respectfully to local and national religious rituals. Shinto shrines host baby dedications and ceremonies for life milestones. Buddhist funeral rites are observed for virtually all who die. Most Japanese never witness a Christian funeral.
The Japanese calendar is synced with religious festivals to indoctrinate school kids from kindergarten forward. The worship of ancestors is considered the normal expression of a good family member and an important part of most Japanese homes. These traditional, non-Christian religions of Japan are a deeply engrained spiritual stronghold with thousands of years of observance.
The Japanese culture also breeds and demands conformity. Individuality is strongly discouraged. Instead, everyone is expected to look, act, and be like everyone else. The gospel itself is viewed as foreign to Japan. Human relationships are highly valued, often more than truth or principle. Harmony is greatly desired. Loyalty to the group is prized over individual expression or belief. The gospel message conflicts with this value. Christians are a tiny minority in a society where consensus is important. Few families come to faith. Individuals who do accept Christ experience shaming, exposure, and ostracizing.
Japan is also deeply materialistic, and their affluence is no friend to the gospel. Many Japanese are content with their desire for material wealth and the comforts that go along with it. The sincere, polite, hard-working Japanese are too busy to give heed to the gospel. They have little concept of personal sin.
Most Japanese have never been to church, have never read the Bible, and have no Christian friends. Estimates indicate 95% of Japanese have never heard the gospel of Jesus Christ.
They raise each new generation to follow in the same life cycle.
What’s the plan?
The plan is to break this deeply rooted cycle. How? The power of the gospel (Romans 1:16) can break through. The most vital and pressing need in Japan is more gospel-driven churches. Only one church exists for every 16,700 people, as contrasted with one church for every 800 people in the U.S. Furthermore, 60% of churches have fewer than 30 attendees. Without additional churches and the increase of Japanese believers, most people will never have a vital contact with the gospel.
Planting churches remains the mainstay of what Free Will Baptists do in Japan. We continue planting churches in the populated, urban areas of Tokyo and Sapporo, while supporting the less populated areas of rural Japan.
Through church planting and its activities, we give many Japanese people an opportunity to hear and understand the message of salvation up close and personal, often for the first time. Spending time with the Japanese and living out the gospel opens the way to plant the seed of the Word of God. Our churches focus on evangelistic outreach through a host of creative methods. Our desire is to see greater numbers of Christians in Japan, increasing the light of the gospel throughout the country.
We not only work at discipling believers in our churches but also in developing national leadership to carry out the work. Our missionaries are developing teaching materials and internship programs to raise up national leadership.
What’s the progress?
We clearly see God blessing Free Will Baptists in Japan. A few years ago, we were down to one church in the entire greater Tokyo area. We relocated missionaries to develop works in the city. Today, we have four church plants in Tokyo, cooperating to make a bigger impact in the capital city.
We have 14 churches in Japan. Nine dot the northern island of Hokkaido, four in Tokyo and one in southern Japan. On any given Sunday, nearly 200 people attend our churches.
Hope Alive was started by missionaries in Tokyo. Just before that, a Japanese couple launched a new church in Hokkaido. The New Life Church, led by a missionary team, recently launched in the Sapporo area. We have an association of churches interested in expanding the Kingdom, both in Japan and beyond. Our Japan Free Will Baptist Association supports Japanese missionaries to other parts of Asia, in addition to supporting the annual WMO.
These churches impact their communities with the gospel. Outreach Bible classes inside and outside of church buildings, evangelistic English class parties, music meet ups, gospel music workshops, street gathering events at train stations, Bible clubs, VBS summer activities, outdoor park gatherings, picnics, science hobby meetups, and a host of other activities provide gospel opportunities. Our contacts are ever increasing.
Some churches stream services online with evangelistic hooks to attract listeners to activities at local venues. We sponsor Internet pages with testimonies sharing hope and encouragement for those battling severe depression and considering suicide. Short term teams, CMP students, and ETEAMs provide new contacts each year for our churches. During the past few years, while other missions reduced their personnel numbers, Free Will Baptists have added to our Japan mission staff in unprecedented numbers.
Though we have not hit MacArthur’s challenge of 10,000 missionaries, Free Will Baptists now have 25 missionaries in Japan, the largest number ever. Missionaries with a host of gifts and talents are submitted to impacting the nation. We praise God for this! The gospel light is burning brighter than ever.
Japan’s current receptivity to the gospel is unprecedented. That is the work of God. He is doing a new thing, breaking the cycle that has blinded the eyes of the Japanese people for centuries. Please continue to pray, send, and give for the gospel light to shine in Japan.
Let’s fill the spiritual vacuum!
About the Author: Donnie McDonald and his wife Ruth served as missionaries to Japan for three decades. Currently, Donnie works in the IM office, and Ruth serves as director of WNAC. Their daughter Kate Speer and her husband Daniel have returned to Japan as career missionaries. Learn more: iminc.org.