Evangelism in Japan: An Uphill Struggle

Attempts at large-scale public evangelism in Japan have typically crashed and burned. And Adventists in the country have, for the last several decades, shied away from them. The challenging influences of secularism, materialism, and Buddhism, as well as the perception of Christianity as a Western cultural influence, have been compounded by the fact that until recently, next to no energy has been invested into training pastors or lay people in public evangelism best practices. This cocktail of limitations has ensured that evangelistic activities (typically 2-3 day sessions) at best generate very modest baptismal tallies as compared to campaigns in most other places in the world. Never in the history of Japan has public evangelism resulted in mass conversion — not for the Adventist Church and not for any other denomination. Many believe (with good reason) that such campaigns are doomed to fail.

Despite these obstacles, this year the Adventist Church launched an evangelistic mega initiative in Japan: “All Japan Maranatha 2018.” The campaign was years in the making (planning for the evangelistic initiative started in 2013) and preparations included evangelism field school training and several preliminary preaching series. “All Japan Maranatha 2018” meetings were held on more than 120 sites across Japan. About 20 of these sites featured foreign speakers, but the rest of the presenters were local. The goal for baptisms was, by international standards, highly modest: 100 people nationwide.

The bulk of the meetings were held May 4-20, 2018. I flew to Tokyo toward the end of the campaign on May 16 to check it out. To maximize use of my time, I decided to focus the few days I had in the country on Amanuma Seventh-day Adventist Church, a congregation based right next to Tokyo Adventist Hospital.

Amanuma has been getting a lot of positive press from church publications for recent successes with revival events and several baptisms over the last couple years. It was also the site where General Conference President Ted Wilson spoke during all three weekends of the campaign. I figured it would make a good operations hub for me, too, as a wide cross-section of leaders, members, and visitors would likely pass through there.

A flyer in the Amanuma church lobby announcing Ted Wilson's series.

I arrived at Amanuma a little dazed, confused, and about halfway through a prayer meeting (I'd gotten lost on the Tokyo subway system). Wilson was not there as it was Wednesday and his next scheduled talk was not until Friday.

The first thing that hit me about the prayer service at Amanuma was the deafening silence. Amanuma Associate Pastor MyungHoon Rha led a group of about 25 people in prayer. Thanks to some English speakers that had mercy on my total lack of Japanese language skills, I learned they were praying for the forgiveness of sins, for national political leaders, and for the success of “All Japan Maranatha 2018.” They had personal prayer portions as well as small group prayers. I don't think I have been in a quieter, more solemn Adventist service in my life. Quiet contemplation was clearly the name of the game.

Afterward, I had a conversation with Rha, who is Korean, and Hideko Nagata, a chaplain at Tokyo Adventist Hospital. They were forthright about their views and openly acknowledged the challenges to church growth in Japan.

Pastor Myunghoon Rha and Chaplain Hideko Nagata inside Amanuma Seventh-day Adventist Church

Rha said that it was precisely because of the extreme challenges to growth that the church was doing evangelism. He said that Japan has been called “the most difficult country to evangelize… a symbolic country.” When the outreach planning process started in 2013, most church members were against the idea of public evangelism, said Rha, with about 80 percent of his congregation against evangelism.

Nagata explained that faith is generally seen as something intensely personal by Japanese Adventists; it’s not something that is frequently shared in public. Over the past few years, with extensive training and a continued congregational focus on outreach, this viewpoint has begun to change at Amanuma. “It wasn't a drastic change,” said Nagata, explaining that the shift happened gradually.

“Little by little God has shown us that He is working,” said Rha, adding that today about 70 percent are now for public evangelism at Amanuma. Both Rha and Nagata believed that the last few years of training have worked on some level. They said that the “End of the World” message also helped motivate members.

So what of the 30 percent of the congregation that are still opposed to public evangelism? Rha was quick to point out that these members were not actively protesting the evangelistic outreach. It seemed clear from our conversation, however, that they were not backing it, either.

Part of the problem is a question of culture and style. Nagata said that some members feel discouraged and see the aggressively public, “foreign” nature of “All Japan Maranatha 2018” as contrary to the style of private, contemplative Adventism which they hold dear. She said some feel that “what they have been doing [in their spiritual life] has been negated somehow by this campaign. They have lived that way [in quiet, private contemplation]. To fight that idea comes across as a negation of their lives.”

Nagata said that the church members in question “agree with the goal [of soul winning] but the strategy doesn't match.”

Rha summed up the reservations of these members more succinctly as: “They are American, we are Japanese.”

Nagata said that the Japanese “do not take religion as something emotional… You think and you wait until your thoughts sink into your mind… It doesn't happen emotionally.” Employing classic Japanese understatement, she said that the ongoing campaign “does seem more emotional.”

Nagata said that while she admires what the church is doing, parts of the campaign like public appeals and calls for congregational responses, are “not that close to my style… I think I'm very Japanese.”

For some perspective on this issue of cultural style and emotionalism, I reached out via email to Pastor Ron Clouzet, a former longtime professor at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary at Andrews University, NAD Evangelism Institute Director, and current Ministerial Director of the Northern Asia-Pacific Division to which Japan belongs. Clouzet has been part of the planning process for the evangelistic initiative from the start and is widely trusted in the region.

He agreed that emotive preaching performances don't work in Japan. Although Clouzet’s preaching series both before and during this campaign have yielded several baptisms in the country, he described his speaking style as professorial and said that he hardly ever tells stories and never tells jokes. “I’m not a great speaker, nor a loud one, nor one who pulls at emotional strings, but I try to be a faithful one, fully confident that the Word will do its job,” he wrote, referencing Isaiah 55:11.

Clouzet pushed back on the idea that the evangelism style for “All Japan Maranatha 2018” was American: “Different people have different definitions for what they call ‘American tactics.’ In my years of experience in this field, I find that’s a misnomer. It is assumed that traditional public evangelism is American. It is much less American than one would expect. The truth is that many of the specific components towards successful public evangelism are simply the practice of what I call ‘sound evangelistic principles.’ However, most pastors, in America or elsewhere, do not make a habit of practicing such principles. Most never experienced it, having no mentors who could have taught them well.”

Clouzet is particularly invested in comprehensive evangelistic training in Japan and has made at least 16 trips to the country. “I love the Japanese, and I love working with them because of their high sense of responsibility and follow-through,” he said. Clouzet is optimistic that “All Japan Maranatha 2018” will help reverse losses to Japanese Adventist membership and grow the church.

I was curious as to what the Japanese at Amanuma thought was so emotional about Wilson's preaching. As much as he is a decent public speaker, I would have stopped far short of calling Wilson charismatic or emotional. If anything, his messages come across as quite stern and somber to Western Adventists. What was I missing? I would have to wait a day to see what local spiritual leaders were talking about.

Eager to get the full experience of Wilson's campaign preaching, I arrived significantly before the start of the Friday night campaign meeting at Amanuma. In stark contrast with Wednesday night when I had to let myself into the church, I was warmly welcomed by an ultra-organized hospitality team that started with a church member holding a sign in the alley outside, followed by an enthusiastic group of greeters in the lobby that quickly harvested my contact details and presented me with a small book (by Mark Finley) featuring a super cute Japanese child on the cover. I was rushed into a green room of sorts to meet the Wilsons. I'd never seen Ted Wilson in a better mood. He beamed when I introduced myself. His wife, Nancy, was the very essence of Adventist hospitality, offering me food from the uber-healthy snack selection in the room. I had recently overdosed on delicious sushi variations so politely declined. We busied ourselves trading typical Adventist missionary pleasantries (“You’re a missionary kid? You must not know where you’re from!”) before I excused myself and was brought to a pew.

The Amanuma Church hospitality crew begins in the alley outside the church.

The meeting started a minute early. More than 100 people had come to hear Wilson. After the welcome and some singing, Nancy Wilson delivered a 10-minute health lecture. I could immediately tell the audience loved her. As Amanuma head elder Kyoichi Miyazaki would tell me later, Nancy has “a very understandable and acceptable soft touch.” It certainly warmed the audience.

Then it was her husband’s turn.

Every other time I have heard Wilson speak, he has come across to me as severe and stern. This time was different. As Wilson stood up to talk about the doctrine of baptism, he smiled. He made an (awful) attempt at saying something in Japanese but people loved it. He was charming. He even cracked some decent jokes which survived the translation process and reaped chuckles. In one he stressed that the pastor won't hold the baptismal candidate under the water. I was mildly shocked that he could be funny. I'd never seen a crowd take to him in quite this way. He was connecting and explaining Adventist doctrine in a simple, approachable way. Wilson was clearly in his element as a former missionary relishing being out in the field.

I talked to Maromi and Emma Tatsumi (mother and daughter) and their friend Hanako Utahara after the meeting. My astonishment continued as Maromi said she was proud to have such an “open-minded” leader who spoke “with passion” and that they needed that style more. She added that her 80-year-old mother liked Wilson's preaching, too. “Even Japanese people can feel passion,” said Maromi with a smile.

(Left to right) Hanako Utahara with Emma and Maromi Tatsumi

Head Elder Miyazaki said he valued foreign preaching oomph; he liked the “simple, straight” approach of foreign preaching: “We are a little timid in Japanese culture. We don't push people to this or that way.”

Miyazaki bemoaned the fact that the foreign speakers were not staying in Japan. “If they could live here for a couple years, that would be good,” he joked.

I decided to keep the good times rolling and hopefully score an interview with the Wilsons who were back in the green room chatting with church members. That didn't work. Wilson quickly shut me down after I revealed I was writing for Spectrum. Although he allowed subordinates to engage media representatives, Wilson himself wouldn’t give interviews to publications that were not official denominational outlets. To his credit he agreed to chat as long as we kept our conversations off the record, and by the time we said goodbye at the end of the weekend, we had enjoyed a number of friendly exchanges.

Everyone was in a celebratory mood as the Sabbath service got underway the next day. The weeks of campaigning at Amanuma had culminated in two baptisms. The first candidate, Satsuki Yamashiro, was a nurse at Tokyo Adventist Hospital. The second was Norio Masuda, an executive at Hitachi.

Newly-baptized Satsuki Yamashiro (right) with friend, colleague, and spiritual mentor, Risa Sato.

I talked to both new members over potluck. While the ongoing preaching series had likely played a role in their decisions, relationships with Adventist friends, mentors, and Adventist institutions had been central. Yamashiro told me she was mentored by the hospital’s chief nursing officer (an Adventist), as well as another Adventist colleague. She also had attended a previous 14-night lecture series by Ron Clouzet.

For his part, Masuda credited his Adventist wife and the hospital community for helping him make his decision. His mother had passed away at the hospital a few years ago and her funeral had been held at Amanuma church. Church members who attended the service had made an impression on Masuda. “I was so moved by their kindness,” he said.

Norio Masuda celebrates his baptism with his wife (far right), two nieces, and his sister-in-law (far left).

Also at potluck, I had a chat with Mark Uyeda, a young Physical Therapist saddled with translating Wilson night after night. He made no secret of the fact that it was a stressful gig! But he clearly had done his homework and rarely stumbled in his delivery. Uyeda said there had been movement away from traditional Adventist evangelism in the country. “A lot of people thought that preaching on Daniel and Revelation was too hard a subject,” he said. He described the recent renewed evangelistic focus of the messages as “refreshing” and “important.”

After Wilson’s Saturday night presentation, Richi Ono, one of two female Sales Directors at Oracle Japan, asked me about rebaptism. We chatted for a few minutes and Ono said she was a former Adventist who, incidentally, had set up freshly baptized Norio Masuda with his Adventist wife. She was complimentary enough about the nightly meetings but had serious reservations about returning to Adventism. She said the church was “full of hypocrisy” and had “lots of rules.” Her marriage to a Catholic had ended in divorce and she felt that life would become more complicated if she returned to Adventism. She said her pierced ears were an issue and the fact that she currently has “mandatory” wine with her business clients complicated matters.

Ono made it clear that she wanted her sentiments reflected in my Spectrum article. Still seated in the sanctuary in the pew directly behind mine, she emphasized that Christians were a tiny, isolated subculture in the country and that Adventists, specifically, were “weird.” I was floored as this was more straight talk than I'd heard all weekend. But I suspect most Japanese, if they've ever heard of the Adventist church, would likely agree with Ono.

There's no denying that momentum is building for Adventist evangelism in Japan. The latest baptismal results I've heard put the baptismal total at 70 across the country. That number could grow as there are sites that have yet to complete their final baptismal data. But church members have their work cut out for them, and not just to reach the goal of 100. As the assistant health director for Japan Union Conference, Atsushi Yamamuro, put it to me: Once the big speaker is gone, the fireworks are over. But the hard work remains.

Elder Ted Wilson presents as Mark Uyeda translates.

Bjorn Karlman is an Adventist freelance writer who travels the world as a "digital nomad" living in 2-3 countries per year with his wife and toddler. He is fascinated by the diversity of culture and thought in the global Adventist Church.

Main photo: Amanuma Church on Baptismal Sabbath. All photos courtesy of the author.

Editorial Note (May 30, 2018 at 8:35 a.m. EST): Per her request, quotes from Chaplain Hideko Nagata have been updated to better reflect her sentiments.

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://spectrummagazine.org/node/9023

Dwight K. Nelson was born of missionary parents in Japan. Might be of interest to hear his perspective regarding evangelism in that country.

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QUESTION–
Does the Seventh day Adventist portrayal of the Bible and OF CHRIST IN PARTICULAR,
PREVENT God-lovers of other world religions from seeing VALUE in Changing to
worship the God of the Bible, and to REJOICE in the message of Christ in particular???

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Thank you for this very nice and positive piece of journalism that will no doubt heighten our interest in the Seventh-day Adventist Church’s ministry in Japan.

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If “this gospel shall be preached to all the world and then shall the end come “ is to be believed, then the imminent return of Christ has to be indefinitely postponed and put on permanent hold.

Shintoism, Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism, Judaism, all,seem to offer impermeable, impenetrable barriers, not just to Adventism, but to Christianity in general, with minimal inroads over multiple decades/centuries.

Meanwhile, staunchly Catholic (yes Christian ) countries like France, Italy Spain, and Poland are becoming increasingly less Catholic and more secular…

Not a happy prospect for Christianity in general and Adventism in particular.

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AND apparently we ALSO have NOTHING to offer to our Christian neighbors, Robin.

BUT I do think that one will find this MESSAGE in our SDA churches.
"We did our Duty! We put up signs outside our church announcing Revelation
Seminars!"
Just because nobody came is NOT OUR fault!!

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Fascinating article for this former student missionary to Japan (47 years ago!) who no longer attends church.

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“The challenging influences of secularism, materialism, and Buddhism, as well as the perception of Christianity as a Western cultural influence, have been compounded by the fact that until recently, next to no energy has been invested into training pastors or lay people in public evangelism best practices.”

One estimate that I have read is that 90% of the population are Shinto and 75% are Buddhist, suggesting an overlap. At any rate, Shintoism is the pervasive religion in Japan.

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This article is very interesting, and well written. Very informative.

A central question in any evangelistic campaign is, “Why should those target people change their religious convictions?” Unless there is a very serious and important reason, they won’t. Why would they?

Therefore I wonder what kind of message was prepared to be presented for people who are very private about their religious convictions. They are not emotional, so I am curious on how the “End of the World” message worked on them? The end of the world message (fear, fear…) works well in Catholic countries I(tell me about Brazil!!!). Did it work in Japan in any way?

In cases like this, when culture is clearly an impediment, I think that great results could be attained focusing on health services and on social services approaches much earlier than taking the task of preaching way too much a distinctive “Adventist” message. And what about preaching the Gospel massively before talking about the end of the world or even about EGW? Leaving Daniel & Revelation alone would be a safe strategy as well.

I would be interested in seeing those people’s reaction when they are told that our Church discriminate against women, and that the top leader that preached to them is against WO as well. Just curious, just curious… :thinking: :thinking:

Well, as Trump often says…, “We will see, we will see”… :wink:

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Yes there are 2 types of people
The TRADITIONAL with their private Shinto religion.
The MODERNIST who are attempting to mimic Western ways of behavior.
We need to OFFER a God who speaks to BOTH.
A God who is worth the time to learn and know about.

Jesus began a Movement that was soon called – The Way [Not Christianity].
Perhaps The Way needs to be revived. Actually His “The Way” was a re-reading
by Christ of the Old Testament Scriptures as are related in the Gospels.
Perhaps our Evangelism needs to go back to basics – the Messages of
Christ Jesus and His revelation of His Father.

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Interesting article. I wonder what age group(s) the 30% represented? It could possibly be a generational issue or maybe it is not. Would have been informative to know this pertinent bit of information. Overall, it appears that culture is more of an issue than perhaps Post Modernism in this country. Culture may be the bigger obstacle to overcome with evangelism in Japan.

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You are funny, McMurphy…even though you are dead serious. :grin:

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This is an interesting and important report! It covers many of the important dimensions of the meetings.

George, you ask many important questions.

Why should those target people change their religious convictions? Fortunately, there is a very serious and important reason why people in Japan should change their religious convictions. The ‘gospel of the kingdom’ is designed to change the minds of people. In the Scripture this is called repentence. It helps people to make a U turn on the road of life, and to jump from the broad way that leads to destruction and start travelling of the narrow way that leads to life.

The “End of the World” message is not a message of fear. It is a message of hope about the soon coming of the Saviour of the world.

A story may illustrate my point here. I once spent 18 months in Korea while my wife remained in Australia with our younger daughter who was still in Australia. My employment arrangements didn’t allow me to go home to Australia during that time. Nor could my wife visit me. You should have seen me running from the aircraft over the tarmac and into the terminal of our provincial terminal. Our reaction concerning the soon coming of our Saviour will contain no less anticipation and hope than that of my return to Australia to see my wife.

Yes, Christ established his everlasting kingdom in his ministry, death and resurrection at the time of his first coming. Yet Christ is yet to receive His kingdom in its fullness until His second and third coming. Clearly, the gospel or good news of the kingdom involved a discussion of the person and work of our Saviour at the time of His first coming and at the time of His second coming.

It is the duty of every believer to work individually and corporately in his or her respective community with the care and compassion of Jesus. In short, believers will continue the ministry of Jesus in our world. If we do this, there will also be opportunity to speak for our Heavenly Father as well. And people without hope in this world will listen and respond whether they are in Timbuktu in Africa, Urumchi in China or Tachishima in Japan.

The “gospel of the kingdom” is powerful. The preaching of this “gospel of the kingdom” will bring results.

It is my understanding that most if not all of these 120 evangelistic series are being conducted in Adventist churches. The most “radical” thing about the current evangelistic strategy in Japan is that preachers are actually preaching the gospel in a systematic way where the target audience is those outside the fold, and not only to their own congregations. How “radical” is that!

Truly, what Clouset has said is absolutely correct - these preachers are not doing things that are “radical.” Instead they are employing sound evangelistic principles.

We can do the same where we are!

Look on the bright side… there will be only 70-100 lukewarm, poor blind naked Laodicean SDA members added to the ranks.

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I see your point. I think the problem is how it has usually been presented. I haven’t seen how it’s been done lately, but in the past I Know there was an emphasis on the horrific armagedom (a word that occurs only once in the Bible).

When I was in college, in the 3rd year we were requires to do an evangelistic series, in groups of 6 students. I still remember when we were preparing the “end of the world” presentation… I guess the most horrific we made it the better grade we got! My group did very good, excellent, A+… :wink:

I hope today’s evangelists are not getting A+ scores for their work for those same reasons, but fo centering their message on the Gospel.

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I applaud Elder Wilson’s interest in Japan, he seems to love evangelism. I wonder if Sabbath observance is a problem in Japan. What is the church’s position when a new member loses their job on Saturday, in the event they cannot pay their expenses?

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George,

Check out Kohlberg’s stages of morality and then think again on the reaction one is supposed to get from boom & doom eschatology presentations.

Churches= religious restaurants. Pastors = chefs. Sermons=food.

Many get indigestion, constipation, food poisoning.

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Well acquainted with Kohlberg; was part of my Master’s thesis.

I am fortunate to live in SoCal and attend a church that serves good, healthy spiritual food. No indigestion in churches like Azure Hills, La Sierra University, Loma Linda University, etc. Sorry there are places when people suffer constipation…

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I like the Kohlberg’s stages presented by

  1. Little Kid standing in the corner facing the wall.
  2. [adolescent/adults] Two Policemen with safety vests [where most are]
  3. Lady on the street with a BullHorn. Maybe 15% of adult minds.

Gideon/George – How many SDA Christians are the Little Kid standing
in the corner facing the wall Mentality when reading the Bible/Hearing the Sermon?
How many ARE PASTORS presenting the sermons??

the 15%? How many of these PASTORS are no longer pastoring because of
pressure – being NON-CONFORMISTS? by groups 1 and 2. ESPECIALLY group 2.
How many Laity of the local church in this group are NOT re-elected to a Church Office?

Thanks for the challenge to review!
When one stops to consider all 3 of these — Jesus Christ was a 15%-er. Calling His
disciples to be 15%-ers, and TRAINING them to be 15%-ers.
He was also, ALL THE TIME, calling the Pharisees, Saducees, Lawyers of the Law to
"quit standing in the corner", “quit being policeman minded”, and become 15%-ers.
Because 15%-ers have the most fellowship with God the Father, and the Most
Freedom of Mind in being part of the Family. [Maslow’s Top Tier] – “There is Now No
Condemnation” – as Paul states. And everyone sings and shouts, Hallelujah! Hallelujah!

Wonder what would happen IF our Educational Program from Kindergarten through Graduate
School encouraged our children, youth, adults to be 15%-ers and TAUGHT them HOW to BE
15%-ers like Jesus Christ, our role-model?

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George –
Spectrum is an AWFUL place to be!!
ALL the TIME I am forced to get out of my Very Comfortable Zone
and challenged to see myself, the church, the world from a new
location!
You, and others are not making it easy being in your classrooms.
Too much “outside thinking”!
It is MUCH easier to “stand in the corner”, or just “Obey the policeman”.
Thanks for being such a hard taskmaster.

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