In Japan, Adventists Find Willow Creek Bridge to the Unchurched

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Nam: You studied at Avondale for your bachelor’s and master’s degrees in religion. Is it a normal or common thing for Adventist ministers in Japan to be educated abroad, or are almost all of them products of Saniku Gakuin College, which I believe is the only Adventist college in Japan?

Miyamoto: Most of our ministers in Japan are trained in Saniku Gakuin College and some get further training at Adventist International Institute of Advanced Studies in the Philippines. Few go to the United States.

Nam: Why did you choose Avondale? And why pastoral ministry as your career?

Miyamoto: I went to Avondale because I heard that it had a strong theological department. Plus, Avondale offered fees cheaper than colleges in the United States. I thoroughly enjoyed my stay Down Under.

I am a second-generation Adventist. I picked up my career because, in humbleness, I was called to do this work. After high school, I dropped out of the Church because of weariness of church life. Back then, the Church was very legalistic. However, through a sequence of interesting events, I was led back to the Church and I sensed that God had a plan for me.

Nam: I’ve been told that only 1 percent of the population in Japan is Christian, and 1 percent of Christians Adventist. What do you see as the reasons for the difficulty in comparison to Korea, and even China, for example?

Miyamoto: It is said half-jokingly that Japan is the graveyard of missionaries. So much effort and time have been spent on evangelizing Japan, but there has not been much of a harvest. Japan is considered the most difficult country to be evangelized apart from Moslem countries. There have been many studies done on this matter. I’d like to mention a few of them by comparing the success of Christianity in Korea.

National characteristic is one reason. In Korea, they have always faced the threat of invasion from other powerful countries, such as China. They had to decide who was enemy or friend. It was a matter of black-and-white when they had to make a decision. In Japan we have never been invaded by foreign powers. Rather than distinguishing who I am, everyone is expected to live harmoniously with others by diminishing individual identity. Individual people see things or identify himself or herself in terms of group consensus.

This has created an ambiguous attitude in our national character. However, the Bible is not ambiguous in a sense that it always asks us to make a clear decision on whom to follow, which does not fit easily into our way of feeling and thinking. To an average Japanese person, religious difference does not play a big role. He or she is happy to have a wedding at church, yet when a family member dies they have a funeral at Buddhist temple. They are happy to go to the church on Christmas, but also happy to go to the Shinto Shrine on New Year’s Day—something that always puzzles Westerners.

History is another reason. In Korea, Christianity played a resistance role to Japanese imperialism [in the first half of the twentieth century]. Through this, Christianity became well-integrated into the national identity of Korea. But when you study Japanese history, the only period we had many Christians was the Warring State Period (1493-1573). During this time, we had seven to eight hundred thousand Christians (back then, the entire population was one-tenth of the current population).

One reasons for this success was the harshness of social conditions, which made people more religious. Also, becoming a Christian brought the advantage of gaining profit from foreign trades, and there existed more religious freedom. However, after the Warring Period came the Edo Period, and Japan closed the door to Westerners and severe persecution of Christianity was carried out. During this time, the religious policy forced everyone to become a Buddhist and register their names at local Buddhist temples. This period lasted about three hundred years and Christianity was virtually wiped out. To this day, we have not been able to overcome the effect of this weighty history.

The last reason is climate. The abundance of rain makes our culture wet and rather gloomy. Even popular songs that sing about love and lovers have many gloomy words like “drizzle,” “farewell,” “tears,” “waiting,” “bearing,” “dreary,” and so forth. Our emotion is drawn to these subduing words. On the other hand, the Bible expresses bright and hopeful emotions. Though the Bible contains negative expressions, they all turn into positive ones at the end. The Japanese feel that the emotion of the Bible is too bright and too clear. Emotional expressions of Koreans are also different from the Japanese. Rather than subduing their emotions like the Japanese, Koreans are more expressive.

Christianity is said to be like a Western-style dress, which we have not been successful in turning it into the Japanese Kimono.

Nam: What is the size of the Adventist church membership in Japan and how many pastors are there?

Miyamoto: Membership in Japan is 15,000 on the books, but church attendance is around 6,000. There are 84 pastors working among some 180 churches.

Nam: What about Saniku Gakuin College? How many students attend the college, and how many of them are theology majors?

Miyamoto: We have 230 students altogether; many of them are nursing majors and only 13 theology majors (a number just over the 12 disciples of Jesus!).

Nam: In my correspondence with you, you’ve mentioned that Adventists in Japan tend to be less conservative than their counterparts in Korea and probably elsewhere in East and Southeast Asia. What did you mean by that? Could you give some examples with explanations as to why?

Miyamoto: What I meant by “less conservative” is that if you want to reach out to 99 percent of the population who aren’t Christians, you are bound to think differently than people in a country in which the presence of Christianity is dominant.

As far as the Seventh-day Adventist Church is concerned, a few years back, we changed our structure for more effective use of our resources for evangelism. We got rid of the conference bureaucracy, leaving only the conference president. Now, all the administrative and departmental work is done at the union. Even these union departmental directors are pastors at local churches. I think we made our structure as streamlined as possible. Right now, the General Conference is proposing different models of restructuring, and our current structure is considered one of them.

Another example is our wedding guideline. We don’t recommend that an Adventist marry a non-Adventist, but our guideline leaves room for an Adventist marrying a non-Adventist to have their wedding ceremony at an Adventist church. This guideline was drawn because we had more ladies than men in our church, and there were increasing cases of marriage between Adventists and non-Adventists. We used to require them to have their weddings at different venues, but it created negative image of Christianity among non-Christian partners and families. This guideline helps a non-Christian partner have better understanding of Christianity and more a cordial attitude toward the Church after the marriage. We paid attention to the religious tolerance of our culture, which I’ve mentioned already.

Nam: In addition to being a local church pastor, you’re a director of Willow Creek Network Japan, which provides Willow resources through the Adventist publishing house. That’s fascinating because I’ve never heard of an Adventist pastor, much less a denominational entity, involved with Willow Creek to that extent. How did this relationship come about?

Miyamoto: The SDA Church in Japan has been facing the challenge of aging within the church. The strategy we considered at the union was to implement Natural Church Development (NCD) , which measures eight elements (leadership, worship, spiritual gifts, and so forth) of a local church life. It was about eight years ago that we started implementing it, but we faced lack of resources to help improve each element.

I had a chance to visit Willow before, so I checked to see if we could bring their resources to support the churches. Willow was already known then to be a most effective church to reach out to secularized, materialistic, unchurched persons in the United States, and we in Japan have a somewhat similar type of people that we are trying to reach. Fortunately, the Adventist Center for Creative Ministry produced a resource on Spiritual Gifts—Connection—which is an Adventist version of Network, produced by Willow Creek. Thanks to the center, we did not have any trouble securing copyright from Willow and Zondervan to translate the material into Japanese.

The translation of the Network kit took us about three years. Since then, we have been able to publish other resources like Becoming a Contagious Christian, Courageous Leadership, Building a Church of Small Groups, Too Busy Not to Pray, and so forth. We have marketed them to general Christian churches because, with only the SDA church market, we cannot cover the cost of publication. At the same time, we also wanted to help not only SDA churches, but also other Christian churches to grow as well.

Nam: Why has this been important to you?

Miyamoto: It is important not only for making a church growth tool available to SDA church as well as to other churches, but also to help break down the barrier that we used to build between us and other churches. To an average Japanese, seeing infighting within religious groups does not provide any positive image. They consider it a sign of immaturity. When we face the fact that 99 percent of Japanese are non-Christians, it is of no use to continue infighting. Rather, we must have cooperation among Christian churches to spread the gospel.

Getting involved with Willow has been our way of saying that we’d like to reach out to other churches and we are here to cooperate with you so that the gospel could reach 99 percent of people in Japan. My work involves providing Willow resources, conducting seminars in other churches using those resources, organizing a tour to Willow and to their Leadership Summit conference, and so forth. Sometimes I am even asked to speak at worships at Sunday churches. I am happy to see that God is doing wonderful things through SDA churches as well as other churches.

Nam: What have been some of the positive outcomes of this relationship?

Miyamoto: Evangelical newspapers and magazines used to refuse any advertisement that had to do with the SDA Church. Christian bookstores did not sell any books from our publishing house. It has all changed now. Advertisements of our hospital, books, health foods, and schools appear in these papers and magazines. You can find our books in any Christian bookstores. We even published a book that introduces the SDA Church with the recommendation of two prominent pastors from mainline and evangelical churches. It has been well received by other churches.

Also we have been building a friendly relationship with the Japan Evangelical Association. In a recent meeting with the president of JEA, he promised to help us break the barrier between evangelical churches and the SDA Church and wrote his recommendation for the second printed edition of our book on Adventism that I just mentioned. Of course, because of our past, it has been a gradual process, but we can see increasing acceptance of our church by other churches.

Our publishing house is also benefiting financially. Our colporteurs are aging, and sales through them have been dropping every year. Broadening the market has been timely for the future of our publishing work.

Nam: Have there been any negative reactions, such as some members being concerned about associating with “Sunday churches”?

Miyamoto: There are always people not in the majority who think what we are doing is just selling out our distinctiveness. However, we can keep our SDA identity clear, yet also be generous toward other Christians who have different convictions. After all, there is no perfect church or denomination, and we have to see ourselves as well as others through the eyes of radical grace of Jesus Christ. In fact, one of our distinctive beliefs—like the Sabbath—has to be a sign of both the radical inclusiveness and the grace of Christ. We want to present our church as characterized by these beautiful traits of Jesus.

Nam: How can those outside Japan support you for what you’re seeking to do?

Miyamoto: I’d like to request your support through prayer so that a revival will take place in Japan in the near future. I would be happy to make contact with those who are trying to implement Willow Creek’s principles and style in the Adventist setting and find out how they are doing in other countries.

Source: Progressive Adventism www.progressiveadventism.org

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