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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 two-three 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 who 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: “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 toward 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 who 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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