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The Priority of Proactive Church Planting

“Church planting is the most effective means of evangelism under the sun.”

I first heard this statement 25 years ago at the inaugural meeting of the Japan Evangelical Missionary Association’s Church Planting Institute (CPI). Is this true? If so, how should this affect our ministry and budget priorities in Japan and around the world?

Operation World lists Japan as the only large nation in Asia with a current decline in the percentage of gospel-believing Christians. One reason for this seems to be that fewer missionaries and Japanese Christian workers are planting churches, opting instead to work in youth ministry, publishing, seminaries, and other ministries. These are all, of course, important. Yet if we want to truly see Japan transformed by the gospel, we need a return to the biblical priority of church planting.

Church Planting Is Biblical
The biblical priority of evangelism and church planting for kingdom expansion is seen in Acts, as Christians go to new places proclaiming the gospel, baptizing, and starting churches. “Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went” (Acts 8:4–5 NIV). The result of this was that “the church throughout Judea, Galilee, and Samaria … was strengthened … and grew in numbers” (Acts 9:31).

This model of proclaiming, baptizing, and planting wasn’t just for the ancient world. Tim Keller has written that church planting is both biblical and effective today for kingdom growth worldwide. The way he sees it, church planting not only leads to more conversions and the growth of new churches, but proactive church planting is actually the best way to help revitalize existing churches. Keller teaches that older congregations generally have internal pressure to focus on their own needs rather than on reaching the lost. Church plants have less of this internal pressure and can focus on new, creative ways to reach non-Christians that are often difficult in an established church.

Church Planting = Kingdom Growth
Today, even in Japan, we are seeing significant kingdom expansion through intentional church planting multiplication efforts. My research with multiple church-planting leaders in Japan shows that networks intentionally focused on church planting multiplication generally see steady kingdom growth, in contrast to the overall 0.4% decline among evangelicals for the rest of Japan.

Grace City Church Tokyo is a perfect example of this growth. GCCT was the first Tokyo church plant of a partnership that included MTW Japan, the Presbyterian Church in Japan, and Tim Keller’s Redeemer City to City Church Planting Network. In 2010, after several years of leader selection, training, and evangelism, Rev. Makoto Fukuda and his team of Japanese and MTW missionaries began worship in Tokyo’s city center with about 30 worshipers. God blessed this little body of believers, and Grace City Church has since grown to about 160 worshippers. Coached and helped by Redeemer City to City and MTW Japan, GCCT has also been used by God to start the Grace Church Planting Network in 2012, which has grown to seven church plants with over 500 worshipers as of December 2019.

We have seen the same church-planting principles play out in the Tokyo/Chiba suburbs over the last two decades. More than three decades ago, three Japanese church planters from the PCJ had started three small house churches in Chiba totaling around 60 worshipers. They heard that MTW was focused on church planting and planting presbyteries. That sounded like a biblical idea to them (it is!), and an effective way to reach their East Tokyo/Chiba area of over 8 million people. So they sent a letter to the PCA and to MTW inviting MTW to send a team to partner with them in starting churches and a presbytery in East Tokyo/Chiba.

Our MTW Tokyo/Chiba team came, learned the language, and partnered with these three small PCJ churches for many years. Again, God blessed the work. Our MTW team planted churches, some directly by missionaries, and some by PCJ church planters with MTW assistance. Soon after, Korean Presbyterian missionaries came and planted three churches. Then several PCJ pastors came and planted more. Several daughter churches were born. These three little church plants of 60 people total have grown into a healthy presbytery of 19 congregations with an average of about 850 people worshiping the true and living God each Lord’s Day.

Compared to church growth in some other countries, this may not seem like much. But in a difficult country like Japan, where the church is actually shrinking, this story shows all the more that church planting is not only biblical, but effective for kingdom expansion.

What Can We Learn?
The churches in these examples have been graced by God with gifted leaders and significant resources, and most are in larger cities where there is often more fruit ripe for the harvest. Not every church plant is blessed with the same kinds of people, tools, and context, yet we can certainly still learn from the church-planting principles followed in these success stories—principles like having an outward-focused missional DNA, effective leadership development, and zealous and biblically-contextualized evangelism. These same principles work effectively throughout Japan, even if the growth we see might be slower than in the cities.

Church planting is difficult, but it is good stewardship of our kingdom resources of people and money. May the Lord bless the Japanese church and our Japan mission groups with the Holy Spirit’s power for a church planting multiplication movement throughout this needy land. May the Lord do this throughout the world.

Dan Iverson serves as the country director for MTW Japan. Interested in serving in Japan or elsewhere? Visit mtw.org/serve.

The original, unedited version of this article was published in the Japan Evangelical Missionary Association’s Japan Harvest Magazine.

 

Dan Iverson Jan 28, 2020
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