Ministry During COVID in Japan
Takayuki Hayashi, BJU Alumnus (Uchinada Bible Church)
My wife and I are 2010 and 2011 alumni of Bob Jones University and Bob Jones Seminary. Since 2011, we have been serving in ministry in an established church in Canada, a church plant in Canada, and now as missionaries in Japan for the last three years at Uchinada Bible Church.
God has called us to be missionaries in a very difficult field. Japan is called the graveyard for foreign missionaries. According to Operation World, Japan is the country where Christianity is in second greatest decline. However, “returnees”— Japanese who became Christians abroad and are now returning to their home country—are having a substantial witness. We have the benefit of both understanding our home culture and having a native understanding of the most difficult language in the world (many foreign missionaries take up to 10 or 20 years to become conversant and still have difficulty in communication). Our children were already fluently bilingual in both Japanese and English prior to moving to Japan, which has allowed us to seamlessly adjust to daily life and school with limited challenges. My wife also continually studies Japanese and has had ongoing Bible studies and witnessing opportunities with English-speaking Japanese mothers she has met.
God has permitted us to reach many people in the last two years. We had further plans to reach the Japanese people in 2020 during the Olympics, but similar to the majority of missionaries, our plans changed because of COVID-19.
The peak of COVID-19 in Japan was towards the end of March into April. However, Japan never shutdown—the government just gave advisories to wear masks and practice social distancing. There were also advisories to restaurants, etc. to close earlier, and schools were closed April until May. Churches were never asked to close, but attendance dropped from 30-130 to around 10 people in each of the 2 services in April. We had to cancel regular ministries including the public library English time, nursing home ministry, and medical hospital Bible studies, due to restrictions on sizes of gathering and limited access to medical facilities. We also had to cancel large outreaches that gathered over a hundred people.
On the other hand, there are three new ministries which God providentially brought to churches through COVID-19. First, meetings and gatherings are online. Second, we can use sports to reach the lost during this pandemic. Third, small and suffering churches in Japan are coming together to help one another. Let me explain these three points in detail.
First, online services are benefiting a greater number of people. For example, we did a Biblical Counseling training seminar in Japanese through Zoom rather than in person, and as a result we had 462 people register across Japan and from the USA. We had six different teachers from the United States teach six different topics. Compared to last year, there were 4 times more people who attended and benefited from the Biblical Counseling Seminar.
Another example is our Bible Conference. We usually have about 200 people attend our yearly Bible conference, but in 2020 we only had about 60 people who attended the conference in person. We were disappointed with the small number of attendees, but the video of the conference has over 700 views on YouTube now. Believers and pastors from all over Japan are watching the Biblical Counseling Seminar, Bible Conference, and weekly Sunday Services. We praise the Lord for the larger reach.
Other ministries we are doing online are the Children’s Sunday School and Awana Club meetings. Several new children are attending the weekly meetings over Zoom. These children were never able to attend in the past because of their parents’ work. We also have people from the other side of Japan attending our regular Bible studies online. God is good!
The second area we are able to minister through is sports. Despite all the changes in Japan due to COVID-19, one area that seems to be immune is athletics. This may be because people know the benefits that come from physical exercise or because athletes must train for the Tokyo Olympic Games. Most gyms and sports facilities allow people to take their masks off during the exercise. Playing sports and eating together are the few times when people can get together without wearing a mask. The government does not force us to wear masks, but it has become socially acceptable to do so since the SARS outbreak of 2003.
Young adults and children are still able to get together to play sports. We have met a lot of new people through playing a variety of sports this year—badminton, basketball, ultimate frisbee, soccer, tennis, and table tennis. Through these times, we have had some good spiritual conversations. One mother started to share her marriage problems with a Christian lady after 30 minutes of a walking class. The camaraderie that playing sports creates allows us to build relationships with people very quickly.
I would like to share one example of how we used sports to reach many people during this pandemic. In November, we organized an Olympic Sports Festival Outreach. Even though the COVID-19 cases were a record high for the week of the festival, we believed God wanted us to proceed with the plan. The city gave us permits, and several other large athletic events were held on the same day, which helped us to make the decision. We invited a Christian Taekwondo bronze medalist to the event. The city leaders were very excited to be part of this sports festival because so many large events were canceled this year for children. The Board of Education in our town handed out the festival flyers to all the children in the town for us. One city recommended the event to all the elementary schools, and over 9,000 flyers were handed out directly to the children by public school teachers. There were over 760 people who registered for the sports festival, but we had to limit the number to 600 people and spread them over two sessions outdoors in order to avoid crowding.
The bronze medalist, Yoriko Okamoto, shared her life story in two elementary schools, two middle schools, and one kindergarten. After teaching Tae Kwon Do to the children, she shared with more than 300 students that believing in Jesus was much more rewarding than receiving the bronze medal. One student asked her what she dreamed of doing after being a third-time Olympian and receiving an Olympic medal. Yoriko Okamoto told the children her dream is to tell other people about Jesus.
The goal of the sports partnership is to have about 500 sports festival outreaches around Japan. We would like to have about 20 sports festival outreaches for different local churches in our area to connect people to the local churches.
The third way God has used COVID-19 in our ministry is bringing small and discouraged churches together to help one another. The average church congregation in Japan is about 30 people, and 89% of the congregation is said to be over the age of 50 years old in Japan. Churches have very few physically capable adults to volunteer for outreaches or ministry. Even though there are fewer people attending churches and less outreaches happening because of COVID-19, we have been meeting with other church pastors to pray for one another and encourage one another. We also gathered young adults from different churches to conduct the Sports Festival Outreach. About 10 evangelical Bible churches came together, and we had about 60 volunteers for the sports festival outreach. Other churches are now also interested in taking part in sport outreaches next year.
Christianity has been decreasing in Japan at a rapid rate, but we believe God can bring a revival to Japan even through COVID-19. One final testimony: in the beginning of December, I was contacted by a man who had recently become a Christian and desired discipleship. He is a well-known, former athlete and owns several gyms. He found out that all the staff members of one of his gyms were also interested in Bible study. So, we have done numerous studies in the last number of weeks. All seven of the staff members had individually purchased their own personal Bible and were seeking on their own. When I asked one staff member at the gym, “Who do you believe is Jesus?” the staff member responded, “Jesus is the Son of God. I want to know more about him.”
Pray for these people in Japan, who are thirsting after righteousness, that God would bring them unto salvation.
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The CGO Blog
Written by the CGO staff, with guest posts from students and other faculty/staff at BJU to provide thought leadership for missions in a new millennium.