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Pastoral & Lay Leadership In Japan


T.S. Eliot once wrote,

“Half the harm that is done in this world is due to people who want to feel important. They don’t mean to do harm, but the harm does not interest them …or they do not see it, or they justify it … because they are absorbed in the endless struggle to think well of themselves.”

This is true not only in the secular world but also in the leadership of the Church.  As I attempt to write, I say with the Apostle:”Who is sufficient for these things?” (2 Cor.2: 16).  Self-absortion in leadership is dangerous for the life of the people that are following us.  A ministry that is done in the power of the flesh will bear the mark of its origin.

One famous pastor humbly confessed:

“Narcissism is the adulation of the self, the diminishment of others, and often expressed as reckless ambition. Nothing could be more inconsistent with the character of Christ—the self-sacrificing servant who sought only to do the will of his Father. How can I be a pastor, a servant of Christ, and struggle with this?”

“A disciple is not above his teacher, but everyone when he is fully trained will be like his teacher” (Luke 6: 40).  This is scary!  Can a spiritually blind leader lead the blind?   Jesus gave a severe rebuke to the well-educated missionaries of his day: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!  For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves” (Matthew 23: 15).  A disciple will look very much like his teacher.  One who is mentored will be as good as the one who mentors.  Which means, he might talk, act, preach almost like the mentor.  “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit” (John 3: 6).  The “flesh” in the Scriptures is often used to denote the “sinful propensities and passions of our nature.”  But the good news is: A ministry done in the power and strength of the Spirit will also bear the mark of its origin.

This is why Scripture encourages us to “walk by the Spirit” (Galatians 5: 16).   Leaders have to embrace & embody this sobering truth throughout our lives that “apart from [Christ we] can do nothing” (John 15: 5).   This needs to be modeled in our lives (not just be intellectually informed by the truth).  Western individualism & pragmatism teaches, “Yes we can!” in contrast to what Christ teaches!   Hence we have learned to do much apart from Christ! We have almost educated ourselves to imbecility.  Always learning, yet never able to come to the knowledge of the truth.  As C.S Lewis astutely said, “Education seems to have made man a little more clever devil.”  We are called to die to ourselves (Gal.2: 20) and say with Paul:

“I count everything [including my profession] as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.  For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things [including education etc] and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ” (Philippians 3: 8).

The self is our greatest enemy, not the devil.  We are not called to make disciples that look like us, but Christ.  “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11: 1).

What does this imply for leadership then? We are called to lead from below. People that have most influenced our lives; and humbled us greatly– are often the ones that serve us in humility.  Not that we should ever seek to be served.  Figuratively, they are the ones who walk around wearing apron in their hearts and readily wash our feet. They are mostly found behind the scenes, not on the stage necessarily.  The priesthood of all believers needs to be not only taught, but lived-out and encouraged among Churches in Japan, like never before. As Luther once strongly advocated:-

“In fact, we are all consecrated priests … as St. Peter in 1 Peter 2:9 says, “You are a royal priesthood and a priestly kingdom,” and Revelation [5:10], “Through your blood you have made us into priests and kings” (Timothy Wengert, “The Priesthood of All Believers and Other Pious Myths,” page 12).

I came to Japan about 7 years ago (2004) and a year before that, one missions organization bulletin published this shocking article.  Below is an excerpt that portrays the sad reality faced by many Japanese Churches.  I pray you will listen with compassion & pray for Japanese Churches:-

“Traditional Protestant concern for a well-educated clergy, combined with hierarchical Confucian leadership model that emphasized the positional authority of the pastor/teacher has not encouraged an active role for the laity… As far as [these Churches]… are concerned, ministry is generally understood to be what “pastors” or “priests” are engaged in, for which the laity bear no resonsibility. The boundary between clergy and laity is clearly demarcated, and the membership tend toward passivity. Without a significant transformation of Japanese Christian attitudes and a mobilization of the laity for greater participation in congregational leadership, the future of these Protestant denominations seems very much in question.” [Note: Names of Churches/denominations censored by me. Article: International Bulletin of Missionary Research ].

Ephesians 4:11 says that: “It was he [Jesus] who gave some to be (1) apostles, some to be (2) prophets, some to be (3) evangelists, and some to be (4) pastors and (5) teachers.”  The reason for which Jesus gave these gifts to the Church is “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.”  Who’s doing the ministry?  When a “boundary between clergy and laity is clearly demarcated” it’s only the pastor who does all the ministry!  This is true in Japan.  These gifts are meant “for building up” the Church, not to tear down.  Leaders are meant to lead from below, in order to build up others. Easy to say, hard to do, because the Gospel calls us to die to ourselves by cherishing Christ.

Now, despite these set backs, there are newer Churches being planted & growing in Japan.  The scene I’d like to portray here is not all bad news.  The Good News of Jesus Christ continues to affect great changes!  God’s work is continuously in progress.

The two biggest, fastest growing churches in Tokyo are led by foreigners, an Australian and a Hawaiian. The Aussie-led church has about 500 Japanese worshipers in just six years. They are raising up many Japanese workers in the best way, in daily relationship in a dynamic engine church which is now starting daughter churches. Though it seems counter-intuitive, the Australian pastor has a growing church of 500, while Tokyo churches planted by experienced Japanese pastors average fewer than 50 worshipers even after 20 years.  But this fits our world of globalization. Nissan’s CEO is French. Sony’s is also European. Japan’s national soccer team is coached by a Brazilian. In recent years, some top, championship baseball coaches in Japan have been Americans. The man is more important than his passport. A foreigner may generate interest that a national cannot. Fuji Television, one of Japan’s major networks, aired a program nationwide about our family, not a Japanese pastor’s family.  There are still legions of cross-cultural evangelists and church planters around the world contributing to Kingdom advancement by the churches they start, and by the indigenous leaders they mentor.  The best place to grow up indigenous leaders is in a vital local church. (The Iversons In Japan).

I believe there are multiplied reasons as to why there is lack of lay-leadership & why “membership tend toward passivity.”   A young Japanese friend told me that many pastors still have a Samurai (“bushido”) philosophy of ministry.  One must be careful of blame-shifting (like Adam with Eve).  We must be Grace-giving, but truth-telling at the same time.  The pastoral ministry is a noble call, yet hard labor.  Mature congregations should be able to provide care & support to their pastors.  Vice versa!  But the bottom-line sad-truth may be owing to what A.C Dixon once famously said:-

“When we depend upon organizations, we get what organizations can do; when we depend upon education, we get what education can do; when we depend upon man, we get what man can do; but when we depend upon prayer, we get what God can do.”

In a fast paced post-modern/scientific world, are we really dependent on prayer?   Or have we learned to put our trust in the arm of the flesh, with a small token mention of prayer, to an extent that we have become so blind in this area?  In his book, Brothers, We Are Not Professionals, John Piper laments over the pastoral ministry.  He writes: “We pastors are being killed by the professionalizing of the pastoral ministry….”  This is a powerfully-penetrating truth.  What does that say to our minds?  For example, in one Seminary in Japan (Note: it’s not the one I attended in the past),

“The number of students being graduated is insufficient to replace those who will be retiring in the next decade.  Like Protestant churches elsewhere, both of these denominations are known for their educated clergy (four years of university, plus three to four years of seminary or divinity school), which requires considerable time and financial commitment from individuals who will likely serve modest or small congregations with very limited means of support” [Anonymous Seminary].

I have a Japanese pastor friend, like the ones that are being described above, laboring in a small Church that can barely support his salary (and he has a wife and a kid).  I understand that smallness does not mean the Church isn’t genuine.  Nor does a big crowd mean there are no tares among the wheat (Matthew 13:25).  Jesus ministered to both the disciples (small group) & the multitudes.  There are more than 99 % “lost sheep” in this nation.  So we are, again, without any lame excuses.  If the “number of students being graduated [in Seminaries] is insufficient to replace those who will be retiring in the next decade”  then where do we raise up leaders?  The best place to grow up indigenous leaders is in a vital local church.

“Conservatively, we could say that [many] pastors and congregations are aging at about twice the speed of Japanese society in general. With the aging of [these] congregations, the number of young people has declined sharply.  In 1996, 1998, and 2000, the percentage of [many Church] communicant members under thirty years of age dropped progressively from 10 to 9 to 8 percent.  This trend represents a loss of 2185 communicants in the age bracket from which potential ministerial candidates have traditionally been drawn.”

Earlier in 2009, I had a conversation with an 80 years old Baptist-Fundamentalist Pastor here in our city, who said he travels around Seminaries looking for pastors.  He’s nearing retirement.  He had a hearing-aid on.  I leaned over when I spoke, and he could barely hear.  He still preaches well, but has none to take up his mantle in his Church.  Where are all the trained young men and women? (contd. below)

“The year 2003 saw 228 churches – 13 percent of all [anonymous] churches and evangelistic stations – without a pastor… Astoundingly, 542 [anonymous] ordained clergy are not assigned to any church or Christian institution. This figure represents 25 percent of all [anonymous] clergy”  (Article: International Bulletin of Missionary Research: Crisis Facing The Japanese Congregation).

There are generations of pastors/missionaries/evangelists, including lay workers, before us, who thought that they should work towards bringing renewal & change from within existing & established Churches.  But they too ended up not being able to affect much change, having bought into the same old systems that been had hardened throughout the years.  They got old like everyone else, entangled by the status quo, and had to retire eventually.  In Japan the average age of the traditional pastor is well over 60-80 years with no younger generations to replace them, and the traditional church is in decline.  History tells the same story!  A close friend of mine who interned at a Japanese Church once told me that he was the youngest in the congregation (He was 29 or 30 then).  There are many, like this Church.  Young people are no where to be found in many protestant Churches.  Where are the next generation of leaders?

Furthermore, Piper goes on to say: “Professionalism has nothing to do with the essence & heart of the Christian ministry.  The more professional we long to be, the more spiritual death we will leave in our wake.  For there is no professional childlikeness, there is no professional tenderheartedness, there is no professional panting after God…..The world sets the agenda of the professional man; God sets the agenda of the spiritual man.  The strong wine of Jesus explodes the wineskin of professionalism.” [John Piper- Brothers, We Are Not Professionals].  When will we learn with all of our learning?

“Matsunaga Kikuo has cited statistics showing that “the average Christian life of a Japanese Christian is only 2.8 years!  This means that quite a number of the Japanese are baptized in the name of Jesus Christ but after three years they lose their Christian commitment and perhaps their faith in Jesus Christ” (Article: International Bulletin of Missionary Research: Crisis Facing The Japanese Congregation).

This, then, begs the question: What needs to change in our lives & Leadership today?


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3 comments on “Pastoral & Lay Leadership In Japan

  1. […] Related Article: Pastoral & Lay Leadership In Japan. […]

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