NOTE: This is an updated version of an article I originally wrote for the Summer 2016 edition of Japan Harvest, the magazine of the Japanese Evangelical Missionary Association. I rewrote some bits and added some pictures to make this more interesting to the people who know me. If you read it please leave a comment!
YOUTH IS A (SOMETIMES NEGLECTED) WINDOW OF OPPORTUNITY
Between the ages of about 12 and 22, people go through a unique season of life where they make important decisions which will impact the rest of their lives. Through their time in high school and university they are being formed and trained systematically. The values taught by their teachers and professors eventually become the values of the nation, as they grow into law-makers, authors, entertainers, teachers, or otherwise influencers in the community. There is no question that the youth in our campuses now are the future leaders of society. Because young people naturally tend to be less set in their ways and more open about spiritual things, the campus age is the best time to present important values.This is the time when young leaders should be considering foundations and making decisions for their future career, relationship, and most importantly their eternal purpose and relationship to the Creator. In this age of constant online entertainment it is easier than ever for Japanese youth to float through school without ever thinking about the meaning of life. But if we want to reach Japan and see the good news spread, it is vital that we are fully engaged in presenting the gospel to the youth. Every focused and driven leader was once a young person searching for meaning and truth. And the older I get the shorter this opportune season of openness seems to last. They don’t stay young for long.
A classic example of the value of reaching young people for Christ is the work of Professor William S. Clark, who remains a national figure in Japan even to this day. He was in Sapporo for only eight months from 1876 to 1877 working at what is now Hokkaido University. But during his short time there he prayerfully poured his life into a handful of students. These young men went on to influence Japanese Christianity and Japanese society for generations to come.
Sadly though, the key demographic of campus aged youth is often conspicuously absent from our local churches in Japan today. One Japanese pastor, a mentor of mine in his 80s, shared his concern about this with me. He encouraged me not to give up on reaching out to the youth because they are the future of the church. I am convinced that he was right. When we invest in the youth we are really investing in the future of the church.
MAKING THE GOSPEL ATTRACTIVE
There is a new type of church in Japan now that focuses on young people. Many of the fastest growing churches in Japan fall into this category. They focus on creating an atmosphere which is easy for young people to enjoy. They use the same cutting-edge lighting and video that one would expect to see at a J-Pop concert. Their leaders purposefully dress and talk in ways that appeal to the sensibilities of young working professionals and university students. Before each service, youth in their teens and 20s gather expectantly and countdown the seconds until the worship music begins. They are excited about their faith and they show it in their enthusiastic praise and worship time.
In our furoshiki (wrapping cloth) culture we know that the wrapping is almost as important as the gift inside. So it’s not surprising that Japanese youth appreciate an attractively packaged worship service. We do well if we engage young people where they are; whether it is through their music, or on their campuses, or through life testimonies from their popular heroes. But engaging them with an attractive “wrapping” on the gift of the gospel is just the first step.
They may not express it out loud, they might not even be consciously aware of it, but what young people are really hungry for is a deep connection with God. So how do we get them there? An article published by a church research company in the United States a few years ago claims that those young people who have personal relationship to a pastor are twice as likely to stay in church, and that those who have a relationship with a mentor in the church are much more likely to stay. Relationships are important and even more important in Japan than they are in many other countries. Building deeper relationships with our youth is the first step in moving them to a deeper relationship with God. So our worship services should certainly be “packaged” as high-quality and attractive, but in the long run discipleship-centered relationships are the most vitally important thing in our churches. As new youth are added to our church, our primary responsibility is to build these relationships
CONNECTING THROUGH SMALL GROUPS
The best way our Every Nation churches have found to reach Japanese youth and build mentoring relationships is by using small group ministry. We have worked hard to make small groups simple and easy to lead so that young leaders can do the work of the ministry. Both outreach and discipleship can and should happen through small groups. First, young believers can pray for their classmates, friends and relatives. We encourage them to start doing this as soon as they themselves are saved. Sometimes the most enthusiastic evangelist is the one who is a brand new believer. After all, if you know what Jesus did for you then you already know enough to pray for someone else.
In small groups, discipleship happens through discussion around what the church is learning from the Bible and how to apply it personally. Because they are praying and encouraging each other to reach out, more young people get saved. As these newer ones are added the leaders have to learn how to mentor and lead them. They have to learn to minister to others.They have to learn to make disciples. Our church family has many strong leaders, but only because at some point someone took a chance and empowered them to lead. Someone took a chance on me when I was younger too and that is why I am a church planter today. Shouldn’t we also be looking for the next generation of leaders in our churches right now?
THE ONLY WAY TO REALLY LEARN IS TO GET IN THE GAME
The first time I played in a school basketball game I ran onto the court, received a pass, and started dribbling towards the wrong hoop! Fortunately my teammates corrected me and turned me around before things got even more embarrassing. I understood the game well in theory but it was different when I was responsible for the ball in a real game. I know now that if that coach had not taken a risk on me and put me in the game, I would have never really learned how to play basketball. The only way I could learn was by getting in the game and making some mistakes.
All too often in our churches we have believers who sit through years of teaching but who have never really learned how to minister to others. We are ministers today because someone took a chance on us and gave us some responsibility when we were younger. Shouldn’t we also be prayerfully looking for young leaders to put in the game too? Even brand new players become veterans with the proper mentoring relationships. Just imagine a sports team where every single player is only one year away from retirement. The team might look great now but how is the coach going to look next season? He hasn’t spent any time building the rookies and future stars. That coach would probably lose his job!
INVESTING IN YOUNG PEOPLE IS WORTH THE COST
Working with future leaders takes a lot of time and energy. They can cause problems – especially the first time you try to put them in the game. Young people are naturally inexperienced and they do make mistakes. They might need to be taken out and coached for a while before they become successful team players. I have had people tell me that you can’t build with young people. Young people are irresponsible. Young people don’t make as much money as older members so we should focus on the ones who give more. Young people move away when it’s time to go to college. Or, they move away after they finish college.
Why not just focus on the more mature believers who are more stable? Because the youth are the future of the church that is why! If we begin to reach them now, revival in Japan is not far off. If we ignore them, we are only robbing from our future. It is vital that we pray and ask the Holy Spirit to show us how to build mentoring relationships with the youth that God has entrusted to us in our own context. Will you accept the challenge of equipping and empowering this next generation for the work of the ministry? They don’t stay young for long.