Ministering in Izu, Japan

Mercers and Echas'Yesterday I had the privilege of visiting Every Nation Church Izu with my daughter and the Echas family from Yokosuka. Pastor Dennis and Kaku asked us to come and minister while they are in Michigan visiting their children and grandchildren. Here is the message I shared, called “Great Faith For Izu” along with a testimony from Jay and Diane Echas. This is an international congregation so Alishea translated to Japanese as I preached and one of the church members also simultaneously translated to Portuguese in the back of the room. Three languages – wow!

Do Not Disbelieve, But Believe! Jesus and Thomas.

I was asked to share a message about “Doubting Thomas” at our recent Every Nation Campus Japan Conference in Shibuya. There were about 60 students plus 40 older kids gathered there for two days of establishing, equipping, and empowering. I’ll post the recording here so you can hear how the conference started. Three other pastors followed me and challenged the students to reach their campuses for Christ. There was a great response of faith. Pray for the young generation of believers in Japan!

ENC Japan 2019 Campus Conference Boys

Keeping the Dream Alive (ministering in Shimada)

Recently, I was invited to minister in the Every Nation church in Shimada, Japan. I took two Japanese young men with me. Both are in their early 20s. One grew up in church and one became a believer last year. They shared at the beginning of the message about how God is moving in Japan. This is a bilingual message so you can hear English and Japanese. Give a listen if you want to peek in on a Japanese church. Thank you for your prayers!

It’s Important to Reach the Youth in Japan!

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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

youthBetween 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.

william clarkA 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

small groupThe 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

pbc-bball

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

young-peopleWorking 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.

No Idols

I was privileged to be asked to preach at two of the services at Victory Alabang Church when I was in Manila a couple of weeks ago. Thank you Pastor Jonathan Ramirez for inviting me. They are an amazing, discipleship centered church with 11 services every weekend and each service has about 1500 people and sometimes even more. I saw rows of people standing in the back because there were no seats left! Quite different from preaching at home in Yokosuka to a room that can’t even seat 100 comfortably.

I shared, in fear and trembling, about the second commandment – “Do not make for yourself any graven image.” Here is the podcast for posterity.


http://victoryalabang.org/podcast/Ten_Wk2_RayMercer.mp3

Victory Alabang

at Victory Alabang

Another man’s wife?

(Proverb 5: 20-21)
Why, my son, be intoxicated with another man’s wife? Why embrace the bosom of a wayward woman? For your ways are in full view of the LORD, and he examines all your paths.
 
What a great warning in my devotional reading this morning. If I want to honor my father God with my life, why would I ever be intoxicated with another man’s wife? I realized early on that every girl I meet (except Satomi) is “another man’s wife.” Why do I say that? Because after time runs its course they will either marry another man – or be “devoted to the Lord” (1 Cor 7:4) spiritually. I know that God promises to protect all his children from predators (1 Thes 4:6) like a jealous husband.
 
Lord, thank you for the reminder that the thoughts of my heart are always in full view of you. Let me learn to walk uprightly and with integrity. Help me treat younger women as sisters and older women as mothers (1 Tim 5:2) and thank you that I am still very intoxicated always with the wife of my youth. She is awesome! Remind me that other women are all “another man’s wife” even when I am watching TV, movies, socializing, and walking through parts of Tokyo in the evening (like the man walking through town in Prov 7).

 

OMF turns 150 today

J_Hudson_Taylor_1865

150 years ago today, after following the call of God to China, James Hudson Taylor founded what would eventually become the Overseas Mission Fellowship. Because he could not bear the thought that millions of people had never heard the Good News about Jesus Christ, he could no longer stay in his comfortable church in England. Someone had to go. The birth of the China Inland Mission and the tireless efforts of Hudson Taylor sparked a modern mission movement that would change history.

The Great Commission is not an option to be considered; it is a command to be obeyed.
(J. Hudson Taylor)

A little over 28 years ago, I visited Japan for the first time. My initial reason was to see a certain individual Japanese girl who was to become my wife. The call to give my life as a full-time missionary to Japan was more gradual, but sure. About 22 years ago I moved my young family here to Japan permanently because I could no longer stay in my comfortable church in the U.S.A.

Each month, week, and day that goes by brings more conviction from the Holy Spirit that the most important thing I could ever do with my life is to obey the Great Commission and preach the Good News to those who have not understood it.

Some of my greatest living heroes are the missionaries who honor God by following in Hudson Taylor’s footsteps. They go and make disciples in nations that have not yet heard.

On this 150th anniversary of the China Inland Mission and OMF, I pray for a great harvest of souls in Japan and that many millions here will find saving grace and life in Christ. I pray that the hopeless will be lifted out of an empty existence and into a life filled with eternal purpose. I pray that many young Japanese people will hear the same whisper of the Holy Spirit that moved Hudson Taylor to go. That they will hear the same whisper of the Holy Spirit that missionaries, apostles, church-planters, and disciples have heard for over 2000 years now, to go into all the world and make disciples – in Japan, in Asia and everywhere.

“God isn’t looking for people of great faith, but for individuals ready to follow Him.”
(J. Hudson Taylor)

Letting go of Visual Basic
(my former life as a programmer)

GOODBYE VISUAL BASIC, GOODBYE
msdn-CDsToday I finally said goodbye to Visual Basic. I made a decision to throw out hundreds of DVDs containing software worth thousands of dollars. For about six years, I was awarded Most Valuable Professional by Microsoft and because of that I annually received two complete Microsoft Developer Network subscriptions, one from Microsoft Japan and one from Microsoft U.S.A. I have finally decided that I will never need to install or use this again, even though it was a big part of my life for so long. The software, programming books, computer hardware and other perks, came to me because of my work with the Visual Basic programming language. VB allowed me to create some pretty good software and I really loved it. I used VB from version 3 through version 6 and I would probably still be using it today if I had the choice. Unfortunately, Microsoft made a very misguided attempt to re-invent the language starting in about 2001 and decided to change it into something totally different.

MY LIFE IN A JAPANESE COMPANY
In 1994 I joined a high-tech Japanese company in Yokohama, Japan and so I moved from a hobbyist in the BBS world, using command line FTP clients and dial-up modems, to a professional developer with access to multiple T1 connections, cutting edge hardware and a whole new internet protocol called http using “browsers” like Cello and then Mosaic. The world was getting smaller and that was fine with me. Being an American living in Japan, I really loved the fact that I could communicate with anyone, anywhere for free over the internet. It was sort of like short-wave radio, only so much better, and there was a whole world of servers and new technology to explore.

In the early 90s the smartphone had not been invented yet. Internet giants like Yahoo, Google and Facebook had not yet appeared. Killer applications like Wikipedia and GMail were yet to be invented. Videochat was a new and exciting emerging technology. In 1995 I was assigned to the Multimedia Product Development Division in my company and became part of the team that ported Cornell University’s iconic CUSeeMe software to Windows and to Japanese.  We ran the official “reflector” servers for CUSeeMe in Japan and we hoped to sell lots of hardware webcams to the growing market of computer users in Japan. Eventually, it was decided that my company would try writing original software that made use of video so we could bundle that with our hardware inexpensively.

I had been trained on programming languages such as ASM, C, and then C++. There were new languages popping up like Java that held great promise. But when I was assigned to write new software for Windows 3.1, I decided to try Visual Basic 3.0. I wrote a screensaver to learn the basics. Then I wrote an app to control playback of Video CD discs on Windows. Because there was a great community of developers on BBSs (especially CompuServe) who then migrating to the nntp (especially the Usenet) and eventually on to http websites, it was a great time to be learning about computers, programming and the internet. I learned from the VB masters like Dan Appleman, Matthew Curland, Karl Peterson, and the whole CCRP gang.

BECOMING A MICROSOFT MAN
Eventually, I was put in charge of a team that was developing an original videochat application software for Japan. By this time I was using VB4 and the big change from 16-bit Windows 3.1 to 32-bit Windows NT was happening. I spent about 12 hours a day working in Visual Basic and understanding the internals of 32-bit Windows and the way video-capture and video playback happens. By the time we finished the video software I was somewhat of an expert on using the the Win32 API and the Visual Basic programming language. The internet community had trained me and I felt it was only right to give back so I spent a lot of time helping to teach other aspiring VB programmers on the Usenet. I was awarded Most Valuable Professional status by Microsoft the first time in 1999, and being a VB programmer felt good. It seemed like computers and the internet were still young, the possibilities were endless, and I had a great tool to explore everything the Windows OS was capable of.mvp-2003

By now, I was a loyal VB programmer and I was loyal to Microsoft and MS Windows. In my spare time I released some free software tools written in VB. I even made some money on the side by taking contract programming jobs for custom sports and medical applications that used video capture. I continued to be awarded Most Valuable Professional status by Microsoft for five years.

VB4 was better than VB3. VB5 was a LOT better still. VB6 was another improvement. I was making good money with my knowledge of Visual Basic programming. I assumed that things would just keep rolling and getting better. Microsoft was sending me goodies every month, software and hardware – even perks like buying items in the Microsoft employee store.

When MS released a “Multimedia Jumpstart CD” for their new Windows NT Operating System, they included my software on it as an example to multimedia programmers. They even invited me to Redmond to talk about how I had done the video capture and compression and video overlay all in Visual Basic using functions already built-in to Windows NT. And then came the big surprise.

mvp-goodie
THE BEGINNING OF THE END
I think it was in 2001 that Microsoft invited me and all the Visual Basic MVPs to Redmond and had a big event to announce VB.NET. The project manager for the new version of Visual Basic, tried to sell us on the new features of VB.NET but we soon realized that it had already been decided that VB as we knew it was going to die. I had the sinking realization that all of my old code and all of my expertise as a VB programmer was going to be thrown out by Microsoft just because they were afraid of the growing popularity Java (and indirectly Linux and also Google). Instead of letting VB be what had made it so popular they tried to leverage the popularity of the name and developer-base to sell their gamble on a totally new concept. The .NET team seemed driven by a vision of .NET becoming some kind of meta-OS that could take over and be ported to run on any Operating System. I got the feeling that they truly felt that all VB programmers would see how wonderful it was that they were going to change the language and even the purpose of the language. They simply felt that classic VB was holding back progress. I’m sure they sincerely believed that Java would take over if they didn’t sacrifice the Windows-centric API and COM based VB Classic and move as quickly as possible to some amazing miracle product. Now, over a decade later, it is pretty obvious that this was a mistake.

Visual Basic was one of the top 3 most popular programming languages in the world in the 90s and that is pretty astonishing given that it was a Windows-only language. Each version of VB increased in popularity until the age of VB.NET. Google Trends doesn’t go back to the 90s but look what happened in the 00s…

EULOGY
Even this year, articles are being published and petitions are being submitted for Microsoft to bring back “Classic Visual Basic”, or at least to open source the code so that the developer community can own it and bring it into the 21st century. But I have resigned myself to the fact that VB is dead. Microsoft will not bring back their best Windows programming language and I will not try to learn their new ones. I already hear rumors that VB.NET will be discontinued because it is similar to (and not as popular as) C#…

When Tragedy Happens to a Christian

prayforSPUTwo years ago my daughter, Alishea, who grew up mostly in Japan and went to school mostly at home, ventured into the wide world for the first time. She flew to Portland, Oregon to attend college and study music and the Bible. Since she needed to get a job and had never worked in the United States, I advised her to pray about it. It wasn’t too long before I got a nice phone call from her. She had gone into a sushi restaurant to find work and the owner had been praying for a Christian to come work for him. His daughter’s name  was Alicia (same name, different spelling). In short, both my daughter and this man knew that God’s hand was in the situation. He hired her and she thrived there as the only Japanese employee in the Korean-owned establishment. These are the kinds of stories we love to hear.

Alishea has worked at this restaurant for two years and has been able to pay for her education. She always spoke well of her boss and loved her job. When I visited her last summer he gave me the VIP treatment and he fed me all the best food. When Alishea came home for the summer last month he said, “Take your family out to eat on me.” That is just the kind of man he is.

I thank God that He blessed her and guided her to that place. I know that God is in control and I also know that He is good. That’s why it is so hard when tragedy strikes for no apparent reason, in someone’s life – even someone who also believes that God is good and God is in control. These are the kinds of stories we hate to hear.

This morning a church member here in Japan posted a link to a news article about the shooting at Seattle Pacific University. She asked for prayer because her son is attending school there and we soon got word that he is safe and was not injured. We were all very glad that Alishea’s friend, Jeremy, was OK.  But later when she walked by the computer as we were viewing a news article about the event she she suddenly pointed at the picture on the screen and exclaimed, “Oh no! That is Paul!

Satomi and I were shocked to find out that Paul Lee, the 19 year old Christian student who was shot and killed yesterday, is the son of the owner of the sushi restaurant in Portland that Alishea has worked at for the past two yearsShe has become so close to this family and knew the young man personally. Because of this it has hit us hard that sometimes we just don’t know the reason why. Why would our Good God let tragedy strike this family? I just don’t know. Why would someone senselessly take a life? I don’t know the answer to this question either. I do believe that Paul knows the answers now.

paulleePlease pray for Paul’s family, they are the ones left behind who will be struggling with this question and struggling to forgive and release this into our Good Lord’s hands until the day that they finally join Paul in eternity. I am praying for Paul’s dad Peter, his mom Mira, and his sister Alicia. Won’t you join me?

http://blogs.seattletimes.com/today/2014/06/spu-shooting-victim-identified-as-paul-lee-19/

https://twitter.com/hashtag/prayforspu