Apostles to Japan: Ralph Cox and Joseph Meeko
As a missionary myself, I had repeatedly heard of Joseph Meeko and Ralph Cox. But what really got my attention was when Japanese leaders kept referring to them and their combined influence on church planting in Japan. Joseph Meeko and Ralph Cox were among the first generation of missionaries after World War II. Their legacy continues to this day in the churches and lives they touched decades ago. I met Ralph Cox many times, but I don’t recall ever having the privilege of meeting Joe Meeko. However, due to their influence on Japanese leaders, I felt I knew these two men well. Many Japan Harvest readers may know them far better than I do, yet I think it is worthwhile to explore their ministry principles.
Ralph Cox arrived in Japan in 1953 as a TEAM missionary whose ministry spanned over 50 years! Ralph primarily focused on church planting in Kagawa prefecture on the island of Shikoku.
Joseph Meeko left Seattle, Washington, and arrived in Japan in 1947 with the Conservative Baptist Foreign Mission Society, now called WorldVenture. He worked in Yamagata Prefecture in the Tohoku region, as well as the Kanto area. Joe first served just 12 years, returning to the US in 1959, but he accomplished much in that short span of time. He later returned to Japan from 1972-79.
With the help of others, Joe started at least 12 Japanese churches in 5 years and Ralph started at least 88 during his ministry. Both were exemplary in reproducing churches.
While either man would merit a book-length study, here we will concentrate on just one crucial aspect of their ministries: reproducing churches. These post-war missionaries show us that certain ministry principles were effective in reproducing the church in Japan. Even though their era of Japanese missions differs from our own, we can learn much from them. The principles underlying their ministry are still relevant today.
What most impressed many Japanese leaders was Ralph and Joe’s intense commitment to establishing local churches. These two pioneers took the apostolic role of founding and birthing churches. Often they were the first missionaries to visit a rural village. They gave priority to evangelism, making disciples, and developing leaders, which is as important today as ever. Many places and peoples in Japan still need this pioneer work, with at least 25 cities and 1,800 rural areas without a single church. Today, as was true in their day, many areas and people-clusters need pioneer ministry.
Ralph’s and Joe’s emphases are also vital today. Missionaries need to partner with Japanese pastors and lay people to equip and facilitate existing churches to reproduce. In some sense, Ralph and Joe did both pioneering and facilitating work. They were successful in casting vision and developing systems of church multiplication. Through them many churches were planted and many Japanese leaders developed vision for more church planting.
Of the many insights available from studying the ministries of these two missionary statesmen, let us examine three distinct lessons.
1. Cultivate God-sized vision
Joe Meeko took a Japanese leader up on a hill that overlooked several villages. He then asked some challenging questions. “See those lights down there, what do you think those people are doing? Do you think they know Jesus? When will they have a church?”
Joe loved large vistas and overlooks where he would often take others to “see” what God wanted to do in establishing churches. Joe hoped others would catch God’s vision, as indeed they have. One missionary still has the map Joe Meeko drew with strategic church plants along the Musashino line in Tokyo. Today there are churches in those locations.
Ralph, from Wyoming, thought big and developed visionary plans for whole areas. He worked with five Japanese pastors on one ten-year plan to expand the number of churches from 7 to 14. These plans would challenge others to engage with what was on the heart and mind of God. Ralph believed church planting to be the practical application of the Great Commission. He used New Testament principles enabling church planting to be done by non-professionals and over a wide area. Partnering with Japanese leaders in church plants meant intensive collaboration and utilizing their cultural expertise to develop healthy Japanese churches.
There are many cases where Joe or Ralph inspired a prominent Japanese church leader to seek God’s vision. This God-sized vision would grow in the leader’s heart and then also become the basis for using lay people in church planting to develop vision within them. Vision is something caught by people, then embodied by them. It should then become the DNA of a new church and, hopefully, of any subsequent church it reproduces. There are many examples where vision was caught by the next generation and then passed on to succeeding generations. Vision was caught via on-the-job ministry training.
Joe and Ralph also determined the next practical steps. What would it take? They did not begin with vision only, but by practical planning saw the vision accomplished.
2. Create emergent opportunities
Joe was a great proponent of what he called “strawberry evangelism.” Even before the fruit ripens, a strawberry plant sends out runners to develop new plants. Joe encouraged Japanese people to start other churches even while nurturing a new church plant. This analogy worked well within Japan.
Ralph also advocated starting more than one church plant at the same time. Because establishing any church takes time, it is important to get started and encourage momentum toward each new congregation to come. Both men believed more in multiple opportunities than in singular situations. Some people never get started as they wait for perfect conditions. Planting churches rapidly and simultaneously can get messy, but it also creates more opportunities. Joe and Ralph never shirked from doing necessary planning to get a new church off the ground. But each also considered it essential to get the next plant moving.
They believed in ministry in many locations, using ministry partners, often covering wide areas. Ralph believed in emulating the Apostle Paul’s practice of laying a foundation which believers could then build on (1 Cor. 3:10).
They also believed in enhancing new church ministries while cutting out certain common delays. Ralph listed several hindrances to establishing churches in Japan. “One church, one pastor; a church’s first goal is to secure its own land and building; laymen can’t pastor; another church can’t be started until the first church is self-supporting and has its own building.”1 Instead he proposed beginning churches where lay people could cooperate and nurture the new church toward stability.
Both Ralph Cox and Joe Meeko found it possible to simultaneously reproduce and grow many church congregations in the soil of Japan. Of course you can’t really take advantage of opportunities in widespread locations all on your own, so investing in other people is always vital.
3. Invest yourself in people
This is probably the biggest lesson I learned from them. One missionary shared how Ralph encouraged him through a weekly telephone appointment to talk through church planting. He was not the only one to have Ralph’s personal encouragement and practical help. One Japanese pastor told with much affection of how he traveled around with the Meeko family in the US. Clearly Ralph and Joe both believed in the principle of investing in individual lives. Though Joe Meeko had a big church planting vision, as one missionary said, he was very much “a one-on-one type of guy. He invested in the person he was with right at the moment.”
These men often used local workers and raised up harvest workers from the harvest itself. Joe Meeko’s early church plants used teams of people, including seminary students, veteran pastors, college students, and businessmen. Joe and Ralph believed in using lay people in central roles in the establishment of churches, often alongside seminarians and professionals. Both of them taught lay leaders through on-the-job training to lead ministries and churches. They knew that, especially in Japan, it was not practical to wait for highly trained and credentialed professional clergy. They were not afraid to entrust ownership of the ministry to lay people. For Ralph and Joe, entrusting ministry to lay people meant allowing them to make real decisions while Ralph and Joe were still available for advice and counsel.
Ralph and Joe recruited both Japanese nationals and foreign missionaries. Between them they recruited many of today’s TEAM and WorldVenture missionaries. Early on, Ralph embraced the new concept of short-term missionaries and helped to develop it into a smooth running system.
Both men were tenacious, optimistic, and faithful. They both loved Japanese people. We could go on to discuss whether all of their specific methods work as well today as decades ago, but these are three principles we can all apply in our own ministries.
Today we still need pioneer workers and church planting facilitators. These two men applied timeless principles of ministry that Jesus, the Apostle Paul, and others have used. I am still learning from these great missionary examplars. They challenge me to find a God-sized vision and pass it on to others, to work in teams to multiply opportunities, and to invest myself in local people. These three principles surely work in concert with each other.
Father God, thank you for these faithful workers and their modeling effective ministry. May we walk in their footsteps and may you multiply these kinds of leaders in the future.
1. Stella Cox, One Man’s Vision for Japan (Bloomington IN: Crossbooks, 2013), 88.