Reaching the unreached on Japanese sports fields
God is opening new ways to use baseball and other sports to take the gospel to Japanese
Like many young boys, I dreamed of playing professional baseball. Thankfully, when God told my parents to move to Japan, he brought me to a country that loves baseball as much as I do. Both as a child and now as an adult, I have found living in Japan culturally, emotionally, and spiritually challenging. But a shared love of baseball has been a powerful connection between me and this wonderful country.
However, my plans were not God’s plans. Scripture tells us that his plans are higher than ours (Isa. 55:8–9) and far beyond all we could ask or imagine (Eph. 3:20). I never got to play professional baseball, but as my college baseball career came to an end, God opened new spiritual and baseball doors for me in ways I had never imagined.
He has since allowed me to work with those who are living my childhood dream—believers playing professional baseball in Japan. God showed me that I’m better suited to supporting these players as a bridge to connect them to the church and community. We have been blessed with opportunities to work in various disaster areas (including Tohoku), visit schools, do baseball clinics for local youth teams, and hold charity fundraisers. A highlight was visiting a juvenile detention center. It would normally be difficult for missionaries, pastors, or businesspeople to enter such a place, but because we visited with a well-known professional baseball player, we had an open door to share the hope of Jesus with those kids. We have heard the name of Jesus proclaimed in front of a packed crowd of 50,000 at Hanshin Koshien Stadium as well as in front of a group of just 40 Little Leaguers (when we began, we asked those young baseball players if any of them had ever heard the name of Jesus, and no one raised their hand).
A new way of thinking
The Great Commission (Matt. 28:18–20) is very familiar to us in the church, but I believe we need a paradigm shift in our perspective on it. Jesus calls us—commands us—to go to every ethnos, every tribe. We often think of ethnos as ethnic groups, language groups, nations, etc. But I propose that ethnos could mean much more. For example, I believe Japanese high school baseball players could be considered an ethnos, or a tribe; they have their own culture, language (phrases and way of talking), and way of life. The same is true for groups of musicians, artists, and businesspeople. The list goes on.
What tribe in Japan is God calling you to reach and make disciples? Have we in the church spent too long in the old paradigm of being holy, set apart people and waiting for people to come to us only on Sunday morning? Sunday is the very time when nearly 70% of Japanese people are playing sports! Jesus told us in the Great Commission to go to every ethnos—every people group—to make disciples. To me, that means we need to go and meet them where they are.
I strongly recommend that you read Marty Wood’s interview with Pastor Keishi Ikeda on the previous page, along with explanation of the sports ministry map. There you can learn about the vision God has given for the unique opportunities of the 2019 Rugby World Cup and 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics. Hongodai Christ Church is a pioneer in Japan for sports ministry; it runs Esperanza Sports Club as well as baseball, table tennis, and running ministries.
In the Summer 2019 issue of Japan Harvest, Marty Woods explained some ways that churches can reach out to spectators and novice players.1 In this article, I describe how amateur and professional athletes and coaches can be reached. We call this the “in-sports community”—they are often more than just interested in sports; many of them have grown up playing the sport they love. Their skill level ranges from novice to top class. Each group has its own challenges and opportunities.
Reaching in-sports groups is the full-time work of ministries such as the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, Athletes in Action, Baseball Chapel, Unlimited Potential Inc., Christians in Sport, and the in-sports focus of the Japan International Sports Partnership (www.jisp2024.com). Here are some ways you can reach out to the in-sports community.
Camps, clinics, and tournaments
Since 2001, former Major League baseball players have been coming from the US to Japan and working with the Japanese church to reach the community by using their influence as former professional athletes. Their influence allows churches to access individuals, families, and communities that they otherwise might not be able to reach. Great ways to connect with these in-sports tribes are hosting or supporting a baseball clinic; a sports camp; or a preexisting basketball, touch rugby, or futsal tournament.
Just like any unreached or unengaged people group, Japanese sports people need the Word of God in the language they can best comprehend. That is why we are working to create sports Bibles, tracts, and sports devotionals in the language of the people we are trying to reach and in ways they value. Many times, people who don’t know Jesus aren’t interested or feel intimidated to pick up a thick book with a big cross on it. But if they see the testimony of an athlete they admire, they may be drawn to explore more about that athlete’s faith. Past examples include the Japanese Baseball Bible and the Rugby Edition Sports Bible. We also are working on future resources such as manga Bibles, devotionals, and reading plans for the YouVersion Japanese Bible App. The intention isn’t to ignore the whole Bible, but rather to introduce Jesus and draw them into a relationship with him and an appreciation of the whole Bible. (Resources available at fcajapan.org or by emailing Japan@fca.org.)
Chaplaincy and small groups (huddles)
In Japan, a serious athlete has little opportunity to connect with a traditional church because Sundays are sports days. That is why in many other countries, chaplains minister to the spiritual needs of amateur and professional athletes and coaches. Likewise, small groups, or huddles, can be places of spiritual support and community for coaches and athletes who cannot attend a traditional Sunday worship service. Please contact me at WThompson@fca.org if you want further information.
The Kingdom is at hand
Anyone can connect with the large percentage outside the church who love sports. You can do it by attending a game together, jogging or walking with those in your community, joining a recreational sports team, or just paying attention to the sports news and connecting with people in conversation about it. You don’t even have to be an athlete or missionary!
Levi Booth wrote a great article a couple of years back giving suggestions for how to get involved in sports ministry.2 My experience is the same as Levi’s—Japanese people are open to gospel conversations when you meet them where they are and share a relationship and common hobby. I’ve taken to heart the motto of my home church in the United States: “Never-changing message; ever-changing methods.” We should never change our message—salvation through Jesus alone—but we should always consider new methods to reach every person, every tribe, and every ethnos for him. Let us all be willing to change our minds and perspectives on how and where we go to make disciples, because his Kingdom is at hand in Japan.
1. Marty Woods, “Bring celebration into your community,” Japan Harvest, Summer 2019, 26–27.
2. Levi Booth, “Sports ministry,” Japan Harvest, Spring 2017, 12–13.