Small churches can thrive
God has ordained that a church grows organically, as one body, even a small one
I grew up as an MK in Yamanashi Prefecture. Each of the churches Dad started was very small, with numbers in the single digits. Then in college in Oregon, I was a member of a church with 2,000 people attending three worship services on Sunday morning.
I returned to Japan as a missionary, planting my first two churches in 1981 and 1982. Both are in the hands of Japanese pastors. One has almost 30 members, and the other is still in the single digits, just like the church presently meeting in our home.
So, having been involved with small churches in Japan and a large church in Oregon has helped me better understand what community is—especially in the context of the local church here in Japan.
The average church in Japan has around 40 members (who may or may not be active).1 But because Japanese believers give sacrificially, that is usually more than enough to financially support a pastor and his family. In fact, in my experience a church of around ten members can often pay for a pastor, including his rent and utilities. That is a far cry from churches in America. I have heard that many churches need two to three hundred members before they can start to think about supporting a pastor. We can be grateful for the giving nature of our members.
So I can imagine many missionaries coming to Japan may have a hard time adjusting their expectations of church size. But actually, we need to realize that not only large churches but also small churches can thrive, especially in Japan. Let’s consider what community looks like in Japanese churches. And let’s be grateful for the existing churches as we ask the Lord to raise up more churches, more pastors, and more missionaries in this needy country.
Community and koinonia
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “community” as a unified body of individuals. They can be unified by interests, characteristics, profession, activities, etc. So, we could say the church as a whole is a community. But there may also be communities within the church—based on age group, ministry, emphasis, etc.
Though the word “community” is not found in the Bible, it can be likened to the Greek word koinonia, which is usually translated as “fellowship.” “Koinonia” is defined as: “communion, fellowship, sharing in common” (from koinos, common).2 That would define a modern church.
God has ordained that a church grows organically, as one body. For that to happen, there needs to be a sense of community, koinonia as it were. But, we don’t need to have multiple groups within the church. The main goal should be to nurture a true community in the church as a whole, then, as the church grows in size, other groups (men’s group, singles’ group, etc.) can naturally form. But the main emphasis should be the church body as a thriving whole. “The whole body, being fitted and held together by what every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part, causes the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love” (Eph. 4:16 NASB 2020).
Have you ever noticed that some people in the church seem to be doing everything? And often that person is the pastor (or missionary) or his wife? It would seem that many pastors have not read Ephesians 4:11 and 12: “And [God] gave . . . some as pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the building up of the body of Christ” (NASB 2020, emphasis mine). The role of the pastor is to prepare the saints to do the work of the ministry, not to do it himself.
For the saints to take their part in the ministry of the church, there needs to be an understanding of spiritual gifts. 1 Corinthians 12:11 says, “But one and the same Spirit works all these [gifts], distributing to each one individually just as He wills” (NASB 2020). Every Christian has a spiritual gift, but there doesn’t have to be only one for each person. Since God is working through each church, we can expect that spiritual gifts in a small church will look different than in a large church. In a large church, there would be many members with the same gift while in a small church, each member would probably have more than one gift. As it says in Romans 12:6, “Since we have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, each of us is to exercise them accordingly” (NASB 1995). With each member exercising their gifts together, the body of Christ—no matter how large or small—will be built up.
The value of community in Japan
As we know, Japan is a group-oriented society. Though we might have come from a culture that is not, we all need to accept who and what the Japanese are so we can reach them effectively.
It has been said that: “In Japanese schools, students learn about being a part of a group and the importance of moving with this group. This type of education is what forms a fear of acting differently from those around you. Of course, every person is unique in their own way, but Japanese are taught to be group-oriented at a young age, and many people think that following what others do is the correct thing to do. In general, the custom of Japanese people is to prioritize being unobtrusive to their surroundings as opposed to making themselves stand out. Many children develop this mentality through their education, and as a result they tend to continue adhering to this as adults.”3
Because the group is important in Japan, in a sense that makes it easier for us to nurture the group as a whole. People are looking for a group where they can fit in. If we can lead them to join our fellowship and find purpose, meaning, and value in the church, we are that much closer to leading them to Christ. Most Japanese find that being accepted in a group helps them to accept Jesus as their Savior.
The plurality principle
As a young seminary student, I studied about a plurality of elders (pastors)—the concept of more than one pastor in a church. My home church in Oregon was a good example: there were seven pastors/elders besides deacons. That was what I wanted. But when I came back to Japan as a church-planting missionary, I realized the situation here was vastly different from that in America. Here in Japan, most churches have only one pastor—and many have none at all. So how can we keep churches from being an unhealthy one-man show?
Even if it is impossible to have multiple leaders in the church, we need to develop an accountability framework for what we do. I had a mentor in another city on our island with whom I would talk on the phone for at least an hour every week. He also came every month to help me with my first two church plants, and his wife came once a month to do cooking classes.
But even after that mentoring relationship had changed, I had other pastors to bounce ideas off of and pray together with. And, of course, I had my wife—she’s a very important part of my ministry. All these relationships of accountability keep us humble so we can do what God wants us to do the way he wants us to do it. So, even though Japanese churches don’t often have more than one official leader, we can offer support to leaders so that they are not left to function on their own.4
Small churches can thrive
Church growth seminars and books are fine, but we need to acknowledge the situation before us. In other words, we need to deal what we have (the realities) before we can think about what we want (our dreams). Our Lord said, “I will build My church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it” (Matt. 16:18 NASB 2020). May we take joy in his calling us to join him in building up the church in Japan.
1. In 2014, worship service average attendance was 39.9 people, but membership average was 62.7 people. From クリスチャン情報ブック [Christian Data Book] 2016 (Japan: Inochi no kotoba sha, 2015), 6.
2. Vine’s Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, https://studybible.info/vines/Fellowship (accessed April 1, 2021).
3. Keisuke Tsunekawa, “6 Reasons Why Japanese Cannot Speak English According to a Japanese Local,” from Tsunagu Japan, https://www.tsunagujapan.com/6-real-reasons-why-japanese-cannot-speak-english/ (August 29, 2019).
4. For a good read about the plurality principle, check out the following article. Though it’s not about church-planting, it provides insight on a healthy leadership structure: https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/reviews/plurality-principle