Table tennis mission for children
Table tennis is a very accessible sport—you just need a table and a small space. Well-known players such as Ai Fukuhara (“Ai-chan”; now retired), Mima Itō, and Tomokazu Harimoto have greatly helped to increase the sport’s popularity among Japanese youth.
Tokyo Lighthouse Church (Japan Church of God; Rev. Eriya Yatsuzuka) started Lighthouse Table Tennis Club in 2015. It runs from 4:30 to 6 p.m., Tuesday to Friday. Even though we visited the club outside its operating hours, some local junior high school students were still enjoying singles and doubles matches. For these young table tennis lovers, playing at church on the way back from school seemed to be a part of their lives.
The club currently has 11 members, and more are on the waiting list. “We started with two children from Christian homes, but some junior high students from school clubs started joining us because they liked the atmosphere here,” explains evangelist Katsutoshi Mineguchi, their youth leader. The club’s membership currently includes mostly students from non-Christian homes.
We have coached some advanced children, though the skill level of our coaches wasn’t that high. Coaches at professional table tennis schools can direct the ball to the right spots on the table, but we did not have such skill. So we followed some advice and bought a ball dispenser, and the results have been improving little by little over the past four years. Some members have reached high ranks at local matches.
Two local junior high students have been baptized, and two others have decided to believe in God. Also, a man baptized at our church has been training to be a coach.
Last September, the club held their first exchange match with Hongodai Christ Church, Kokubunji Baptist Church, and some other churches. Mineguchi thinks “we’re just at the starting line of a unified table tennis ministry. More churches should start ping-pong evangelism.”
Amongst competitive sports, table tennis boasts the highest number of people who play at least once a year. The number of primary school children registered with the Japan Table Tennis Association has increased 110%. Moreover, four Japanese players are ranked among the top ten players in the world. The T League, the premier table tennis league of Japan, also started in 2018. We look forward to Japan’s athletes getting medals in the next Olympics.
On the other hand, there are many “table tennis refugees” who cannot find a space to play at their local gyms. We know that many local churches already have table tennis tables, pastors with experience playing table tennis, and church members who like to play. These churches should be able to contribute to the local community using table tennis.
Mineguchi pointed out some advantages of table tennis—no age limit and the strong relationships that can develop between coach and players. He said:
Our super-aging society is a big concern nowadays, but the elderly can beat youngsters in table tennis. Childless churches may be able to attract some young people. Besides, table tennis is played in one-on-one matches, and the number of learners in group lessons is rather small. This makes it relatively easy to develop relationships with members, which naturally leads to chances to share the gospel and to train them as disciples.
The size of the church doesn’t matter—all that is needed is space for a table. I hope more churches will take on the challenge of table tennis evangelism as we did. We would like to broaden this ministry and have deeper exchanges with other churches.
From Christian Shimbun, December 8, 2019
Translated by Tomoko Kato