Top leaders of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Japan were shocked when Masumi Shimada, president of the Japan Union Conference, told them in 2016 that the church’s world headquarters had asked them to hold nationwide evangelistic meetings in two years.
The leaders looked at one another and asked, “Why us?”
Surprise gave way to fear as leaders considered the challenge. A three-week evangelistic effort in Rwanda had concluded recently with the baptism of a record 110,000 people. The Japanese church, in comparison, had baptized only 328 people in all of the previous year.
For six months, Japanese church leaders spoke and prayed at the office of the Japan Union Conference in Tokyo. Then they announced to church pastors gathered at a special ministerial meeting that three-week evangelistic meetings would be held nationwide in 2018.
The reaction? Widespread confusion.
But not anymore. “All Japan 2018 Maranatha,” as the landmark evangelistic meetings are known, has roused church members to action in a remarkable way and promises to transform the Adventist Church in Japan forever, Shimada said.
“This is better than I imagined,” he said. “For the past 20 to 30 years, we have been a ‘reach-in church.’ We have looked within. But now we are a ‘reach-out church.’ Our focus has changed.”
The evangelistic initiative, which started March and encompasses 161 sites, has resulted in dozens of baptisms as of May 19, when the bulk of the meetings ended. A final tally will be available after the last meetings conclude in June.
Ted N.C. Wilson, president of the Adventist world church, said this was only the beginning.
“I think we are seeing the beginning of a mighty wave that is going to cover the Earth all through God’s power,” he said.
Confusion and Doubt
A year earlier, however, serious doubts were raised about whether the meetings could even take place. This article is based on interviews with about three dozen church leaders, pastors, and church members in Tokyo and elsewhere.
Confusion erupted among pastors when they learned about the plan for three-week evangelistic meetings. They had only conducted meetings that ran for two to four nights. The last time that an evangelistic series had run more nights in Japan was when U.S. missionaries conducted one- to three-month meetings shortly after World War II.
Complicating matters, Japanese pastors had long viewed evangelistic meetings as a sowing time, an opportunity to introduce visitors to the Adventist faith. But the three-week meetings would be treated as a harvesting time during which people could give their hearts to Jesus and be baptized.
Among the few people who quickly embraced the plan was Toshihiro Nishino, president and chief executive of Tokyo Adventist Hospital.
“When it comes to evangelism, I believe that if there is even only a 1 percent chance of success, then you’ve got to do it,” he said.
But many others questioned the wisdom of implementing a “Western” program in a country where 95 percent of the population identify with the Shinto and Buddhist religions. Only 0.7 percent of Japan’s population of 127 million is Christian, and fewer than half attend worship services.
An Eye-Opening Experience
A turning point came in June 2017 when 48 pastors and lay leaders flew to the Philippines to lead three-week evangelistic meetings under the direction of Duane McKey, who oversees Total Member Involvement evangelism for the Adventist world church and serves as president of Adventist World Radio. The meetings on Mindoro island concluded with the baptism of 1,400 people, including entire villages, and the Japanese speakers returned home with a new enthusiasm for public evangelism.
“After Mindoro, my life has never been the same,” said Emma Ballesteros, a lay leader at Tokyo Central Seventh-day Adventist International Church, who saw 18 people baptized at her site in the Philippines.
Ballestero, a Filipino embassy worker who has lived in Japan for 19 years, said the experience taught her how conduct an evangelistic series and helped her to overcome stage fright.
Most important, she said, “The Lord helped me to depend on His Holy Spirit and not on myself and to have a consistent relationship and time with God.”
She returned to Japan ready to preach — and determined to find new ways to spread the gospel. Earlier this year, she established an online prayer group that brings together people from across Japan and a few other countries. The group of seven to 20 people, which meets twice a week, have witnessed incredible answers to prayers about health, finances, and other issues, she said.
Other participants of the Philippine trip told similar stories about a deeper relationship with Jesus and a renewed desire to share His love.
“It was an eye-opening experience,” said Toshio Shibata, executive secretary of the Japan Union Conference. “Many led a campaign for the first time. It was no longer a discussion. They experienced it for themselves.”
Getting Everybody on Board
The last challenge was to gain the support of ordinary church members, whose average age is over 65. Their participation would be essential for the success of the meetings.
Myunghoon Rha, associate pastor of Amanuma Seventh-day Adventist Church in Tokyo, recalled the reluctance of his congregation, which with 900 members is the largest church in Japan.
“People were negative,” he said. “They said, ‘This is an idea from the West that won’t work here.’”
But their doubts didn’t last long as they saw miracles unfold before their eyes.
At the Amanuma church, members attended a school of evangelism taught by Ron Clouzet, ministerial secretary for the Adventist Church’s Northern Asia-Pacific Division, whose territory includes Japan. Clouzet concluded with a pilot three-week evangelistic series in October 2017 that saw 17 baptisms, a figure that stunned church members.
At the same time, surprises unfolded at the church, such as someone leaving 3 million yen (U.S.$30,000) in cash on the pastor’s desk shortly after church leaders prayed about a broken waterpipe, and a visitor putting 1 million yen ($10,000) in the offering plate after being impressed by a night dream.
“Now our members are enthusiastic,” Rha said. “They know God is alive.”
Church members are particularly thrilled by the number of unsolicited visitors. In the months before the evangelistic meetings, people began to wander into Adventist churches without ever having been contacted by church members. Many visitors had been searching the Bible on their own, been impressed by truth of the seventh-day Sabbath, and found the Adventist Church online.
On Fire for Christ
The evangelistic meetings have kindled a new fire for Christ in church members, said Shimada, president of the Japan Union Conference.
“One church member told me that her church was scared at first,” he said. “But now she said, ‘This has been good for us.’”
Wilson, who led evangelistic meetings at the Amanuma church, smiled when asked why Japan was chosen for evangelistic meetings.
“To answer the question, ‘Why Japan?’ Well, why not Japan — and every other place?” he said. “The Lord wants to see every location on Earth touched with this amazing Advent message and the three angels’ messages lifting up Christ and His righteousness.”
Wilson praised church members for embracing Total Member Involvement evangelism in Japan. Total Member Involvement is a world church initiative that encourages each church member to bring someone to Jesus.
“It is amazing how church members have come alive in their efforts to touch the hearts and lives of their friends, relatives, and neighbors,” Wilson said. “This is exactly what Christ wants them to do as His disciples. It’s amazing to see what God is doing in Japan.”