Sunday, September 12, 2021

The Hole in the Bucket: Demographics and the future of the Japanese Church

Be fruitful and multiply.
 Another scribble I have been meaning to write for a while.

Japan is in the midst of a demographic crisis--birthrates are far below replacement levels, and unlike many other developed nations, Japan has chosen not to open its borders to globalization and mass immigration. The current population of over 120 million is projected to be less than 90 million within the next quarter of a century. Japan isn't unique in its demographic woes, but it does present a unique challenge to the church.

Conservative estimates of the Evangelical church in Japan put it at about 0.2% of the population--and based on currently available data, the Evangelical church in Japan is declining numerically faster than the general population--meaning that as a percentage of the population, the church in Japan is losing its foothold.

This also presents a difficult challenge for missionaries to Japan. To use a simple metaphor, missionaries are tasked with the very Sisyphean role of trying to fill a bucket with a gaping hole in the bottom. Without addressing significant trends and dysfunction in the existing Japanese church, it seems unlikely that more than a bare remnant of the Japanese church will remain in the coming decades.

To sum the issue up very succinctly, Japanese Christians are getting married late, often to non-Christians, failing to have more than one or two children, and not catechizing them and keeping them in the church. I'm sure reading this sentence, you may think, 'well that pretty well describes the trends I have seen in my church or denomination here in XYZ country.' And you probably wouldn't be wrong.

The difference with Japan, is that the church is currently operating on a razor thin margin as it is. With churches averaging between twenty and thirty members, often struggling to pay the rent, many are facing the very real possibility of closing in the coming decades--this has only been exasperated by the effects of the current global pandemic. 

This has led me to spend a lot of time thinking about how a missionary like myself can address the spiritual and physician fertility issues within the Japanese church. Talking with Japanese pastors, they are well aware of the issue, but feel that it is one that they cannot touch because it is filled with land-mines.

How does a western missionary encourage young Japanese Christians to pursue marriage sooner rather than later? (Tangentially, how does the western missionary encourage young Japanese Christian women to choose motherhood and raising Christian children over spending her youth pursuing an education and a career).

How does a western missionary encourage young Japanese Christians to court and marry other Christians? 

How does a western missionary encourage young Japanese Christians to start trying to have children while they are still young, fertile, and energetic enough to raise more than two children? 

How does a western missionary encourage young Japanese Christians to have more than two children--ideally four or five? 

How does a western missionary encourage Japanese Christians to embrace home-schooling and Christian schools rather than sending their children to public schools? 

How does a western missionary encourage the kind of family life and worship that creates multi-generation Christian families.

How does a western missionary answer the frequently cited reasons for not doing these things, i.e. children are expensive, education is expensive, both parents need to work, you can do that because you are a missionary, Japanese pastors (and Christians) are poor, there isn't any time to home-school, raising more than two children in Japan is hard, not sending children to public school would mean they are not able to be functioning members of Japanese society, not letting children participate in bukatsu (club activities which usually take place on Sunday mornings) would be cruel, and the numerous other objections to any kind of action direct or indirect that could help to plug this hole?

There are no easy answers. Many western missionaries in recent decades have chosen to start new church plants rather than working directly with traditional Japanese churches as a result of facing these issues and feeling a sense of helplessness and futility in trying to help the Japanese church navigate them. These issues are not going to go away, but will only become more apparent in the coming decades.

Here is the takeaway I would like to leave you with, if the Japanese church were able to find a solution to these above listed issues and plug the hole in the bucket, there is a very real possibility that by simply having more children and raising them to follow Jesus, the Japanese church could grow as a percentage of the population by virtue of the overall population continuing its decline. 

If somehow, the Japanese church were able to plug the hole in the bucket, we could easily see the Japanese Evangelical church become 3-5% of the Japanese population in our lifetimes. 

Disclaimer. These views are not representative of Converge, the Japan Baptist Church Association or any of my individual supporters or supporting churches. They are personal musings, and not position papers. 

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