A ripe mission field: the Church in Japan then and now

Japan (MNN) — When you think of countries that have a significant population of unreached people for the Great Commission, you may not think of Japan first. But Kevin Zirkle with World Gospel Mission says people can’t forget that Japan is a critical mission field.

“A lot of people sometimes don’t think of Japan when they’re thinking of missions because it’s a very highly industrialized, modern society — but it’s a very large, unreached people group. In fact, it’s the largest group in one country where missionaries are open to go.”
A Crisis of Spiritual Revival
Kevin and Becky Zirkle, World Gospel Mission’s Regional Directors over Asia, Europe, and the Pacific Rim. (Photo courtesy of Rachel Zirkle)

Kevin and Becky Zirkle are currently Regional Directors over Asia, Europe, and the Pacific Rim with World Gospel Mission. But the couple also served as full-time missionaries in Japan through WGM for 40 years.

Kevin Zirkle says the Japanese Church faces a lot of challenges, but not from persecution or the government. Rather, it faces challenges from a lack of spiritual revival within the country.

“Only one percent of the Japanese are Christian. The Church has kind of plateaued and they’re facing a serious shortage of pastors.”

He says the Church in Japan also has a hard time drawing in young people. “For a long time, young people didn’t see the Church as having any connection to their daily life. The Church has realized it’s failed on some areas in that way, so they’re trying to reach out to more young people.”
Sensitive to God’s Leading
When Kevin and Becky first started missions, Kevin was just a recent college graduate and the couple was looking to what God had next for them.

(Photo courtesy of Kevin and Becky Zirkle)

Becky Zirkle shares, “We heard of an opportunity that WGM had to send young people to the mission field for six to eight weeks in the summertime. They were specifically looking for someone to go to Japan to work with university student ministry. That’s what Kevin and I were both really interested in, although we had never considered a career in missions. We were just assuming it would be ministry here in the states. But we felt God leading us to go to Japan that summer in 1973.”

After that short-term mission trip to Japan with WGM, God wasn’t done. She says, “It was as a result of that summer that the Lord called us back to full-time career missions in Japan.”

When the Zirkles dove into full-time missions, the culture shock was a bit different. “We found the Church in Japan to be very formal, and some churches could be very conservative, which is a reflection of Japanese culture which can be a little formal and conservative,” says Kevin Zirkle. “But we found a very strong church that we worked with.

“The Church at that time was still growing. As we went into the 80s, Japan’s economy really took off and that affected the Church; it was a positive thing. There were a lot of new church plants and the Church was growing through the 80s.”
Reaching Japan’s Young People
Their biggest outreach while in Japan was a continuation of their short-term mission opportunity: ministering to university students. Kevin Zirkle led Bible studies on four campuses around Tokyo, and he says, interestingly enough, it wasn’t just Christian students who came to join the Bible studies.

“I found in the 1980s that a lot of students were really interested in English and learning English, so we were able to use that as a way to contact students and a point of interest. I had one student in the university who later told me that he had begun attending the Bible study, not because he was interested in the Bible, but because he wanted to learn English and speak with a native speaker, an American.

“It took about two years, but eventually that student became interested in the Bible more than English, and continued to study, and he eventually accepted Christ!”
The Harvest is Still Ripe
While the Lord has now called the Zirkles away from their full-time missions service overseas, they still visit Japan and encourage the current WGM missionaries there. In addition to university student ministry, current WGM missionaries work with children’s English classes and youth group ministries.

As the Lord prompts your heart, Becky Zirkle says there are several ways you can support and get involved with missions in Japan through WGM. “There’s always the need for financial support, and even more, a need for prayer support. But WGM has quite a few summer opportunities for not only students, but for adults as well to go to a mission field, to live with a missionary, and to do ministry.”

That short-term mission trip was exactly what God used to spur the Zirkles into the mission field. If you go, be sensitive to His leading and timing — whether it’s then to enter missions full-time, or to support and encourage those who do. Click here to check out WGM’s short-term internship and missions opportunities! 

(Photo courtesy of Kevin and Becky Zirkle)

“We are great supporters of that because that’s how God called us into career missions. So we feel like a short-term opportunity can play a vital part in a person’s life, even if they don’t return to the field as a missionary. Being overseas, serving the Lord that way changes you. They can go back to their home church then and really be a spokesperson for missions. Japan particularly can use young people in the summertime for various children’s ministries and youth camps that are present there.”

And one thing you can do right now is pray for the Church in Japan.

Kevin Zirkle asks, “Pray for more pastors, that the young people would sense the call to ministry, want to be involved, and be willing to step up and lead the Church. Also, pray that the Church would find ways to be relevant within its culture to be able to reach out to people.”