Demystifying Youth Ministry in Japan

Brooks Cain and his wife Riva minister to Japanese youth in Nagoya, Japan, in partnership with Christ Bible Institute, and to missionary families throughout the Asia-Pacific region as members of NEXT.

Japanese society is aging rapidly. In contrast to most of the world, by the year 2060, over 33% of the population of Japan will be over the age of 60. More women are entering the workforce than ever before and young people are waiting longer to get married. Broken homes are also causing young people to think twice before starting their own families. Japanese society is in crisis and the government is scrambling to figure out how they’re going to provide the financial and medical resources required to support the aging demographic.

Things are not looking any better for the church. Step inside an average Japanese church and you’ll find 35-40 silver haired people sitting in rows. The one or two young people that are present won’t likely be there for long, because much like the U.S., Japanese young people are leaving the church. Many congregations have given up on the idea of reaching young people all together, because the church is too small and youth culture is just too different and foreign when compared to the traditional Japanese culture of yesteryear. The few who are still hanging onto hope assume that everything will be fixed if they can just find a pied piper to play the perfect tune and lead the children back to safety. They’re looking for a superhero.

Human resources are certainly lacking here in Japan, and I want to affirm that being in full-time next gen ministry really is a special and necessary calling, but it seems to me that this “superhero youth worker mentality” betrays a fundamental flaw in our understanding of what next gen ministry really is. Because of that, I’ve spent much of my time here in Japan simply calling people back to the 3 W’s - The Word, the Warmth and the We.

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The Word - The most obvious, but most easily overlooked biblical principle for next gen  ministry (or any ministry for that matter) is the centrality of Scripture. Only the Word of God can change the human heart. Hebrews 4:12 says, “For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.” The superstar mentality foolishly locates the power for change in the gifts and abilities of the youth pastor.  Churches waste time and energy looking for the perfect person to rescue their young people, but the superstar mentality puts the emphasis on the wrong person. The Word of God has the power to save because it consistently points to Jesus, the real Savior of the World. Anyone can do next gen ministry because faithful ministry means simply opening God’s Word and letting God do his work. No matter who you are, you have the sword of the Spirit at your disposal, and that is all you need!

The Warmth - The superhero mentality also tends to reinforce the idea that “cool” is what draws kids to church. However, in the recent book Growing Young, the authors suggest that “warmth” is the new cool. More than entertainment, their research shows that young people crave authentic relationships where they can share real joys and struggles with the people around them. Ray Ortlund calls it “gospel culture.” A church may be committed to gospel doctrine (“the biblical message of divine grace for the undeserving”), without displaying gospel culture: “The shared experience of grace for the undeserving.” Yet, without a gospel culture, no one will stick around to hear the gospel doctrine. So, how are you doing? Would people describe your church as “warm”?

The WE - The final biblical principle necessary to put youth ministry back in the hands of lay people is the theology of the Body. The Superstar mentality looks for the total package - someone who has it all - but a thriving ministry to young people recognizes that a variety of people with various gifts are necessary to carry out the ministry of the church. If it’s true that warmth is what we’re after, then Grandmas can cook and dads can tell corny jokes, moms can selfie with students while and college students play Fortnight. All of the parts of the body working in tandem give a fuller picture of the glory of God. The point is: don’t look for an all-in-one. Don’t try to be one either. Encourage your church to play to her strengths, and come together with the variety of gifts God has provided to pass the gospel onto the next generation!

The church in Japan may be aging, but I am convinced that the solution to her problems is not a crop of superhero pastors. The solution to her problems are the Word, the Warmth, and the We. As normal, everyday people plant and water gospel seeds together, there’s no telling what God might do!