Planting Churches in Japan: An Interview with Dan Iverson

The fruit was slow; it was four years before we saw the first believer. But what a joy!

“In America, a twenty-year-old living at home might tell her mom, “I’m going to church,” when she’s really going shopping. But in Japan, she might say, “I’m going shopping,” when she’s really going to church. People aren’t killed for becoming Christian, but there is often opposition.”

 

Tabletalk: How were you called to plant churches in Japan?

Dan Iverson: My story is “mercenary to missionary.” I was an infantry officer, serving God in the “unreached” people group called the Marines. My wife, Carol, and I had never considered foreign missions, but then God led us to seminary, and at a missions conference in our first year, the speaker demonstrated from Genesis to Revelation (in about ten hours) God’s plan for “all nations.” We were deeply affected in seeing how proclaiming the gospel and starting churches in every people group was central to the Bible. How had we missed this?

In a prayer meeting, I was given a card for Afghanistan, which at the time had fewer than twenty known indigenous Christians. I was moved. Imagine seeing people carrying a telephone pole with ten people lifting at one end and one person at the other. At which end would you help? For many people groups, there are one hundred workers in the United States for every one in the field.

We wrestled with God for two years, worrying about taking our children overseas and raising support. God brought four seminary couples together to pray weekly about missions. We heard that three Japanese pastors from small church plants totaling sixty worshipers near Tokyo needed partners to start a presbytery. We prayed, our denomination’s missionary arm (Mission to the World) confirmed the call, God raised the support, and we came. Our team committed to twelve years, with the goal of starting churches where there were none, in partnership with these Japanese pastors.

TT: What have been some of your biggest joys and struggles over your twenty-eight years in Japan?

DI: Learning Japanese was such a struggle. After studying Romans in Bible study, Carol used a new word by mistake. At a restaurant, instead of ordering filet katsu (breaded pork or chicken) she ordered katsu rei (circumcision). But what a great joy it became over time to share “the unsearchable riches of Christ” in Japanese with people who had never heard the gospel.

The fruit was slow; it was four years before we saw the first believer. But what a joy to see Toshiko baptized! Like most Japanese Christians, she was the first in her family line. The following year, thirteen adults believed and were baptized.

We wondered, “How will we ever plant a church, let alone a presbytery?” But Jesus has promised to build His church. First one church was planted, then a daughter church. Elders were finally ordained. Korean missionaries and Japanese pastors, as well as our team, planted more churches, and today there is a presbytery with churches worshiping in nineteen locations.

Family separation is difficult. When my mother was dying, we wrestled with returning home. New Japanese believers in our church gave money on their own to buy tickets so that all of us could be with mom at the end. What a struggle—and a joy.

It was difficult to bring our children to Japan; at first it was our greatest reason not to become missionaries. But God turned that into blessing. The mission team “family” turned out to be better in many ways for raising children. Our kids constantly saw God at work and by His grace, all nine have embraced Christ and His mission. (You can see our kids creatively singing about being “MKs” [missionary kids] at IversonJapan.com.)

I remember the day we finally started public worship in our Tokyo suburb. It was thrilling—in all of history, Jesus Christ had never been worshiped publicly in that town. A big, God-centered reason that we do missions is because worship doesn’t exist in so many places.

TT: How is Christianity viewed by the general population?

DI: In America, a twenty-year-old living at home might tell her mom, “I’m going to church,” when she’s really going shopping. But in Japan, she might say, “I’m going shopping,” when she’s really going to church. People aren’t killed for becoming Christian, but there is often opposition. While respect exists for Christian morals and for the now-secular schools started by missionaries long ago, becoming a Christian is still often viewed as being too “different” in a society that values conformity. A Japanese proverb says, “The nail that sticks up gets hammered down.” Therefore, the rich, educated, secular, nominally Buddhist-Shinto Japanese continue as the world’s second largest unreached people group (see joshuaproject.net).

The 2011 tsunami also helped raise respect for Christianity. While hundreds of thousands of foreigners fled nuclear disaster, thousands of Christians came to serve. Many stayed or returned as missionaries. As God used the persecution in Acts to spread out the Christians and start new churches, He has used the tsunami to bring many to faith and start new churches where there were none.

TT: How does Japan’s culture affect your ministry?

DI: Many Japanese are interested in English. We offer conversational English classes that end with “Bible time.” Black gospel music is popular here. Our gospel choir has about fifty people singing black gospel music, and thirty-five of them are non-Christians. As a Roman Catholic Counter-Reformation leader supposedly said, “Those Protestants cheat! They sing their doctrines into the people’s hearts.” Also, the “group society” thing is huge. The process of building group consensus takes so long, but, once the decision is made, the execution is the world’s best.

Perhaps the biggest issue is religious/cultural. There is virtually no understanding of “God” with a big G, but only “the gods.” Coming to faith in the true God, seeing one’s sin, and trusting Christ alone for salvation usually takes years.

TT: What helps have been essential to your spiritual endurance and growth as you’ve served in a foreign country?

DI: I cannot imagine being in this hard place without a team of people with different gifts praying, working together, and encouraging each other, especially in the hard times.

Understanding the gospel in a deeper way has been vital. In the early “fruitless” years, a Tim Keller sermon on Luke 10 really helped me. When the disciples returned celebrating victory, Jesus told them not to rejoice in their fruit, but that their names were written in heaven. Slow fruit in Japan was good for my sanctification, teaching me to rejoice first in Christ, not ministry progress. And, as God gave fruit, the same lesson applied, probably more.

Meditating on Bible promises, reading about the history of world missions, our team’s twelve-year commitment, weekly Sabbath rest, good vacations, and home assignments in the USA have all helped us to persevere.

TT: What can churches outside Japan learn from the Japanese Church?

DI: First, the focus on the common good. Living in Japan has given me a new perspective on “American rugged individualism.” A “common grace” virtue of Japanese culture is putting the group’s needs above one’s own, which sounds pretty biblical. Second, moderation. Even wealthy Japanese people often live modestly. Third, perseverance. Kingdom work is difficult and slow. Many welleducated pastors faithfully persevere for decades on small salaries.

TT: How can short-term missionaries serve on the mission field?

DI: Many ways. Every year for twenty-five years, we have had young “gap-year” interns serve on our team. They teach in our Christian school, use their music gifts in church plants, and disciple missionary children. Short-termers (including retirees) teach conversational English, providing evangelism contacts.

TT: What are some disadvantages and advantages of short-term mission trips?

DI: We wrote an article some years ago titled “Short-Term Missions: Blessing or Bother?” Career missionaries can get pulled away from ministry to take care of short-term teams. But, while most missions in Japan are shrinking due to high cost and hard soil, our MTW Japan mission has grown from fifteen career missionaries to more than fifty. Almost every new missionary or their spouse was a former short-termer. Short-term teams help with English Bible camps and our Church Planting Institute; teach and give testimonies in churches; repair buildings; and about fifty other things. People are changed on these trips. They return home more committed to praying, giving, sending, and going.

TT: What advice would you give to someone considering cross-cultural missions work?

DI: Pray every day about it, with your spouse if you are married, asking for God’s clear leading. Go with a team that knows God’s grace, practices forgiveness, and models this gospel unity for the emerging indigenous church. And don’t let family concerns stop you. That was our biggest fear and reason not to go. Now twenty-eight years later, our children say with us, “Being missionaries was better.” The best thing for our families is serving in the place where God leads.

This article first appeared on Ligonier.org, and is used with permission.