Photo by Kristin Wilson on Unsplash

On March 11, 2011, a massive 9.0 earthquake 45 miles east of the Oshika Peninsula on Japan’s northern coast unleashed a tsunami that killed over 15,000 people, left 150,000 homeless, and caused one of the greatest nuclear disasters in history at the Fukushima nuclear power plant. In the aftermath of the Great Tohoku earthquake, one young Tokyo church led a relief effort that gained the attention of the Japanese press and the trust of the Japanese people.

Grace City Church Tokyo (Presbyterian Church of Japan) had not even celebrated its first birthday when the natural disaster struck. The previous year Pastor Makoto Fukuda transitioned from his church in the suburbs to start Grace City in the capital. It was the first church planted at Tokyo Station since the Japanese government officially outlawed Christianity in 1597 and burned down all the churches.

Japan’s rejection of Christianity persisted even when it allowed Christians to worship freely in the 1800s. Today, Japan remains the second largest unreached people group in the world with evangelical Christians only making up 0.5% of the population according to Operation World. It is a place where missionary careers have gone to die—earning the reputation as a “missionary graveyard.”

But where several missions organizations gave up, MTW, in partnership with Redeemer City to City, prayerfully recruited, trained, and sent church planters all over Tokyo. Their diligence and determination resulted in the formation of 10 churches in 10 years. What would be a remarkable feat in any other country was practically defying gravity in Japan.

Into the Heart of the City

When former MTW Japan Director Dan Iverson connected with former head of City to City Asia-Pacific Jay Kyle in the early 2000s, the two men decided to focus on Tokyo. Jay, who previously worked for MTW in various roles, recruited Iverson in 1986 to team up with Reformed Presbyterian Church Evangelical Synod missionaries and three Japanese churches in Chiba. Over the course of 20 years, Dan steadily built an MTW team that helped start a seminary in Nagoya, establish a Christian school, grow a campus ministry, plant churches, and turn the original three Japanese churches into a presbytery of 19. But despite the growth of ministry in the suburbs, the Christian population in Japan was shrinking. Dan and Jay knew that in order to reach Japan, they had to start planting churches in the country’s capital. In 2006, they recruited Fukuda to begin the first church and spearhead the church planting initiative.

“The vision from the beginning was to not just plant a church but start a movement,” said MTW Japan missionary Roger Lowther. “Pastor Fukuda said, ‘Let’s start praying for 10 churches in 10 years!’” Fukuda asked Roger and his wife, Abi, to lead Grace City’s worship and outreach through the art community in Tokyo. They served on Grace City’s core team praying and planning for years before the small congregation held its first worship service in 2010.

The early months were difficult. As the epicenter of the country, Tokyo drives the Japanese values of conformity and perfection. Very few Japanese are willing to consider, much less claim, a different belief system than that of the larger culture. The responsibility to conform combined with Japan’s rigid perfectionism creates a formidable roadblock to God’s message of grace for imperfect people. Tokyo is also extraordinarily expensive. But Fukuda and his core team kept networking, meeting, and most importantly, praying. Meanwhile, MTW, City to City, Fukuda’s former congregation, and many other organizations and individuals continued to financially support Grace City.

When the tsunami hit, Grace City had grown into a congregation of 40 and their first church planting intern, Seima Aoyagi, had just moved to Tokyo. Though safe from the catastrophic waves, Grace City suffered a blow. Many members left for fear of radiation, and relief work meant expending the baby church’s limited resources. But, led by Aoyagi, Grace City sent trucks of workers, donations, and supplies to the north. Their relief work pulled new people into their orbit and many non-Christians joined their efforts. In a matter of months, Grace City members formed trusting relationships with people in Tokyo that would have taken years to build.

And Grace City never lost sight of its vision. It focused on outreach through events and the arts, and discipleship through small Bible studies after people got off work. Fukuda also stayed busy creating the Grace Church Planting Network, broadcasting the vision to facilitate a gospel movement in Tokyo through church planting. MTW and City to City continued providing resources. When Aoyagi held the first worship service of a new church plant in 2014, two more church-planting interns—Kimura Ryuta and Drew Cho—committed to starting two more churches. And the church planters kept coming.

“The vision from the beginning was to not just plant a church but start a movement,” said MTW Japan missionary Roger Lowther. “Pastor Fukuda said, ‘Let’s start praying for 10 churches in 10 years!’”

Then in 2020, as Grace City celebrated its 10-year anniversary, Akiya Shimomura preached his first sermon to a congregation gathered in the Ginza shopping center—officially establishing Tokyo Center Church as the tenth church planted in ten years.

“At the beginning, many people said, ‘It takes 10 years to plant one church so you can’t plant 10 churches in 10 years. That’s crazy.’ Especially when you look at what’s happened before in Japanese history,” said the Lowthers. “But we also acknowledged that God was going to do this. We prayed He would bring all the pieces together and He did.”

Continuing to Weather the Storm

It wasn’t easy. Grace City essentially had to start over each time they sent leaders and church members to start the new churches. Operation costs remain exorbitant in Tokyo and every pastor experienced intense personal suffering. The COVID-19 pandemic also took its toll, preventing congregations from gathering for in-person worship services as late as October 2022. Two of the churches had to permanently close their doors.

Yet the Grace Network survived. They have already connected to two more churches planted during the same 10 year stretch by others’ efforts. Two more church planters are preparing to start worship soon.

The soil on the Japanese mission field is still rock hard. Other missions organizations have relocated their drained missionaries and resources to different fields. But by the grace of God MTW, City to City, and the Grace Network will continue to soften the soil and sow the seeds of the gospel until the good news of Christ breaks free in Japan.

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