By Andy Rodriguez
What’s the biggest problem in the world today?
The question was posed a few years ago at a very large and influential Christian church. My ears perked up as I listened in anticipation, eager to hear what pressing crisis our world is facing and how the church can engage. I started to think of some big problems. Biblical illiteracy? Global poverty? Child abuse and sex trafficking? Here was the preacher’s answer: Our planet is dying and the church isn’t being green enough.
That was it. Christians need to work harder to save the planet. Now, I believe Christians should lead the way in stewarding the earth God gave us. But is that really the biggest problem in the world today?
Or is it something bigger? May I suggest that the biggest problem in the world today is not that our planet is dying and the church isn’t being green enough, but that people are dying and the church isn’t being urgent enough. Lost people still need Jesus, and that’s a compelling problem.
When I first moved to Japan and started language school, my classmate started making small talk. “Are you trying to hook up with a Japanese girl? Do you like anime? Why are you in Japan?”
I told him, “I’m here to start a church and to teach the Japanese what it means to follow Jesus.”
Immediately his demeanor changed, and with a scowl in his eyes he sneered, “The very reason I came to Japan is because there are no Christians here!”
With a twinkle in my eyes I replied, “Yea, me too!”
He didn’t think it was funny. But he has a point. If you are looking to go somewhere where the chances of running into a Christian are almost zero, Japan is a good place. The Japanese are the second largest unreached people group in the world. This country, about the size of California, packs in almost 128 million people. And less than 1 percent are Christians.
Not Your Typical Mission Field
These staggering statistics are what led our team to move to Japan in 2008 to make disciples by planting gospel-centered churches. However, it’s not just my atheist language school friend who questions our desire to be in Japan. More commonly it’s Christians—even missions committees—who ask.
“Why are you in Japan?” a missions team asks. “Aren’t they doing fine? Good healthcare. Great technology. It’s safe.” If I don’t come back to the States with stories of living in a hut and eating bugs, or being shot at, what are we even doing?
Urban Japan (and many other global urban areas) is often overlooked in missions priorities because of its affluence and high standard of living. For many, a stop in Tokyo may be a nice layover on your way to the mission field, but not a place with pressing problems. Why is that?
Looking Through Gospel-Centered Lenses
While many Christians would agree that the most critical need in the world is the salvation of the lost, the truth is when it comes to missions, it’s easier to generate excitement about tangible and visible needs. There is something compelling when a missionary can say, “I can’t tell you my real name or what country I work in because it may get me killed.” When a missionary can stand up in your congregation and show pictures of starving children with bloated stomachs or young girls enslaved in the sex industry, people see a problem that demands an urgent response. Hearts are moved. Tears fall. Checkbooks open.
However, such visceral reactions don’t usually come after seeing a picture overlooking a city like Osaka, Japan. Make no mistake about it; anyone close to the heart of Jesus should be going and giving with radical urgency to help provide for physical needs and bring justice in the name of Jesus. But we also cannot stand by when some of the largest and most influential cities in the world have no voice for the gospel.
Unfortunately the appearance of affluence and self-sufficiency can often blind us to deeper spiritual needs. The only way to see the urgency of deep spiritual needs is to look through gospel-centered lenses.
Perhaps this kind of need can be illustrated by taking the city of Osaka as an example. In October 2011 church planter Jay Greer and his team launched Mustard Seed Christian Church in Osaka, Japan, a city of about 17 million people.
Imagine that the church miraculously grows to 1,000 new converted and baptized Japanese believers. That would be incredible when you consider that the largest church in Osaka is around 400, and not all who attend are believers.
But what if that church planted a second church in Osaka that also grew to 1,000 new Japanese believers. This kind of church growth is unheard of in Japan.
Now imagine each church multiplied until there were 170 new churches in Osaka and all of them grew to have 1,000 new Japanese Christians. Revival has come to Japan, right?
Even if we planted 170 churches and they all grew to 1,000 new believers, the city of Osaka would still be under 2 percent Christian. And that’s just one city. The city of Tokyo is almost double the population of Osaka!
Our world is becoming more and more urbanized. Today more than half of the world’s population lives in cities. The United Nations estimates that by 2050, 3.3 billion people will live in Asian cities alone. These cities will undoubtedly be the catalyst in shaping and influencing world thought and belief for the foreseeable future. As challenging as it may be to plant gospel-centered churches in major cities, few things could be more strategic in fulfilling the Great Commission.
The apostle Paul understood that cities are a great launch pad for the expansion of the gospel. Edward L. Glaeser, economics professor at Harvard, notes, “Knowledge moves more quickly at close quarters, and as a result, cities are often the gateways between continents and civilizations.”
Admittedly, church planting in global cities may lack a certain glamor. They are not the best places to send short-term missions teams. You may not see the quickest results. It’s expensive to live there. But if God’s heart broke for the city of Nineveh, “the great city . . . , in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left” (Jonah 4:11), how much more does it break for the thousands of cities where literally billions don’t even have a way to hear that there is a God who created them and loves them, and that through Jesus they can know that God? That’s a problem.
The Church Has the Answer
The solution is to plant vibrant churches in these cities that will make and grow Christ-centered disciples. As C. Peter Wagner said, “Church planting is the most effective form of evangelism.”
That is why organizations like Orchard Group and others exist. Orchard Group is a church planting organization whose mission is to start churches in strategic, challenging, urban areas. Historically most of those have been primarily in the northeast United States, but recently they have been expanding that vision to include global cities as well.
So the next time you see a movie or picture showing a place like urban Japan, notice all those tall buildings full of people, all those expensive cars with hurried drivers, the mass of people in designer suits marching to work like an army of ants, and know that without Christ they are all headed to a Christless eternity. Then resolve to give your time, energy, resources, creativity, intelligence, and life, if you must, to solve the problem.
Andy Rodriguez is a freelance writer and missionary with Mustard Seed Christian Church in Nagoya, Japan.
Your Mission Field
Not all mission fields come with cardboard houses, pestilence, and dirty drinking water. We’re each in a mission field of sorts—but many of us need to shift our perspective to see the work God is doing near us.
Does the earnestness and urgency of your life reflect the great need of those around you? Does your prayer life reflect this missional attitude? Is that attitude present in your conversations with others?
What tactics do you see Satan using around you: greed, self-indulgence, lust, pride, security?
What ways have you seen God breaking down these strongholds in people’s lives?
How do you see God calling you to minister to those around you? How will you respond?