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Spreading the Gospel in Japan: Severe Challenges, but exciting opportunities

By George Gallup, Jr.

Chairman, The George H. Gallup International Institute

This report covers an extensive study of the attitudes, value and beliefs of the people of great nation of Japan, with a special focus on the religious and spiritual benefits of the populace. Included in this study were surveys of teens and pre teens, because as someone has noted, young people represent 40% of the world's population but 100% of the future. In examining current attitudes and behavior of younger people we can note emerging trends. Surveys can serve as an "early warning system", if you will. In my 50 years of polling, there has been no study that I would consider as important as this one, because it not only provides you with new insight into a fascinating culture (and one that is mysteries to outsiders in some ways), but also because thee survey findings point to ways that evangelistic strategies can be put in place. As a survey researcher, I am of course dedicated to total objectivity in question wording, and other aspects of survey research. As a Christian, I am keenly interested in the prospects of spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ in Japan. I believe that the most important discovery one can make in life is the discovery that one can have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, and it is my constant hope and prayer that person in the world will come not only to know about Jesus Christ, but to know him as his or Lord and Savior. I would also like to say that it has been a joy and great blessing for me to work will Bill McKay
and Tom Ivy, avid Lewis, Grant McKay, Mark Joseph, and Matt Norquist on this important, groundbreaking study. These are men of great integrity and solid faith. Through them I have learned a great deal about the history of Japan and the changes that have come about in the Japanese culture since World War II.

The findings from this extensive and in-depth study underscore the huge challenges and severe obstacles to the spreading of the gospel, but at the same time, certain shining opportunities. In my brief remarks today I would like to discuss the challenges and opportunities, as reviled by the findings of these study. I will be dealing with only broad trends-there is a mass survey data to be examined and assed, both in terms of overall national trends, and in terms of key sub-groups within the national figures. As indicated, a strategic objective of the study was to try to understand the current thinking of the Japanese people about themselves and the world around them, particularly toward spiritual issues, that would provide a framework for drafting "speaker" sensitive evangelic strategies. By better understanding not only the attitudes of the Japanese people toward spiritual issues (and particularly toward Christianity and Jesus Christ), but also there interests and emotional desires, it is possible to fashion strategies and concerns, and specifically the following.
  1. Identify the "truth" that Jesus answers for the Japanese people.

  2. Gain the attention and arouse the interest of the Japanese regarding
    Christianity and Jesus Christ.

  3. Appeal to the preserved needs of the Japanese, emotionally and spiritually.

  4. Point the Japanese toward the gospel as the basis for dealing with all of life.

  5. Equip Christian leaders and workers in Japan with ways to help them present the gospel effectively to the Japanese people.

Before attempting to shed light on each of these areas, I would like to note that, despite the supposed inscrutability of the Japanese, survey respondents were fully open and honest and candid in their response about themselves and their behavior.

I believe it would be useful, before discussing challenges and opportunities to look at the over all mood of the Japanese people at this time, more than half -century after World War II, as revealed in this study.

The findings of the study show that the populace is somewhat insular, uncomfortable with diversity and "outsiders", and possibly, in some small degree, "racist". In terms of reaching out to help others, the focus is primarily on one's own family group and not on persons outside these groupings. Broader altruistic motives are not so apparent.

Most Japanese, judging by their responses to scales on happiness, are neither "very happy", nor "very unhappy". Their responses tend to fall between these two extremes. In earlier Gallup International surveys, responses for many nations fell more heavily in extreme positions than is the case in Japan.

While at least moderately happy, many Japanese seem resigned to being caught up in" the system" or "the cycle of life". There is a degree of fatalism in their somber mood. Teen's perspectives on life tend to a sense of nihilism to an alarming degree. A note of hopelessness is found in the responses to a number of questions. And there is little evidence of eternal hope, although a considerable number do believe in some form of life afterlife.

Like much of the rest of the world, the Japanese tend to take relativistic view on ethical matters. There is little belief in "absolutes", and this is true across the all-generational groups. In the "hierarchy of crimes" (things that are wrong), those related to economic and family matters far outweigh those related to sexual activity. (David Lewis, author and scholar and well-known expert on Japanese history and culture, points out that the Japanese tend to believe that miss-deeds that are self- inflicted and hurt the self are not as bad as those that hurt the group) .

This is a broad-brush picture of the mood of the Japanese population in the twenty-first century, as a backdrop to the challenges and opportunities that present themselves in the efforts to spread the Gospel of Jesus in Japan.

Perhaps the first and obvious challenge is overcoming the widespread lack of awareness and knowledge among the Japanese regarding Christianity and teachings of Jesus Christ.

Seven in ten among adults, and half of teens, say they do not know enough about Christianity to express a favorable or unfavorable opinion about this religion.

Corresponding, seven in ten adults, and half of teens say they do not know enough about the teachings of Jesus in order to give an evaluation. Clearly, all-out efforts should be made to increase the awareness and knowledge of Christianity and the teachings of Jesus Christ---through schools (as part of the study of world religions), television and radio, the internet, newspapers and magazines, churches, and other ways.

Coupled with these efforts should be those that are directed toward casting Christianity and the teachings of Jesus in a favorable light. Among those who express an opinion on "Christianity", favorable views outweigh unfavorable ones by a ratio three-to-one. Among teens, however, about equal percentages say favorable or unfavorable. Turning to evaluation of the "teachings of Jesus", favorable opinion among adults outweighs unfavorable opinion by two-to-one. Among teens, on the other hand, equal proportions say favorable and unfavorable.

These are worrisome findings, both in terms in the lack of knowledge of Christianity and the teachings of Jesus, but also in terms of unfavorable views, particularly among teens.

It would be important to explore the reasons adults and teens view Christianity and the teachings of Jesus in an unfavorable light, perhaps through in-depth interviews. The current study, however, shows that most feel one can be Japanese and a Christian at the same time.

So this does not appear to be a major factor in unfavorable attitudes. Nor are negative views pronounced in terms of "switching" religions. The majority of the Japanese people claim to have no religion, but this rarely means that they do not have any religious beliefs or practices at all.

Yet very few in the survey say the spiritual life compare to other aspects of life, is "extremely important." Far ahead of spiritual life in importance are family, friends, and education. Relatively few, in addition, place trust in religions leaders.

In summary, then, we see challenges or obstacles to presenting the Gospel in a number of ways: in the insular feelings and somber mood and feelings of hopelessness of the Japanese people; in the relatively little importance they give to religion compared to other aspects of life, yet at the same time their attraction to other religions (namely Shinto and Buddhism) and "new religions", as well as their attraction to the paranormal: in their lack of awareness of Christianity and the teachings of Jesus Christ, coupled with a high level of unfavorable views about the same, particularly among young people.

In some respects there seems to be a solid, impenetrable wall that could prevent the spread of the Gospel in Japan. Are there any possible openings in this wall? Let's look at the survey data in terms of possible opportunities for breaking down this wall of indifference and negativity.

Certainly an all-out education effort---through the media and the schools and in other ways---could pay dividends.

Let's look now at the "bottom line" question: How many Christians are there in Japan?
Three in ten adults and two in ten teens claim they have religions.

Of adults who have a religion, three-fourths are Buddhists. About one adult in eight describes himself or herself as a "Christian."

Now, let's look at teens. And here we find some stunning and encouraging news, particularly as we look to the immediate value.

Two in ten Japanese teenagers claim they have a religion, and one-third of these who do so describe themselves as "Christians" especially female teenagers.

These projections mean that seven percent of the total teenage population of Japan boldly and forthrightly says they are
"Christians." This percentage projects to an impressive number of young "new" Christians, excited and energized by their faith.

Furthermore, despite the fairly high level of indifference to learning more about religion (and specifically, about Christianity and the teachings of Jesus), as many as three in ten adults (and a similar percentage of teens) are interested in learning more about religion, or are already doing so.

How would these people want to learn more? Most say books and magazines, while others say "in talking to friends, colleagues, or a parent", or give other responses.

In seeking to reach people for Christ, the Christian message of hope and reassurance in times of darkness would likely be paramount, the  survey suggests. Also vital, of course, is the convictions that the teachings of a religion are "the truth". In this respect, evangelistic efforts should remind prospective converts of the discovery made by countless numbers of Christians over the ages that often "faith comes before, not after understanding", as well as the discovery that "belonging comes before believing". Relationships should be developed prior to indoctrination. Gallup research shows that people with close
friendships in their church are very satisfied with their congregation, less likely to leave their place of worship, and have a
strong relationship with God.

The current study will help those involved in evangelism target particular groups within the population, defined by age, education, sex, and many other characteristics. The sharing of stories and living the example of Jesus in government, in business and in other major sectors of society can, of course, greatly stir hearts among the populace. In china, writes David Aikman, Christianity in the business community is often not discouraged by persons in authority because Christians are found to be honest and law-abiding.

The challenge to those who seek to spread the Gospel is not only to reach those who do not know Jesus Christ, but also to reach those presently within churches: to remind church members that it is incumbent upon them to share their faith; and to remind Christians of the need to harness the power of their God-given gifts in service to God's Kingdom. Many Christians are unaware of God's plan for their lives. When people discover their gifts and talents, and use these to serve God's purposes, there is no telling what God can accomplish through them.

David Lewis wisely reminds us that evangelistic approaches to the Japanese should be those of "accommodation" rather than "imposition",  and that sensitivity should be shown toward the spiritual perspective of the individual being approached.

An evangelistic program that has proved to be highly effective is the Alpha course, now operating in 150 nations of the world. Alpha has succeeded because it is responding to a deep hunger for God, coupled with a desire for deeper more meaningful relationships with other people. Alpha is welcoming of all people, regardless of their spiritual of religious perspective, but at the same time is fully faithful to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Promotion of Alpha or similar programs could bring people to Jesus Christ to a significant extent. It is estimated the 80% of those who take the Alpha course become "believers". It is important, however, that the faith of these new Christians be constantly nourished in small Bible study and prayer groups. It has been well said, "faith grows best in the presence of faith".

The focus of evangelistic efforts should be on young people. They are the future leaders, and will set the moral tone and direction of the nation of Japan in the immediate years ahead. Young people in Japan are desperately in need of the healing hand of Jesus. Compared to their U.S. counterparts, Japanese teens are extremely bleak in their outlook on life. Twenty- two percent of U.S. teens, but eighty-five percent of Japanese teens say they often wonder why they exist. Seventy-six percent of teens in the U.S. say they always see a reason for their being on Earth, but only 13% of Japanese teens say this. Seventy-six percent of U.S. teens say they would choose their life the way it is right now, but only half (48%) of their Japanese counterparts give this response. Twelve percent of U.S. teens wish they were someone else, but three times this percentage, 36%, of Japanese youth respond this way. And finally, three percent of U.S. teens would go so far as to say they wish they had never been born. But more than three times as many of Japanese teens (11%) give this startling
response. Approaches should be made not only to teens but to pre-teens. This younger group, in fact, is far more likely that their elders to have a sense of a personal God. And there is also evidence in this survey to show that pre-teens may be more sensitive to an inner voice of conscience.

Every effort possible should be made to help these pre-teens move into the teenage years with a strong sense of a personal god to whom they are accountable. The development of small Bible study and prayer groups among pre-teens, as well as teens, might prove fruitful. The challenges of bringing an ever-growing number of people to the point of conversion or transformation are huge, but not, one could maintain, insurmountable.

In many nations of the world there is a deep and growing desire for an experience of God. This may be true of the Japanese, as well, who (while not religious), are sensitive to a spiritual dimension to life. And at a time of what appears to be a "dark night of the soul" for many Japanese, when they may have "reached bottom" in their psychological and emotional
state, the people of this nation may be ready to receive the hope and reassurances the Jesus Christ brings. In considering evangelistic strategies, it is helpful to bear in mind that the spread of faith can happen in a geometrical fashion. If one Japanese person were to reach two other persons for Christ each year, and these two persons each reached two others every year, and so on, the entire nation of Japan could be evangelized within a generation. Today could well be a historical moment of opportunity to "seize the day" and bring the people of Japan to an ever-growing awareness of the life-changing and life-saving massage of Jesus Christ. I hope and pray that your conference is enormously fruitful.

Thank you for letting me be a part of it.

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