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A world overturned: The story of Japan's "Exodus Church"

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On his 54th birthday, Akira Sato's world turned upside down. He woke up that Friday morning to celebrate. By 2:46 pm everything had changed.

It was 11 March 2011 - the date of the triple disaster in northeast Japan. First, the 9.0 earthquake devastated the area and brought on other tragedies. In minutes a tsunami claimed 20,000 lives and caused a meltdown at the Fukushima First Nuclear Reactor. A mandatory evacuation followed.

As pastor of Fukushima First Bible Baptist Church (just a few kilometers from the No. 1 reactor) Sato shifted into survival mode, checking on members. Within weeks, his now-homeless congregation was invited to live in a Christian campground in west Tokyo, nearly 300 kilometers from their hometown. Roughly 70 of his 200 members moved to this camp; the rest of the survivors found safe haven with relatives all over Japan.

Sato authored two books about his church's experience, including the best-seller Exodus Church. Reflecting on their time in the "wilderness," he believes that he was born for such a time. His birthday and church name are just two confirming signs.




Crumbling walls: an historic opportunity

But Sato has another reflection. Along with the retaining wall that fell with the tsunami, three other walls have broken down:

1. The wall separating church and community

Prior to the disaster, local churches were relatively unknown by most Japanese people. Some 99.5 percent of Japanese are not Christians. However, because churches and Christian volunteers stepped up to provide relief supplies and other assistance, they earned a tremendous reputation throughout the country.

2. The wall between churches and denominations

Denominations have set aside differences, banding together to meet needs in their communities. One church's once-dwindling attendance has now skyrocketed. New attenders are unchurched, but opening up to Christ. Within weeks, they baptized 10 new believers. This same church could not afford to purchase the land they were leasing, so three different denominations collectively raised the funds to purchase the property. The common pledge across the denominational spectrum is: "We commit to work together - not build walls between ourselves."

3. The wall between Japan and the world

The global Church has rallied to Japan's side following this horrific disaster. The resulting sense of community will continue for some time. The people of Japan are in awe, touched that Christian foreigners continue to give, come and serve.


Growing openness

The destruction of these metaphorical walls coincides with a spiritual openness among Japanese people unseen since the end of World War II. Early in the relief effort churches distributed food and other necessities to people in need. Often children saw the volunteers coming and excitedly shrieked, "Grandma, Jesus is bringing us food and clothes again!"

In one village the waters flooded the first floor of most homes, including their "god shelves," where their idols rested. When church members delivered supplies, they also gave out printed Bible verses and residents tacked them on their walls. A village elder mused,

"The tsunami washed away all our gods. But now we have the words of God above our god shelves. Perhaps we all should become Christians."

Leveraging unity and community awareness, churches are increasingly looking outward. The new Miyagi Mission Network of churches envisions 1,000 new church plants. One pastor in Miyagi prefecture has started 33 house chapels among tsunami victims. In Iwate prefecture the 3.11 Network of churches launched with a similar vision to serve affected people and plant churches throughout northeast Japan. Communities are being touched and revitalized by churches. Christ's Lampstand is burning brightly.

Rebuilding lives and communitiesRelief work eventually gave way to the task of rebuilding. Within two years, much infrastructure had painstakingly been rebuilt. Now the task is for people to rebuild their lives and local economies. Local churches are helping by offering counseling and support groups, and by launching social enterprise ventures to stimulate renewal.

A loss of community remains. For those in temporary housing, rootedness needs to be re-established. For many people there is still a deep sense of wandering. Consider Akira Sato. By his 55th birthday, after one year at the camp, he moved his flock again. Because he was blocked from entering their beloved hometown, he settled the people just outside the evacuation zone. Sato raised funds to build a new church building and an apartment building for elderly church members. He resolved, "We lost our hometown and can never return, so we must build a new hometown for ourselves."

They face many challenges in planting a church where long-time residents label them evacuees. At times, they are told they are unwanted refugees tainted with radiation. Amidst these trials, Sato finds solace knowing that he was born for such a significant time as this. He has risen to the challenge. The same could be said of the Japanese Church. This is a kairos God-moment. God's redeeming love is breaking through. His Church is bringing help and hope to the Japanese people.

Akira Sato Japan

SIM missionaries, through an award-winning strategic partnership with Asian Access, have been deployed into northeast Japan. Please pray for an overwhelming harvest in Japan...and for more workers.

For more information, see Akira Sato's diary:

Originally published here...

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