NAGOYA, Japan (BP)—Five Japanese men shuffle into the room quietly and bow to their hosts, IMB missionaries Wang and Rose Lee. Even though they’ve been coming for fellowship and leadership training for a while now, they still fidget nervously like a bunch of schoolboys on test day.
Louisiana native Linda Lee, who is no relation to Wang and Rose but works with the California couple as IMB (International Mission Board) missionaries, quickly puts the men at ease by teaching a new song. Soon, everyone is comfortable, relaxed and ready to share what they’ve learned from God’s Word since their last meeting.
“Did you bring your Bibles today?” Wang Lee asks. By Japanese custom, he addresses the men only by their last names — Fuji, Yamanaka, Shimizu, Kawagoe and Nishi.
Shimizu nods. Fuji produces his immediately. It’s an unlikely group sitting around the table searching through the Scriptures. Until a few months ago, all but one of the men was homeless, living under interstate bridges and in local parks. Now, they are blossoming house church leaders, understanding in a way only the homeless can that “house” is not essential to “house church.”
Fuji lived in the park when he first met Wang Lee. He had no house but plenty of time to read and think about life. Fuji found a copy of God’s Word at the local library, and he spent hours soaking in Scripture. The words of John 3:16 spoke to him. Within a few weeks, Fuji prayed to receive Christ.
Learning Scripture — understanding what the Bible says — is not only an important element of spiritual growth, the missionaries attest, but also of moving the group to become “church.”
“Those who read lots of Scripture are the ones who really grow,” says IMB missionary Hank Lee, Linda’s husband. “We put as much emphasis on learning Scripture as we do on prayer.”
Scripture also led Shimizu to a personal relationship with God.
“I believed in all kinds of Japanese gods,” Shimizu says. “In God’s Word, I began to understand the living God.”
Homeless men sleep in cocoon cardboard boxes and sleeping bags along the shutters of department store entrances closed for the night as commuters pass by in downtown Tokyo, Japan. “I used to walk by, too, before working with the homeless,” IMB missionary Mark Hoshizaki says. He and other missionaries began to take notice and started a ministry of reaching out to the homeless.
One of the ways the two sets of Lees model “church” for their new leaders is to discuss what Scripture the men read during the week. They sit comfortably around the table and talk about a wide range of spiritual matters — from God’s plan for the Israelites to the importance of taking short-term mission trips. For Nishi, who was baptized in January 2010, the discussion is sometimes confusing.
“I have been reading in Genesis,” Nishi says. “It is hard to understand, but I started at the beginning because I want to know the history of God’s relationship with man — how it all began.”
Another key element in planting a church is teaching new believers to share their faith with others even as they are learning themselves. This helps to solidify the truth in the mind and heart of the new believer, Mississippi native Hank Lee explains. Often, others also come to Christ in the process.
Again, Fuji is a good example. As Wang Lee shared the gospel with Fuji each week, Fuji shared what he was learning with his friend, Yamanaka. Yamanaka also prayed to receive Christ. Lee baptized both men in November 2008. From there, God’s Spirit really moved.
“Really, the homeless ministry took off with these two,” Hank Lee says.
Meeting together regularly is essential to becoming “church.” However, according to Wang Lee, it isn’t necessary to meet in a church building — or even in a home. Any place where believers gather together for the purpose of worship and Bible study becomes “church.”
“Wang understands that you must be careful what you put into the initial DNA when groups begin to form,” Hank Lee says. “With new groups, we keep it simple so they can remember and take it with them.”
This is even more important as both sets of Lees plan to retire within the year. With no current plans to replace them, the weekly church planting lessons take on greater urgency as the five learn to continue the ministry.
The men have taken the challenge to heart. They share their faith with those they meet on the streets inviting those interested to meet regularly in parks and local restaurants to study the Bible. In fact, Shimizu, a retired salesman who lives near the park and the only one of the five who has never been homeless, first heard about Jesus from Fuji and Yamanaka. After meeting with them for a few weeks, Shimizu prayed to receive Christ and was baptized in July 2009.
Both Kawagoe and Nishi host a Bible study in the open areas of their government-subsidized apartment complex. They meet openly to draw others in. Although the men have been working in pairs, they are now talking about going out alone so that they can share with more people.
As these five men continue to grow spiritually, Wang Lee believes these men have the tools they need to facilitate a church planting movement within Nagoya’s homeless. All they need is the help of the Holy Spirit.
“These men know everything I know now,” Wang Lee says. “Now, we just have to pray for them.”
Southern Baptists’ gifts to the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering and the Cooperative Program help Southern Baptist missionaries around the world share the gospel. Give to the offering through your local Southern Baptist church or online at imb.org/offering, where there are resources for church leaders to promote the offering. Download related videos at imb.org/entirechurchvideo.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Tess Rivers is an IMB writer living in Southeast Asia.)