Church Planting in the “Most Boring City” in Japan

Why Nagoya is the city with most critical need for church planting in Japan

名古屋市

Japan is a hard place to do Christian ministry. This is a sentiment shared by Japanese and foreign workers alike. There are many reasons why this may be the case (see Samuel Lee’s work for a helpful introduction). But if you ask almost any Japanese person why they are not a Christian (yet!), they will tell you very simply, “Because I’m Japanese.” There is a powerful religio-cultural inertia in Japan.

Within Japan’s ever-growing urbanization, Nagoya epitomizes this conservatism. I recently had the honor to visit with a Japanese-American Christian woman who grew up in Nagoya and whose family helped build much of the post-war infrastructure that remains today. She was happy to learn there was a Christian ministry like CBI in Nagoya, even as she expressed her concern, “Nagoya is so hard!”

Nagoya has a very distinct reputation in Japan. One recent journalist declared it “the most boring city in Japan,” in a John Oliver-esque take-down that expresses real appreciation deep within the snark. As a Nagoya resident, reading this is funny and frustrating at the same time; it captures pretty well what we have learned over and over again about our city. It is wealthy, industrious, illiberal, and lost. It also often seems less significant than other cities in Japan. Those who serve here can be tempted to ask if it is worth it.

So why not divert our missions focus and resources to the larger and perhaps more enjoyable cities of Osaka and Tokyo? It is an attractive idea in many ways. From our angle, the Osaka region is known for being most open to hearing the gospel. People are friendlier and more outgoing. There is more interest in outside perspectives. Osaka is kind of the anti-Nagoya in many ways. There are great churches and ministries there, and they are seeing fruit. And then there is Tokyo, which is to Japan what Jerusalem was for Israel — the center of the world. It is a global city that delivers global impact. And we see the beginnings of a wonderful church planting movement taking place. Don’t misunderstand me, these are still lost and unreached cities, but on the surface, these cities can seem more strategic than Nagoya.

So why Nagoya and its “conniving, stingy, vain, and unsophisticated people”? The first and most obvious reason is that God loves and calls people from Nagoya to know him just as he calls people from seemingly more important or strategic cities. However, there are at least three other reasons that make Nagoya arguably the most critically important city in Japan for church planting.

Nagoya is a Major City

First it is important to see that while you may have never heard of it, Nagoya is indeed a major city, both within Japan and internationally. It is the third largest metropolitan area in Japan and is in the top 50 internationally, ahead of all US metros except New York and Los Angeles. It is always a little funny to me when visitors from metros like San Francisco (pop. 8.7 million), Boston (8 million), or Dallas-Fort Worth (7.5 million) ask me why CBI is in Nagoya (9.1 million) instead of Tokyo. It would be like me visiting a church or seminary in their metro and asking why they aren’t all serving in New York.

Nagoya is Japan’s major manufacturing city and is home to world-renowned companies such as Fuji, Honda, Noritake, Brother Industries, and most importantly, Toyota. Nagoya’s GDP would rank 20th internationally if it were its own country, and it accounts for 10% of Japan’s GDP. Nagoya is a major transportation hub for Japan and Asia with the best regional airport in the world, and Nagoya Station’s JR Towers serve as the Headquarters for Japan Rail-Central. Nagoya Station is a major hub for the Shinkansen (bullet train), and will be a major hub for the new Maglev train (more on this below). Nagoya Station is one of the largest train stations in the world and over 190,000 pass through everyday.

With a large and growing population (growing despite the country’s decreasing population), Nagoya is the most unchurched of Japan’s largest cities, and our prefecture and region are the most unchurched areas in the country. Check out this chart for reference.

From the 2012 Church Information Service map

Nagoya is located in Aichi-ken which is more unchurched than Tokyo-tō or Osaka-fu. The other prefectures listed are some of the most unchurched in Japan and they are all part of Nagoya’s Chubu region (also called Tokai). Any area with a population to church ratio of 20,000 or higher should be viewed as critical for new church plants, and most of them are in Nagoya’s region.

Nagoya is the Center of Japan’s Super Megaregion

However, even more important is Nagoya’s connection to Japan’s super megaregion. A megaregion is formed when megacities begin to merge into one another. Greater Tokyo is the world’s largest megaregion and Nagoya and Osaka have their own megaregions. But with the development of the new Maglev train, these megaregions will merge into a super megaregion. This language may sound like “Power Ranger-speak”, but it is a major goal for Japan and will influence everything about the future here. This is an actual image from a presentation by Keidanren, an organization vested in Japan’s economic growth:

They are serious about the “super megaregion”!

The current commute from Nagoya to Tokyo via Shinkansen is 1 hour 40 minutes, which is very reasonable for a day trip. However, the new Maglev train aims to make that same trip in 40 minutes. Meaning I could get to Tokyo Station in the morning faster than my friends who live in the suburbs of Tokyo. In essence, Tokyo will become a suburb of Nagoya — or at least that’s how I joke with my Tokyo friends because of course it’s the other way around.

This urban connectedness is incredibly important for mission in Japan. 66% of Japan’s 126 million population lives in the metros of Tokyo, Nagoya, and Osaka. And once the Maglev is completed, CBI’s building (just a few blocks from Nagoya Station) will be within an hour and a half from 83 million of the most unreached people in the world.

Mega-regions Need Strong Links

The way all of this comes back to church planting in Nagoya (and the new church planting center we hope to launch next year) is that in order for a Gospel movement to take place that sweeps across Japan, each of these major metros needs to have the beginnings of a Gospel movement taking place. Keidanren and other organizations want to strengthen each part of the megaregion and not just one city hoping it will influence others. This is because megaregions are a lot more like soccer teams than basketball teams.

Chris Anderson and David Sally are well known for their research related to whether it is more helpful to improve a soccer team’s best player or worst player. They show conclusively, that soccer is a “weak link” sport meaning that the best path to success is by strengthening the bottom versus focusing on superstars at the top. Malcolm Gladwell has recently used this research to show how this same logic can be applied to other problems as well, and I believe this way of thinking is crucial as we pray for and pursue a movement of church planting and renewal in Japan.

Church planting in the Tokyo and Osaka metros is very important, and we celebrate the fruit we are currently seeing with partners and friends serving in these regions. Those cities need new churches. However, Nagoya is empirically lagging in the growth and development of new churches and is the area of most critical need. The growth of Japan’s super megaregion opens up incredible opportunities for gospel proclamation, but we should take a “weak link” approach by emphasizing church planting in the metro where the church is the smallest and less developed: Nagoya.

Conclusion

As I write this, I can look out the window of my office at CBI and see how Japan is developing its super megaregion by improving Nagoya’s lifestyle and infrastructure. There is construction going on everywhere and we are getting used to the crashes of old buildings coming down and the hammering of new ones going up. There is similar growth taking place in Tokyo and Osaka, but it is most dramatic here. From our roof you can see dozens of new skyscrapers, highrises, and hotels. These sounds and sights of development are exciting and remind us that this is a growing city full of potential.

For those inside or outside of Japan considering church planting, it can be easy to overlook Nagoya and its poor sports teams and lack of tourist sites. But Nagoya is Japan’s gospel barometer — if this city has a movement of church planting and renewal, you can bet there are movements in Osaka and Tokyo as well. We need new churches here as much and more than anywhere else in Japan. To reach Nagoya is to help reach Japan. Our ministry seeks to do this through the creation of a new church planting center to run alongside our seminary and by supporting our graduates and local partners more involved in direct church planting. We hope you will consider joining us in loving Nagoya.

If you are interested in learning more about CBI’s future church planting center please contact us. We would also be happy to connect you with others in our city who are currently involved in church planting.