Instigating a Gospel Movement in Japan

Missional priorities in engaged but unreached areas


A gospel movement is what missionaries intrinsically desire to see in the places they serve. Whether their work focuses on church planting, evangelism, mercy ministry, etc. there is a fundamental longing for a movement to take place that changes a people with the gospel. We long to see personal renewal in the lives of individuals, corporate renewal in the church, and, to whatever degree possible, societal renewal in a region. A gospel movement is a movement of renewal.

A movement is something that brings about change in a place. A gospel movement is a movement of spiritual renewal where “sleepy Christians wake up” and non-Christians hear the gospel and respond with faith. Movements take place when a community forms around a common goal, the community mobilizes resources, the community finds solutions, and the movement is eventually accepted by or (replaces) the establishment (cf. “The Four Steps To Building a Successful Social Movement”).

In order for the gospel to be proclaimed to the whole creation (Mark 16:15), a gospel movement must take hold in a culture. Missionaries have the resources necessary to help instigate such a movement.


I say instigate a movement, because missionaries (at least the cross-cultural kinds) can rarely lead a gospel movement amongst a people. Movement leaders are those most affected by the problem or who will be most impacted by the change. Most missionaries remain at some distance from the cultures in which they serve despite good efforts to contextualize their ministries. They can (and should) learn language and study the culture as much as they can, but most will remain outsiders to some degree. Even with excellent language acquisition and cultural understanding, it is really hard for missionaries to localize entirely (doing so requires surrendering ties to missions agencies, ending regular furloughs, securing local salaries, etc.). These limitations should not discourage missionary activity, but neither should they be overlooked.

Some missionaries will be able to blend better to the glory of God, localizing almost entirely. However instigating a movement remains a crucial opportunity for the “foreign” missionary because what we are longing for is something we can neither lead nor control.

Gospel Movement

Instigating a gospel movement looks like investing one’s time and resources in such a way that a movement is more likely to take place. This includes church planting, but is not focused on the particular act of church planting as that is narrowly defined. Planting a particular church is an important, godly, and worthy investment. It brings glory to God in every circumstance where his word and sacraments are administered. However, a gospel movement is much bigger than any particular church getting planted.

A gospel movement will renew a region in such a way that many new churches get planted, older churches get renewed, and society itself is impacted in real ways. The parts of a movement do not form a static list, but Tim Keller has created a helpful attempt by noting elements normally seen in a gospel movement. He lists:

  1. Prayer
  2. Specialist evangelism (targeting particular demographics)
  3. Justice and mercy
  4. Vocational faith and work initiatives
  5. Institutions that support the family
  6. Institutions for theological training
  7. Christian leaders coming together

He does not list church planting, but that is certainly fundamental for Keller. What is key is that church planting, while fundamental, is only one of the several important elements to a gospel movement. There is nothing authoritative about this list, but missions teams and organizations could build their focuses around these kinds of endeavors in partnership with local churches and ministries. Missionaries seeking to instigate a movement might spend less time directly preaching and leading churches themselves in order to make more space for local pastors to develop. Meanwhile they might invest more time helping to launch a Christian school or mobilize a prayer gathering that bolsters and encourages the local leaders and church in a city or region.

Missional Imaginary

This is not a new method for missions. Rather it encourages a fresh missional imaginary in places like Japan that are engaged but unreached. Methods are often an attempt to force or control a movement, but “[control] is the enemy of deep renewal” (Stefan Paas, Church Planting in the Secular West, 212). Movements are organic. We cannot control them. As Keller writes:

So can we start gospel movements? Not really. They are too supernatural. But we can build or steward a gospel movement. A good metaphor is Elijah’s building of an altar in 1 Kings 18. We can build the altar, but God has to send the fire. And when the fire comes, we can throw wood on it, but we still don’t ignite it. Only God can ignite it. (“Defining a Gospel Movement”)

To work aggressively towards a gospel movement while simultaneously releasing control is only possible with the development of a proper missional imaginary. Here I’m co-opting philosopher, Charles Taylor’s idea of a social imaginary, which refers to “the way ordinary people ‘imagine’ their social surroundings…the social imaginary is that common understanding which makes possible common practices, and a widely shared sense of legitimacy” (A Secular Age, 171–2).

A missional imaginary then, describes the way that ordinary Christians of all sorts (local Christians, Christian immigrants/ex-pats, missionaries, etc.) see their missional roles in a given place. It beckons us to envision the gospel impacting every sphere of society and allows us to celebrate all that God is doing even and especially when it has little to do with our direct work. A missional imaginary leads missionaries to ask the key missiological question, “What is God already doing here?” before we ask how we should invest precious time and energy. Building one’s ministry with a strong missional imaginary requires organic gospel partnerships between various missions and between missionaries and local leaders. Indeed such gospel-centered partnerships and conversations themselves may be the early signs of the gospel movement we long to see.