God is using the Rugby World Cup to break down barriers to the gospel in sports-mad Japan in a way that has left local pastors amazed.
Timo Tagaloa, a former Rugby World Cup player and Athletes in Action staff was invited to Japan by the Japan International Sports Partnership (JISP) to help churches use this year’s World Cup to reach out into the community. Along with Timo, Jason Mee, a volunteer with Athletes in Action, and 13 other mission teams have travelled to Japan from around the world to connect Japanese people with churches through community festivals and rugby clinics.
Until now, for many in the church in Japan, sports was seen to take people away from it, due to games being held on Saturdays and Sundays. But World Cup fever has opened doors in schools and communities in unprecedented ways.
In the district of Tokiwadai, a mission team from New Zealand accompanied Timo and Jason for one of these events. Well over 100 people from parents of kindergarteners, the school and the community turned up. The pastor was amazed. Timo and the mission team played games with the kindergarten kids and did a rugby clinic in the community park and school. They also performed and taught the haka, which was a big hit. Timo shared some of his rugby journey and got the kids to try on his rugby jerseys from the 1991 Rugby World Cup, then passed out his playing card with his testimony on the back.
Pastor Tom was amazed at how the community came to the events. He shares, “I was originally not keen to be a part of this type of event, but the Lord convicted me to be involved. It’s been a vision of ours to connect more to our community and today has been the breakthrough we were after. Look at what God is doing here.”
In Kumagaya, a church invited Timo to do a rugby clinic at a local Buddhist school. He was told about 30 would come, but on the day 50 turned up. Timo was shocked when he was told that the school was fine with him sharing his Christian faith. As it turned out, they had recently been learning about Christianity.
The local church also organised a festival in a park in the city centre. Timo explains, “During the festival we met locals who brought their kids along largely because of rugby players being there. A Fijian mission team of rugby players taught the rugby clinic, while myself and Yoriko Okamoto, an Olympian, were interviewed. Of course, we had to do the Haka and the Fijian Cibi. This is the first community event that this church has done and it’s been popular.” The Pastor was amazed that sports would bring so many people along to an event run by the church. He’s keen to do this again during the Olympics.
“In Sapporo, a church that has been slowly contacting the community did a rugby clinic with the Fijians. There were three different community groups involved. Two days later, on Sunday, eight people turned up to church who had never been before,” says Marty Woods who works with JISP. It was the life of the church serving the community over many years that has made the difference. The pastor with tears in his eyes said, “We’ve been working towards this for ten years.”
In Tokyo, one church has held 3 weekend festivals in their car park during the Rugby World Cup. They discovered with the New Zealand mission team, that the Haka was a great draw card to inviting people off the street to come in to the car park festival where Japanese rugby fans could try international food, participate in fun rugby clinics and meet rugby players from New Zealand, Wales and Fiji. They also got to hear Timo speak about rugby and give his testimony. Kyoko Ishikawa who organised the event said, “At least 40 new people have given us their contact details today and are interested to know more about the church and faith. We have to follow up with these people well.”
Seventy percent of Japanese people are involved in sports in some way. Interest in the Rugby World Cup is huge. Record audiences are watching the televised broadcasts. Fifty per cent of the country tuned in to watch Japan defeat Samoa. It seems that sports is helping break down barriers to the gospel and the church.
On average, it takes a Japanese person three years to become a Christian from first hearing the gospel. Marty says, “It’s a long-term process. The churches recognise this. We keep building towards the Olympics. The Rugby World Cup has given us a valuable ‘dry run’ as we prepare for the Olympics next year. What is helping inspire churches to participate are stories [of how] rugby has [impacted] the churches who chose to get involved – stories of the Kingdom breaking out across the country.”
If you or your church are interested in being involved in a mission trip and are looking for opportunities like this one, please feel free to contact us. Tandem Ministries are facilitating mission trips for churches and anyone interested and are having an event for training on 7th and 8th November at Windsor Park Baptist. For more information or to register click here. You can also download the Jesus Film app for iOS and Android Apps and check out the Jesus Film website.