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Southern Baptists reach out to rowdy World Cup fans in Japan

TOKYO (BP)–Normally tidy Japan is packed with rowdy soccer fans for the World Cup, and Southern Baptist International Mission Board missionaries are joining the party with good news — the gospel of Jesus Christ.

With World Cup games in 10 cities throughout Japan and an estimated 250,000 visitors, the world is at Japan’s doorstep. For missionaries, the festive atmosphere helps them take the gospel to the nations and reach a mission field where less than 1 percent of the population claims Christianity.

Since traditional evangelism methods rate little more than a snore from the typical Japanese, missionaries are sharing the good news with more polish and creativity than ever — and using some unusual methods.

Soccer is one of them.

“Soccer is the most popular sport in Japan, especially during the World Cup,” said Bill Walker, executive director of World Cup ministries for the International Mission Board. “All eyes are focused. Even pro baseball players are skipping practice to watch the games. You can pick them out in the stands.”

Sports is a medium that unifies people, Walker said.

“In those areas, we don’t have to communicate. We learn from each other. We admire each other.”

Walker has struck a chord in the evasive heart of secular Japan. From rapidly forming soccer leagues to the message of wildly popular Japanese rock band SMAP, whose initials stand for the unifying elements of “Sports, Music and People,” sports has the potential to break down huge barriers.

And for the hardest to reach population segment, the Japanese male, sports may be a godsend.

“Sports is a venue that men communicate readily in,” Walker said. “Men do things together and build relationships that way. There’s a camaraderie after running a marathon together that you couldn’t get any other way.”

With the spotlight on typically reticent Japan during the World Cup, missionaries are taking notice.

“Major sporting events open the culture to international free flows of all kinds, not just Christianity, and [we’re learning] the skills of utilizing these opportunities to forward the gospel in concrete ways,” Walker said. “An event is like a wave coming through a country. If you have your surfboard ready and you want to go somewhere, you can ride that wave.”

Sports, and soccer in particular, is a cutting-edge way to reach Japanese young people.

“The Japanese church is in crisis because the young people are leaving,” Walker said.

But with sports outreach efforts like “KidsGames,” where children play a game and learn a Bible story, or famous soccer players sharing their testimonies, missionaries have the attention of young Japanese.

Members of the Baptist Media Center in Tokyo joined with England-based Athletes in Action and Christian Publicity Association to produce two Japanese-language evangelistic tools that missionaries distributed by the hundreds: a soccer video and an evangelistic soccer guide.

“The video is more specific than ‘God is love’ and ‘God loves you,'” said Japanese Christian Minoru Hayakawa, who helped edit the Japanese-language video for the Baptist Media Center. “They can hear about the world’s best players losing their lives [to drugs and alcohol] because they didn’t have a final destination. For Christians, what is our ultimate goal? It’s Jesus Christ. It never ends.”

The soccer guide, which went like hotcakes in some cities, has top-quality pages for filling in World Cup scores alongside testimonies by famous Christian players and a clear plan of salvation.

Each guide comes with a tear-off postcard for recipients to contact missionaries for more information about Jesus, and the cards are already beginning to come in.

Other examples of how missionaries in Japan are keeping busy:

— In Sapporo, members of the Heartlanders team (ministry to mid-sized cities) provided the bulk of evangelistic material distributed at a citywide “March for Jesus.”

— In Yokohama, members of the Japan students and single adults and Megacities missionary teams joined with other Great Commission Christian groups to hold two festivals, each drawing crowds of more than 1,000, with gospel choirs, British Christian comedians, children’s events and soccer guide/video distribution.

— In Kobe/Osaka, members of missionary teams who minister to professionals, children and youth enlisted nearly 100 American volunteers to help with five festivals.

Missionaries Ron and Joan Capps are excited about the opportunity to reach such large numbers of young Japanese.

“Most of this is bridge-building,” said Joan, who has been watching skyrocketing suicide rates among young people in Japan. “If they don’t get the right job, or get into a certain school, or their boyfriend breaks up with them, they lose hope. It’s a Christ-less society. They don’t have any hope, and their answer is death. We want to give them hope.”

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  • Jenny Rogers