Where did it all begin?
The fax from Japan career missionary Dan Iverson to trainer and consultant Steve Childers read much like the Macedonian call where the Apostle Paul was entreated to “come over to Macedonia and help us” (Acts 16:9).
It read, “Japan has over 120 million people, so lost, less than one percent professing Christians. Church planting is the only way to win Japan. So many cities and towns still have not even one church! Please come and help us. We will find the money for the plane ticket somewhere.” Within two months Steve traveled to Japan to teach his first church planting conference (through a Japanese translator) to Japanese pastors in the Presbyterian Church in Japan (PCJ).
After that first conference in November of 1993, new doors for the advancement of the gospel in Japan began to open. Through Dan Iverson’s influence the Japanese Evangelical Missions Association (JEMA), the largest inter-denominational missionary association in Japan, invited Steve to return to Japan in 1994 to lead a church planting conference for English speaking missionaries to Japan from various mission agencies and countries.
Returning to Japan in 1994, Steve taught two more church planting conferences, one for Japanese pastors and one for the English speaking missionaries from JEMA. At those conferences Steve first cast the vision: “Advancing God’s kingdom by mentoring leaders to be part of movement that is multiplying churches that are multiplying disciples through the power of the Gospel.”
The critical need for church planter training in Japan became evident in 1995 when the second annual JEMA conference, meeting at Torchbearers Retreat Center near Mt. Fuji, filled to overflow capacity requiring that the next year’s conference be held at a larger retreat center (SEND’s Okutama Chalet) in the mountains west of Tokyo.
The broad ownership of this vision for a church planting movement in Japan was reflected when several career missionaries, who attended these early conferences, established a Church Planting Institute (CPI) leadership team under the auspices of JEMA. This committee, which helped lay the foundation for the future CPI movement, was initially under the direction of career missionary Tom Patton from the Japan Presbyterian Mission (MTW).
When Patton began a new ministry in 1997, Baptist General Conference career missionary John Mehn became CPI’s second director and leadership team chairperson. Missionary Dan Iverson has continued to play an extremely significant role in the development of the movement, serving on the CPI leadership team from its inception, along with several missionaries from other evangelical mission agencies in Japan, including Overseas Missionary Fellowship (OMF), TEAM, OC International, Southern Baptist and Baptist General Conference.
The larger retreat center found for the third annual church planter conference in 1996 had adequate space. However, the fourth annual conference in 1997 filled again to overflow capacity. Some missionaries even slept in the chapel balcony in order to attend the conference.
After the 1996 conference, regional peer-mentoring groups of missionaries from different agencies throughout the nation started meeting monthly between the conferences each year. Through these small group meetings in various regions throughout Japan, the principles taught at the annual CPI conference were being studied and applied to the missionaries’ personal lives and ministries. Some of these groups are going into regional church planting networks and alliances.
New relationships were being formed among the missionaries. Kingdom and movement mindsets started evolving from the grassroots. Missionaries who had previously been working alone started finding a common ground with other missionaries from different agencies in their region, based on what those in the CPI movement call “the vision.” Minor doctrinal differences among evangelical missionaries became truly secondary in light of this vision of working together to reach the nation of Japan in this generation.
The 1998 CPI conference was held at the much larger Megumi Chalet retreat center, allowing the missionaries to have plenty of room for housing, meals and seminar seating. But the 1999 conference, held at the same conference center, more than doubled the size of the 1998 conference and again filled it to overflow capacity. Many missionaries came anyway and found housing off site.
Having now outgrown three conference facilities in Japan since 1993, the CPI leadership team made final arrangements for a fourth and even larger facility near Mt. Fuji to hold the CPI conference in October 2000. That conference also had large numbers including a growing children’s ministry program that filled the facility. For the 2001 conference was to be held at a larger facility. The conference overflowed into five housing facilities. Again the CPI conference was the largest church planting conference in the history of Japan with over 330 in attendance. They were joined by 85 children, some of them volunteer workers, which made the conference over 400 people total.
Since 1993 about 1,700 missionaries and Japanese nationals have completed the “Basic Training: Foundations for Church Planting and Development” course for church planters taught at the CPI conference each year. According to the CPI leadership team, this number could easily represent 30 to 50 percent of the protestant church planting missionary force in Japan. Pastor Satake, a key Japanese leader with the KDK national church planting agency, reported that the 1999 CPI conference was the largest gathering of church planters, including Japanese nationals, in the history of Japan. That conference was topped again in 2001 and subsequently.
Since simultaneous translation was added in 1999 the numbers of national Japanese attending has grown rapidly. In 1999 there were approximately 50 Japanese in attendance. In 2000 that number had grown to over 70. In 2003 the conference had over 140 Japanese or about 30% of the attendees. Several Japanese denominations are sending their leadership as well as their church planting pastors.
Those attending the church planting conferences since 1993 are from many nations of the world including: Scotland, England, Germany, Finland, Norway, United States of America, Canada, Australia, Korea, Sweden, Switzerland, Madagascar, New Zealand, Singapore, Romania, Mongolia, Philippines, Taiwan, South Africa, and of course, Japan.
Since 1994, missionaries from approximately 120 denominations and mission agencies have attended the annual conference, including regular involvement from the top three largest mission agencies in Japan: TEAM, OMF and the Southern Baptists. The 2003 conference had over 50 denominations and mission agencies represented, with several agencies attending for the first. Several mission agencies, including TEAM and Overseas Missionary Fellowship (OMF), have decided to substitute the CPI conference each year for their own annual training conferences.