When it comes to beauty, Japan is one of the most stunning nations on Earth. Slightly smaller in area than the state of California, its rugged, mountainous terrain and breathtaking coastlines are gorgeous, drawing tourists from around the world.
When it comes to spirituality, however, the picture is not so perfect. The population of nearly 127 million are predominately Shinto (83.9 percent) and Buddhist (71.4 percent)—many people in Japan practice both. Other religious beliefs come in at 7.8 percent, with Christians numbering a maximum of 2 percent of the overall population—with some estimates putting Christianity closer to one percent.
In this country in desperate need of the gospel, 47-year-old Steve Niksarian serves as Foursquare Missions International (FMI) missionary to Japan. He notes that Foursquare has a national church leadership presence here, and that Japan is a “stage four” nation in the denomination’s four-stage church development model—meaning they are a “sending nation,” one that sends missionaries to other countries.
There are 42 Foursquare churches in Japan and a newly opened Bible college. Steve resides in the scenic city of Sendai, located in the Miyagi prefecture.
How were you led to become a missionary to Japan?
Steve: In 1998, I felt God was leading me to go to Japan on a team from my church in Los Angeles. Although I had a strong interest in missions and had been to other countries to minister, up until that point I had no interest in Japan or any calling to go there. I ended up joining the team that year and had an incredible experience; we had really bonded with the people.
When it was time to leave, other team members and I were sobbing at the airport. I couldn’t have imagined how deeply God would move my heart for the people in this nation. I ended up coming back the following two years on missions teams to continue work with Pastor David Masui in the cities of Hakodate and Sendai.
In between the second and third trips, I received a Christmas card from Pastor Masui. In it, he asked me to pray about coming to serve in Japan for one year. When I read that, I really didn’t think I would come.
But a few weeks later, I was reading Genesis chapter 12 in my morning devotion time. When I read the part where God called Abram to go leave his country and go to a new land, I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that God was calling me to Japan. He spoke to me so strongly that I had 100 percent conviction of my calling to the country. What I didn’t know was that this calling was not just for a year but long term.
God is so gracious in how He deals with us. He only allowed me to see one year into the future, because that’s all my faith was able to handle at that time; I wasn’t ready to think about moving permanently to a foreign country. But in due time, God let me know that it wasn’t just for one year. That initial one-year commitment has recently become nine years, and I am ever thankful to God for choosing me and allowing me to participate in His great plans for this nation.
What do you wish people in the U.S. knew about ministering to people in Japan?
Steve: I really wish people in the U.S. knew the great spiritual need in this country. Japan probably doesn’t readily come to mind when people think about missions and evangelism, but this country is in desperate need of Jesus.
There has been a continual influx of missionaries since World War II, but the percentage of Christians in this nation remains virtually unchanged at about 1 percent. Unlike Americans who value individuality and the freedom to choose, Japanese value conformity and don’t feel free to move outside traditional culture. Japanese thinking would say, “We’re Japanese, therefore we’re not Christian.”
Tell us about someone whose life was changed through Foursquare ministry in Japan.
Steve: One day, I was talking with one of my church members and noticed that she seemed down. When I asked what was wrong, she shared that her mother just left her father and wanted a divorce. I was really surprised, because divorce is much less common in Japan, especially among older married couples.
She continued to share details of heartache and struggles that had gone on for many years. The situation seemed hopeless, and I was starting to become down myself. Then I had a sudden burst of faith and realized I needed to pray with her and invite God into this situation. Two days later, when I saw her again, she said her mother wanted to become a Christian and be baptized!
I knew God could work in this situation, but I have to admit I was blown away by this good news. It seems her mother attended Sunday school when she was little. She was attracted by the delicious chocolate that the American missionary would give to the children! She listened to the stories about God, and even though she never made a confession of faith, I believe the seeds of truth planted by that missionary were planted in fertile soil. A few days later, it was my privilege to baptize this 74-year-old woman.
I love this story, because it reminds me to never give up hope and always invite God into those situations where I can’t see an answer. This account also illustrates how long it sometimes takes for a Japanese to make a commitment to the Lord. I’ve heard a statistic that from the initial contact with the gospel, it takes an average Japanese two years to make a commitment to become a Christian.
Have any teams come from the U.S. to help with your ministry?
Steve: Many teams have come in the past, including youth teams and gospel choir teams. We had a wonderful couple come last summer. They had been to Japan many times before on various missions teams and felt let by God to come back and visit the cities and churches where they had ministered. They encouraged and strengthened the believers so much just by praying and spending time with them.
People from overseas who come to minister in Japan bring a fresh gust of the Holy Spirit, and it really refreshes and builds up the believers here. I am especially moved by this couple; they have been praying for Japan for years and continue to support the ministry here.
What do you see God doing as you look to the future?
Steve: My vision is for the next generation to rise up, receive salvation in Jesus and lead the church. The average age of a pastor in Japan is almost 60, and there hasn’t always been an emphasis on reaching young people.
But recently, I am seeing more and more ministries aimed at youth, and the exciting thing is that these ministries are inter-denominational! Church leaders are joining together and realizing they have to be united to reach a generation that would otherwise be pulled away by the culture.
How to Pray for Steve:
- More church leaders to join together in reaching out to young people. He is seeing the “graying” of the church in Japan and desperately wants to reach the next generation for Jesus.
- The Japanese to have open hearts, and faith to be different from others and choose Jesus
- That God would lead more workers to come to Japan and share the gospel
- Increasing vision in leading his church
- Strategy in reaching out to the lost
- That discouragement and depression would not take hold
How You Can Bless Steve:
In addition to donating to Steve so he can continue his work in Japan, our Foursquare missionaries are always encouraged by and grateful for any prayers and correspondence they receive. Whether it’s a gift sent on a holiday, or simply a letter or note of encouragement, you can make a difference by expressing your support in a practical way.
To send correspondence to Steve, e-mail him directly, or write to:
Sendai Zion Church
Interview conducted by: Bill Shepson, a Foursquare credentialed minister and freelance writer in Los Angeles
Download the FMI quarterly supplement that features a portion of this interview.