It may be known as the “Land of the Rising Sun,” but for Steve Niksarian, there’s a spiritual darkness over Japan that he has spent 20 years seeking to help dispel, one flicker at a time. While the country’s Buddhist roots run deep, he believes that the cultural pressure to conform and not stand out also plays a major part in keeping people from receiving the gospel.
Despite a longtime missionary emphasis since soon after World War II—The Foursquare Church is celebrating the 60th anniversary of its founding in the nation—the Christian population still hovers at little more than one percent. Most churches, like the Sendai Zion congregation of which Steve is senior pastor in the northern city of Tomiya, have no more than 20 or 30 members.
Some have come to faith through outreaches such as English-language classes and gospel music concerts, but it is a slow process. “It’s not about results,” says Steve, who was a member of The Church on the Way (Van Nuys Foursquare Church) in Van Nuys, Calif., and a Los Angeles-area middle school teacher when a short-term outreach to Japan led to two further trips, and then a year’s commitment that has turned into 20 years’ service with Foursquare Missions International. “You do what God tells you, and you have to trust that He’s working even when you don’t see it. And every now and then, you will see a little evidence.”
Much ministry takes place outside of church buildings because “the average Japanese person has never been inside one,” Steve explains. “They would feel very uncomfortable if you just invited them to a Sunday service.” Some have come for funeral services for church members, though, which provide “an amazing opportunity to give hope to people when they need it most, and I get to share the hope of heaven.”
One man, a staunch Buddhist whose wife was a Sendai member, came to faith himself after her funeral, thanking Steve for teaching him about God through the service. Building on that openness to a promise for the hereafter, which is absent from Buddhist belief, Sendai Zion dedicated a Christian cemetery plot whose tree-lined setting stands in stark contrast to the more somber, traditional burial grounds.
“You do what God tells you, and you have to trust that He’s working even when you don’t see it. And every now and then, you will see a little evidence.” —Steve Niksarian
That project is just one of the unlikely things Steve has found himself doing during his time in Japan. “God has me doings things here—like being a pastor—that I never, ever could have imagined,” he says. Those unexpected assignments include having just been named Northern District supervisor for Foursquare Japan, which has 45 churches across the country. “But it has been growing me and making me become more than I ever thought was possible.”
In addition to his love for the country and its people, two things undergird Steve’s ongoing commitment to Japan. How clearly God led him there, through a reading of Abram’s call in Genesis 12—“God had never spoken to me so strongly before, nor has He since”—and daily time in worship and prayer. “Without that, anything I do is just coming out of my own strength, my own ideas,” he states. “Everything we do in our life comes out of our relationship with God. Church work here needs to be fueled by the power of the Holy Spirit.”
Even in the face of what seems like slow progress, “if you are where God has called you to be, there’s peace,” he says. “And there is going to be lots of fun. It’s challenging, but it is exciting. I’m a very reluctant leader; it’s not my natural strength. But that’s OK. If God calls you to do it, He will equip you.”