When in July 2020 I talked to Pastor Yoshiya (Joshua) Hari, National Director for Asian Access Japan, I knew his church had already been dealing with its own crisis before the the coronavirus came. After over 20 years in the same location, in 2019 the congregation of Saikyo Hope Chapel was told they had to vacate the building they were leasing because it would be demolished. Finding a similar facility for the same price proved to be extremely difficult, so from February 2, 2020, they found themselves alternately renting one of two local community centers for services each Sunday.
Loss of control over their environment
They struggled with the unfamiliar challenges of a mobile congregation—preparing the room and setting up audio and video equipment every Sunday. Internet speed was a recurring problem. Each week they were broadcasting their service through Facebook Live, but now it was with an unreliable cell network Wi-Fi connection. Periodically they lost the signal and Pastor Hari had to pause and restart his message.
At the same time, the coronavirus was spreading. A growing number of church members were staying home to watch the livestream. By the end of March, the church couldn’t even rent a community center.
Recognition of congregational needs
They had lost the opportunity to meet physically, but Pastor Hari knew the members of the congregation needed a way to share their difficulties and pray for one another. So when they moved totally online on March 29, they switched to the Zoom video conferencing platform. Now people could meet from home, see each other’s faces, and talk to each other.
Multiplication of gatherings
The Zoom meeting was opened from 10 a.m. before the service for informal conversation, but they soon found that a large Zoom gathering was not good for chatting. So the youth decided to have their own meeting at 10 a.m. Online ministry for children was scheduled from 9:20 a.m. A church member aerobics instructor initiated a separate online exercise class from 10 a.m. Their church planting team for a new daughter church began a pre-service prayer meeting.
Development of leaders
When they started the fully online 11:00 a.m service, at first the church used YouTube videos for the music. But then Pastor Hari thought, “We can use this unique time for training leaders.” Previously, they had two main skilled worship leaders. But now people weren’t so concerned about everything being perfect. Pastor Hari began passing leadership of the musical worship time around, telling members they could lead in any way they wanted. They could use a YouTube video, play guitar or piano, or just sing.
Delivery of content
Because of their struggles with the Wi-Fi signal in the community centers, Pastor Hari decided to record his message each Friday. He realized he could do that anywhere. He told me, “Before the coronavirus, the message had to be in the church building. But if you think about the Sermon on the Mount, it’s obviously outside. Jesus said, ‘Look at the birds . . .’ ” So he decided to record the message in a setting that would fit the topic. He ended each message with discussion questions, uploaded it to YouTube, and asked congregation members to watch it on Saturday or Sunday before the 11:00 a.m. service.
At the time in the service most congregations start listening to a message, Pastor Hari repeats the discussion questions he asked in the prerecorded video. Attendees are divided into groups of three to five people and everyone is sent into Zoom breakout rooms for 35 minutes. There they discuss practical applications, share their current struggles, and pray for each other. Pastor Hari also joins a group as a participant. He says that’s challenging, because it requires transparency: “I have to share myself—my burdens, my failings, my marriage . . . where I have to change!”
One of our fellow missionaries, who is involved in the daughter church planting team, adds that this season has forced the church to ask “Why is it important for us to gather?” He continues, “It’s not to listen to someone give a presentation . . . it’s learning to interact on a deeper level.”
Looking to the future
Pastor Hari would be the first to admit he doesn’t have all the answers. Our conversation ended with him saying, “This is an experiment. Talk to me again in a few months!”
We love working as co-laborers in partnership with visionary Japanese leaders!
Original PDF article: Gary Bauman, “Sunday ‘Zoom Church’—with no morning message! How one Japanese congregation responded to the COVID-19 pandemic,” Japan Update, Autumn 2020, Number 79, 2–3, http://jeanet.org/japan_update.