A Faithful Heritage and Renewed Hope for Our Japan Mission

Paul Fraser leading during a bilingual service at Rock of Ages, Seattle, WA.
Lutheran Brethren International Mission (LBIM) has a long history in Japan. In 1948, Morris Werdal, son of Marius and Marie Werdal (pioneer CLB missionaries), wanted to go as a missionary to China, the land of his youth. But due to the Communist political climate of the time, China’s door was shut tight to missionary activity. Morris prayed for God’s direction, and he felt God was speaking to him: “China is closed. Have you considered Japan? This door is now wide open. If I choose to send you to Japan, will you go?”

Initially, Morris was reluctant. Japan had been aggressors and occupiers of China, and had been the enemy in World War II. But Morris overcame his Jonah-like resistance, and ultimately took this call to heart in the spirit of Isaiah: “Here am I… send me!” The very next year, Morris and his wife Marion became the CLB’s first missionaries to Japan.

The work began in Sakata, in the north of the country. Soon more missionaries followed the Werdals. The first Lutheran Brethren church of Japan was planted in Sakata in 1951. By 1965, that number grew to nine. In 1969, the Japanese Lutheran Brethren Church was officially founded. Today, in 2023, there are 28 JLBC congregations.

We rejoice in this heritage. We rejoice in the missionaries faithful to go and the Church faithful to send. We rejoice in the spiritual harvest we have seen in Japan over these last 70 years, by God’s grace. And we are also very cognizant of the ongoing spiritual need of this nation. Consider the following facts:

  • Only .3% of the Japanese people are Christ followers (Joshua Project, 2021).
  • 98% of the population are considered “unreached” (Joshua Project, 2021).
  • 85% of religious adherence in Japan falls under a combination of Shinto (the indigenous religion of Japan) and Buddhism (statistica.com, 2022). Globally, there is only one missionary serving per 260,000 Buddhists (thetravelingteam.org, 2022). That is equivalent to one missionary for the entire city of Madison, WI.
  • Churches are closing in Japan. The Christian population is aging. Japan’s AEG (Annual Evangelical Growth Rate) is –.4%, in contrast to a global average of +2.6% (Joshua Project, 2021).

Japan is sometimes referred to as the “graveyard” for missions. There are multi-faceted obstacles (spiritual, cultural, social) that have hindered the gospel in Japan. But we, together with our Japanese sister Church, have renewed hope and vision. While there is an awareness of the challenges, there is a confidence that God does great work in the deadest of places. Consider Sarah’s dead womb; Elijah’s dry bones; Jonah’s death sentence in the belly of the fish; Jesus’ dead body in the tomb. LBIM is a mission committed to serving in unreached places and among unreached people. As such, we are entering into a new partnership with our Japanese brothers and sisters for a renewed mission focus in Japan. Rather than shrinking back from the challenge, we are choosing to lean into it, for the sake of the gospel going forth in Japan, by God’s grace and for his glory.

We are taking the next steps! We are sending new missionaries to Japan! Paul and Alexa Fraser, along with their sons Arthur and Oswald, will be deploying to Japan this summer. They have been prayerfully anticipating this for years. Alexa first sensed a call to mission when she visited China as a teenager. Paul made a visit to Japan with a team of Lutheran Brethren Seminary students while in seminary training, and that experience deeply impacted his sense of calling to mission in Japan. Since graduation from LBS in May 2021, Paul and Alexa have been busy equipping themselves in preparation for this. Paul has been serving as a pastoral intern at Rock of Ages LB Church in Seattle, Washington, where there is a Japanese ministry. Paul and Alexa have been serving alongside Roger and Sue Olson, veteran CLB missionaries to Japan who currently lead “Japanese Ministries,” focused on ministry to Japanese college students in Seattle. The Frasers have been investing in learning the Japanese language and culture. They have attended a month-long “Compass” training by Mission Training International, that has provided them with tools to learn a new language and to adapt to a new cultural context. And most recently, they have accepted the call of the CLB to serve as LBIM’s newest missionaries to Japan!

Upon arrival in Japan, the Fraser family will initially focus on learning the Japanese language and adapting to Japanese culture. For language learning, they will use a combination of classroom participation, personal tutors, and self-teaching to acquire fluency in Japanese. During this time, they will also be getting to know the JLBC, particularly engaging with the local congregation in their community. The goal is to intentionally serve alongside a JLBC congregation for the purpose of an interdependent partnership in community outreach and evangelism. A key word here is “interdependent.”

The desire is that this partnership in mission between LBIM and the JLBC will identify and leverage the blessing of any healthy partnership, where both partners can contribute toward a common purpose in mission, and they can serve that mission better together than if they were working individually. The Frasers will contribute a joy-filled, grace-centered gospel message and a confident evangelistic spirit. As Americans, they are “neutral”—able to provide a non-threatening and accessible “bridge” that can connect the local church to non-believers. The Japanese partnering congregation will contribute multi-faceted support to the Fraser family, including language help, cultural integration, encouragement, fellowship, outreach planning and coordination, and discipleship of new believers.

While we know what the broad parameters are for this renewed mission partnership, there is much to process and prayerfully consider regarding the details going forward. This is a new thing. We seek to be bold, contextual, and innovative in our approach. We are also prayerfully anticipating the recruiting, equipping, and calling of more missionaries to join our team in Japan.
We ask you to pray for this mission. We ask you to support this mission. We thank you for your partnership in the gospel. In the words of JLBC Pastor Zeniya Kouki, speaking about this renewed vision: “Thank you for giving us new hope. I am really looking forward to new missionaries coming to Japan, and I am looking forward to seeing the American Church and the Japanese Church working together.”

Dan Venberg serves the Church of the Lutheran Brethren as its Director of International Mission.
Learn more about the CLB's renewed partnership in Japan and hear from Paul and Alexa Fraser in the video below.

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