The Announcement Made
This week (Feb 9th, 10th and 11th) it was announced at mission conferences in the Hiroshima, Fukuoka and Kobe Missions that as of July 1, 2010, the Japan Hiroshima Mission will be closed and the area will be consolidated into the current Kobe and Fukuoka Missions. The official announcement was published in the Church News dated February 13th.
Reactions and Thoughts
We have known about the consolidation for several months. Now that it is public I would like to share some thoughts regardng all the comments and rumors we have heard on the subject. I hope this will be helpful to parents and others. I am concerned that missionaries, parents and others may misunderstand why this is happening and what the work in Japan is really like. First, it is not a sign that Japan is rejecting the gospel or that convert baptisms are decreasing here. It is true we do not see the number of converts that are seen in many missions, especially the South American missions. Nevertheless, our mission, for example, nearly tripled the number of convert baptisms in 2009 over 2008. And Japan as a whole saw growth in convert baptisms year on year. The Lord's elect are here and we are finding them. Second, a mission consolidation is not a reflection of one mission being closed because it had less convert baptisms than another. A similar announcement was made in Korea last week with the mission announced for consolidation being one of the highest baptizing missions in Korea. There are several factors involved in the decision to consolidate missions (including geography, population and travel access). I will not pretend to know all of the reasons, but I am aware of a few of the considerations.
Global and Local Trends
The church is truly becoming a global church. As this occurs, the brethren must determine where areas of strength currently exist and where future growth can be expected to occur both globally and within specific countries and regions. Over the past few years the number of available young men to serve missions has decreased. This is something that is expected to be temporary and it involves demographic trends around baby boomers and their children. As a result, North American young men of mission age available for service have decreased and that has impacted the number of missionaries that can be assigned around the world. This factor coupled with other global demographic trends and the inspiration of the Lord has led to a redistribution (allocation) of missionaries globally. While in some areas missions are being consolidated, in others, new missions are being announced. This is really not new and must be done periodically. In Japan, most missions have already been reduced in missionary numbers to a level that allows missionaries to be assigned to most wards and branches within the mission boundaries. While there are some exceptions in more rural areas, current allocations are close to that level. The days of multiple companionships serving in one branch or ward are gone (except maybe in a few units in large cities). There are just not enough missionaries to support that. In less populated areas of Japan, where many of the wards and branches are in rural areas (like the Hiroshima mission), when the number of missionaries have been decreased to meet the needs of the existing units there, it is apparent that the expense and logistics of operating a separate mission in these regions cannot always be justify. And these areas can easily be managed geographically by the neighboring missions. As the Kobe and Fukuoka missions absorb the areas of the Hiroshima mission, I personally do not anticipate (in the foreseeable future), based on what I have been told, a reduction any further in the number of missionaries based on the needs of the units that will be assigned to our missions. Having said this, the fact is the day for members in Japan to step up their missionary efforts has truly come!
The Kansai region of Japan (Osaka, Kobe, Kyoto), like Tokyo, is a center of strength with 5 stakes already established. People continue to move from rural towns to the larger cities. This is especially true of young people. The scriptures teach us that we are to strengthen and enlarge the borders of the stakes of Zion. (See D&C 133:8-9) This can most effectively be done by focusing our resources in the centers of strength. The Hiroshima Mission consolidation reflects this vision and plan.
About the Work in Japan
Missionaries in Japan do baptize. While that is not the only measure of a successful missionary, it is central to our purpose and the righteous desire of every missionary I meet. We find it very unfortunate and sad that many of our missionaries are told, even before they get here, that they may not baptize anyone while in Japan. Some come here thinking they are only going to plant seeds. This is a great lie. The adversary wins if he can plant that thought into the hearts of our missionaries. They are not called to plant seeds. They are called to gather the elect. (D&C 29:4-7) They are called to find, teach and baptize the children of God and establish the church. Planting seeds also happens. We do it too. You cannot harvest unless you plant. But the field is white already to harvest! We do not build false expectations, but we know that through faith, obedience and diligence we can qualify to see miracles and I personally can testify that we do. I am reminded of the sons of Mosiah who said at the close of their missions that the people of Zarahemla had laughed them to scorn when they told them of their desire to preach to the Lamanites. They were told that they could not do it. The land of the Lamanites was a hard mission. They were told you cannot change them from the traditions of their fathers. They did not believe it. They went in faith that they might perhaps save some few souls. Their missions were not easy, but the harvest was miraculous, bringing thousands unto Christ. Then Ammon reminds his brethren, "God is mindful of every people, whatsoever land they may be in, yea, he numbereth his people, and his bowels of mercy are over all the earth." Comparatively, Japan may not be the easiest mission in the world. But we must have the faith that we can find those prepared to accept the gospel. Tell your sons, daughters, nephews, nieces and members of your wards and stakes called to Japan that you can and will baptize in Japan! For they that believe they can, usually do. (See Alma 26:22-37)
What About Activity Rates?
In our mission, even with the increase in convert baptisms, we have not seen an increase in inactivity among new converts. Retention can be a challenge, but we seem to be holding steady. I honestly do not think current retention rates in Japan are very different from other places in the world. Retaining new members is not a concern unique to Japan. It is a difficult thing to convert to the gospel in any country. Many people convert and struggle to make the needed adjustments in their lives due to culture, family or personal habits. In Japan, it is true there are many cultural and societal barriers to becoming a member of the church. However, this is changing and it will continue to change for the better. Current efforts of the missionaries focus on finding new converts as well as working closely with less active members and part member families. We are working to help the members reach out to less active members and formal training is being provided by priesthood leadership to all members in Japan regarding how to reach out and help all come, or come back, unto Christ. In our mission last year we saw a dramatic increase in convert baptisms among part members families. We have seen many people come back into activity as members and missionaries unite and reach out to these people. It is interesting to note that I have found that many of the so called active members and leaders in Japan had periods of inactivity in the past. Like all people, the Japanese members must learn the importance of the gospel in their lives through their own experiences. We must continue to find people prepared to hear the gospel and bring them unto Christ, but also reach out to those who have strayed from the path for whatever reason. This is all part of our purpose as missionaries. The thought that we should not baptize people in Japan because they may not stay active is another great falsehood perpetrated by the adversary to slow the work.
Some Additional Thoughts on Japan
Recently a new temple was announced in Sapporo. Temples are built where the faithful reside. We already have two temples here in this land. There are many stakes and wards. The Church is established here. I have many second, third and even one forth generation Japanese missionary serving in this mission. We meet strong faithful members every day. We will see the church in Japan grow at a more rapid pace again. For years the growth has been slow. But things are changing. I feel it and I am seeing it. As President Eyring has testified, there will be a great change in the hearts of the members in Japan. And the church will come out of obscurity. We will see in coming years an increasing rise in the prominence and respect for the church and its members in Japan. We must remember the Lord works on a longer time table than most of us. Patience is a Christlike attribute. I believe optimism is too. I choose to see the glass in Japan as half full and being filled more each day, rather than half empty with a leak in the cup. That is the vision I strive to instill in my missionaries. I work daily with the hope and faith that we will have additional temples here in Japan, particularly within the boundaries of this mission.
On the Hiroshima Mission Consolidation
We love President and Sister Isa. We came out together as presidents. I knew him before we were called. He has done a wonderful work in the Hiroshima Mission. I have the greatest respect and love for him and his wife. He has served faithfully and we know he is greatly loved by the members and missionaries there. The fact that the mission is being closed during his service is a reflection of his faith, humility and love for the Lord. It is a hard thing that he has been asked to do. But he is a great man and the Lord chose him to undertake this difficult responsibility because he knew he was the man who could do it. We will work closely with him to ensure a smooth transition and welcome his missionaries into the newly established Kobe Mission. We look forward to adopting many of the good things he has started in Hiroshima into the New Kobe Mission and also sharing our best practices with the newly added elders and sisters from Hiroshima. Fortunately, both missions are dedicated to following Preach My Gospel. This uniform process for missionary work will make the consolidation of the missions much easier.
I have written here some of the thoughts and feelings I have had as I have pondered the events of the past few days and read comments from various people regarding the work here. These remarks are not official statements of the Church and should never be quoted as such. I am aware that there have been many who have served in Japan that struggled in various ways including not seeing converts. I hope and pray that no one measures their success as a missionary based on this criteria. Preach My Gospel states that you will know you are successful as a missionary when you feel the Spirit testifying through you. We have been asked to preach the gospel, be obedient, open our mouths and invite others to come unto Christ, to boldly testify of Jesus Christ and the restoration. We need to do our part. The Spirit will convert the people. The gospel rolls forward. With regards to Japan, we must not look backwards. We must face the vision the Lord has for this great land and people and work towards it. I am more concerned with what the Lord can do through us here in the future than what we had trouble doing here in the past. We must not sit idle and watch and wait for the prophecies to be fulfilled regarding Japan. We must ask ourselves what we should be doing to fulfill the prophecies regarding this land, then go do it. Finally, as we think about the work here in Japan, and everywhere for that matter, we must remember it is about the "one," each and every one of God's children. We all want to hear about thousands of converts and how the work is moving forward. But the real work and the real miracle is how the gospel affects one person at a time. It is the one we found. It is the one we brought back into activity. It is the one who repents and enters the waters of baptism. Remember the worth of souls is great in the sight of God. Remember how great your joy will be if you bring one soul unto Christ. The Savior said to leave the ninety and nine and go after the one. We will find and baptize thousands, but the miracle is the impact the atonement has on each one of God's children. And every one of them is worth the effort.
We look forward to serving in the NEW Japan Kobe Mission come July. We love the Lord and this work and all of His missionaries.
President and Sister W. A. McIntyre
Japan Kobe Mission