June 4, 2024

The Fruit of the Harvest

God’s beautiful story in a hard place

by Hannah Castro

Often, our current situations and stories don’t often showcase the fruit of our efforts, and sometimes, we will never get to experience the end results of what the Lord has been doing in and through us. Every so often, though, glimpses of growth are witnessed, and we can see the little connections that have seemingly been forming since the beginning.

When Mabel Francis was in her late twenties, she wrote to A.B. Simpson, C&MA founder, and asked him to send her overseas as an international worker (IW). She strongly felt that was her call and duty to fulfill the Great Commission, specifically in Japan. The only problem was that in the early 1900s—the time she desired to go—the C&MA missionary police didn’t allow single women to travel internationally.

She persevered, a sure sign of her character that was evident throughout her life, and in 1909, 29-year-old Mabel was sent to Japan as a missionary. She was joined by her brother in 1913 and by her sister in 1924. Out of their love for Japan and their desire to showcase the Kingdom, they planted more than 20 churches.

In 1931, the national church became self-sustaining, and The Alliance removed workers from Japan in 1936. However, Mabel and her sister, Anne, didn’t feel released, so they chose to stay, separating from the C&MA. When World War II began, both the U.S. and Japanese governments offered the sisters safe passage back to America—their lives were certainly at risk by staying—but once again, they felt the Lord was opening doors in Japan, and against the advice of many, they chose to stay.

Through house arrest, bombings, and a three-year stay at an internment camp, war intensified, but Mabel and Anne brought a message of hope as they ministered and led many to Christ. After the war, the sisters opened a Bible school, orphanages, and medical clinics and planted six new churches.

Even with such abundant fruit, it was clear to Anne and Mabel that workers were still desperately needed. In another important letter, Mabel and Anne wrote to the U.S. C&MA president asking for more workers to be sent back to Japan.

In 1962, the Japanese emperor awarded Mabel the Order of the Sacred Treasure—the highest honor bestowed on any foreigner, awarded to someone who has “engaged the public service of the national and local governments, or in non-public services that are equivalent to public service, and who have accumulated distinguished service.”

Mabel witnessed much fruit from her time in Japan, but the connections to her ministry are ongoing—so many that she never came to know have been affected by her work, and the need for gospel access in Japan is still prevalent.

Longing for Connection

When he was 10 years old, Don Schaeffer met Mabel when she came to his Alliance church in Ohio. The trajectory of his life was forever transformed. He credits Mabel’s visit as his initial interest in Japan, and he later found out that his parents had been praying that God would specifically send one of their nine children to the country. He has spent the last 39 years alongside his wife, Hazel, serving, living missionally, sowing new seeds, and nourishing the same fruit that Mabel once planted in Japan.

“I heard from Mabel Francis about the need in Japan,” says Don, “and I thought, How can I stay in the States when there’s so many people in this country who don’t have the opportunities that we have, that don’t have gospel access?

Don and Hazel have spent nearly 40 years church planting and developing leaders in Japan, a country that may not look like a hard place but that is very much unreached. “Even though it’s very modern and they have all the conveniences,” Don says, “people are lost here. They’re without Jesus, they’re without hope, and they need the gospel.”

The Japanese are one of the largest unreached people groups in the world. With 124 million Japanese people in Japan, less than 1 percent are followers of Jesus. As a whole, ancestor worship, materialism, and group conformity largely influence Japanese culture, and over 68 percent of Japanese people follow Buddhism. The lack of gospel presence is most evident in people’s lives.

“Many Japanese people are lonely because there is something missing in their lives. They don’t know that to fill it with,” says Hazel. “There is an aching, a longing in their hearts when they have no hope. There’s a lack of joy.”

“There’s just that sense of hopelessness and darkness,” Don adds. “I think of one man whose wife has come to church faithfully for many years, and their kids have accepted Christ. I even hear that he likes to sing some of our praise songs in the shower, but he’s the oldest son, and it’s very hard for him to take that step of faith because he feels the responsibility to carry on the tradition of honoring the ancestors and taking care of the family altar.”

Around the world, traditions and cultural values and expectations can often act as obstacles to gospel receptivity—Japan is no exception.

Sustainable Tilling

Like all hard-to-reach places, so many Japanese people have never had the opportunity to hear the good news, have never seen a Bible, and have never met a single believer. And how will they if no one tells them about Jesus, shows them the love of Christ, or develops relationships with them?

“I think one of the ways to evangelize in Japan that we’ve found the most fruitful is friendship evangelism. It’s reaching out in the community, having barbecues with people down by the river, inviting people into the church,” Hazel mentions. “I just want to have the opportunity to love them into the Kingdom, and that means having a meal with them or a cup or coffee.”

All people are created for connection, but especially in a nation that highly esteems privacy and their cultural values, deepening relationships and proclaiming truth through one’s emulation of Christ is crucial.

“Japanese people want to have a trust relationship with you,” Don says, “so they want to be able to trust you as a person before they’re going to listen to what you have to say. Once they know that you love them and that you are friends with them, they’ll share their heart with you.”

“We are trying to raise up Christians that have an evangelistic DNA because that’s the only way,” Hazel adds. “One of the ways we’re going to really reach Japan is for each Christian to just take up that heart to want to share the gospel with people in their influence. We are continuing to try to equip Japanese Christians to share their faith.”

To proclaim Christ in word and deed is deeply important to any formation, to any gospel proclamation, to any genuine relationship. Because of this, the Schaeffers, along with their team, have been part of many different relational ministries—church-planting efforts, the Tokyo-area Alliance Church Network that started in 2018, and the Alliance Bible Institute (ABI), an online training program in conjunction with the Alliance Center for Leadership Development—just to name a few.

Living in Japan for almost 40 years, the Schaeffers are very aware of the culture and what the next steps are in their ministry. They have strongly felt that it’s time to reach Japanese young people through passing the baton of ministry to the next generation. Reaching the youth, the younger generations, especially through church planting, is a huge focus for The Alliance’s ministry in Japan.

“We want to see The Alliance start more churches here,” says Don. “What Japan needs more than anything is just an explosion of new churches. There are thousands and thousands of convenience stores, but it’s very hard to find a church here in Japan.”

Planted, Watered, Waiting

However, those few churches in Japan have an incredible and lasting impact—even those Mabel and Anne planted a century ago. In 2017, the Schaeffers got to attend the centennial celebration of the Alliance church in Fukuyama, a church that Mabel started, and they witnessed the fruit of her labors all these years later. “We’ve been to churches in western Japan, and when I share that I met Mabel Francis when I was a boy,” says Don, “people come up to me and say ‘Mabel Francis led me to the Lord!'”

While it’s true that we don’t always have the opportunity to witness the fruit God grows out of obedience and consistent effect, we’re sometimes gifted with full-circle moments.

It’s not just Mabel’s fruitful and effective ministry that has had such an impactful presence or the Schaeffer’s and their team’s mission; it’s the work of the Lord through His people, through His Church, that has brought forth growth and fruit, really out of the ashes.

But the fruit is often slow growing. People are resistant. In places like Japan, there aren’t many Christians. Churches are few. The need for more workers is vital. Jesus said, “The harvest is great, but the workers are few” (Matt. 9:37, NLT), and that is certainly true in Japan. To harvest, there must be much fruit. For there to be fruit, there must first be humble beginnings and sustainable tilling.

“We feel like the soil has been tilled. We feel like the seed has been planted, it’s being watered. And so, we feel like God’s going to do something big here,” says Don. “There is so much work that needs to be done—not just in Japan but around the world. We need more workers. We’re so thankful The Alliance is sending workers. Keep praying, keep giving. We need more workers.”

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