Shepherding ‘Hidden Christians’ in the US & Japan

As Phil Waters transitions into semi-retirement, he remains in awe of God’s power as he reflects on the success of a career dedicated in service to Christ and the Japanese population both here and abroad.

After serving as missionaries in Japan for just under ten years, Phil and Sharyn Waters were appointed by Missions Door in 1989 to pioneer a Japanese church-planting ministry in the Greater Los Angeles area. Later they relocated to the San Diego area and shifted their emphasis to a Bible study focus, but their ministry continues to bear fruit not only here in the U.S. but half a world away.

“It’s just amazing what God can do, how he can take people that we worked with in LA and they become the core people, starting a church in Kawasaki, and now that church is going to start another church in a neighboring area between Tokyo and Yokohama,” Phil says. “Big high-rise apartment buildings in a bustling city of 120,000 people, but not a single witness to Christ in the area.”

Or so it seems on the surface. But as Phil has come to learn, sometimes you have to look deeper.

The Challenge of Reaching Japanese for Christ

Less than one percent of the Japanese population knows Jesus Christ as their personal Savior. Not all that surprising, considering that there was a period of over 200 years where Japanese rulers shut out all outside influences to society. Christians who weren’t killed went underground.

“Commodore Perry eventually came in with his black ships and opened up Japan and the Gospel message could come again,” Phil says. Yet even today, many Japanese remain underground with their faith — “Hidden Christians,” is how Phil refers to them.

Many believe that to openly embrace Christ in Japan risks turning away from centuries-old Japanese culture and offending traditional Japanese religious traditions. Japan is a land of stone idols, Buddhist temples, and Shinto shrines, all intertwined with a belief system rooted in Confucianism. “In Japan, it’s about honoring relationships – parent-child, boss-employee … you always have to honor these relationships. You never want to bring disrespect or dishonor on your family or company,” Phil says, which is why many remain “Hidden Christians.”

Phil agrees with studies that have shown Japanese people are more open to the Gospel message when they are outside of Japan. Phil has experienced the proof through his ministry.

In the early days in LA, Phil says most of their congregation were businesspeople who would be in the U.S. for only a short time, usually 3-5 years, before returning to Japan. They were curious and open to learning about our Lord, without having to worry about all those other relationships and the fear of being asked by a family member or coworker, “What are you doing going to a church?” Still, there was a great chance they might fall away from faith after they returned home. Phil’s message to those returning: You have to stop being a Hidden Christian.

“I know it is hard for you. People at work are going to make fun of you.  It will be difficult to be an out-and-out Christian,” Phil recalls telling a Japanese businessman. “When he got back to Japan, he became very involved with the church. Now he’s going to seminary. He’s really blossomed and become a real leader. He’s no longer a Hidden Christian.”

Not all Japanese are Hidden Christians, of course. Phil and his wife have been there to minister to those who are in their darkest hours, helping lead them through periods of unimaginable pain and grief to find comfort in the light of our Lord.

Such as the mother whose son, severely handicapped with cerebral palsy, died at age 20. She was so distraught she tried to climb inside the casket with him. Phil, who was officiating the service, told her she could someday rejoice with her son in heaven if she would come to know the Lord. She was baptized a year later.

Another woman, “M” was a victim of domestic violence. Phil and Sharyn came to know her at the hospital, shared the comfort of the Gospel with her, and helped her find affordable housing. Over the past 18 months, M has accepted Jesus as her Savior. She was baptized a month ago, and now regularly invites coworkers to attend Phil’s small group Bible study in Oceanside, Calif.

A New Comfort Zone

So what lies ahead for Phil as he transitions into an affiliate role with Missions Door?

“I am going to keep doing what I am doing, teaching Japanese Bible studies and ministering among the Japanese community,” he says. “God has a way of surprising us and getting us out of our comfort zones.”

Even to the Summer Olympics in Japan. Phil will travel with a group from International Sports Federation in July to Tokyo, where they will demonstrate the sport of fencing to junior high students. Phil, who has never fenced before, will take part in the demonstrations (yes, he’s taking lessons as you read this). He will also serve as an interpreter while sharing the gospel with students. “Once the Games begin, we’ll have one or two days where we will try to do some demonstrations during which we will share the message of Jesus Christ,” Phil says.

This is where Phil could use your support. He and Sharyn will continue visiting to Japan, not only for the Olympics but to continue to grow their ministry to the Japanese people. There is a need, too, to support their efforts to supply bilingual Japanese/English Bibles for their ongoing Bible study group.

“We want to be a resource for people who have Japanese friends who want to learn more about Christ,” Phil says.