The Aussie who is helping churches to party

Festivals movement aims at Rugby World Cup, Olympics and Paralympics in Japan

Until he became a Christian, the best day of Marty Woods’ life was when his entire class of 35 kids from Yass Primary School in NSW came to his tenth birthday party and he organised all the games and food.

“I think I’ve always been someone who loves bringing people together,” he muses.

The goal is to reach one million Japanese people with the love of God

Marty became a Christian two years later as a boarder at The Kings School at Parramatta, western Sydney, under the mentorship of his housemaster, Rod West, who “just showed me who Jesus was.”

The 12-year-old felt so freed of shame and guilt that he couldn’t keep quiet about what Jesus had done for him. In his boarding house 20 others came to faith by his last year of school.

“When I was four, I was sexually abused and basically I lost my childhood,” he says.

“A guy across the road – a teenager – abused me. I blamed myself, felt shame and guilt but I never felt I could talk to anyone about it.

“And when Rod showed me Jesus, and I met him for myself, I realised that Jesus had been there all along and that he understood this incredible bewilderment and pain.

“I felt free for the first time … I just knew that I wasn’t alone and I ran into Jesus’s arms. When I found him I could never be the same again.”

Fifty years later, Marty is still pursuing his twin passions of telling people about Jesus and bringing people together to celebrate the kingdom of God – with the inexhaustible stamina of the Energiser bunny.

He lives currently in Japan, with his wife Jenny, working with local churches to prepare for the Rugby World Cup in September and next year’s Olympic Games by running community festivals in 500 communities across Japan.

The goal is to reach one million Japanese people with the love of God through these community festivals over the next 18 months. Beyond that initial contact, the festival movement wants to ensure that every single person has the opportunity to continue a connection with a local Christian community.

A festival in the west of Japan’s main island

This is part of a broader vision articulated by Keishi Ikeda, pastor of Hongodai Christ Church in Yokohama. He hopes to use the momentum of the Rugby World Cup, Olympics and Paralympics as a catalyst towards a goal of seeing 10 million people attending church in Japan by 2024.

With only 1.2 per cent of its 120 million people being Christian, Japan has been described as the second-largest unreached people group in the world (after Bangladesh). Achieving the goal set by Ikeda would mean the Japanese church had grown by a factor of 10.

“Our mantra was ‘the church has left the building.’ How do we meet people?” – Marty Woods

So, who is this Marty Woods – and why does he think he is the man to be instrumental in what he describes as a profound moment in the life of the Japanese church?

A former English and history teacher, Marty responded to a clear call from God at age 30 to give away all his money – after six years of teaching – so that he could achieve his dream to reach the world.

“I did and it was the most freeing thing because God just said ‘I’m calling you to this radical life of faith and I want you to trust me.’ And 32 years later he still provides for us. I think if we’re going to reach the world, we’ve got to give it everything,” says the irrepressibly enthusiastic evangelist.

Back in the 1980s, Marty joined an Australian Christian youth and community group called Fusion (which had started in 1960). Fusion aimed to reach Australia with the gospel by helping the church be in the community.

“Festivals began in the Tasmanian local shows because we realised people weren’t coming to church, but 90 per cent of Tasmanians go to the local show, so if we can do work at local shows and do festivals there, we could contact 90 per cent of Tasmanians,” Marty explains.

“Our mantra was ‘the church has left the building.’ How do we meet people? We all want people to come to church but if we’re not out meeting them how can we move forward? We just began to develop this simple model. We called it an Open Crowd Festival as we wanted to welcome everyone to it.”

 “How about we meet people first? How about we get to know them?” – Marty Woods

Over the next 15 years, Fusion worked with churches to run festivals in 500 communities across Australia through the Awakening movement.

“I remember in the 90s in Frenchs Forest [Sydney], we helped support local churches work together to run a community festival on Anzac Day. It won Community Event of the Year and it continued to grow. It culminated with the opening night of the [Sydney] Olympics, we had 25,000 people turn up to the festival. [Former rugby union player] Nick Farr-Jones was the MC. It was organised by 25 different churches and it was fantastic.”

These women in Ghana were determined to win at a tug of war.

“It was a profound moment for me because I thought ‘this is where the church needs to be.’ Ever since I met Jesus, I thought ‘why don’t people know about him? We’ve got to tell them all about him, but they’re not listening. If we could just do something that showed people what the kingdom is really like.’

“So the Olympics was the catalyst to take us to a whole new level because we had a quarter of a million people turn up to 120 festivals.”

Although Fusion worked hard at church unity, some people queried why there was no evangelism or preaching at the festivals.

“We’d just say ‘how about we meet people first? How about we get to know them? Let’s build a bridge so that Jesus can walk from our heart to theirs. Let’s make it a connecting point.’”

“In eight years we were discipling 500 young people – and it all started with us meeting them at festivals.” – Marty Woods

Nevertheless, they soon realised having a next step after the festival was key – either holding a messy church in the park the next day, or inviting people to a kids’ club, mums’ group or holiday programme.

After helping to put the church at the heart of the 2000 Sydney Olympics, Fusion worked with the church in Greece for the Athens Olympics in 2004 “and there are churches planted from where we ran festivals. Churches are still running festivals – festivals that welcome refugees to bring the community together.”

This little boy in South Africa won a limbo competition and felt he had won a gold medal

The next destination was Albania: “We’d do festivals for three days. After the first day, we’d train all these young people saying ‘oh, we’ll train you to juggle’ and they then joined the team and then they’d come on day trips. They’d start going to youth group and in eight years we were discipling 500 young people – and it all started with us meeting them at festivals,” Marty says.

“And now the team use festivals to plant churches across whole of the south of Albania – they run 40 festivals, sometimes 50 festivals a year.”

After working with churches across Germany, where they witnessed Germans throwing off 60 years of guilt and celebrating the World Cup in 2006, Marty and his wife Jenny stayed on in Germany for four years until being invited to London to prepare for the 2012 Olympics, which took the festival movement to a whole new level.

“We just crisscrossed the country and we trained and built teams. During the Olympics, 600,000 people turned up to festivals and it was incredible. Again, just seeing churches who had never connected with the community having a go and God just blessing them.”

He said one church in Croydon in London doubled from 250 to 500 people over the five years that it held festivals and follow-up activities in a local housing estate.

“I think the church should be the party people.” – Marty Woods

It was in Sydney that Fusion first connected with the global sports movement ReadySetGo – a network of people who love God and love sports – which has allowed these Open Crowd festivals to grow exponentially. Marty says they are currently running festivals in 81 countries with a goal of attracting 100 million people to community festivals by the 2028 Los Angeles Olympics.

Now working on their sixth Olympics, Marty and Jenny are again teaming up with ReadySetGo which has made all the resources available here. They are helping to support and resource churches across Japan to take initiatives in sports ministry such as festivals and sports clinics – “like disciples who make disciples who make disciples.”

“Initially, we had copyrighted festivals then God really challenged us to give away the copyright and to make it open source so everybody could use it. Once we gave it away we honestly grew 50 times, I reckon.

“In Brazil for the 2016 Olympics, I trained one girl who trained 3000 people. And the other day, one of the 3000 trained 1500 pastors on how to run festivals.”

Water balloon volleyball in London – outside the house where Marty and Jenny were living.

Marty believes the “fairy dust” that makes the festivals work is helping people to have a free spirit and “they then are able to be creative, to create a warm, safe place” that allows even Japanese men to sing and dance!

He believes everyone wants to celebrate and his job is to find ways that work within each country’s culture that allow the human spirit to be free.

“I think the church should be the party people,” he says.

“We do it in a Japanese way. I’m not saying everyone has to be a crazy Australian, but that joy that comes because you’ve met Jesus and he’s changed your life and you can’t ever be the same again – and whether you’re an introvert or an extrovert, that joy is still seen. That is what is so attractive in Christians when they see the kingdom, when they see relationships, when they see celebration. That is what we’re seeking to do across Japan.”

“We all need each other. The Japanese church really needs a hand.” – Marty Woods

Marty is putting out a call to Australian Christians to come and work alongside the Japanese churches either for the Rugby World Cup or the Olympics.

“What we would love to do – we would train people online – training on how to run festivals and how to do other things that the Japanese church would like them to do,” he says.

Marty stresses that you don’t need to speak Japanese; he has translators when he does training. When running the festivals, they use the language of love – face-painting, juggling, singing, dancing … and plenty of smiles.

“What we want to say is ‘don’t just come for a year, but commit for the next four years. Bring teams over and get your church to be praying for Japan. Let’s commit to it.'”

“‘We all need each other. The Japanese church really needs a hand.'”

If you would like to bring a team to Japan, click here. To find out more about festivals click here. You can email Marty here: [email protected]

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