Necessities for Effectively Communicating the Gospel
Common characteristics of those who are effective at communicating eternal truths in creative, artistic ways:
1. They have a genuine appreciation for and understanding of art. Most do not simply use art and artists as a tool to gather people.
2. They plan strategically, with an integrated approach to outreach that is holistic, comprehensive and sensitive to the preferences of their target group.
3. They like, accept, respect, honor and value artists. This is critical, as artists will not stick around if they sense they are not a valued part of the community. Budgets reflect values; money to support artists is an essential aspect of honoring them.
4. They understand that one of the most powerful aspects of the creative process is the formation of relationships. People are hungry for positive relationships that result in genuine community and belonging and working on a creative project together is a great way to build relationships.
5. They do not divide the world into “sacred” and “secular” compartments.
6. They empower artists by giving them permission to use their God-given gifts and abilities.
7. They listen carefully to both God’s word and to the voices of mainstream society. This is what John Stott calls “double listening.”
The results of a survey of Japanese conducted by the Gallup organization in 2001 were recently widely reported by news organizations. The poll caused a stir in mission circles because it claimed a shocking six percent of the population of Japan is Christian. Even more surprising, the poll indicated that seven percent of the teenage population of Japan is Christian.
In a country where far less than one percent of the population attends a Christian church, what could the results of the Gallup poll mean? For missionaries and others in Japan, this number of six or seven percent is much too high. There is too little evidence in Japan that this many people have accepted Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior. We would see it on people’s faces, it would be apparent as we talk with people, there would be far more Japanese attending church.
Presbyterian Church (USA) missionary Tim Boyle wrote about this seeming disparity in numbers: “What these figures tell us is that Jesus is rather popular in Japan, even though his Church (in the sense of organized, formal churches) is not. There are numerous historical and cultural reasons for this, and so while these statistics are disturbing in one sense (our relative lack of success in “church growth”), they are very encouraging in a different sense as it means there is quite a bit of openness to the gospel message of Jesus Christ.”
While large numbers of Japanese are intensely interested in Christianity, overall the Church in Japan is not growing. However, there are “hot spots,” missional churches and ministries that are effectively communicating the gospel and gathering significant numbers of Japanese. One of the characteristics of these “hot spots” is a high value placed on the arts. Read Japanese artist Fumie Ando’s story here.
Christmas in Peace
Christmas in Peace (CIP) created a small crack in a huge dam of resistance to the expansion of God's kingdom in Japan. In December 2002 a group of accomplished artists traveled to Tokyo with artist Makoto Fujimura of International Arts Movement (IAM) to take part in CIP. The group included actors, musicians and visual artists. CIP utilized media, concerts, art exhibitions and social gatherings to get the message of Christ into public spaces in Tokyo. In addition, a CD-ROM with a compilation of original songs and Fujimura’s testimony was produced. The CD was a remarkable success with more than 200,000 copies distributed in Tokyo alone. Over ten thousand people visited the website and linked to the CD, and over one thousand people left their contact information.
Fujimura reflected on an event that took place at the Sato Museum on Christmas Eve: “IAM was asked by the host organization (all of whom are not Christians) to organize a candlelight party. They insisted that I speak on the true meaning of Christmas; to have music and sing. They were the ones who requested that candles be lit during the party (which seemed more and more like a candlelight service). One of the artists asked a friend, a professional baker, to design a huge cake as well. I am sure it's the first time that a museum in Japan hosted a candlelight Christmas Eve event.”
In a country where the Church tends to be isolated from the broader culture, CIP built community by bringing Christians and not-yet-Christians together and winsomely proclaiming Jesus as the prince of peace.
Nakano Baptist Church
Another “hot spot” is Nakano Baptist Church in Tokyo. When Pastor Kazumi Saito started pastoring this 100-year-old church, nearly every one in attendance was over the age of sixty. Seven years later Nakano Baptist is beginning to look more like a music café than a typical Japanese church. Saito uses video and sound equipment to the fullest. To create a friendly, relaxed atmosphere, he and his wife set up a small café in a back corner. According to Saito, “The café is my favorite area of ministry; l love doing it.” Saito is an enthusiastic fan of rock music and follows the latest news in pop culture. Because of this he is able to communicate with youth. Saito often illustrates his messages with scenes from popular movies as well as video clips he self-produces.
Nakano Baptist has a growing group of young adults, a Mom’s group and a dynamic Wednesday evening service called “Power House.” Saito’s vision is large. The church has plans to build a 250-seat multi-purpose hall with state-of-the-art video, sound and lighting. This space will be used for concerts, other artistic events, training and producing music and video.
On Easter Sunday 2006 attendance at Jesus LifeHouse (JL) church in Tokyo was 450. JL was established in August 2002 to target the significant number of youth in the area. Since that time, JL has baptized an average of ninety people per year, most of whom have been young people in their late teens and twenties. The arts are important to the leaders of JL. Associate Pastor Ryuta Kimura stated that “art is good, God is an artist…normal people should be able to accept it and relate to it… young people don’t really care about the history of art and all that stuff, just that it looks good.”
The attractive JL website draws fifty visits a day. Thirty percent of church visitors come because of their contact with the website. According to Kimura, a popular Japanese social networking site called mixi is one important means of connecting with youth. Seventy percent of Japanese youth use mixi to meet and communicate with others. “Our people make connection (via mixi) through their friends and people who they know,” Kimura said. “For example, if someone writes comments on a blog, then there is a connection and the person can be invited to church.”
The biggest artistic outreach JL held was in the summer of 2005 when it partnered with five other churches to host Hillsong’s “United” band in Tokyo. Over 2,500 attended two concerts and fifty decisions to follow Christ were made. Kimura said this even built vision for the church: “The Christians involved realized we can do more of this.”
In May 2006 JL hosted award winning DJ Andy Hunter. JL is one of the only churches in Japan with boundaries wide enough to embrace Hunter and his singular approach to leading worship to a dance beat.
Black Gospel Music
Two movies, Sister Act and The Preacher’s Wife, and the musical Mama: I Want To Sing launched a Japan-based “black gospel boom.” Sister Act in particular inspired large numbers of Japanese to join choirs dedicated to singing black gospel. Currently, many hundreds of black gospel choirs exist in Japan. (Read an informative, humorous first-person report.)
One remarkable aspect of black gospel music in Japan is that it has few connections to organized religion; it is a mainstream, pop-culture phenomenon. Even major television stations broadcast black gospel concerts and interviews, some with clear presentations of the gospel. Because it is mainstream and therefore “secular,” many in the Christian community dismiss Japanese black gospel as an irrelevant fad that is best ignored.
Some pastors and missionaries have a completely different perspective and view the black gospel boom as something the Holy Spirit is using to gather Japanese who are seeking the love and hope they sense in the music. For these leaders black gospel choirs and concerts are non-threatening “gathering spaces” ideally suited to connecting with the large numbers of Japanese who like black gospel but who will not come to church.
Hallelujah Gospel Family (HGF) is an effective black gospel outreach in Japan. HGF is a network of over twenty local choirs that are led by competent Christian directors. Most of the choirs are also directly connected to a local church and include several Christians. This is significant because choir members who meet Christ are already connected with a community of Christians. Since the content of the music is the gospel, every practice is an opportunity to share Christ with the group.
Twice a year, under the direction of HGF coordinator Ken Taylor, the choirs in HGF gather in Tokyo for a joint concert. More than 250 singers participated in the last concert in December 2005. Because most of the choir members are not Christian, Taylor says, “We are [indeed] preaching to the choir.” Since choir members bring their family and friends to the concerts, most audience members are also unchurched.
REACHING THE WORLD
Quality art with a redemptive message can reach a large audience. One million Japanese saw Mel Gibson’s The Passion of Christ. The DVD is still available in rental shops. After three weeks in theaters, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe grossed US$18.7 million. Narnia's global total, more than US$690 million, now surpasses that of the 1994 film Forrest Gump.
Art and Evangelism
Both general revelation and special revelation are God’s masterpieces; he is the original artist/communicator. When we use the art we have created to communicate eternal truth, we are just copying, on a very small scale, what God has already done.
Japanese generally respond to great art with awe and wonder. Awe and wonder does not necessarily lead to the worship of God, but it can be a stepping stone. Because the culture of Japan has a long history of placing a high value on art, it is one of the best ways to initiate spiritual discussions. If the Church in Japan can utilize the medium of art to engage people in conversations about God in a winsome and non-threatening way, we may see many more “hot spots” that are effectively communicating the gospel.