Seriously, gospel music in Japan!  Check out this recent video:  

JCL Network Partner Heidi Skipper shares her experience of ministering to Japanese people through the medium of black gospel music. Heidi writes:

Japanese encountering God through black gospel music

I was amazed - I could not believe the sound this group of petite middle-aged Japanese women were producing. They were singing their hearts out, they were singing in English and they were singing black gospel music, an American musical genre. Although all but possibly one of them were not yet Christians, the passion they sang with was amazing! The following year my family and I moved to Tokyo and I got stuck into the work of extending God's love and kingdom in Japan through gospel music. What is happening through gospel choirs is truly wonderful. God is working in people's hearts and lives are being changed.

We often hear about the difficulty of spreading the gospel in Japan, and this is truly a struggle. Japan may be an open country but the Japanese are a very closed people group. Their long history is packed with traditions. Japan is a group society: there are strict social norms and certain ways of doing things. Culturally the Japanese are in some ways homogenous, suspicious of new things, excelling in what they do and moving as one. However, it is exciting to see that there are pockets of transformation happening, areas where the truth of Jesus is setting people free. One area is within music and the arts.

I have the honour to work with Ken Taylor, an American WorldVenture 'musicianary' (a musician doing missions). Ken, with his wife Bola (who passed away in 2015), have been key in helping Japanese churches latch on to the phenomenon of black gospel music.

In 2000 the Taylors started their first gospel choir, and a network and movement called 'Hallelujah Gospel Family' (HGF) was born. Ken's work has been crucial in encouraging and equipping churches to use gospel choirs intentionally to share the gospel message: the good news about salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. His strategic thinking is a blessing and a gift not only to the gospel choir movement, but to the church as a whole in Japan. The three core values of HGF (Community, Relationship and Celebration) underpin everything HGF are about and Ken has articulated them in general terms so that churches can use these not only for gospel choir outreach, but as a wider model.

But how did this all start? In 1993 the film Sister Act 2 starring Whoopi Goldberg was released and this is widely seen as the start of Japanese catching onto black gospel music. The song 'Oh, Happy Day' is a particular favourite.

Japan is a nation of fads, and Japanese businesses in particular are always on the lookout for new trends. Black gospel music was no different. Choirs started popping up all over Japan and most of them were led by those who weren't Christians. Music schools and community centres offered classes and there was a huge interest among the Japanese to sing black gospel music, but the church was not taking advantage of this amazing phenomenon.

What is happening through gospel choirs is truly wonderful. God is working in people's hearts and lives are being changed

During this initial gospel music boom the Taylors began developing an evangelism and church planting strategy based on a belief that effective evangelism needs to be culturally relevant and contextual. This has led to HGF partnering with churches so that they can start new communities of not-yet Christians who join a choir community launched by a local church. The outcome is groups of non-Christians and Christians meeting together regularly. What started in the 1990s is still going on and the love for black gospel music has not disappeared anywhere.

Four important points to remember

Ken makes four points that are important to understand regarding black gospel music in Japan:

Firstly, it is distinctively Japanese. It is an indigenous Holy Spirit Movement. They are singing black gospel music, but it is the Japanese singing it and no-one is forcing Japanese non-Christians to sing and join choirs. It is clear that God is working through this. Many non-Christian choir members say things like, "I'm so moved and don't even know why" or "it instantly relieves my stress". The roots of black gospel music go back to the Negro spirituals, the musical moans and groans of the African-American slaves back in the 1800s. Ken asks whether it could be that all the stress and hopelessness that many Japanese experience is a form of modern day slavery.

It is no wonder that the message in each and every black gospel song about the hope, love, joy, peace and everlasting life found in Jesus resonates with the Japanese!


Secondly, Japanese society operates in circles. You are either in or out of a circle. Each Japanese person has many circles (work, family, hobby etc.) but these circles rarely interconnect. We need to have ministry forms that take the circle phenomenon into account. The outcome is that our activity is one that deepens relationships within existing circles.

Thirdly, we need to offer quality programmes taught by skilled teachers to gain respect from the Japanese. The teacher (sensei) is a very respected person in Japanese culture. In the HGF gospel choir movement this is done by having ongoing training programmes to keep the instructors equipped as well as producing quality resources. We also have frequent visits from Ray Sidney, a professional black gospel singer from the US who is committed to doing workshops with the choirs year after year.

It is exciting to see that there are pockets of transformation happening, areas where the truth of Jesus is setting people free.

The fourth point is interesting as it is something that is deeply ingrained in the Japanese way of thinking: obligatory gift-giving. In practical terms, offering something for free can be mistaken as a gift that obligates the receiver to reciprocate. This can become a never-ending cycle. Many churches offer outreach programmes for free, but the Japanese actually become suspicious and also feel pressured by the gift-giving custom. In the choir movement, Taylor has found that charging a reasonable price keeps everyone happy and there is also a higher commitment level. In turn, churches find that their finances are not stretched by putting on an activity, and that in fact there is a little bit of extra income.

Partnering with churches

HGF has been going for over 18 years and now totals over 1,500 members, of whom around 80% are not yet Christians. Something to bear in mind is that a church does not join HGF, but rather HGF strategically partners with local churches to resource, equip and serve them. To date HGF is partnering with 50 churches from different denominations. Whatever form the church takes, whether it is a well-established church, a church plant or a house church, they all have a new community that they are investing in, caring for and shepherding.

The goal is not actually to have a choir per se, but to start a new community.

Heidi's roles

My role within HGF is to coach some of the adult choirs, as well as being in charge of the kids' choirs. I choose songs for the kids' choirs, write the scores for the directors, produce resources and train directors. I am part of the team which produces the HGF textbook that comes out twice a year. This is a textbook that all choirs use which means we are all singing the same songs at the same time in various locations and can therefore easily join together too. The textbook has the English song lyrics with Japanese translation, so everyone understands what they are singing. Each song has a short introduction linking it to a relevant Bible passage. For me this is very exciting as God's word is being not only sung but also read and explained to people who are mainly not Christians. The textbook also contains articles from pastors, specific gospel word meanings and pronunciation tips, as well as testimonies from members who have recently come to faith.

We also produce the music scores for the directors and demos of the songs being sung so that parts can be memorised. The choir members learn everything by ear; they never see a score. A karaoke CD is also produced in order for each choir to be able to perform anywhere without having to access a band.

The lyrics are deeply rooted in Scripture so we are singing God's word.

It is fun to be part of all the various stages: to prepare for a new term, to work with choirs during the term and then also to see how the concerts strengthen the choirs and give them an extra boost. I find it powerful that many who aren't Christians are experiencing church in a unique way during the rehearsals. In terms of the kids' choirs there are also many parents who sit in during the sessions and are hearing the gospel message. I was very encouraged to hear about a mum connected to a kids' choir who came to faith through this connection.

During the workshops there is obviously a lot of singing going on and the lyrics are deeply rooted in Scripture so we are singing God's word. During the session a Christian also gives a short message and prays. When it comes to the concerts, isn't it fascinating that God is using people who mostly aren't Christians to spread the good news about Jesus to their own non-Christian friends and family in the various local areas?! The annual concert gathers around 400 members who in turn invite their friends and family so that the audience consists of about 1,000 people. In a country where it is difficult to invite people to church this is an amazing opportunity for people to encounter God in a powerful way.

Heidi Skipper, JCL Network Partner