From Gospel Choir to Gospel Community

Planting a church in Japan with gospel music


For the last few years, we’ve been planting a church in Tokyo with the help of Whoopi Goldberg and the sisters!

It all started more than a decade ago, when a movie featuring Whoopi Goldberg as a choir director took Japan by storm. God, in His omnipotence, used the movie Sister Act 2 to kick off a “black gospel” boom in Japan. Thousands of Japanese formed choirs to sing “O Happy Day.” Of course, the choir members seldom spoke English, so they had little idea of the meaning of the songs they sang—but they loved the music.

We started our first gospel choir more than 10 years ago (see alife, January 1, 2011, “Beyond Sister Act”). My wife, Evangeline, and I were serving in a young church on the north side of Tokyo and struggling with how to reach neighborhood children, 99 percent of whom did not know Christ. Evangeline suggested using gospel music.

We put an ad in the newspaper: “Children’s Black Gospel Choir. Sunday morning. 9:00. Sengendai Christian Church.” The next week, we had 20 new children in Sunday school—accompanied by 20 parents sitting in the back, making sure everything was OK. Of course, none of them had been in a church before.

That first Sunday, we sang everyone’s favorite, an eighteenth century hymn given a gospel arrangement by Edwin Hawkins in the late 1960s: “O happy day, when Jesus washed my sins away.” Although we would be singing in English, we translated the lyrics into Japanese and explained the song. Then the Sunday school teachers told a Bible story that introduced the children to Jesus.

At the end of the spring Sunday school term, the children gave a concert. In addition to “O Happy Day,” we had taught the kids “Swing Low,” “Joshua Fought the Battle of Jericho” and several other gospel classics. With 20 cute children on the stage, 170 people joined our church of 30! When the concert was over, the parents asked if we would start an adult choir for them.

Afterward, requests to teach gospel music flooded in. Soon, we had more requests to direct gospel choirs—from community centers, schools, even a university—than we could possibly meet.

Through music, God has opened the doors to introduce Japanese people to Jesus Christ. As we sing, the choir members naturally want to know more. “Who is this Jesus?” they ask. Great question! So we tell them, and He begins His work in their hearts.

We had been blessed by the response at the Sengendai church. But we wondered, Could music be the key to planting a church in Japan?

Four years ago, we returned to the Tokyo metro area to start a new church. We had no building and no contacts—just a metropolitan area of 30 million people who needed Christ. We planted seeds by starting gospel choirs in various places—trusting that God would connect us with the people through whom He would build a new congregation.

We prayed. Many of you prayed. And God worked.

First came a phone call from a believer who had formed a choir to intentionally spread the good news in her neighborhood. At her request, we began directing the Grapevine Gospel Choir, and soon God began connecting us with others: a young man who was interested in Christ, but would not go to a church; an unsaved grandmother; a husband of one of the choir members.

Next, we started a worship time in our living room, and God continued to raise interest in our new church among other choir members. One woman, not yet a follower of Christ, began coming regularly and bringing friends with her. “I’m not a Christian,” she would tell them, “but I go to a Christian church and you should come with me.” And she would show up on Sunday morning with a new visitor!

Choir members introduced friends who introduced their friends. A husband was saved. A grandma found Christ. A young man who had once prayed a prayer but had never gone to church or read his Bible began to grow in his faith. Slowly God birthed a new community of believers in Japan—Crossroad Chapel Yanasegawa—a gospel community born out of gospel choirs.

Nine months after we publicly launched Crossroad Chapel, it was time for our family to return to the United States for a one-year home assignment. At our last service before we left, we noted that 16 of the 20 worshipers had come to the church through gospel choir ministries—either by being directly involved in a choir or being invited by a choir member.

In July, we returned from home assignment to a church that is doing well. We rent a room for “Gospel Kids” and worship on Sunday mornings, but for Bible studies, choirs and other outreaches, we meet in many places—a community center, coffee shops, even our living room. And at the end of September, the non-Christian woman who regularly brought her friends and neighbors to fellowship with us prayed to receive Jesus as her Savior.

We look back with astonishment and praise. Never would we have imagined that God would use a secular movie and a gospel music boom in Japan to plant a church, but that is what He has done!

Today, thousands around Japan are hearing for the first time the good news of Christ: “O happy day, when Jesus washed my sins away!”

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