How Black Gospel Music Is Changing Hearts in Japan

"Go Tell It on the Mountain"
When MTW missionaries Roger and Abi Lowther brought the first black gospel music team from Memphis, Tennessee, to Tokyo 11 years ago, MTW Japan Director and Tokyo Team Leader Dan Iverson was initially skeptical.

“I thought: ‘Japanese people singing black gospel music? This will never work,’” said Dan. “Then at one of the concerts the leader had all these non-Christians dancing and repeating back to him: ‘God is great. God is good. God is love. God’s grace.’ And I said: ‘This guy is catechizing all these 600 non-Christians in Christian truth! We Presbyterians like our catechism, and this is sure more fun than catechism.”

The Lowthers were riding a wave of gospel music popularity in Japan that continues today. “God is using black gospel music to bring people to faith in Japan,” added Dan. “It’s like the Counter-Reformation people said: ‘Those Protestants, they cheat! They sing their doctrines into people’s hearts.’”

“Ain’t That Good News?”
One of those who received Christ through gospel music is a Japanese man, Harauki Odate, whom everyone calls O-Chan. As gospel music grew in popularity in Japan, O-Chan started singing with Tokyo Voices of Praise, a gospel choir in central Tokyo not connected to MTW.

“I came to know Christ through the lyrics of African-American style gospel songs,” said O-Chan. “In my former life, I was going the opposite way. I was living in the darkness of this world with lots of pain in my heart. The grace of God gradually changed me, and that change is still going on.”

“We met O-Chan’s wife, Asami, in 2004, the year she was baptized,” said Dan. They weren’t married at the time, but both had come to Christ singing black gospel music in a different choir in Tokyo. “Then Asami started coming to our church in Chiba and really grew as a Christian,” said Dan. “When we baptized her, her friends from the gospel choir in Tokyo came to sing at her baptism. And then O-Chan started showing up at our church. I thought it was because I was such a good preacher, you know? But really it was because he thought Asami was so cute.”

“Oh Happy Day”
O-Chan and Asami both joined the church in Chiba, and started seeing one another.

“I started discipling O-Chan,” said Dan. “He had a lot of baggage from the past. … As with all of us, there is forgiveness and healing of the effects of sin over time, but still scars. And the Lord really made him a new creature.” In August, 2006, O-Chan and Asami were engaged.

“So Caroline and I were doing their wedding prep,” Dan continued. “And towards the end we get to talking about the wedding ceremony, and they said: ‘We want to have a black gospel music wedding.’ And I said: ‘Wait, wait, wait. I’ve never heard of such a thing here in Japan. Here’s how we usually do it.’

“And they said: ‘Now wait, you teach us ‘Sola Scriptura,’ ‘Only the Bible.’ Where in the Bible does it say we cannot do this? Good content. Good music?’ And I said: ‘You’re right. We can do that.’

“And they blew the roof off the chapel,” Dan laughed. “Twenty piece choir and band. Standing room only. They did a concert before the reception. It was so incredible.”

Over the next seven years Dan and O-Chan met one-on-one every Friday, and O-Chan began to grow in his faith.

“Jesus on the Waterside”
Fast forward to March 2011. A magnitude 9.0 undersea earthquake hit, unleashing a tsunami on northeast Japan. Thirty-foot waves ripped inland, causing nearly 22,000 deaths and hundreds of billions of dollars in damages.

While 300,000 foreigners were fleeing Japan, scores of Christians were coming to help. “Japanese non-Christians took note of that,” Dan said. “It was a great witness.

“It was like war,” Dan said. “No sleep. Push, push, push. Lots of problems. We needed someone to help—a Japanese person who spoke a little English, could be a driver, and knew how to work hard.” O-Chan’s boss gave him a week off and he worked with the first disaster response team to arrive from the U.S.

It was on that trip that O-Chan really started developing a vision to work with the church. “That was my first ministry job,” O-Chan said. “I took care of many volunteers from the U.S., and they asked me about my future. I answered that I want to know more about God and to work for His glory.”

O-Chan left his job and worked for the Chiba church for two years, coordinating teams going north for relief work. He was also praying about whether he should go to seminary.

One of the young women from that first tsunami relief team remembered O-Chan’s story. A few years later she came into an inheritance and told Dan that she wanted to give $10,000 to help O-Chan go to seminary.

“That was a real confirmation for him,” Dan said. “We have three Japanese guys in seminary right now. It’s not easy financially, but our church really stepped up to support them and send them off to RTS [Reformed Theological Seminary] in Jackson, Mississippi—where there’s black gospel music.”

“Move on Up a Little Higher”
This year O-Chan finished his theological studies. He is returning to Tokyo with the vision of becoming a minister.

“I want to go back to Japan to plant a church, because there are people in need,” O-Chan said. “In Japan there are 120 million people, and less than 0.5 percent of them are evangelical Christians. … Those people are dying every day without knowing Christ.”

“Such a lost country,” Dan added. “The big need is for the Holy Spirit to move in Japan like He’s done in China and India. We haven’t seen the new day come in Japan yet.”

At a time when most mission team numbers are in decline in Japan, MTW has seen its number of career missionaries in Japan grow from 15 to more than 70. That’s key, because those missionaries who are sent can be the ones to raise up and disciple growing Japanese leaders like O-Chan.

“We need more Japanese laborers for the harvest,” Dan said. “There are many, many challenges … so we’re very excited seeing a bit of progress. Three guys from our church in seminary, you know? So we’re kind of asking: Are we on the verge of a breakthrough here?”

If O-Chan’s story is any indication, that breakthrough may very well come through gospel music. 

Andrew Shaughnessy in Chiba Nagoya Tokyo Tokyo Bay Japan on Oct 6, 2016

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Pray for youth around the world to come to faith, and pray for missionaries who minister to the next generation. Young people often impact their whole familes for Christ.

Pray for God to break through cultural barriers to draw Japanese men and women to Himself. And for God to call more missionaries to serve in Japan.

Pray for Japanese college students wrestling with new faith. Pray that they would have the courage to give their lives to Christ and not fear their family's reaction.

Pray for the relationships missionaries are developing with Japanese men and women. Pray for common interests and connections to be a bridge to the gospel.

Pray for the men and women in Japan who have been attending church to make a public commitment to Christ and to express their faith through baptism.

Please pray for the rebuliding efforts in Ishinomaki, Japan, and for church planting efforts in the region that have begun since the 2011 tsunami.

Pray for the Japanese men and women impacted by the gospel during recent homestays in the U.S. to continue in faith as they return to Japan.

Pray for the church-planting efforts of the Nagoya, Japan, team to be effective and that God would grow the Church in Japan.

Pray for Japanese pastor Nozomu and family as they grow a church plant in one of the least-reached prefectures in Japan. 

Pray for those in MTW's Tokyo Gospel Choir, comprised of both believers and non-believers. Pray that many would come to faith through the music.