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Karaoke Confessional: Missionary Finds an Unlikely Avenue for Ministry

Editor’s note: This story was written prior to the coronavirus outbreak. As of this update, Karaoke clubs in Japan have closed to help contain the outbreak, but the relationships formed there continue.

In Tokyo, karaoke is king. Every night, millions of Japan’s notoriously overworked professionals leave their offices behind and venture out in search of a way to kick back and unwind. Many seek out karaoke bars, taking to the stage or renting little rooms by the hour to sing with friends. The popular activity is, by some accounts, a $10 billion a year industry in Japan. For MTW missionary Jeff Saunders, karaoke has also provided surprising opportunities to speak the truth of the gospel into the lives of his Japanese friends.

Jeff met Koji* in early 2017, just after moving to Japan. When they struck up a conversation in a Turkish restaurant in Tokyo, Jeff spoke barely any Japanese and Koji only knew a few words of English.

“It was a lot of grunting and trying to get our point across with body language,” Jeff laughed. “It was pretty atrocious, looking back on it.”

The pair exchanged contact information, and that very night Koji invited Jeff out for karaoke. They’ve been meeting up ever since, getting together once every other week or so. Through their time together, Koji has taken an interest in the Bible and Christianity. Meanwhile, Jeff’s language skills have greatly improved, allowing them to have real conversations about life, work, and faith in Japanese. Many of those conversations happen at karaoke.

“Karaoke has turned into this thing for us,” said Jeff. “You rent these karaoke boxes for a few hours at a time. They’re real small … a tiny room with a couch that can fit maybe three people. It almost feels like a confessional.”

They step into the karaoke confessional box and sing their songs, and in between every song they talk. Sometimes their conversation is about Japanese language or culture issues that Jeff is learning, other times Koji talks about his job and how much he hates it. Often, Koji will ask Jeff questions about life, God, and faith.

One day Koji told Jeff that wanted to go to the United States.

“Why would you want to go to the U.S.?” Jeff asked.

“Well, I would love to see where Jesus was born,” Koji answered.

“It kind of dawned on me in that moment—this lack of basic understanding [in Japan] of what Christianity is,” Jeff said. “It proved to me the statistic that we had heard about just how many Japanese people live their entire life without hearing about Jesus even once.”

This, of course, is exactly why Jeff and his wife, Katie, came to Japan—to have just these sorts of conversations and to share the truth and hope of the gospel with young Japanese just like Koji. Partnering with fellow MTW missionaries Joe and Felicity Congdon, Jeff and Katie are working to plant a church in Tokyo aimed at reaching university students and young professionals. Jeff will head up a new RUF ministry on a nearby college campus, while Joe will focus on leading the church plant itself. God-willing, there will be many more fruitful relationships and gospel conversations to come.

As for Koji, he has not yet become a Christian, but the karaoke conversations continue, and he continues to ask good questions and soak up information about Jesus and the Bible. Two Christmases ago, Koji became enraptured by the beauty of Christian art, spending hours researching online. One day he texted Jeff a painting of the Trinity that he had found on the internet—the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit connected to one another in a triangle of pillars, each bearing the words “is not,” to convey that each person of the Trinity is unique. More pillars, inscribed with the word “is,” pointed to the center, where “God” was written.

“Can you explain this to me?” Koji asked, innocently bringing up one of the faith’s most difficult to explain mysteries.

Clearly, Jeff has his work cut out for him. Yet, just as clearly, God is at work, stirring in Koji’s heart and opening doors for ministry in Tokyo’s karaoke confessionals.

Editor’s note: We checked back in with Jeff following the coronavirus outbreak and he told us that although karaoke is on hold, he and Koji remain in frequent contact.

*Name has been changed.

Andrew Shaughnessy, Tokyo Japan May 12, 2020
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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 believers in Tokyo, Japan, to grow in their faith, and pray for their loved ones to come to know Christ.

Pray for MTW Japan as they grow and expand, transitioning some churches to new leadership and planting in new areas. 

Pray for children in Japan who are attending Christian school and influencing their families for Jesus. 

Pray for the U.S. church to send workers to Japan where less than 0.5% of people are Christians.

Pray for the Japanese people, particularly that they would see that the beauty within brokenness—a very Japanese concept—is also a core message of the gospel.

Pray that God would use our Japan teams to open the hearts of the Japanese to God’s presence and love for them.

Pray for Tim Mills (Thailand), Abi Lowther & Roger Lowther (Japan), Joe Congdon (Japan), and Shannon Hinkle (Australia) as they all use their artistic gifts to support the Church in gospel outreach, mercy ministry, and community building.

Pray for the Japanese to realize that money, health, education, and material possessions do not satisfy the human heart.

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