Skip to main content

Features

Moving to the music

In Japan, gospel music is a big hit—and an evangelistic tool

Moving to the music

Ken Taylor directs a choir at an HGF concert. (Handout)

Hips sway. Hands clap. Arms wave in the air, heels bounce, and faces lift up wide smiles as the choir belts out, “You are good, and Your mercy endures forever.” The audience smiles as it listens. Irresistibly, a toe starts tapping along to the beat, shoulders begin loosening, and heads begin bopping.

That’s the magic of gospel music. A synergy of vocals, facial language, and body movement, a genre of Christian music dating back to the late 19th century, when African-American churches in the U.S. South fused classic hymns with traditional African-American spirituals and beats.

Except this particular choir was neither black nor Christian. It consisted of about two dozen Japanese college students praising God in a music room at Aoyama Gakuin University, a prestigious school in Tokyo—and only one student called himself a Christian.

One soft-spoken choir member, 20-year-old Yuri Nakajima, said she first heard of gospel music through her mother, a big fan of the 1992 movie Sister Act. When Nakajima saw Whoopi Goldberg and a group of nuns rock to a gospel rendition of “I Will Follow Him” in that movie, she too fell in love with the music style: “Everybody singing was so emotional, so excited. I felt that everyone was enjoying themselves.” She said she doesn’t have “a clear image of God,” but the lyrics of gospel songs uplift her. She finds the words “so warm, so kind.”

Ever since Sister Act and its sequel became surprise hits in Japan, the gospel music bug has bitten its citizens—so much so that local community centers began offering gospel singing lessons. The gospel boom was reaching its peak when a community center hired American missionary Ken Taylor, director of Nakajima’s choir, to teach gospel music classes.

Handout

Taylor directs a choirs at an HGF concert. (Handout)

At the time, Taylor, a former jazz musician, had been doing church-planting work in Tokyo for three years. What he saw at the community center amazed him: The room was packed, and about 100 more people had signed up on a waiting list. Millennial housewives and elderly grandmothers were enthusiastically singing, “Oh happy day! Jesus washed my sins away!”—and not a single person in the group was a Christian.

“Who would have thought this would come out of Sister Act? This was not something I was trying to manufacture,” Taylor recalled when I met him 17 years later at a Tokyo Starbucks. “It was one of those things where it was so obvious that God was saying, ‘Here’s an open door for you.’” And he wondered, “Where is the church in this?”

In a nation whose population is less than 1 percent evangelical Christian, Japan’s churches couldn’t attract even a handful of people to attend their free outreach events, yet these non-Christians were paying 2,500 yen apiece (about $22) to worship for 90 minutes. That’s when something clicked for Taylor: Ah, of course—Japanese culture follows a cyclical ritual of obligatory gift-giving. Give something for free, and the recipient feels obligated to give back. When churches offer music lessons for free, that’s a burden the Japanese are less likely to accept.

Handout

Taylor and an HGF choir. (Handout)

So Taylor did the same at his church plant in Tokyo: He charged people a small fee to attend a 10-week gospel music workshop. And people started coming. Other pastors took notice and asked Taylor to help them start their own choirs. In 2000 Taylor and his wife Bola (she died of cancer in 2015) co-founded Hallelujah Gospel Family (HGF), a ministry that helps churches start gospel choir groups. Today, churches all across Japan from Hokkaido to Nagasaki host more than 60 gospel choirs. About 80 percent of the 1,500 members of those choirs are non-Christian, or “not-yet-Christians,” as Taylor calls them.

Taylor trains all the music directors, but otherwise, local church leaders are responsible for caring for the choir members. Taylor refuses to help start a choir unless a pastor or elder actively participates in it. He wants churches to be not just meeting spaces but living communities that build lasting relationships with the choir members.

Evangelistic strategies that have worked in places like India or Brazil don’t always work among the culturally homogenous, super-polite Japanese, Taylor said. Japanese appear Westernized but hold fast to their national traditions, and although they’re not antagonistic toward Christianity, they see it as a part of Western culture. Japanese also tend to build relationships through existing social groups, not one-on-one encounters with strangers. That’s why gospel choirs are actually drawing unchurched people, Taylor said: “We need to meet them where they’re at.”

At an HGF choir, rehearsals may include a prayer or mini-sermon from the church pastor. Each choir member gets a songbook that explains what the lyrics mean, offers tips on how to pronounce certain difficult words, and gives devotionals with Bible passages. Once a year, HGF holds a combined concert in which all the choirs across the network sing together onstage. This July in Tokyo, 400 choir members sang for a 900-person audience. Over the years, many choir members have professed faith in Christ, along with family members, and others attend Bible studies and Sunday services at the church where they take their lessons.

THAT’S THE POWER OF MUSIC, said musician-missionary Ray Sidney, who recently traveled to Japan and the Philippines to teach and perform gospel music. He says he can preach on the streets in Japan and people walk right past him, but when he sings those same words with snapping fingers and stomping feet, people stop and listen. He and his gospel team Firm Soundation were there on the stage with HGF in Tokyo this summer bopping and hopping to gospel music with 1,300 Japanese.

Sidney says they’re planting seeds: “You can only say ‘Jesus’ so many times before something changes in your life, because that’s a powerful name to call upon. There’s a reason they feel so emotional when they sing gospel—there is power in the name of Jesus.”

Sidney was the principal of a private Christian school in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles back in 2004 when he first met Taylor and one of his HGF choirs. A teacher had asked Sidney if a black gospel Japanese choir could come sing for the school kids, and Sidney recalls asking, “What did you just say? Because that does not make sense.”

Andrew Silk/Genesis Photos

Ray Sidney leads a gospel choir at Grace Brethren Church. (Andrew Silk/Genesis Photos)

Now in his 50s, Sidney has been trilling along to gospel music ever since he was a 5-year-old sitting on his mother’s lap during her church choir recitals. The music had always been part of his lifestyle as an African-American Christian growing up in LA, but he had never heard of “black gospel”—it was just “gospel” to him—and he had no idea that people sang gospel music in Japan.

And so he was “blown away” one February afternoon when Taylor and a group of about 20 Japanese folks hopped off the metro in Watts and sang traditional gospel music for his students. He was further shocked to discover that most of these Japanese singers weren’t Christians. When Taylor invited him to Japan to teach the Japanese how to sing gospel, Sidney, who had never traveled farther than Mexico, thought, “Wow, that’s a long way from home.” But as he prayed about it, he says, he remembered the “visions and dreams” he’d had about “all nations” and “crossing seas”—things he says didn’t make sense until then.

Today Sidney visits Japan twice a year to teach gospel music workshops. In California, he leads three gospel choirs made up mostly of Japanese immigrants. Before starting each class, he tells his students, “I love the Lord, and I love to sing. But I don’t sing for the love of singing. I sing for my love of the Lord.”

I joined him one Friday night at Grace Brethren Church in Long Beach, where Sidney and a group of about 20 Japanese men and women belted out songs such as “There Is None Like You” and “Awesome God” while Sidney banged out the tunes on an old piano.

It was a fun, upbeat class, full of laughter and giggles as Sidney let out theatrical groans when the choir’s claps mismatched the beat. But the choir members were serious too, as Sidney coached them on how to prolong their final note. “Some people find it helpful to do this”—he demonstrated by quivering his lower jaw. “Do whatever you gotta do.” When they repeated the song, several members tried to tremble their chins to draw out the last note. They listened seriously too, nodding and murmuring when a missionary explained to them in Japanese what “blessing” means in the Bible. “It’s not just something external,” she said. “God is the source of our blessings, the source of our hope.”

That speech lasted maybe eight minutes, but it implants something deep, said choir member Fumiko Gray, 52. Gray said she fell in love with gospel music 20 years ago in Japan: “Most people here are non-Christian, and they don’t feel what the words mean. When you explain it to them like that, they then understand and feel what they sing.”

Sidney says that inevitably, someone always comes up to him and asks, “Why do I feel so joyful when I sing this music?” To which he responds by explaining what “gospel” really means—good news.


 

New on the American side of the Pacific ...

Christian pop, hip-hop, and family bop albums | reviewed by Jeff Koch

Let the Trap Say Amen

Lecrae & Zaytoven

Lecrae’s evolution toward social analysis and secular collaboration sometimes provokes hand-wringing among evangelicals. He challenges suburban critics from ivory towers: “This is my district, I witness, I live this / You don’t even visit, why you in my business?” There are many nods to faith, but the battle between dark and light plays out on the street. Amid gritty musical atmosphere and pulsing robotic rhythms, Lecrae’s characters realistically wrestle with myriad temptations, like easy money selling drugs. He exposes how drug recruiters “ain’t tell you ’bout informants and indictments / they just make it look enticing showing big racks and diamonds.”

Wherever I Go

Dan Bremnes

Wherever he goes on Wherever I Go, Bremnes grips the piano and makes it swing and sing, giving pop-rock oomph to his musical chops. In “How You Love Me,” horns send pleasing shivers down the spine: Reminds me of Van Morrison, but more bluesy and less elastic. Lyrics edge into generic CCM territory, but then again, it is CCM. That said, Bremnes rightly tags God’s grace as a “crazy kind of mystery that I don’t understand.”

How Could I Be Silent

Caitie Hurst

Hurst is all pop all the time, ranging from a sassy Cyndi Lauper to a snappy Taylor Swift. Verve and pep are consistent throughout, particularly in the title track—a bold piece stuffed with girl power and big, zigzaggy keyboards to rev up the crowd. “Answers” is an intimate, searching moment where Hurst tosses out in a heap all the haunting questions about hurricanes and God-allowed evil. There is no easy resolution when “all I want is answers, / but all You want is faith.”

Come On Home

Heidi Snyder

Imagine Fernando Ortega meets Norah Jones to sing hymns of motherhood—if by hymns you mean folksy, family-centered poetry set to an Americana jazz ensemble. The title track, with gently swinging jazz guitar mingled with flute and tangy harmonies, conveys the feeling of coming in from the cold—or coming home. Cello and piano create richness and warmth on “Let You Go,” a duet that features Snyder’s daughter and expresses the bittersweet feelings of watching children grow up and walk out the door: We want them to grow and go, yet our hearts break at their going.

Sons of Intellect

KJ-52 & Goldinchild

In this collaboration with Goldinchild, KJ-52 serves up trademark zingers, such as those aimed at undisciplined, wannabe rappers who want fame and lights but are “lost in the high beam / plus your theology’s probably worse than ya hygiene.” Another KJ-52 classic contemplation: “I don’t know where in hell I’d be / if Jesus didn’t step in and kick the sin out of me.” Sturdy grooves nailed down by rock drums and record scratching reveal his retro roots. But tight bass and contemporary keyboard riffs keep it lean and fresh.

Whetherman

K-Drama

The seven songs on K-Drama’s Whetherman represent seven days of the week and different seasons of the Christian life, tagging Christians who stay theologically shallow as “spiritual vegans.” The easy funk of “Sonday” shows the first bloom of faith but eventually gives way to the next day, “Mundane,” a gloomy return to drudgery. “Today,” though, is a rousing, spiritual carpe diem: “I’m investing in tomorrow with the present / One life to live, cannot waste another second.”

Sophia Lee

Sophia Lee

Sophia is a features reporter for WORLD Magazine. She graduated from the University of Southern California with degrees in print journalism and East Asian language and culture. She lives in Los Angeles with her cat, Shalom. Follow Sophia on Twitter @SophiaLeeHyun.

Comments

  • SamIamHis
    Posted: Tue, 10/30/2018 01:11 pm

    Our church has granted that we will have a few Sundays a year where we will sing "traditional hymns".  The reason we occasionally sing these few traditional hymns is carefully explained to the congregation.  The rest of the time is devoted wholly to new Christian music.  All of it is on pretty firm foundations of being scripturally correct.

    I would welcome a Gospel choir that could breathe new life into our "worship".   There is something missing today and this could well be part of it.  Thank you, Sophia, for sharing this!

  • Steve SoCal
    Posted: Wed, 10/31/2018 07:36 pm

    This makes me think of the fantastic experience I had last year watching the Bach Collegium Japan play and sing the Christmas Oratorio by J S Bach. This Bach Collegium is one of the best Bach groups in the world, based in Japan and almost all Japanese, and much of the music they do is filled with scripture and the gospel message.  I wondered, with such powerful music and divinely inspired message, how many of them are believers... if any.  I certainly hope it is more than beautiful music to them.  It's a totally different genre, but an interesting comparison to this article.

  • Steve Shive
    Posted: Fri, 11/02/2018 06:55 am

    Fascinating!!