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.”