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Q&A: Celia Olson on Creative Arts Ministry in Japan

Celia Olson never thought she would become a missionary. That is, not until a long-term worker encouraged her to use her musical gifts for missions. Today, having finished their first four-year term in Japan with OMF, Celia and her husband Keith have no doubt about the importance of creative arts ministry. Celia specializes in the cello but has participated in a variety of creative arts to build relationships and share Christ’s love with the Japanese. Read Celia’s thoughts below about the importance of creative arts in Japan, and ways you can use your skills to serve.

1. What is your creative arts background?

At age 10 I started cello, which became my course of study at CU (University of Colorado), where I also started playing viola da gamba, an instrument from the Baroque period. I went on to study early music at Boston University. Things took an entirely different turn when Keith and I went to Regent College in Vancouver, Canada for theological studies–I began to think seriously about what it meant to serve God through music. Once we got to Japan, I also picked up shamisen (a banjo-like Japanese instrument) and started studying tea ceremony. (I also knit and do some photography as hobbies.)

2. How have the creative arts been part of your ministry to the Japanese?

The arts are an open door for friendship and collaboration with like-minded people. Even before I could speak Japanese, I was able to partner with a Japanese Christian pianist, Shino, who is now a close friend. We have played concerts in churches all over Hokkaido over the past six years. I think our ministry has been an encouragement to Japanese Christians, who often feel isolated since they are few. Our concerts have given members of various churches a chance to connect their friends to their churches and hear some stories about Jesus. It has been great to see Shino embrace this ministry as a collaborator, not just as an accompanist.

At our own church, Keith and I are part of the worship band for the once-every-other-month afternoon service. The reason for this service’s existence is to involve the youth at our church (especially those who are musically-inclined) and to encourage them to worship in a “language” that is familiar to them and to their friends. I love seeing them take ownership.

3. What is the importance of creativity and artistic expression in Japanese culture?

As I see it, artistic expression is one of only a few culturally appropriate means of expressing emotion and relieving stress. (Feeling stressed? Go to a sound-proof karaoke room and scream your favorite songs. Trust me, it works.) This is huge in over-worked, over-stressed Japan.

4. Based on your observations, what are the similarities and differences between the way the Japanese engage with creativity/the arts versus the West?

In Japan, art is not just a means of expressing oneself. To learn an art form is to carry on a precious tradition which has been passed down. When I moved on to the second level of tea ceremony study, I received a document stating that I had permission from the head of the Urasenke school of tea ceremony to receive transmission of those particular teachings. Qualifications and proper training are important to Japanese.

In traditional music, before I am at liberty to make my own interpretation of a hauta-style shamisen piece, I first must learn to copy my teacher exactly—I’m carrying on a tradition, after all. I stared blankly at my teacher when she suggested this; studying cello at university, I had been discouraged from listening to recordings too much as they might influence my own interpretation. But the more I thought about it, the more emulating my teacher seemed like a good idea. I was a beginner again, and following my teacher’s interpretation gave me the freedom to focus closely on my technique.

When I moved to Japan, I got connected with a viola da gamba teacher in the Tokyo area. My friends warned me that she was really strict, so I practiced like crazy before my first lesson … and I was kind of scared. But there was no need to be scared. She was not strict in particular; she simply had a great deal of respect for the composer and for her craft. My teacher’s careful interpretation of Bach’s score and her strict attention to detail made a huge difference in my technique. This attention to detail and respect for my teacher and the composer became a framework for beautiful, expressive playing.

I think in every culture art tends to be something done best in community; Japan is no exception. Circles of enthusiasts for all sorts of art forms exist throughout Japan. I was surprised at the intensity I saw in amateur musicians. Keith’s fellow choir members took a week off work in order to attend rehearsals leading up to their performance. My viola da gamba friends practice diligently and fly to Tokyo for lessons. But I shouldn’t have been surprised; it seems that one never does anything half-heartedly in Japan, whether in work or play.

5. Do you feel that the creative arts offer unique opportunities for reaching the Japanese for Christ? If so, why?

YES. Before anyone gives his or her life to Christ in Japan as well as other places, often he or she has some kind of crisis that causes soul-searching. If your life looks okay (and you’ve filled your life with busyness as many do in Japan) you will not notice that giant, gaping hole in your heart that wants to be filled only with God until something life-changing happens to uncover it. I want to use the arts to help people uncover that hole by opening space for rest, reflection, and expression—something that rarely happens in the lives of busy people. I think this will lead both artists and those who appreciate the arts to seek God, who fills all our longings.

6. What kind of opportunities do you see for creative arts ministry in Japan?

There is a lot of interest in the arts among Japanese! My concerts have been well-attended and received. I’ve mentioned it before, but chances are, there is probably someone in Japan doing just about every art form, if you can find that enthusiastic little group of people. (The challenge is that it might be only a tiny group of people that are interested in your particular art form.)

Many art forms do not require a lot of Japanese. I was able to serve the church in Japan right away. Singing in church was one of the first things I was able to do with very basic reading skills!

7. What are the needs and challenges facing creative arts ministry in Japan?

The standard practice of evangelism through the arts in Japan has probably been the same for the last 50 years: put on an arts-related event to which people can invite friends, and then insert an evangelistic message (which often isn’t advertised). The contents of the event itself may have nothing to do with the message, and to some guests, it seems like false-advertising. This was for the most part what I did for the last four years, but I felt uncomfortable about it both as a missionary and an artist.

I want to see artist-missionaries making art that gives glory to God with or without words, and I want to see them doing art in communities where Jesus is proclaimed in the midst of everyday life and conversation, not just from the pulpit. That’s where I see my arts ministry going in the future. Please pray that artist-missionaries will be wise in their use of art to express their love for God, and that they can do this naturally and with integrity.

Worship in Japanese churches tends to be similar to worship in the U.S. fifty years ago: organ or piano, translated Western hymns, and little thought given to the liturgy. Unfortunately, pastors often have far too much work to do, so creativity in worship is not something they would even think about. I would love to see laypeople empowered to use their gifts in worship, but often the pastor does not share responsibilities well or the church members don’t think they are qualified. (There are many exceptions, of course.) Please pray that worship in Japanese churches will be an authentic expression of the devotion of the communities worshiping there, offering up the gifts each person brings. Please pray especially that God will raise up songwriters to write songs in Japanese!

[If you would like to keep up with Keith and Celia’s ministry, follow their blog:]

This article was first published in April 2016.

Will you pray for Japan?  

  • Give thanks for creative opportunities to share the gospel in Japan.
  • Pray that many would be drawn to consider Christ through creative ministries like Celia’s.
  • Pray for Keith and Celia in their ministry.

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