I played my first Christmas concert a few months after arriving in Japan in 2009. At first, concert ministry was a thrill. Even with minimal Japanese I could do something to contribute to the growth of the church in Japan. My faithful pianist friend, Shino, and I played cello and piano pieces and Christmas carols. I also gave my testimony, through a translator during that first year. Church members could invite their friends and family members, many of whom would not be interested in attending a church service.
A few years on, I started to feel uncomfortable with this traditional paradigm of evangelistic outreach. Was my concert ministry reinforcing the idea held by many Japanese Christians that they were helpless to do outreach themselves? That evangelism is the work of the pastor, missionary, or visiting artist? It seemed that in most of the places I played, I provided both the draw and the evangelistic content. I became the centerpiece of a once-a-year all-out evangelistic event. What about everyone else? The church members formed a committee and busied themselves with the details of running an event, but shrank from the idea of giving a testimony or a message, or otherwise trespassing into the territory of the “spiritually educated elite.”
I told myself that by doing much of the work, I was taking the burden off the shoulders of busy pastors and hard-working church members. But the pressure of writing a perfectly edited and practiced message in Japanese on top of rehearsing graduate-school level recital programs left me exhausted. I wasn’t able to form the kind of significant friendships with non-Christian Japanese which might lead to opportunities for my own personal evangelism. What I wanted most was to collaborate with Japanese Christians, empowering them to participate in the work of evangelism using their God-given gifts. You can’t, whispered the elitist voice of the old paradigm. But I wanted to say to them, You can—with the help of God and his family of imperfect, beloved humans. Evangelism is something we all do together.
As we were considering a more collaborative way of doing concert ministry, Shino and I were asked to be guests at a Christmas Eve service. The church who invited us had just received the news that their pastors, Sho and Kayoko Nakamura (names changed), would be moving on to a new ministry in a few months. Shino and I met with the pastors to share ideas and plan the Christmas Eve service. They were eager to encourage and reassure the church members as much as possible at this time of uncertainty. We started discussing a service/concert that would be a gift to the church. Why not use this event as an opportunity to equip and encourage the church members to do their own outreach?
I proposed a Lessons and Carols style service—a British tradition in which significant Bible texts related to the coming Messiah are read out, alternating with Christmas carols. Church members could take turns reading the texts from a beautifully written children’s Bible; interspersed with cello and piano pieces, and carols, chosen to suit the story. Pastor Sho’s face lit up. “These stories speak for themselves; there wouldn’t need to be a message or testimony!” We hoped that the following year, even if they didn’t have a pastor, that the church members would be able to use the simple pattern we developed. They could fill the cello and piano slots in the program with more carols or whatever creative ideas they dreamed up. Who knew, maybe other churches could also benefit from our efforts.
Kayoko prepared the concert poster and the script for the readings. She recruited church members to be readers, then coached and encouraged them. Shino and I chose suitable cello and piano pieces, and carols; while Sho gave feedback on which songs would be familiar to the congregation. Other church members prepared decorations for the church and cookies for the reception.
The resulting Christmas Eve service/concert was not perfect. I had a horrible head cold. Readers mumbled and dropped their scripts. Children fidgeted. But there was a beautiful, authentic sense of community that the guests could not have missed.
I benefitted from this collaboration. Since I didn’t have to give a testimony or do any public speaking at all, my stress level on Christmas Eve was much lower than usual on concert day. Under normal circumstances, I run out of mental energy before the end of an event. That day was different—I enjoyed being with the pastors, the church members, and their guests. I was able to participate as a worshipper as well as a performer. This was possible because we worked together.
I hope this event and others like it will help change the paradigm of Christmas outreach. Everyone can and should be involved, whether or not there is a musical guest or a pastor or a message. God has gifted each one of us to serve him in unique ways. I am excited to see more of God’s gifts for the Japanese church, and through their witness, to all of Japan and the world.
By Celia, an OMF missionary