After serving in Japan for many years, Dale Viljoen developed a unique ministry to Japanese couples, providing them with Christian teaching on marriage and following them up every year. He and his wife run Café COEN as a place for people to connect, enjoy a delicious meal, and encounter the gospel in a natural way.
In his forty-third year in Japan, Dale Viljoen is the owner of Café COEN / COEN English in Sapporo and needs to read tons of Japanese tax books to keep up to date. He was sent out to Japan by OMF South Africa and now serves the COEN Bible Community with his second wife, Karen.
Moving Towards a More Fully Orbed Theology of “Being Jesus to Others”
Mission Round Table Vol. 16 No. 1 (Jan-Apr 2021): 34-35
Growing in understanding
I was staying at the Cape Town YMCA in 1974 when I finally responded to Jesus’ prompting to trust and follow him. The plaque on the desk of the YMCA director read, “It is better to burn out than to rust out for God.” I took this slogan to heart, which resulted in overwork, lack of balance, depression, and a near-burnout experience halfway through my ministry in Japan.
My motives for serving God seemed good but came out of many false premises. “I want to work for Jesus, doing everything possible to present Jesus to Japanese people in Hakodate.” Working for Jesus sounds good, but working with Jesus, allowing the Holy Spirit to guide each day, is much better! Jesus is not only involved in my work but in every part of my life. I try to not “make God the number one priority in my life.” God should be central to all I do, not just on the top of my priority list. I continue to learn what it means to be in Christ so that ministry flows from a place of unity with the risen Saviour “who fills everything everywhere with his presence” (Eph 2:23, NLT).
It has taken years for low-self-esteem-me to begin to understand and comprehend that every person has intrinsic value, simply by being created in God’s image and that our sins and faults do not diminish God’s love for us. Listen to Brennan Manning:
We unwittingly project onto God our own attitudes and feelings toward others. As Blaise Pascal wrote, “God made man in his own image and man returned the compliment.” Thus, if we feel hateful towards ourselves, we assume that God feels hateful toward us.
But we cannot assume that He feels about us the way we feel about ourselves—unless we love ourselves compassionately, intensely, and freely. In human form Jesus revealed to us what God is like. He exposed our projections for the idolatry that they are and gave us the way to become free of them. It takes a profound conversion to accept that God is relentlessly tender and compassionate toward us just as we are—not in spite of our sins and faults (that would not be total acceptance), but with them. Though God does not condone or sanction evil, He does not withhold his love because there is evil in us.
This reality of God who created humankind in his image and who “so loved the world that he gave his only son” (John 3:16, NLT) opened the way for me to see others, not just as “inside” or “outside” the Kingdom, but as people—people of incredible value, who desire to be loved, understood, and appreciated. “There’s a fundamental dignity inherent to being a human being. A nobility. A spark. A divine image.”
As Christian workers, we proclaim the good news of the Kingdom of God. As Paul writes in Ephesians, “we will hold to the truth in love, becoming more and more in every way like Christ” (Eph 4:15, NLT). Truth is not a battering ram to win arguments or coerce others to believe. Truth and love go together, embedded in the love-relationship we have with Jesus as we become like him by the work of the Spirit (2 Cor 3:18).
I continue to be encouraged and challenged by Dallas Willard:
Finding real truth is the point of reference we share with all human beings. No one can live without truth. Though we may disagree about which particular things are true or false, allegiance to truth—whatever the truth may be—permits us to stand alongside every person as honest fellow inquirers. Our attitude is therefore not one of “us and them,” but of “we.” And we are forever here to learn together, not only to teach.
So, if at all possible . . . we “give our account” in an atmosphere of mutual inquiry animated by generous love. However firm we may be in our convictions, we do not become overbearing, contemptuous, hostile or defensive. We know that Jesus himself would not do so, because we cannot help people in that way. He had no need of it, nor do we. And in apologetics, as everywhere, he is our model and master. Our confidence is totally in him.
Blessing others through wedding ministry
In my fourth term in Hokkaido, Japan, I seriously got into wedding ministry (while leading Otaru Evangelical Church). Since then, I have “married” about 1,800 couples and keep in touch with around 1,000 of them yearly through New Year’s cards. When I first meet each couple, I ask if I might have their address to send them a Christmas gift (an easy-to-read Japanese book on marriage) that year. Only once has my request been refused.
My goal is not solely to “win souls for Christ” but to bless the couple, family, and friends, and to enter into the joy of the occasion. With Jesus’ help, I can put the participants at ease and make the service memorable. This year, I received a New Year’s card in which the wife wrote about how she remembered the service nineteen years ago and continues to read the Bible I gave them.
The connections are remarkable! Just these past three years, I discovered that five of the brides or grooms were born in the same hospital in Asahikawa as my eldest son. I meet people I have “married” in hospital waiting rooms, Sapporo ward offices, the airport, and other places.
The opportunities for pre-marital counselling allow me to give the couple tools to use for their marriage, based on my own experience and flowing from the Bible’s wisdom. The context enables many couples to go deep, open their hearts, and share honestly things that the other person may be hearing for the first time. For most Japanese, the “outside—外” appearance is important, and the “inside—内” is seldom revealed.
Living as Christ’s image bearers at Café COEN, Sapporo
The late How Chuang Chua, an OMF missionary from Singapore to Japan, challenged me when he said that “Listening Evangelism can be more important in Japan than Speaking Evangelism.”
Two-and-a-half years ago (December 2018), Karen and I found ourselves on the crest of a Jesus-propelled wave, thrust into unknown waters. Unexpectedly, at the age of 63, God led me to start my own business to allow us to take over an integrated café, English, and Bible Community ministry that Evangelical Free workers, Mark and Athlee Bowman, had built up over eleven years.
The Bowmans had looked for years for someone to take over COEN so that they could retire. When we came onto the scene, announcements were in place that this café and English program would close four months later, on 31 March 2019. While I was in South Africa on a mobilization trip, Karen had already visited the café. Immediately on my return to Sapporo (10 December), we saw the café in action and spoke to Mark Bowman. I was impressed, but thought this ministry was impossible for me. “If only I were fifteen years younger!” The rent alone was a quarter of a million yen (US $2,273) per month.
That night I could not sleep. The Shepherd was calling my name to follow him. A week later, we told the Bowmans that we would take over this ministry. I became the busiest I have ever been in my life. Each day is challenging but exciting.
The café has four tables that surround a long table in the middle of the room. At the end of this table, I am privileged to listen as three ladies naturally share some of their deep childhood wounds. The sixty to one hundred Japanese people who pass through this café each week are our parishioners, even though most do not yet acknowledge the love that God has for them.
The café is a つながりの場—a place to connect—where a retired quantum mechanics professor connects to an autistic younger man. Before COVID-19, patients from a nearby mental hospital came with their therapist to this “healthy and safe” café to enjoy a delicious lunch.
This COVID-19 period is challenging! We had to close for almost three months. Taking preventive measures to protect our customers is expensive and time-consuming. Short-term workers who are willing to help us and ready with visas have not been able to enter Japan. Despite this, we continue. God is faithful, and his provision—in often unexpected ways—is unbelievable. At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, COEN was featured on a popular prime time local TV program, which has brought newcomers to the café.
Our customers encourage us when they say things like: “I love coming to this café most days of the week because I feel at peace and at home here.” “I feel closer to God at COEN.” “Karen is always smiling, even when she is busy.”
We don’t try and make Café COEN a happy place. We can’t! The Holy Spirit, working in and through us, is changing us each day to be like Jesus, the Word. We seek to treat each person as uniquely created in God’s image, with respect and dignity. We try to listen well, to understand their point of view. We desire to be Jesus to each customer. Skye Jethani writes:
Our calling as pastors is to rehabilitate, to give people back the dignity the world has taken away. This happens when we carry the presence of God into every room we enter and into every life we encounter, and there announce the good news that they are created in the image of God and are inherently worthy of love, and that God has revealed the extent of his love for them through Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and ascension. This work of restoring dignity is always incarnate; it cannot be accomplished merely through systems, structures, or programs. Rehabilitation requires the present and mysterious mingling of humanity and divinity.
To be a pastor is to represent the presence of God, who is present with others. It is to see people—full, embodied, messy, sinful, beautiful people—and to see them the way Jesus does, as creatures of unsurpassable worth. To be a pastor is to freely give what we possess, which is nothing the world values and yet is the most valuable thing in the world. The world values what is useful . . . but all we have is Jesus. To be a pastor is to say. “I have no silver or gold, but what I do have I give to you.”
The café is a “normal” café, not a Christian café; the English program is professional. The only “cross” in the café is the pattern of lights on the ceiling. The Bible Community meets on Sundays; there is a free “Discuss the Bible in English” hour on Wednesday afternoons.
The “cross” in the pattttern of lights on the ceiling
What continues to amaze us is how Jesus gives us many opportunities to naturally speak of him, to testify to his daily work in our lives. The Apostle Peter writes, “in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience” (1 Pet 3:15–16, NLT).
The burden of “winning people for Christ” has changed to allowing Jesus to love and reach others through us. Our core concepts are:
1. Love Jesus (worship)
2. Jesus with Me (self-care)
3. Be Jesus to Others (reveal Jesus’ love naturally).
The word “COEN” has several meanings:
- COEN is a “park” (公園) where one can relax and be refreshed [the café].
- COEN is COnnecting through ENglish [professional English teaching].
- CO is “light” (こう光); EN is “salt” (えん塩) [the Bible Community as salt and light].
- COEN is similar to the Hebrew for “priest” (כֹּהֵן). We stand as the conduit between God and the people he loves so much.
From leftft: Dale, Karen, Celia, Keith, and Hiromi
The COEN Lead Team is Dale and Karen Viljoen, Hiromi Takahashi, Keith and Celia Olson, and Christina Winrich. Dale is the overall leader. Karen is the café manager. Hiromi is our primary teacher. Keith, Celia, and Christina serve the Bible Community under the auspices of OMF International.
- It is all about Jesus. Jesus is central to our worship, our lives, our ministry, our play, our rest.
- Right now is when we are “effective” despite our age, depression, suffering, or the loss of a loved one.
- Jesus uses all of our experiences for good. There is continuity between the different stages of our lives.
- Be a life-long learner. Learn from all people, even those you disagree with or dislike.
- Get among people. Seek an incarnational ministry.
- God does the work of salvation. Yes, he works through us, but we do not have the right to use the gospel as a weapon. We witness and defend the faith with gentleness, in the likeness and manner of Jesus.
 Brennan Manning, Abba’s Child: The Cry of the Heart for Intimate Belonging (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2002), 19–20.
 Rob Bell, Everything is Spiritual: Who We Are and What We’re Doing Here (New York: St. Martin’s Essentials, 2020), 124.
 Dallas Willard, The Allure of Gentleness: Defending the Faith in the Manner of Jesus (New York: HarperOne, 2015), 4.
 Skye Jethani, Immeasurable: Reflections on the Soul of Ministry in the Age of Church, Inc. (Chicago: Moody, 2017), 209–210.