Creative community connections

As ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ, we are called to proclaim the Word of God as we each do our part in fulfilling the Great Commission. However, just as the Lord himself took on flesh and “dwelt among us” (John 1:14 ESV), so he also sends us out to the nations to live out the gospel we preach. When Asa and I came to Japan as career missionaries almost a decade ago, we desired to serve as incarnational ministers of the gospel, but we didn’t know what that would look like. Over the years, the Lord has opened avenues for engaging the community and cultivating relationships with the aim of sharing the good news of Jesus Christ. Here, we share some of the avenues we’ve pursued.

Grace English Café

During our first term, we partnered with a church in Chigasaki, Kanagawa. We became involved in various outreach initiatives to engage the community, including gospel choir singing, English classes, Musikgarten, and volunteering at our kids’ local schools. During that time, we dreamed of launching an English café ministry that would be relatively casual and low-key, but would include a time of singing contemporary worship songs in English and a short Bible message. This dream wasn’t fulfilled until our second term, when we moved to Kokubunji, Tokyo, in 2014.

The café, which we run at our home, provides a loosely structured, casual environment for Japanese to hone their English conversation skills with native speakers while enjoying refreshments. There is 30 minutes of mingling and chatting over coffee and snacks, followed by an hour of loosely structured program. After the program concludes, attendees are free to linger to chat more.

In the program portion, we focus on a particular topic or theme with the aim to consider the topic in the light of the gospel. The topic could be anything from a philosophical question of life like “Where did I come from?” to a cultural element or a seasonal occasion such as Christmas, New Year’s, Easter, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, cherry blossom season, or setsubun (February bean-throwing festival).

The program consists of an icebreaker, music, a short message, and a small-group discussion. During the icebreaker, each person briefly introduces themselves and responds to an icebreaker question that is related to the topic of the day. For example, once when the topic was Children’s Day, we posed the question, “If you could go back in time, what advice would you give to your child self?” Then, after formally highlighting the topic of the day, we introduce the group to a Christian hymn or worship song related to the theme and sing it together.

I (Greg) then give a 10-minute message, sharing a biblical perspective about the topic. While the rest of the program is in English, Asa usually translates what I say into Japanese, since we feel it’s important for everyone to fully grasp the message.

We then transition into a small-group time to discuss follow-up questions. We cluster people according to their English level and each group has at least one native speaker who is a believer to facilitate the discussion. These small-group discussion times often foster deeper conversations about heart matters, opening up opportunities to talk about the gospel.

The English café has limitations, but we’ve been encouraged by it as a ministry tool for cultivating redemptive relationships with people in the community. While few have professed faith, several pre-Christians have been coming for a long time, and we believe the best is yet to come.

Musikgarten

Welcome to Musikgarten class! You will find moms and tots sitting in a circle with soothing rocking music or little ones echoing a tonal pattern. You may see them dancing with colorful scarves or playing a singing game. Mom and babies are simply enjoying each other, immersed in quality music. Though the class is for newborns to three-year-olds, there is usually a sense of calmness and order. That’s the magical thing about Musikgarten classes.

Musikgarten is an early childhood music education program based on the Montessori method.1 We use very simple tools like rhythm sticks, jingles, and high-quality backing music. We emphasize focused listening and teaching rhythm patterns, but the most important aspect of teaching is to promote bonding between mother and child through beautiful music. You don’t need a music degree to teach; if you love music and children and have a heart to reach your community, the program is designed to equip anybody to become an instructor.

The community fostered by this program can be used to introduce the moms to the love of our heavenly Father and to what Christ has done in redeeming us from sin. There are opportunities to show that, through Christ, the Holy Spirit gives them strength as parents day by day. If you consistently communicate the Bible’s message, birthing a church from this foundation is a natural progression.

Japanese moms often raise their children with little help from their husbands. For some moms, the stress and loneliness can result in depression or even to abusing their children. Society also now encourages young mothers to send their babies to daycare, so they can pursue their careers—the result is that they let others have a big part in raising their children. How should Christian churches respond to this trend? How can we help moms treasure the precious time with their little ones during this brief, yet formative period of their lives?

Both the Old and New Testaments have examples of the importance of the godly influence of mothers on their children (e.g., Moses, Samuel, and Timothy). An authority on child development, Dr. Montessori, discovered that the most crucial period for spiritual sensitivity is the two-to-three-year-old age range.2

Japanese churches often miss or ignore the need for ministering to this critical age group and their mothers. It may be because there isn’t enough space at church or there are no qualified personnel, or perhaps because of the lack of a good program for ministering to them effectively. However, targeting this age group may be more critical than you think. If you want to reach the young generation for your church with the gospel, reach out to them when they are still very young, right after birth (or even before). Don’t wait until they are old enough to understand Bible stories. They are observing the world significantly; unfortunately, the world that most babies absorb is one without Christ.

Back in 2011, I (Asa) was working at the church with very little space. Yet there was a lady who had a burden for moms and tots. But she was not sure what she could do, so we introduced a Musikgarten program. We were overwhelmed by the positive response from the community—the church didn’t have enough space for all the moms’ bikes. We shared a short devotional at each class and church members followed up faithfully. Moms started to be drawn to Christ and became followers of him. Some of them also caught a vision to lead the Musikgarten ministry themselves and took my place.

After we moved to a different city, God kept bringing me wonderful Christians (young and old) who had a heart to reach out to their community and share the love of Christ through music. It has been a privilege to train Christians—especially young mothers—to lead this program and to see them flourish as beautiful instruments that foster God-centered communities where they live.

As of 2019, the Musikgarten ministry has spread to Chigasaki, Tokorozawa, Kokubunji, Yonezawa, and possibly to Tsukuba. I’m praying that more communities will join the list. I have a dream that one day every town of Japan will have a Musikgarten class (or similar ministry). Then, at the earliest stage of their life, every child will have access to a ministry that soaks them in the love of Christ and beautiful music, and have a strong community that loves them dearly and supports them joyfully.

Musikgarten can be easily adapted to music therapy for seniors, developmentally delayed children, or people suffering from stress. You may lack a large space or a music degree, but if you love Christ, children, and music, you may want to consider starting a music ministry for the sake of fostering a local Christ-centered community.

Radio calisthenics

If you’ve lived in Japan for any length of time, you’ve probably encountered the cultural phenomenon of rajio taisō (ラジオ体操 or radio calisthenics), the 10-minute exercise program broadcast daily at 6:30 a.m. on NHK radio. Although probably most people don’t engage in rajio taisō regularly, it is part of the DNA of nearly every Japanese.

Following, my wife’s example, I began participating in the daily exercise routine in our homes in Chigasaki and Kokubunji. Then one day, I discovered a group doing the rajio taisō exercises in a nearby park. When I approached one of the members in 2017 to inquire if new people could join the group, he was most welcoming.

I have participated regularly ever since (except for when I’ve been away on home assignment or for some other reason). While there are limits to how well you can get to know people during a 10-minute exercise routine, I have been able to learn the names of the other 10–15 participants, and having the daily face time with them has helped me to feel like a regular as well. Moreover, on the last day of the month they usually have a snack time after the exercises, which has fostered a sense of community.

Though my relationship with most of the participants is still at the acquaintance level, one of the ladies, Mrs. M, has become something like an adoptive mom to me. Shortly after I joined the calisthenics group, I learned that she had lost her husband a couple of months earlier. It was hard to see her struggle with her sorrow and loneliness, but it gave Asa and me opportunities to open our hearts to her by having her over for tea or going out to lunch to hear her story.

Only God knows whether we will gather a spiritual harvest among the rajio taisō group, but I believe the relationships I’ve developed are significant. When I announced our special Christmas outreach events, several of the members responded with alacrity. And Mrs. M and others have begun to open up with a level of trust that goes beyond an acquaintance level.

Christmas outreach . . . at a shrine?

We love this urban-rural community (tokai-inaka 都会田舎). We’re just half an hour away from downtown Tokyo, but you meet very active farmers here. While holding freshly picked vegetables from the nearby veggie stand, neighbors chat on the street until dusk. This is a rural community in many ways. In Japan, if there is a farming community, there must be a Shinto shrine to do rituals according to farming tradition. The shrine grounds are not only for religious practice but also a place for the community to gather.

While we were hosting various meetings at home, space was limited, and in our area there was limited availability of rental rooms for special events or gatherings. Our rental house was immediately behind a small shrine and little park. The city’s community centers (kōminkan) clearly stipulate that they are not to be used for religious activities. So when our (non-Christian) neighbor suggested we use the shrine’s office (shamusho 社務所) for a Christmas mini-concert we wanted to host, we started to give it serious consideration. We plucked up the courage to ask the caretakers about the possibility, and they had no problem with us holding a Christian event there. As a result, we have been using this venue for larger events since 2015. We have the greatest egg hunt on the shrine grounds!

We had never distributed flyers in this community until our 2016 Christmas event. We made several hundred copies of the flyer, but were not expecting a large turnout. However, the old shamusho was packed with people from near and far. We learned that you can throw a community Christmas party even if you do not have your own building or a modern community center to rent. People are longing for a community gathering. You may be short on space, but perhaps you can turn something like a restaurant, a pub (izakaya), a preschool (yōchien), or a wedding reception hall into a party room.

In our Christmas outreach, we decorate the shamusho with stars and candles. Sometimes we will invite one or more musicians and/or a speaker. We explain the true meaning of Christmas to everyone. We also encourage children from the community to participate by singing, performing a traditional dance called sōran bushi, or reading the Christmas story. We have a café table, a craft table, and an English conversation table for people to choose from. Strangers meet and become acquaintances.

These are some ways that God has led us to engage the local community and to develop redemptive relationships with the aim of sharing the gospel with people.


1. “Montessori is a method of education that is based on self-directed activity, hands-on learning and collaborative play.” It is based on Dr. Maria Montessori’s work in the early 20th century that combined experiential learning in a classroom designed to meet the needs of a certain age group. (https://montessori-nw.org/what-is-montessori-education)

2. 江島正子 Masako Ejima, モンテッソーリの宗教教育 [Religious Education by the Montessori Method], (Tokyo: Gakuensha, 2001), 69.

Photo supplied by author

Greg and Asa Swenson have been serving as church planting missionaries in Japan with WorldVenture (JBF) since 2009 and currently serve in west Tokyo. Greg was raised in Japan as a missionary kid and Asa grew up in Kanagawa.

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