Digital Outreach: An Incarnational Paradigm

Connect, Collaborate, Create

“The big hub-bub, (the drama), the $64,000.00 question for digital ministry is: where is all the fruit – eg new believers who became disciples who got plugged into a church that we can name, track and see multiply. People are tired of counting clicks that don’t translate into real people in a real Church.” (what one leader posted on Facebook).

I too have felt frustrated by a lack of results. Just as there are very few children born without real human connection, I believe there will be few disciples via digital means of outreach unless the process includes connecting face to face at the local church level.

Connect, Collaborate, Create

Connect, Collaborate, Create

After Japan’s disaster in 2011 I got involved in relief work with CRASH Japan, a Tokyo based NPO founded by Jonathan Wilson. Being a small part of responding to a major disaster helped me realize that an incarnational approach is vital to effective outreach and to making disciples.

Two days after Japan’s epic disaster Wilson presented a vision to mobilize thousands of Christian volunteers and send them to work with local churches. “Hope in a Package” is how Wilson describes volunteers (see link below to his article).

The fundraising and media work I did with CRASH gave me opportunity to travel extensively in the disaster zone where I witnessed the incredibly positive impact of volunteers working with local churches. Their heart for people, their presence, and the way they helped in practical ways touched many lives. The activities of CRASH volunteers included: office work, delivering supplies, praying for people, listening to people, smiling at people, giving hand massages, cooking, and cleaning up the terrible mess left behind by the tsunami. One farm was restored to productivity through the labor of dozens of volunteers. It would not have happened with out them.

The volunteers were the heart, hands, and feet of Jesus.

This CRASH video shows how volunteers, working in collaboration with a local church, brought a powerful, culturally appropriate witness to the disaster zone: Serving Through Tradition

Clearly, responding to a disaster is a rather unique form of outreach. I think the universal principle is, we must connect with people in the real world, and serve them. People need to know that we care.

The way my father reached out to people in the communities where he pastored is a good example. He cared about people and they knew it because he showed up. If they were sick he would call on them. If they were shut in, he went to see them, regularly. If they didn’t come to church on Sunday, he would check in with them to see if they were OK. ”He came to see me,” is what people say when they remember my dad. People felt loved. My dad built lasting relationships and grew his churches by connecting with people face to face, the old fashioned way. I wonder how he could have used digital tools to enhance his ability to connect with people?

“What if Jesus had not been born?” If God had only given us text, the Bible… In Jesus, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” (John 1:14). The beloved story of Christmas is about God making a deep connection with his creation by entering it in human form. He did not remain in heaven, the disciples walked with him, spoke with him, ate with him, and listened to him. This changed their lives. The incarnation of Jesus continues to change our lives today.

“An Incarnational Paradigm” for digital outreach recognizes the human need for people to connect in the real world as well as in the digital one.

How can we collaborate with local churches and others to create digital tools that will foster people getting connected and into real communities (churches)?

Related Articles:

Hope in a Package” by Jonathan Wilson

Related Post:

How Japan’s Historic Disaster Changed the Volunteers

Note: “An Incarnational Paradigm” is the title of my presentation at the Indigitous conference in Hong Kong on April 11, 2014.

I’m deeply grateful for the compelling graphic design created by Christina Cheng

Digital Strategies of Outreach: Two Questions

Indigitous Hong Kong

Indigitous Hong KongThe goal of the Indigitous conference in Hong Kong (April 10 – 12) is to, “Collaborate with other creatives to share, inspire, and create digital strategies to help reach your world.” I’ll be there to do a TED style presentation. The presentation I’ve prepared is, “An Incarnational Paradigm.”

To help me understand the issues better I would really like to have your input on a couple of questions.

First question: I’ve heard some Christians have no use for digital strategies for outreach. What would be the reasons that people might give for that opposition?

Second question: What might be the keys to getting churches and pastors to embrace and utilize digitally based outreach?

The JapanCAN blog post next week will explain my presentation topic, “An Incarnational Paradigm.”

Is Japan Postmodern?


…the postmodern is primarily a phenomenon of Western culture. One cannot speak of the postmodern without first speaking of modernity and modernism, for it is from within Western culture that the modern view of the world has arisen. The postmodern is, therefore, a movement which has arisen in reaction to the modernism of Western civilization. (Daniel J. Adams)

The popular terms “modern” and “postmodern” are grounded in Western history and culture. So when visitors to Japan look around and say Japan is postmodern, they are making that judgement on the basis of what can be seen. Clearly Japan is an advanced nation with amazing technological capabilities but that does not make it modern or postmodern.

Culturally Japan is a unique version of what could be called “premodern.” In other words, the vast majority of Japanese have a worldview that goes back many generations virtually unchanged. And that worldview is animism. The animistic worldview of Japanese can be seen in Japanese pop culture. Miyazaki’s films Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away are good examples. If you haven’t seen these two films, and you want to learn about Japanese culture, I highly recommend them. Both films are windows into the soul of the ancient animistic culture of Japan.
One interesting aspect of today’s world is that postmodern Westerners and Japanese share many similarities with each other. In other words, the West is becoming more like the East.
What does this mean for the church in Japan which has been heavily influenced by theology from the West that has incorporated many aspects of modernism?
How do we effectively present the gospel to uniquely premodern Japanese?
An excellent article on postmodernism:

How Japan’s Historic Disaster Changed The Volunteers


When something terrible happens, “Why did it happen?” is a question that haunts many of us. Most of the time, it is impossible to find a satisfactory answer to the “why?” question. However, “How can I find meaning in this difficult situation?” IS a question that can lead us to someday, somehow, find meaning in even the worst tragedy.

The huge disaster that struck Japan on March 11, 2011 directly affected me and my family. My wife, daughter and I were all in Tokyo that day. First the big earthquake hit. Soon after we heard about the giant Tsunami up north. Then, the nuclear power plant started polluting the land with radiation. Germany directed all of their citizens to evacuate. Some mission organizations ordered their personal to leave Japan… We had to make a decision to stay or to leave. I am so glad we decided to stay!

I began my quest to find meaning in the situation by getting involved in disaster relief work with CRASH Japan. It was the hardest “job” of my life. However, it was also a fantastic time of growing, learning and getting to know many wonderful people.

Isaiah chapter 61:1-3 has become dear to me since the disaster. This passage speaks of “a crown of beauty instead of ashes.” That is what I saw happen in Japan after the great disaster. The suffering was real but many beautiful things grew out of the rubble.

Three years after the tragedy began I’ve asked a group of Facebook friends, most of whom I worked with at CRASH, to respond to the question, “How were you changed by Japan’s triple disaster in March of 2011?”

To find out how these people found meaning after experiencing tragedy, keep reading.

“Like never before I see the beauty of the small actions of power – so many people, regular people, reaching out in small ways doing simple things – yet all together a beautiful tapestry of God`s love is being woven – it is not complete by any measure, but even the creation of the tapestry is a beautiful thing. Within this the other amazing part has been an honoring of different gifts within the church – not just the “speakers” in the church has been able to serve – all kinds of gifts have been and continue to be – those who are willing to get dirty with digging, cookies that have been made, broken pottery shards that have been transformed into beauty, a listening ear, voices that have sung encouragement, hospitality given, someone who has cried with the heartbroken and more and more – all these gifts within church are being used to be the hands, feet, muscles and hearts of Jesus.”
“I found my passion for Japan, where I thought I hated to live.”
“I found the courage to carry on in spite of enormous challenges and to begin work on a feature-length film directly related to the disaster.”
“As I prayed and worshipped in Japan and got to know people there, I experienced the deep privilege of sharing in God’s heart of pain over the devastation but also in His immense and unshakeable hope for the nation.”
“I heard many stories from volunteers and CRASH staff related to the theme of how God had orchestrated events in their lives to prepare them “for such a time as this” as the biblical Queen Esther had been. It changed my view of events, circumstances, job, etc. from present-tense only, to “Kingdom-tense”…how might God want to use THIS for His glory in the future? Great motivation to do what I am doing now better and with more meaning!”
“I’ve learned, tomorrow is not promised so I live today as if it’s my last day. Tell your children you love them, make time for a friend who’s in a situation so you can share the love of Christ, forgive ones that have hurt you before, apologize to the ones that I’ve hurt before. Don’t hold grudges, show Christ’s love through my action. I know I’m not perfect, but when I think of those lives that were lost in the disaster, it reminds me, today might be my last day…. with Love!!”
“Job 19:10 and then 19: 25-27 sum it up well. Job, in his depression thought there was NO hope but when he later remembered his relationship to God, he knew there WAS hope.”
“I became rooted in the truth of God’s goodness. I experienced the divine power of joy to change lives.”
“I found new friends who has passions and love toward needy people.”
“Seeing young Japanese Christians take on positions of leadership gives me hope that the kingdom of God will exponentially grow in Japan for the foreseeable future.”
I found hope that God can make a way where there is no way.”
Matthew Burns Matthew Burns
“My first experience in relief work taught me the invaluable skill of going to God for what I need, rather demanding that a boss or another imperfect human take care of me.”
“I found the audaciousness of hope in the face of overwhelming disaster.”
“The disaster really changed the course of my life. Being called to step up and help with the media wing of a relief organization caused me to explore some skills and talents I’d never before used. The disaster itself taught me even more about the real Japan, the strength of its people, and the power of the human heart for regrowth.”
“The disaster in 2011 gave me more of a heart to see the church united. Working with people from many different denominations to help those in need was a great encouragement. If we can come together during disaster and bring the love of Christ then should we not be able to do the same when times are good.”
“3.11 made me realize yet again how vulnerable human lives were. It was marvelous to see how God led me to serve the Japanese people using Japan related knowledge and experience that He had equipped me with so many years ago, and how He brought so many talented Christians with a heart for Japan to be involved in His work.”
“Made me realize the greatest need for Japan is not physical but spiritual.”
“Actually, in many ways it brought me back to God. I was a stagnating Christian before that and coming to Japan to help with relief resurrected my Christian life. I also could see how much Japanese needed to know about Jesus and that God has called me to be a part of doing that.”
“I felt called to action as I watched the pain and suffering of thousands affected by the tsunami. I felt the need to reach out to them to make sure they had some emotional and physical comfort and that they knew they were not alone and that the world cared. The quilts from Quilts for Japan were to help serve this purpose. I hope they’re still offering some measure of comfort to those affected today. I met some incredibly wonderful people from CRASH who were and are such a blessing.” (Bev and her group donated three thousand handmade quilts for survivors in Tohoku)
“So many times, I looked at problems in the world and felt helplessness to do anything. Helping the Japanese recover after 3/11 showed me that while I may not be able to fix every problem in the world, I am not helpless. Through all of us, God did amazing things, and my greatest joy was watching survivors transformed into volunteers — finding their hope and sharing it with others.”
“Though I have not yet served in Tohoku post 3-11, I recall a conversation I had with Jonathan Wilson in Dec 2011 that changed my perspective about Japan. It was through that conversation that I realized that while many Japanese won’t acknowledge the need for salvation, they will admit they need something to hope in. The tangible love of Christ through those who served in Tohoku presented the Japanese with something to hope in. And I believe that hope is the key to winning the hearts of the Japanese to the Kingdom.”
“I saw the goodness of people, volunteers (Christian or otherwise), survivors, city employees coming from other prefectures. Smiles, sweat, laughter, tears… goodness. One grandmother living in Fukushima exemplifies it all. After I had trained a group of locals in hand massage… she insisted on massaging my hands. Her own hands were twisted and warped with arthritis. Surely it hurt her to do it. That didn’t stop her. That touch went beyond my hands, it went deep into my soul…”

“Who can listen to a story of loneliness and despair without taking the risk of experiencing similar pains in his own heart and even losing his precious peace of mind? In short: “Who can take away suffering without entering it?” – From Henri Nouwen, The Wounded Healer. In my own woundedness, I went and lived among the people of Tohoku for a few months. It was my brokenness that allowed me to feel the loss of many who shared their stories to me. The paradox of it was had I not been broken, it was likely that I could not take the weight of the immeasurable loss of many whom had shared their heart out to me. Through that experience, I learned what it meant to a miniscule extent to participate in Christ’s suffering, showing compassion and comfort. By the end of that season, God had surely engraved His heart in me for the people of Japan for an entire lifetime.

What is your response to the question, ”How were you changed by Japan’s triple disaster in March of 2011?”
Related Posts on JapanCAN:
Related Links:

Makoto Fujimura: Finding God Through Art (Beauty)

“I realized that I didn’t have a place, a shelf in my heart, to hold that beauty,”  are a few of the wonderful words that Makoto Fujimura speaks in the video embedded below, “Finding God Through Art.” Fujimura is both an outstanding artist and a theologian. imageHe is articulate about what he does as well as why he does it, which makes Mako a very important spokesperson for artists who identify themselves as Christians. I encourage you to watch this video.

As a young man Fujimura went to Japan (he is of Japanese descent but was born in the USA) to study “Nihonga.” This ancient Japanese art form uses handmade paper, precious minerals, gold, and silver to create paintings of exquisite beauty. In the video Fujimura speaks about how this beauty led him to Jesus, ”This historic figure of Jesus was no longer just a historic figure, but he was the one calling me all along through my creativity. And I realized, if this is true, if Jesus is the one who gave his life for me so I would know love, the greater love, that I have been longing for… If this is true, then that is exactly the paradigm that would allow me to understand beauty, the beauty that I was creating. That I could see that, not just as a self expression, but as an offering. At that moment, my life changed. I did not know for about a year that I had become a Christian. But I started to run with Jesus at that moment.”

Fujimura is a lofty model who inspires me to aim high. He has given me a theology of art that provides a conceptual basis for creating redemptive films that have artistic integrity. I am deeply grateful for Mako’s art, and for his warmth and humanity. 
It is an honor to have Mako on the JapanCAN advisory board.

How has beauty affected you and your relationship with Jesus?

Related links:

IAM (International Arts Movement) 

Makoto Fujimura website 


Is it contradictory to be Japanese and a Follower of Jesus?


I’m at the Reaching Japanese for Christ conference in Seattle, WA. Dr. Daniel Kikawa is presenting on “Why is Culture So Important To People Accepting the Gospel?” Kikawa is an activist scholar from Hawaii passionate about contextualizing the gospel for unreached people groups. A fourth generation Japanese/American, Kikawa is particularly interested in Japan. He produced “God’s Fingerprints in Japan” — an excellent documentary that addresses the question, “Is it contradictory to be Japanese and a Follower of Jesus?


Kikawa has repeatedly emphasized that someone who wants to follow Jesus does not need to give up his own culture to do so. He asserts that Japanese can follow Jesus while maintaining their identity and culture as Japanese.

Kikawa identified three obstacles to the Gospel taking root in Japan:

1. The commonly held belief, “Christianity is a foreign religion imported from the West.” My experience is that most Japanese believe this. That includes most Japanese Christians. This is why most churches in Japan look and sound foreign. Most of the music sung is translated. The church building and the art is usually very Western looking. One Japanese Illustrated Bible has many full-color photos of Western “Christian” art. Why?

How could the gospel possibly take root in Japan if people believe it is a foreign religion that requires giving up of your culture? Kikawa teaches that every culture has special gifts to offer the world. Kikawa talks about culture as something that is neither “Christian” or “nonChristian.” Culture is something that God created and he wants to bless it and to work through it.

2. The belief that “God does not love us, he rejects me and my culture.” We all have an identity and it is formed within the context of culture. If God doesn’t like my culture, if my culture is evil, then the implication is that I too am evil and not loved by God. I can’t imagine the burden this must be to people who have had their culture labeled “evil.”

3. Christians have done things that have hurt the nation of Japan.  Real or imagined, this is an issue. Daniel reports that some people have criticized him for apologizing on God’s Fingerprints DVD for the negative things that missionaries have done. Kikawa also told us, “The segment that Japanese express the most appreciation for is that same segment!”

Japan CAN be a place where the gospel thrives!

I believe that the issue of contextualizing the gospel to Japan needs to be a top priority. We must boldly address this issue and make changes. This will take both a great deal of courage and wisdom.

A number of years ago my friend John Benham asked me to speak to his ethnomusicology class at Bethel University in Minnesota.  At that class I spoke about the problem of Christianity being percieved as a foreign religion in Japan… At the end a student asked, “so what are you doing about it?”  That was a great question that has led me to take some small actions, including writing this blog post. I want to do more. I’m going to be carefully considering what other actions I can take.

What are your thoughts about this issue? What actions can you take to address it? Please respond in the comments here on this blog or on Facebook.

Related posts:

Is There Any Hope for Japan?

Can The Gospel Be Uniquely Japanese? 

Related links:

– A Japanese Gospel Message by Paul Sadler, missionary to Japan with World Venture

Meeting our Tokyo Neighbors with Open Doors (about a church in Tokyo reaching out to their community and contextualizing the gospel).

Serving Through Tradition (Video showing a Japanese tea ceremony master serving survivors of the great disaster of 2011).

Taiko/Black Gospel Music Video (A three hundred voice Japanese choir with a Japanese Taiko drum troupe)


A DVD of Innovative Visual Stories for Outreach to Japanese

Paper Flower & Junction DVD

Visual story is a powerful way to touch people’s hearts. Paper Flower & Junction Film Series DVD is a valuable visual story resource for outreach in Japan. A collection of seven short films that address current social issues in Japanese society, all of the films on this DVD are original narrative films shot on location in Japan.

Paper Flower is the longest short on the DVD. This film by has been screened at many film festivals and won numerous awards. The trailer is on the film’s website HERE and the entire film is available HERE on VIMEO. The other six short films on the DVD were written and directed by award-winning filmmaker Yu Shibuya who also wrote Jitensha, Persimmon, Cicada and Gunjo.

The following description of the DVD is from the OneHope website:

Paper Flower & Junction DVDThis DVD contains “Paper Flower”, a 21-minute short film, and “junction film series” which is composed of six discussion-starter films. Paper Flower is a story of childhood friends, Aska and Michi, whose young lives are marked with brokenness and disappointment. After contempt from her parents and rejection from her boyfriend, Aska considers “Enjyo-kosai”, translated “compensated dating”. It is a casual form of prostitution that has become a disturbing trend in Japan. Her decision to believe whether she is truly precious or not will prove to be the difference between life and death. This movie encompasses the crucial social issues among youth in Japan: Dysfunctional guy/girl relationships and family relationships, academic pressures, fear of man, suicide, SNS (social networking services) addiction and misled moral decisions.

In the junction film series, these six themes embedded in Paper Flower have been individually picked up in the six films. The films have been designed to be used in a variety of church and school settings. The content of the films are thought-provoking, creating more questions than giving answers, so that the themes can be discussed in the discussion that follows.

Below is an interview with OneHope Japan director Hisho Uga.Hisho Uga

CAN: What is the purpose of the DVD?

We made these films to provide churches with an innovative resource that will empower their youth ministry.

CAN: What language(s) are the films in?

All the films are in Japanese with the option of English subtitles.

CAN: How have these short films impacted lives, do you have some responses from those who have seen the films that you can share?

We have had responses from partnering churches where youth have been given the opportunity to think critically about how to apply their faith in their life choices. Here is one response, ”The films are well made and meet the high demands of (Japanese) youth who are often viewing and creating films. The plot and content is very rich and it will function extremely well as a discussion starter!” (Marie Yokota, Hamadayama Christ Church/ Japan Bible Seminary)

CAN: Which of the films is your personal favorite and why?

That’s a difficult choice, but I guess I would choose “あれから” or “Since Then,” which is about guy/girl relationships. First of all, the issue is one that is so crucial for youth and one where many youth are misled. The film itself is light-hearted and almost satirical, but at the same time it reveals the motives that are behind the relationship choices we make and shows the effects that our actions can cause. I must note that when talking with pastors and youth leaders, every single person has said that they liked a different film. That is the reason we made seven unique films, since a different topic is timely for a different group and a different topic strikes the heart of a different individual.

CAN: Ideally, what would you like to see happen as a result of this DVD resource being available?

Our desire is for youth across Japan to be engaged with God’s Word. We are hoping for this DVD series to impact youth ministry in Japan, primarily for youth to sense a deeper relevance between their faith and the most crucial issues in their lives. We would love to see this used not only in churches but in schools as well.

CAN: How can people get ahold of a copy?

You can order it through our website:

CAN: If someone outside of Japan wants a copy of the DVD, how can they get one?

Please contact us through our contact page on our website: and we can figure out how we can get a copy to you.

CAN: Who is OneHope? What else do you do besides produce films?

OneHope is a ministry that operates to bring God’s Word to children and youth. Our headquarters is in Florida and we are active around the world in over 100 countries. The most key things in our strategy is to research about ministry to children and youth, create evangelism tools and provide them through local churches around the world and across Japan as well. This DVD was our first DVD product in Japan. We have also created booklets, magazines, cartoons, English lesson books and tracts. Though it is currently only available in English, we have created “The Bible App for Kids” and also a product called “Incredible Islands” which is an online game that connects to Sunday school classes. You can find more information at and at our global website

Organs and Choirs? Aren’t They A Thing of the Past?

Hollywood Pres. Organ and Choir

Yes, choirs and organs are from the past. And, there is much from the past that is full of wonder. Last week I attended the worship service at Hollywood Presbyterian Church. The old fashioned choir and organ at this historic church in LA spoke to me. I felt that there was something transcendent about both the choir and the organ. I can’t explain it.  Hollywood Pres. Organ and Choir

The organ was played with incredible skill but there was also a great deal of heart. I was delighted that I got to meet and thank Dr. Kimu, the organist, after the service.

The choir is musically skilled too. However, they too had more than musicality. As they sang with the organ accompanying them I felt like I was entering into the courts of the temple of God.  A taste of heaven.

Then there was the carefully constructed space — the soaring ceiling, the colors, the gorgeous stained glass windows. It is hard to explain but they helped me connect with the Creator of heaven and earth. It seems to me that there is a connection with the beauty in that church building and the awe I felt when I looked out over the Yosemite valley and realized, “God made this, if he made this he can direct my life.” God declares his glory through his creation. God also declares his glory through the beauty of the art that his people create.

Over time, music and other art that doesn’t matter tends to disappear while art of value and meaning tends to endure. Just a few years ago I was primarily interested in what is commonly called “contemporary worship.” I didn’t really understand or agree when Japanese pastors said, “Most of the new worship songs have little substance.” Now, I hunger for the depth of classic “traditional” hymns. The hymns I sang as a child. Now, I love the traditional pipe organ (I still love modern music, the guitar is my instrument; this is not an either/or rant!).

I believe The Church we all benefit when we carefully integrate the best from the past with what is good from the present — what Robert E. Webber called Ancient/Future Worship.

Related Post: Why I’m Interested in the Liturgical Church

Related Article: Robert E Webber’s Legacy: Ancient future faith and worship





Creationism Vs. Evolution: A Biblical Perspective for Japan


This week’s debate between evolutionist Bill Nye and creationist Ken Ham prompted me to think about this issue in relation to missions in Japan. ”Do you reject evolution and believe that a god created the world and everything in it?” Is a question I have been asked by sincere Japanese seekers wanting to understand the Bible. How would you respond?

The issue of what to teach about creation is something every missionary in Japan (and around the world) must deal with. The first few years I was in Japan I worked under TEAM missionary Ralph Cox. Ralph was an experienced church planter and a deep thinker who knew the language well. He put a great deal of effort into teaching the Bible to Japanese, many of whom had never even heard of Jesus (the dominant world view of most Japanese is a curious mixture of animism and modern science). Undaunted, when Ralph came to our area to teach he would address complicated theological and philosophical issues. Remarkably, the Japanese who gathered to hear him seemed to “get” it. Against all odds, Ralph had a lot of success teaching Japanese a Biblical world view and established many new churches in rural areas.

What was Ralph Cox’s position on the evolution vs. creation issue? On many occasions I heard him carefully explain that there has to be an intelligent, powerful, wise creator God. Ralph emphasized that it is hard to believe that we humans and all that we see around us are simply accidents of nature. Based on what we see around us, Ralph described what the creator God must be like. That He is not one of many little gods but GOD, the all-powerful creator of heaven and earth. Ralph appealed to peoples’ common sense. He would ask, “Do you really think that TV over there would exist if there wasn’t a person who designed it… Of course not!” Japanese seemed to really “get” this way of thinking and would accept it.

Ralph also taught that the Bible is NOT a science textbook that tells us the details of how God created the world, only that He did it. In other words, the Bible has nothing to say about the process that God used to create the universe. The Bible simply states, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” Moreover, Ralph also emphasized, “God may have used evolution as part of the process of creation.” We simply don’t know, and we don’t need to know or understand the process that God used. For example, it is possible that God initiated the Big Bang… setting in motion an incredibly complex series of events that resulted in the Universe. The age of the planet? We don’t know. God can create something new that appears to be old. Or, the earth and the rest of the universe my actually be billions of years old. We don’t know.

When Japanese ask me about the creation vs. evolution issue I respond by saying, “The Bible tells us that God exists and that He created the heavens and the earth. I don’t know how He did it and the Bible doesn’t tell us. It is possible that evolution is part of the process that the creator God used to bring our world into being.” This is an approach that I’m very comfortable with. It frees me from trying to be a scientist. I don’t have to try to figure out how old the rocks are. I don’t have to understand or explain how God made the universe — something no one understands anyway.

For many years now this has been my position. I don’t try to convince Japanese from a scientific perspective that the Bible is true. I do assert that a living God with great wisdom and power created the heavens and the earth and put us here for a purpose. The films I make are all rooted in this belief. And, it is a belief.


Photo by 2 Criminals film intern Andrew Benton (used with permission)

What Can We Do About Japan’s Suicide Problem?


Suicide has deeply affected me and my family… When my father was a young man his beloved Uncle killed himself. The death of my dad’s Uncle was a heavy blow to my dad and to the rest of the family. Forty years later I spent many hours talking about what happened with my dad. My dad was finally ready to talk. It was a special time of connecting with him and incredibly good for both of us. A few years later my MA thesis in Counseling was a curriculum for grief and loss groups. My family tragedy had become an opportunity to help others.

After experiencing the tragic suicide of his Japanese neighbor, Rene Duignan was compelled to do something so he made a documentary about suicide in Japan. It is called “Saving 10,000.”

Saving 10,000 – Winning a War on Suicide in Japan” is a 52-minute documentary directed by Rene Duignan and filmed by Marc-Antoine Astier. Selected in the Japan Times “Top 10 Movies of 2013″ and nominated for 14 awards at international film festivals, “Saving 10,000″ has attracted a lot of media interest with Rene giving over 50 interviews to date. The movie has sparked interest from politicians and a screening was held at the Japanese Parliament. “Saving 10,000″ became an official part of the Japanese government’s suicide prevention campaign in September 2013 and Rene gave a keynote speech at the AGM of the Japan Association of Suicide Prevention. Saving-10,000Screening requests have come from all over Japan and over 3,500 free DVDs have been distributed. This is a non-profit campaign and the film is available free online and has collected over 295,000 views. Rene has done over 100 movie related events/interviews in 2013. (The documentary can be viewed HERE).

The amazing response to this documentary could result in much needed policy change as well as a shift in attitudes.

Compared to most other nations, suicide in Japan is more common and more “acceptable.” However, it still causes a huge amount of suffering. I have seen it up close when a friend’s father threw himself in front of a train. The toll on survivors is high. Any death is difficult but loosing someone to suicide is particularly difficult. Almost without exception those left behind struggle with intense feelings of guilt, grief, and shame. This ugly triad of debilitating negative feelings can destroy one’s quality of life. So, what can we do?

  • Watch “Saving 10,000″ and share it with your friends.
  • Pray for Japan! We must not give up. Film is a powerful way to influence people. Please pray that God will use this documentary to help bring hope to the people of Japan.
  • Continue to support Japan in any way you can. While doing disaster relief work with CRASH Japan I saw up close that the money and time invested in Japan made a difference in many lives. While I can’t prove it, anecdotal evidence suggests that the thousands of Christian volunteers who responded to the great disaster of March, 2011 reduced the number of suicides significantly. The practical help with food aid, cleaning up, etc. was part of it and was very important. However, Christian volunteers were able to do more than that. They also provided crucial emotional and spiritual support for survivors (practical help and spiritual/emotional care for survivors is “package” that is held together by the love of God).

Ways to help Japan now:

  • 3.11 Iwate Church Network continues to mobilize volunteers and aid survivors, they need volunteers and financial support.
  • Purchase jewelry made by survivors from the wonderful Nozomi Project.
  • Purchase Shizukawa leather craft items made by survivors (site is Japanese only).
  • Support the work of DRCnet (they are a communication hub and promote cooperation among churches, relief groups and individuals).
  • CRASH Japan has limited volunteer opportunities with a strong emphasis on preparing for the next disaster in Japan. They need financial support.

Related Post: Is There Any Hope for Japan?

A Courageous Call to Worship by Jim Altizer

“Who is Welcome to Worship?” is a unique call to worship video that invites everyone — pro-life, pro-choice, pro-fane, pro-vocative…. red, brown, yellow, black, white, all precious in his sight – to enter into worship of God.

Below is the inspiring backstory from Jim Altizer’s Facebook page (used with permision):

A very prominent national politician was stumping in my part of the U.S., and wanted to go to Church on Sunday. He chose mine. This was not someone who had endeared himself to the Christian Right; many people of Faith were less than fond of him. Nevertheless, he wanted to go to Church: not speak; not pray; not be acknowledged in any way; just go to Church. That Sunday, many in the local faith community turned out to protest, complete with signs and screams. They protested not only his presence, but also our willingness to allow ‘such a Man’ to enter our doors. I was incensed, and wrote this “Welcome To Worship” piece to remind anyone who would listen of who was welcome in our Church to worship God. To his credit, my senior pastor allowed me to start the service the following week with this as our call to worship. Here it is:

Making this video was a courageous act by one worship leader who was willing to take a public stand, even though it would have been easier to look the other way.

At the heart of what it means to be a missionary is loving those who are outside of “my” culture, those different from me. Every effective missionary I know is passionate about welcoming others to join in worship of the Creator God.

Thanks, Jim, for your eloquent “riff on worship,” it communicates the meaning of the Gospel, which is “Good News!”

Why I’m Interested in the Liturgical Church

Frank Fortunato receiving Communion while at IWS in Florida.

Ten years ago I had no interest in liturgical worship, now it is my preference. What happened to me?

My perspective began to shift after my wife, Nancy, became a student at the Institute for Worship Studies (IWS) in Jacksonville, Florida. Founded by Robert E. Webber, IWS offers Doctor of Worship Studies and Master of Worship Studies degrees. Apparently it is the ONLY graduate institution in America to focus exclusively on worship education. Nancy received her doctorate from IWS in 2006.

Robert Webber was a missionary kid who grew up in the Baptist tradition. One of his signature themes was “Ancient-Future Worship” which has much more in common with the liturgical church than the “free” church in which Webber was raised. Like Webber, Nancy and I grew up Baptist. It was our context, our “normal.” Before Nancy attended her first class at IWS, she knew very little about the school. Nancy was there primarily because Carla Waterman — a good friend from Bethel college days in MN — was teaching there. Another reason she chose IWS was that she could complete a doctorate degree in Worship Studies while continuing to live and work in Tokyo due to their extension program paired with on-campus learning.

The first time Nancy attended IWS classes she came home excited and yet a little shell-shocked. She loved having participated in the Eucharist (Communion/Lord’s Supper) at least four times that session and wept at the liturgy of Confession of Sin followed by the Assurance of Pardon. She felt the awe of a worship service that began with a procession of the choir, clergy, and the cross and Bible being carried down the center aisle, feeling like they were truly there to worship the KING. But then there were the readings from the Book of Prayer or a many-paged bulletin, standing up & sitting down all on “cue”, along with many other “odd-to-her” practices. The second time she went to to Florida for class she found an even greater appreciation of the liturgical emphasis. Over time Nancy fell in love with the Ancient-Future style of worship at IWS. Now she both practices and teaches it.

I’ve listened to Nancy’s stories about her sessions at IWS, read all of her papers and I’ve experienced the liturgical style of worship at IWS (this week was my second visit). Why have I come to appreciate what I used to fear and avoid?

In the liturgical tradition participation is higher. I am weary of sitting and listening to a performance (actually, in the baptist church of my childhood, participation was much higher than the typical “contemporary worship” services that are common in America today).

Visually, there tends to be more going on. I am a visual person so this means a lot to me.

The music tends to have theological depth with more use of both old and recent hymns.

Sermons tend to be much shorter. There is less time talking about Scripture, more time spent reading of Scripture in public.

There is a greater sense of awe and mystery.

There is a stronger sense of connection with the historical church.

More emphasis on story, less on information.

I deeply appreciate the Assurance of Pardon (following a time of confession of sin), a valuable reminder that our sin is forgiven by the blood of Jesus Christ.

The Lord’s Supper IWS The Lord's Supperis practiced weekly and plays a far more important role. Communion is participatory, it is something we can see, hear, taste, touch and feel. The liturgical emphasis on Communion makes sense. Communion is a re-enactment of the gospel, God’s gift of Jesus to the people and their response. Communion captures the heart of worship.

What does this post have to do with Japan? Japanese practice many rituals. I believe that Japanese are more likely to respond to a church culture that values and practices gospel-focused ritual. In other words, I think a liturgical church is a better “fit” for the culture of Japan than the “free” church tradition.

What are your thoughts on the revival of interest in Liturgical worship? What about its relevance for Japan?

Further reading:

Does it Matter What Churches Look Like?

Sitting in the sanctuary of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Indianapolis, IN last Sunday I thought, “The leadership of this church values art and creative people and they understand that people are deeply affected by their physical surroundings.” What prompted that thought?

Redeemer meets in a historic (1902) cathedral style building that has beautiful forms and textures. The exterior is covered in what I assume is genuine handcrafted stone.Redeemer Church Indianapolis Exterior

From the inside I was amazed by the gorgeous stained glass windows (I found myself staring at them for long periods of time). The colors in the windows are glorious. A series of smaller windows share a common theme that brought to mind Golgotha, and the three crosses that stood there.

Inside the sanctuary, Redeemer currently has two art installations! Both were very meaningful. Regarding one of them, the following was printed in the bulletin:

Explanation of Electrical Salvage Installation
Useless, used up, discarded, ugly
And yet
Rescued, rewired, restored, redeemed
Made useful for His glory
And not merely useful, but beautiful, even precious
This sanctuary installation is comprised of found objects including electrical insulators, utility pole cross arms, fuse
holders, light fixture parts, stained glass and more salvaged from the alleys of our Old North side neighborhood and from this building. ~~~Brian Allee

Without exception every church utilizes space (and time). Some church leaders use it carelessly and others with great attention to the details. What I noticed at Redeemer on Sunday was the great care put into creating a space with meaning. That meant a lot to me. In contrast, many churches put very little thought and effort into creating a setting that is visually inspiring. Some churches even look a lot like a Walmart with chairs.

The spaces that we create reflect what we believe. They also affect what we believe and how we behave. The idea that “it doesn’t matter what a church looks like, the only thing that counts is what is in the hearts of the believers” is not a biblical idea. This is pretty much the same as saying that matter (the stuff of which the universe is made) does not matter. God’s creation matters! God put a great deal of thought into the forms and colors of creation and He gave crystal clear instructions on how to build a gorgeous temple.

Am I saying that all churches need to meet in beautiful (and expensive) buildings full of difficult to produce art? No! In Japan we have used a many very humble places to meet. With effort almost any space can be “dressed up.” For example, the ikebana flower arrangements church members have provided in our churches in Japan have made a huge difference. I spoke at a store front church recently in Japan where a member had created gorgeous scrolls with Scripture written in Chinese characters. She was thrilled when I noticed them. A lot can be done with a little. There is almost always a gifted visual artist in our midst who WANTS to contribute. Are you getting them involved? If not, why not?

I AM saying that we need to pay attention to the visual side of life. I am very sensitive to the sites (and sounds) around me. That is the way God made me. The Redeemer Church building is media, and it spoke to me. I really enjoyed being there on Sunday. I deeply appreciate the leadership of Redeemer for creating a meaningful and beautiful space where we can gather and worship God.

Related Article by Tim Keller: WHY WE NEED ARTISTS

How does the visual environment of your church affect you?

Is There Any Hope for Japan?

Many popular books portray Japan as a dark place with a bleak future. For over 25 years I have lived and worked in Japan as a missionary. I’ve spent countless hours studying the language and the culture.  Many of my best friends are Japanese. While I can see a dark side of Japan (every nation and culture has one) I choose to not focus on it. And, I see much that is very positive. There is hope for Japan! Specifically, I believe that the gospel can, and will, take root and flourish in this great nation.

Why do I believe there is hope for Japan?

  1. The people are amazing! My experience is that most Japanese are honest, courteous, orderly, resourceful, intelligent people who care about their work.
  2. While most Japanese will say “I have no religion,” interest in spiritual things is very high. One has to look no further than Japanese pop culture to find a constant stream of intensely spiritual content; a manga series about Jesus and Bhudda, the popular animated films by Miyazaki that are deeply spiritual, horror films with lots of REALLY scary spirits. I have heard reports of survivors in the disaster zone seeing visions of Jesus and hearing his voice. The reality is that Japanese are seeking meaning and are open to spiritual things.
  3. The roots of the gospel in Japan go far back in history… There are signs that during ancient times knowledge of God and Scripture entered Japan and influenced the culture. The portable shrines (omikoshi) Japanese display at festivals are remarkably similar to ancient Israel’s Ark of the Covenant. The tea ceremony is remarkably similar to the traditional Eucharist. Themes of justice, purity, sacrifice, and atonement run deep in the culture. As part of my disaster relief work for CRASH Japan I interviewed renowned artist Makoto Fujimura. In that interview Fujimura asserted “the hope that is embedded in this culture (of Japan) is undeniable, through their art, through their music, through everything they do. So it’s not trying to bring the gospel to Japan, it is about uncovering the gospel that is here already.” Daniel Kikawa’s DVD God’s Fingerprints in Japan fg-dvdcover-560is an excellent documentary on how God has been at work in Japan down through the ages. One of the best parts of this DVD is the section on the tea ceremony (full disclosure, I had a small role in producing this DVD).
  4. Around 500 years ago Catholic missionaries carried a robust Christianity to Japan and it flourished. If it happened then, it can happen again.
  5. The disaster in March of 2011 was an opportunity for the church in Japan to rise up. And it did. Thousands of Christian volunteers showed up in the disaster zone to serve in any way they could. Many young adults became disaster relief workers for an extended period of time. I personally worked alongside dozens of them and saw up close how incredibly competent and dedicated they are. These young adults got involved, they touched many lives. They worked alongside volunteers from around the world and from many other church groups. They gained invaluable leadership experience. All of these things changed them in profound and positive ways. These are the soon-to-be-leaders of the church in Japan. They are going to be a powerful force for change. Many of the “old” leaders of the church in Japan gave this effort and these young leaders their full support. This was remarkable. When Dr. Brian Stiller of the WEA visited the disaster zone he remarked, “The church in Japan is punching above its weight” and he was right. The church in Japan did far more than one would expect. Perhaps the church in Japan is stronger than we thought.
  6. Believers in Japan are deeply committed. In spite of sometimes harsh opposition from family and from society most Christians remain faithful. Thousands of small congregations meet regularly and support their pastor.
  7. The way beauty is appreciated and expressed in Japanese culture shows receptivity to the God of creation, the source of all beauty.

What are some other ways that you see God is at work in Japan today?

Christmas in Japan is full of Surprises


Celebrating Christmas in Japan is very different than the way we did it in Kerkhoven, Minnesota when I was a kid.  Here are a few surprising aspects of Christmas in Japan:

  1. MegumiChaletChristmasPublic Christmas decorations are common and they look more or less the same as in the West. Illuminated displays are VERY popular, drawing large crowds to certain sites. One Christian conference center — Megumi Chalet in Karuizawa — has made the most of that with a large display on their property (Photo by TEAM Horizons magazine).
  2. Christmas carols, in English, are to be heard all over the place… In stores, speakers along streets, on the radio. They are everywhere.
  3. Christmas Eve is a big date night for young couples. At popular spots there will be large crowds of young couples hanging out. One popular place to go Christmas Eve is Disneyland. Another is the Yokohama bay area.
  4. Chicken is the traditional food to eat at Christmas. KFC capitalizes on the SantaAtKFCtradition and sells tons of chicken every Christmas. The first Christmas I was in Japan I was surprised and delighted to see Colonel Sanders dressed up as Santa! Why not? He makes the perfect Santa! Besides it warms him up (I think there is a connection with the way stone statues at temples in Japan are dressed up with clothing).  (Photo by
  5. In Japan, Christmas day is NOT a holiday. For almost everyone it is another normal day of work. Families may eat together for but for most it is not a big deal. Most people are far more concerned about getting ready for the huge New Year’s celebration when many people take off work for several days (or more) to spend time at home with family. Over New Years millions of Japanese visit local temples and shrines to buy lucky charms and give an offering.
  6. Many, if not most, Japanese are totally unaware that Christmas is the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ. It has been a joy over the years to share the story of Christmas with Japanese who have never heard it before.
  7. I’ve lived in Japan over 25 years but I’ve never seen a Japanese style nativity scene on display. My wife Nancy has. A Google search using “Japanese nativity kimono” turned up several lovely sets. Why are nativity scenes on display in Japan usually Western in style? It reflects the belief that Christianity is a Western religion… “What can we do about the perception in Japan that Christianity is a Western religion?” is one of the more important questions anyone who wants to reach Japan for Christ can ask. What do you think? What can we do about it? What can you do about it?
  8. Then there is Christmas cake. Many shops offer fancy Christmas cake that people take home to eat with their families. This makes perfect sense but it was surprising to me.
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