08. Art and Mission

November 15, 2020Roger W. Lowther

I’m going to take a little break from the stories I usually tell you in these episodes to give you a glimpse into an event I participated in this week put on by GCAMM (Global Consultation on Arts and Music in Missions). If you are interested in the intersection of faith and art and foreign missions, then you definitely need to know about this group. Their gatherings have the largest number of missionary artists in one place that I’ve ever met anywhere in the world. This has meant a lot to me in particular, because when I became a missionary artist, I had never met one before. I didn’t know what it was, and I didn’t even know that it was possible! You can imagine how much encouragement this is to me, to suddenly find out there’s a large group of people out there doing the same thing. I’m not the only one!

So GCAMM is full of missionary artists who are called ethnodoxologists. These are people who encourage indigenous ways of worshiping the God of the Bible. This includes music, of course, but also visual arts, dance, drama, food, film, and really any other art form you can think of.

In fact, many of the stories you hear me talk about in this podcast have only been possible through the encouragement I received from this group of people. Believe me, I certainly didn’t learn any of this at conservatory! So it’s been kind of a steep learning curve for me, but I couldn’t have done it without my GCAMM community.

When I first learned about this group, the first event I attended was in Chiang Mai, Thailand. There were probably about 300 missionary artists and 300-400 Thai artists. Over the course of a number of days, many people shared how they work in the arts in their local contexts. There were plenary speakers from Egypt, India, and all over the world. There was also a group that led worship through many different languages and traditional instruments. There was a beautiful traditional Thai dance performance in cooperation with a local school, and particularly fun for me, there was a Thai family of classical musicians who run a concert hall in Bangkok. I got to know them a little bit, and they invited me to stay with them on my next trip to Thailand to give a concert in their hall. About two years later, I was in Bangkok for another conference, and I brought my digital organ as checked bags, which was quite an adventure all in itself! It was a really neat event, a fund-raising concert for a local charity, and they packed out the hall. I got to meet a lot of cool people, including a visual artist who came to Tokyo to speak in our next conference. So, it was all about relationship building.

Another event I got to attend was in Nairobi, Kenya. It’s funny, my image of Kenya is that it’s a hot place, but it was REALLY cold. We met up in the mountains, surrounded by tea plantations. There was a tea factory nearby that had an amazing smell. I wanted to build a house right there downwind where I could smell it all the time. Anyway, I got to meet many Kenyan visual artists and leaders and heard how God is building his church through the arts in Kenya, in the cities but also in many rural areas with no electricity or running water. I came away with many ideas on how to use the arts for church planting and evangelism.

So, the event this week was a webinar, a way to connect people during COVID-19, and I had the privilege of translating for Toshiyuki Machida. Mr. Machida’s story is really interesting I think, because it gives a picture of why missions through the arts is so important. The event is an interview where he speaks in Japanese and I translate into English. Because we were looking at some powerpoint slides of art he made, I’m only going to give you a brief excerpt of his talk.

Mr. Machida was an art major in college when he became a Christian through an American missionary. He had never met another artist who was a Christian, so he had NO IDEA what it meant to be a Christian and an artist. How do you life your faith as a Christian and work as an artist? He had no idea what that looked like.

But actually, the problem was even deeper than that. He had never met another Japanese who was a Christian. In fact, he thought he was the first one in the history of the world, the first Japanese to ever become a Christian, because he had never met one before. That’s how few Christians there really are here in Japan.

Mr. Machida has a real missional heart, so when he graduated from art school he went to seminary and decided he wanted to become an evangelist to Japan through the arts. Everything he studied in seminary he studied through the lens of an artist. And when he graduated, he started an organization called Bible & Art Ministries. Once a month, he holds “Drawing the Word” workshops. I have been to a number of these. He will read a passage of Scripture, and the people around the table, mostly non-Christians, will draw what it makes them think of. It’s amazing how people open up their hearts through these events. It’s not direct, not talking about their own thoughts and feelings, but rather talking about the picture they drew. Mr. Machida will ask, “Why did you put that red stroke there?” and then they will go on to explain what they were thinking. It’s genius. It’s such an unthreatening way to get people to talk about and discuss scripture, something very difficult to do in Japanese culture.

Mr. Machida gives talks and tours all over Japan for Christians and non-Christians alike, and the biggest event of the year is an art exhibit involving about 50 artists. Through these events, he builds community between artists, but also gives Christian artists an opportunity to express their faith. They can invite their non-Christian community saying, “Hey, I have this event coming up. I’d love for you to come.” It’s a chance for non-Christians to meet a whole community of Christians, often for the very first time, and it’s the arts that draws them. A lot of the artists I have met have been through this network. Mr. Machida has been a huge encouragement to me.

[Excerpt from Mr. Machida’s talk]

At another webinar this week, I was asked, “What is the biggest challenge for Japanese becoming Christians?” I have to say that the biggest challenge is that most Japanese have never met a Christian. Why would you become a Christian if you’ve never met one? And the beauty of the arts creates those opportunities. It’s able to bring people together, where non-Christians can experience Christian community for the first time.

The second biggest challenge is the feeling that Christianity is the destroyer of Japanese culture. So many Japanese feel like they have to become Western in order to become Christian, but that’s obviously simply not the case. The arts help people see, touch, hear, taste, and smell what the gospel looks like in a Japanese context. This is really the heart of what we are doing here in Japan, the Japanese talks that I give, the writing that I do, it’s all because I want to help people see that the gospel is there in the very heart of Japanese art and culture. The more people we have like Mr. Machida spreading that message, the faster and deeper the church is going to grow.

“Jesus Wept” by Toshiyuki Machida

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