Christians exploring new ways to spread the word

by Takeshi Nishide

Kyodo

At a bustling Tokyo flea market in late September, booths were filled with manga, self-published magazines, books, accessories and other goods. The crowds that gathered included women in “cosplay” outfits and men in animal costumes, while the poster promoting the event featured a manga-style girl in school uniform.

If not for the slogan on the poster — “Go for it! Our religious reform!” — passersby would have thought it was just another event for the manga crowd.

Instead, it was a Christian outreach tailored to modern Japanese sensibilities.

Christianity has become a hot topic thanks to the success of a book by sociologists Daizaburo Hashizume and Masachi Osawa titled “Fushigina Kirisutokyo” (“Mysterious Christianity”). The best-seller won the Shinsho Award and feature articles on the religion have appeared in general magazines.

However, there are few channels through which Christian churches can communicate directly with the public, said Shinji Matsutani, 35, chief editor of a quarterly church magazine called Ministry and organizer of the “Pray Festival 2012″ flea market.

“Many people find it too big a challenge to enter a church, but if it were an event, they would be at ease in going to take a look,” Matsutani said, explaining that he planned the event with such people in mind.

Matsutani said he hoped the flea market would provide a rare opportunity for Christians from different sects to interact, as well as serve as a place for everyone interested in Christianity to gather.

Even his Ministry quarterly for churches is out of the ordinary. The magazine uses pop fonts and, in a special feature, once created a trading card game with the Bible as its main theme.

But the publication is serious when it comes to its in-depth features.

For example, the magazine created a sensation when it covered the severe yet seldom discussed issue of depression among pastors and other clergy.

Matsutani said he plans to take up other hard-hitting issues, such as sexual minorities and suicides within the church community.

One of the events at Pray Festival 2012 was a three-person symposium “God, Buddha, and once in a while, ‘otaku,’ ” involving commentator Toshio Okada, Buddhist monk Shoyo Yoshimura of the Soto Zen sect and Kunio Hase from a Christian church in Hyogo Prefecture.

At first sight, Hase, a 32-year-old wearing a flashy T-shirt and talking about manga, resembles an otaku nerd. In fact, he is a dedicated orthodox Protestant.

A native of the city of Okayama, he found a job after graduating from college. But he dreamed of becoming a pastor and quit his job to pursue a master’s degree in theology in the United States. He now belongs to the Mukonoso Reformed Presbyterian Church of Japan in Amagasaki, Hyogo Prefecture.

Hase said he uses the Internet to spread the word. Introducing himself as a Protestant missionary, he has fielded more than 1,000 inquiries online — ranging from questions about Christian teachings to private matters — and compiles the exchanges into a magazine he publishes.

He also gives lectures on Christianity and streams them live over the Internet.

This summer, Hase launched a study group on Christianity and the Internet, aiming to digitize church documents and explore the place of Christianity in contemporary society.

“By ensuring transparency toward society, I hope to make this a place where people can find what’s real about Christianity,” Hase said.

Meanwhile, Masachika Nanba, the 39-year-old pastor of the Hokkaido-based Shibetsu Church of the United Church of Christ in Japan, works hard distributing a free paper in which he publishes news, events and other items from churches of all sects across Japan.

He picked the title, Let Us Run, from the Bible. “Churches in local areas are facing harsh conditions. But if we do this together, we’ll find a way,” he said.

Nanba, who hails from Kobe, started the free paper in February 2011, initially as a report to donors on the activities of the churches.

Readers have applauded Nanba’s efforts, with some saying the free paper is a good tool for them to get to know about different churches.

Despite financial difficulties and hardships involved in doing all the work on his own, from editing to finding advertisers, Nanba said he is motivated to continue spreading the churches’ messages and hopes to reach an even wider audience.