In the southwest corner of Japan, all across the island of Kyushu, more than 100 churches are gearing up for an evangelistic event that’s been in the works for years.
On March 15-16, Will Graham will preach the Gospel in Fukuoka, in an arena known for hosting sumo wrestling competitions.
“It’s one of the most famous sumo wrestling venues in the country,” said Celebration Director Mark Roberts.
“Our event will be very different from what’s normally happening in there,” he added with a chuckle.
The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association has a long history of hosting events in places not typically associated with evangelism, from Madison Square Garden to the Alamodome to a mile-long airstrip in Seoul, South Korea.
Fukuoka’s Christian believers are hoping friends and family who wouldn’t set foot in a church will consider going to a sports arena. Those who do will walk past display cases with photos of famous sumo wrestlers and into a place where they’ll learn about another famous man—the Son of God.
“Most people in Japan have no idea who Jesus is,” Roberts said. “They’re starting from scratch. They’re starting from absolute zero in their understanding of who God is.”
With that in mind, the last night of the Celebration will be geared towards explaining exactly who Jesus is, through the use of music and video clips.
“The program on Sunday is really designed to bring people to some understanding of Christ before Will even starts speaking,” Roberts said. “So we’re showing clips of The JESUS Film—key points in Jesus’ life while the artists are singing.”
Tokyo pastors used the same method when Will Graham preached the Gospel in their city last year. Roberts said pastors from Fukuoka saw its effectiveness and are excited to try the same approach next month.
Of course, introducing people to Jesus is only the first challenge when it comes to sharing the Gospel in Japan. Believers face other, significant obstacles that are totally foreign to most American Christians.
“Japanese culture is very closely linked to Shinto and Buddhism,” Roberts said. “Many people believe in no gods, but they’re very familiar with a belief system of many gods. When we start talking about God and about Jesus, it’s difficult for them to understand this is not just one more god we’re adding onto a pile of thousands of other gods. We’re saying there’s only one God.”
For the Japanese who choose to accept Christ, adversity and rejection become part of life.
“There are very strong cultural pressures on people to conform to what the majority of people are doing and thinking, so for someone to step out of that and say, ‘I’m a Christian’ is very difficult,” Roberts said. “Many times it’s viewed as rejecting their ancestors or their family history when they accept Christ.”
That hasn’t stopped Japan’s Christian minority from sharing the truth and hope of God’s love with their fellow Japanese. The churches involved in this month’s outreach are hopeful, determined and unified in their mission.
Having recently traveled to Fukushima and Tokyo, and with his father, Franklin Graham, scheduled to preach in Sapporo this May, Will Graham has seen powerful glimpses of God’s presence in the island nation.
“God’s really doing amazing things in Japan right now,” Will said. “The Spirit’s just bringing people to Christ. I love the Japanese people. They’re wonderful people, hospitable people.”
As he prepares for the trip to Fukuoka, he’s asking believers around the world to pray for the message to be preached clearly and effectively, and for continued unity among the Japanese pastors—people who have become his good friends.
Both he and Roberts are also praying for the legacy that will continue long after the Celebration is over.
“My goal would be to leave behind this trained and mobilized group of Christians in Kyushu,” Roberts said, “as well as a strengthened Church with hundreds of new Christians.”