Shoko Kitanaka, International Christian University

The Basic Nature of Ministry

“It has always been my belief that ministry starts with listening — listening to God, to others, and to self,” Shoko Kitanaka, one of the two chaplains at International Christian University (ICU), explained in an interview. Before the pandemic, she often found opportunities to listen to the voices of ICU students and faculty during worship services, prayer meetings, and Bible study or while offering support or spiritual guidance. In the spring, as her interactions became virtual, she felt the absence of those day-to-day encounters. In the quiet months that followed, she has spent much time reflecting on the basic nature of ministry.

“What is worship? What does it mean to be in fellowship? What does personal communication with students mean?” Rev. Kitanaka asked. “We can’t avoid these questions now.” Answers are not fully available but there are interesting pieces of evidence to evaluate. “Online worship felt strange at first,” she recalled, “but more students and faculty are joining the online services.” In the past, about 40 or 50 people attended services, but now more than 100 people may participate. “This is a happy surprise,” she said, “and we may need to rethink how we assist students in discovering Christianity.” The online fellowship gatherings she hosts each week also have been a revelation. “Students keep bringing new friends,” she said, which tells her that students are active and still making new friends even when most contact is virtual. “Students can teach us how to adapt to the online environment,” she added.

Rev. Kitanaka (foreground) with ICU students.

Still, there is a feeling of uncertainty, “as we can’t really see what is happening as a whole when we are online,” Rev. Kitanaka said. She looks forward to a time when conversations and worship can take place in person. In the meantime, her perspective on ministry is changing. “Ministry is about encountering other people’s stories,” she said, “and the person we serve is the protagonist of their own story.” That raises the question of what role the chaplain plays. “Who am I in this story?” she asked. “The chaplain is the side character, whose role in the story may be small, but who shows up at a critical moment to be of help.”

Rev. Shoko Kitanaka participated in the United Board’s Asian Campus Ministry Forum, held in March 2019.