What are some of the biggest challenges a missionary might have in a nominally Christian culture? What does Aladdin have to do with a hindrance to the Gospel? What are some of the effects of the prosperity Gospel around the world? Trevor Christian Johnson, a missionary in Papua, shares some of his insights.
1. Tell us a bit about yourself, your background, and what you are currently doing in Papua
God has saved me for service and has blessed me in order to make me a blessing to others. If you are truly saved, I believe the same can be said of you. Unlike earthly gold that is often hoarded, we who have the gold of the gospel only become all the richer by giving this precious treasure out to others.
I was educated through Reformed Theological Seminary and ordained through my sending church of Bible Baptist Church of Maplewood, Missouri (near Saint Louis – see it here ). My wife and I are also both registered nurses and we treat the sick daily in the village.
You can read my personal testimony at the Heartcry Missionary Society website here.
Heartcry’s Asia Blog also features many of my short articles and updates here.
I grew up in the country. I spent my summers canoeing Ozark rivers and hiking the woods. Now, I get the privilege of doing this same thing for the Gospel as we live in an interior mission post and trek out to other villages to preach the Gospel and treat the sick. God is good.
We serve the remote Papuan tribal group, the Northern Korowai. National Geographic calls them the “Treehouse People” and there are still no roads or government presence in the region. We long for the day when these several thousand tribal souls will glorify Jesus. We pray that the entire region (about 200km of dense lowland jungle) will be saturated with a true Gospel witness. God has His Elect Sheep here, and He is in the process of calling them out!
2. What has been the greatest challenge for you as a missionary so far?
Missionary work in a remote jungle environment is challenging. The physical trials of sickness (I’ve endured malaria 16 times) are trying enough, but the constant emotional stress of the ministry can be even more grueling (you never get a day off and are constantly living among a tribal people that do not allow you a lot of rest or privacy). We sometimes feel very isolated and discouragement sometimes sets in (“Why does everything have to be so difficult…why do even small steps of forward progress seem to take so long to see!”).
Despite this, we thank God every day that we can serve here.God is sovereign and is able to save. God spoke the universe into existence. He brought water out of a rock in the desert. He supplied food from heaven. He parted the sea. He made a donkey talk. He has performed mighty miracles and has sent out angels with specific messages to people. If God so desired He could have written John 3:16 across the sky in clouds or thundered the Gospel message with audible voice from heaven in order to spread the Gospel.
Instead, how does God choose to spread the Gospel? He has given His Church here below the task of the Great Commission. He has bestowed on us the gift of service. Despite our weaknesses (it takes so long to learn a new language and some years we spent fully a quarter or our time sick with tropical ailments), He is pleased to use us to fulfill His purposes.
My heart-attitude is best described by this quote by missionaryDavid Livingstone, “If a commission by an earthly king is considered an honor, how can a commission by a Heavenly King be considered a sacrifice?”
Dear heavenly Father, thank you, thank you, thank you, for allowing us this gracious gift to speak your Gospel to others!
3. You have written a tract to be passed around Papua to warn the people about the prosperity gospel and about the ministry of Benny Hinn. How has the prosperity gospel impacted the people to which you minister and the people in general?
Yes, when I heard that Benny Hinn was coming to visit Papua, I translated a 5-page report detailing the errors of his theology and the details of his lavish lifestyle. He owns a 10 million dollar mansion and a private jet, and yet comes and begs money from poor Papuans and gives them fake miracles for solace in return.
I believe Benny Hinn is a false prophet. He has announced before, “I don’t need gold in heaven, I gotta have it now.” The Scripture warns us about such men, “And in their greed they will exploit you with false words. Their condemnation from long ago is not idle, and their destruction is not asleep” (2 Peter 2:3).
I remember watching the cartoon Aladdin with my children. Aladdin finds a magic lamp. When he rubs this lamp, a genie pops out and grants the wishes of Aladdin. Whenever Aladdin desires something, he can go to the genie to make his requests known. This is a picture of the God of most people. He is the heavenly genie, the Divine Waiter, whom we selfishly use in order to serve our own desires. Instead of asking God to make us small and use us to glorify Him and make His kingdom great, many people use God to make our own names great and build our own little kingdoms. Many people are profoundly religious, but still lost in their sins. They do not love God or holiness; they only love themselves. They study to figure out how best to use God and the Church to further their own self-interests.
Some Papuan pastors thanked me for the Benny Hinn report. They expressed gratitude because I was trying to guard the flock of God. Others grew angry at me because they believe Benny Hinn to be a revered pastor and stated that I was “assassinating the character of a servant of God” by writing and disseminating this report exposing the errors of Hinn. I was called “Judas Iscariot” at one church meeting and endured some angry emails.
When Benny Hinn or other “Health and Wealth” preachers come and assure these crowds that they can get richer and healthier if only they pray and give an offering to the preacher in order to “sow a seed of faith” they are received with loud acclaim and hailed as great religious figures. When we preach that in the world you shall have many tribulations, to include illness and poverty, this is a less popular message.
The church in Papua is a mile wide and an inch deep . It is mired in deep social and economic problems. They are easy prey for false teachers. Most Papuan pastors need in-depth bible training and solid theological grounding so that they are not swept away in these theological fads.
In Melanesia as a whole, a cargo-cult mentality is rampant. I believe that a tribal background of animism and cargo cultism causes many Papuan chur
ch-goers to become victims to these health and wealth teachers.
Consider this fact: many tribal peoples “converted” en masse to Christ in the recent past, changing their tribal animistic loyalties to an external identity of “Christian.” For many, to be Papuan means to be Christian. Though many of these Papuan converts became true believers and forsook their old animistic ways, many others followed with their feet only, and not with their hearts. They changed their external allegiances, but were never truly born again. When old animistic practices were shown to be inferior, they began to use the rites and the structure of the church to better their lives and to advance socially. Instead of being the tribal “Big Man” they could now become a pastor and still exercise authority over others. Their attentive “faithfulness” to religious matters does not mean that they know and love God; only that they love themselves and use the church apparatus as a way of increasing their own status and prestige. It betters their standard of living. In reality, most Papuans are mere baptized pagans.
The urgent need is this: more elder-qualified ordained missionaries sent to Papua to help deepen the church. To distinguish true faith and repentance from mere religiosity. To demarcate true Christianity from mere legalism and moralism. To vanquish the vestiges of animism and cargo-cultism. To show that being a true Christian is to take up one’s cross and follow our crucified Lord.
I believe that a body of solid Reformed pastors, if they would relocate to Papua and teach theology and train pastors, could be mightily blessed by God. They could help mature the church…a church that is only 1 or 2 generations old and still very weak. To whom much has been given, much will be required. We who embrace the doctrines of grace have a much greater duty. If we confess that God has done more for us, we must then respond by doing more for Him. Out of a deep sense of gratitude that results in labors for His glory, we must put into action our mouth-claims that our Lord is worthy to be praised by all the peoples of the earth. We must prepare to actually take this Gospel out to all the peoples of this earth, no matter how remote or inaccessible they may be!
How do we respond to the effects of the Prosperity Gospel?
We must boldly distinguish true faith from false conversion. We must preach against religious presumption. Many on that Day will say, “Lord, Lord” but our Lord will answer, “I never knew you.” We must warn the Papuan church that Judas, too, was very religious and yet suffers in hell today despite all of his religiosity. A people who are religious but lost will stand even more guilty before a just God. They sin against greater light. They are only heaping up coals for their future burning if they are merely content with a form of religion without true faith and true repentance. Papua needs the Gospel!
4. There is still often a misconception that Reformed theology undercuts missionary work and evangelism. In your own experience, how has it, instead, been helpful to you?
Some may say, “If God is sovereign, why pray?” I say, “If your God is weak and impotent, why bother praying to him at all if he cannot do anything?” Our God exercises perfect sovereignty, and He is powerful to save!
I once attended an Arminian Bible college for a year. All students were required to attend mandatory chapel
services. I often resented this due to the deficient doctrine of the speakers. But one day, a missionary was to spoke at chapel. I told myself, “Okay…I am looking forward to hearing this missionary.” However, this man’s first words in the pulpit were as follows, “God desires to save the heathen. But He cannot do it without you!” An appeal for more missionaries based on the weakness of God! What blasphemy!
The sovereignty of God should mobilize more missionaries. Not because God needs us; but because God is great and is gracious to use us! Christ has won the victory. The Good Shepherd will gather His Elect Sheep. They will come when they are called by the Word of God. “And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.” (John 10:16). We can’t lose!
Believing in God’s sovereignty also gives me comfort. It is reassuring. To missionaries serving in hard places, it teaches them that God designs all things in their lives for his glory and also their good! I can express it in no better way than by simply quoting the Apostle Paul’s words at the end of Roman chapter 8: 28-39;
“28 And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. 29 For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. 30 And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.
31 What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us?32 He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? 33 Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. 34 Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. 35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? 36 As it is written,
“For your sake we are being killed all the day long;
we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”
37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
5. What word of advice would you give to those who are thinking about going on missions?
Have a long-term perspective. While some short-term trips may prove a blessing, the crying need in missions today is for people to come and learn the language and the culture and to be ready to stick it out for many years. Only then can we hope for real and substantial fruit.
Also, remember that missionaries are not merely those who run ahead; they are “sent-out ones.” We must be sent out from the church. So many mission agencies and missionaries today do not respect the role of local churches. Local churches must remain vitally involved and connected in this task of missions.
Also, remember that missionaries must be flexible and be willing to take risks. We have our plans. God has His. We see in the life of the Apostle Paul how often he was redirected and how often he changed his plans. Yet many Western missionaries hesitate to move forward until a very specific plan of action is formed that attempts to erase any ambiguities about the future. Have we become too “risk-averse” to reach the world?
Also, know how God calls people. He calls them through desires, the Word of God, and the confirmation of the larger body of Christ (usually in the form of the local church). Do not wait for God to “zap you” or give you a dream or a vision before you begin to prepare for missions. I have never heard the audible voice of God, nor do I expect to do so. If you desire missionary service, this may be the first indication that you are being called into missions. Nothing “dramatic” is needed. Go talk to your pastors and elders.
We have also posted Trevor’s Indonesian report on Benny Hinn here.
You can contact trevor at sovereigngracemissionary at gmail dot com.