Trevor Johnson: Church Planter
Trevor Johnson has been labouring among the Northern Korowai people of Indonesia since 2007. He joined the pioneering efforts of indigenous evangelists to work among this unreached, previously unengaged tribal group just north of Papua’s Asmat region. Since those early days, he has laboured to evangelize the lost, plant churches, and train local pastors. In 2015, Pastor Geoff Thomas of Aberystwyth shared a conference with him, and was impressed and helped by what he said. This is Trevor Johnson’s testimony.
‘A man’s heart deviseth his way: but the LORD directeth his steps’ (Prov. 16:9).
I never imagined that I would become a minister and a missionary when I grew up. I grew up with a love of reading and of the outdoors. Long joyful days were spent hiking Missouri woods, exploring dripping caves, and canoeing Ozark rivers (often with a book in my backpack for breaks). Canoeing now as an adult along our jungle river here in Danowage, I am often transported back to my youthful summers bumping along the Current River (just replace the wooden tribal canoe with an aluminum craft). I am daily made aware of how our Master-weaver knits the threads of our life together for his own glory. God is sovereign over our lives.
Spiritual thoughts as a child
Young kids sometimes think on spiritual matters, but usually not for long. Death, infirmity, and old age seem distant. Adults also conspire to hide death from their children. Often the secrets of Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, and even sex are revealed to children before the subject of death is ever broached. Such a universal reality, yet so often hidden – as if ignoring death will make it go away. Ointments and makeup hide our decay. Women lie about their age. Morticians beautify the dead. We see plant death and animal death every day. We seek the death of rodents and insects. We watch simulated deaths in movies. Every night we lie down for long dormant hours in a regular rehearsal of death. Yet we rarely consider that someday we shall die.
When I entered my ministry among this jungle tribe in 2007, the U.S. Census Bureau recorded 55,238,376 deaths for that same year. That is 4,603,198 deaths monthly, 151,338 deaths daily. That is 6,306 hourly, 105 every minute, and 1.8 deaths nationwide per second. Every tick of the clock heralds death for at least one never-dying soul. Every pass of the second hand in its orbit, every flash of an ambulance light, every beat of the heart, each step in a normal man’s walking stride is a beating of the drum of death on its incessant march.
As a child, I marvelled at the sun and the moon and the stars and wondered, ‘How did they come about?’ My mind strained at the dimensions. When I wondered what was between those vast expanses, I was told, ‘space.’ But what was space? Was it ‘something’ or the absence of something? Was there a boundary to it, and if so, what was on the other side? The stars are said to be ancient, but just what was ‘time’ anyway? Was there a time before time? Will time ever cease?
Ultimately I found myself wondering, ‘Why is there “something” instead of nothing? Why does anything at all even exist? Why do I exist?’
And what was I compared to these enormous heavenly spheres? I understood very little even about myself. How strange that men will often examine planets and stars before they examine their own hearts. Why did I like to sometimes do bad things? Why did I even consider these things ‘bad?’ Was it social convention alone that made me feel guilt, or parental and societal conditioning? Why was I sometimes cruel to animals? Why did I like to watch slasher movies full of gore? If a movie was not bloody and if I did not come away scared and disgusted, then I was disappointed. Yet if I was disgusted and terrified afterwards, only then was I satisfied. This made no sense. Of all creatures, man seemed most to delight in cruelty. History seemed to be a parade of man’s violence to man, a long winding narrative of human barbarity. Man is wolf to man (homo homini lupus). Something was sick about mankind. Something was wrong with the world. Something was wrong with me. I knew these truths even as a child.
Where was I before I was born? Where will I be after I die? Do we just flit out, candles struggling and finally losing against the incessant wind of time? When I first pondered whether I had a soul and whether this soul might be judged guilty by an All-Good Judge, I envied even the animals. They seemed to live and die and return to dust. They were not liable to eternal punishment. Earthly toil for them would not be exchanged for everlasting torment. Ceasing to exist would be better than burning eternally.
If we are soulless, then life is meaningless, and there is no afterlife or hell – that is not an improvement. The lower beasts are still to be envied. At least they do not bemoan the meaningless vanity of their lives. They graze, ignorant of their fates. Sheep experience no existential angst. They may be subject to various pains of body, but their animal minds do not seem to contemplate forlorn hopes. They do not despair at realizing that no aspiration or dream will ever outlive the aspirer or the dreamer. Sometimes dogs seem to show occasional sadness, yet it seems fair to speculate that animals do not ponder the meaning of life. I have never seen a cow pray or a monkey ask a deity forgiveness for sins committed. Did man’s aspirations for eternity give him a nobility above all other living things? Was this aspect of man his greatest glory? Or was this his greatest torture? He has eternity in his heart and aches for the atemporal in this temporal world. He then lives a short and toilsome life – and for nothing. This is worse than non-sentience. The life of a beetle is to be preferred to that of man’s.
Spiritual doubts as a teenager
I entertained all of those spiritual questions even as a young child – but only briefly. I did not dwell long. The vigour of youthful health, the speed of growth out of childhood, and the lullaby of moralism and dead religion all soothed my young soul into a spiritual torpor. I’m okay, you’re okay. There are many paths up the mountain to God. All that matters is that you try to be good in life. Believe in yourself. Do what makes you happy. Be true to yourself.
Many a conscience is pacified through the repetition of prayers, outward religious rituals, and recitations of saccharine platitudes. Many do not cultivate that quiet spiritual seed within; the noisome world without competes and wins. No ‘soul work’ occurs. No interior change happens. So, I was (mostly) a ‘good’ kid throughout childhood – who rarely thought of God. After some childhood awkwardness, I found that I could do well in certain sports where strength and aggression were vital, such as judo and wrestling. Much of my identity soon became tied to my athletic performance. And I usually won.
The self-worth of so many people in this world hinges upon trivialities: beauty, athletic prowess, money. Remove these props at your own risk if you don’t have Christ! Praise God – the Christian’s identity rests firmly in Jesus; Christ’s performance alone winning us our place!
Often, even winning seemed like vanity. Even my victories seemed unsatisfying because I was wrestling with issues much greater than childish youthful pursuits. Is this all there is? I had begun to doubt the existence of God. During high school I had also fallen in love with the sweetest girl, who suddenly grew depressed and anorexic, changing overnight into a different person. How fragile and prone to failure is our health, our happiness, and our relationships in this life. God draws us to himself by frustrating our plans or by showing us the changeableness of human circumstances and relationships. God sometimes shows us the emptiness even of our reached goals and the vanity of even our successes. God stirs us to discontentment in this life so that we might long for another. As C. S. Lewis penned, ‘If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.’ And as Augustine wrote, ‘You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.’
I became an agnostic during high school. I imbibed naturalistic evolution. The textbooks seemed so certain. They spoke of natural selection as if it were some wise, sentient agent of change, bringing ‘progress’ to all of nature. The fate of the universe no longer seemed to be in the hands of a loving God, but only blind, cruel chance. The highest aspirations of men vanish at their deaths. Man is a chance product of causes which had no care over the ends they were achieving. Man’s hopes, plans, loves, and beliefs are all only due to the accidental collocation of atoms. The religious people could maintain their superstitions but it was merely a superstitious whistling in the dark, an opiate to soothe one’s fears of death and the meaningless void beyond. Frederick Nietzsche became my favourite author. His words were sadly convincing,
In every age the wisest have passed the identical judgment on life: it is worthless . . . Everywhere and always their mouths have uttered the same sound – a sound full of doubt, full of melancholy, full of weariness with life . . .
My agnosticism deepened – though I kept this from others. I could probably never be classified fully as an atheist. I could never make that leap of faith. The most we can do is admit ignorance instead of declare dogmatic certainty. Besides, atheists sure seemed to viscerally hate the God that they asserted did not exist.
I wrestled with the problem of evil. If God is all-good, he must hate evil. If God is all-knowing, he certainly knows about evil. If God is all-powerful, then he could destroy evil. So why does evil exist? This question nearly drove me to atheism, until I realized that atheists could never even honestly ask such a question. When atheists spoke of ‘evil’ in the world they were being inconsistent. The existence of evil is only a problem for those who assert that God exists. Either love, honour, justice, right and wrong, are transcendent truths or they are just fictive labels. Atheists must maintain that we are just higher animals who invent these notions for social cohesion and control. These things do not truly exist at all. Few people, however, speak of the Holocaust as being merely ‘inconvenient.’ It is described in moral terms, even by atheists. Atheists still get afflicted with moral outrage over perceived ‘evils’ in the world. I realized that this was severely incongruous. I believed that evil was real, and I longed for a universe where justice would prevail. Something must exist above culture, a transcendent standard of truth, an absolute standard against which good and evil were thus defined.
I remember reading Nietzsche, ‘He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.’ I longed to know this ‘why’ of life. I began to seek. The summer before college, I broke away from friends and social engagements. I devoted all free time to reading every religious text I could find: the Bhagavad-Gita, the Book of Mormon, the Qur’an, the Egyptian Book of the Dead, Anton LeVey’s Satanic Bible, and the New Testament. The history of the world was a history of religious belief, after all. No tribe of atheists has ever existed.
Every drive of mankind has a fulfilment. We hunger; food exists. We thirst; water exists. We fatigue; sleep exists. Sexual longings, too, have legitimate fulfilments. Despite the universality of religious belief, however, atheists assert that God does not exist. Yet, the longing for the eternal often surpasses the other drives of mankind. Man will give up food, and sleep, and sex for this religious impulse. He will forsake even his life for a religious cause. I was under no delusions about the supposed ‘civilizing’ aspects of religion. I never believed all religions to be basically good. The worst madmen are often religious zealots. Logically, all religions teach different things and could therefore all be wrong. But only one could be right. And maybe one was right!
‘But God, who is rich in mercy, for his great love wherewith he loved us, even when we were dead in sins, hath quickened us together with Christ, (by grace ye are saved)’ (Eph. 2:4-5).
My heart slowly awakened. My mind grew more certain that there was a God. I was a seeker, albeit a lost seeker. This period was no neat progression from agnosticism to Christianity. I often swayed between opinions.
I did not trust most churches. I wanted answers to the deep questions of life, but I mostly just heard syrupy platitudes. I remember sitting in a Methodist church. The Bible reading was about the resurrection of Lazarus. Here is this dead guy, three days gone, expected already to be stinking. Jesus seems to dawdle and finally comes too late to save him. The Lord of the universe weeps even though he could have prevented his friend’s death. And the pastor announces the main theme for his sermon: ‘How good it is to have friends.’ Great existential questions were reduced to, ‘Be nice.’
I tried another church that led me through a series of complicated charts about the end of the world. I had trouble keeping track of all the trumpets and plagues in the Book of Revelation. They focused more on escaping pain-free from some expected big time of trouble in the future than they did on following Jesus here and now. At another church, rapturous swaying and very intense worship (read: very loud music) made me wonder if something deep and moving was about to be taught as well. I was sorely disappointed. The emotion seemed produced upon demand and artificial. The shallow sermon that followed hardly seemed sufficient cause for the intense and histrionic display that preceded it.
I tried also to watch the television preachers. Nice hair. White ever-smiling teeth. Smooth words. And lots of ‘Jesus bling.’ They seemed to speak of nothing but money (the lack of money was the root of all evil they seemed to say). I was angered by watching them! Religious hucksters and snake-oil salesmen! Just as spies and traitors within one’s ranks pose the greatest danger to armies, false religion is the worst enemy of true faith. Antichrist is not an atheist, but he utilizes false religion and claims to speak on behalf of God. A seaworthy ship may face rough waters without, but it is the water within that poses the most danger. I was relieved to find that the New Testament, most notably Jude and 2 Peter, spoke the same things of these men as I thought, ‘They entice unsteady souls. They have hearts trained in greed . . .’ (2 Pet. 2:14).
I began to feel as if the American Church was vaccinating people against Jesus Christ! At best it was shallow, at worst heretical. There was enough religion to inoculate one’s conscience against guilt. There was enough religiosity injected to make one believe they were good enough or had done enough to make themselves safe from hell (You have said this prayer. You have been baptized. You have walked this aisle – now don’t you dare ever doubt your assurance). But there was not enough of the gospel preached to truly save.
I trained heavily in judo during this time period. Steve Thiemann was always there to practice with me, a special instrument used by God in my life. Steve has had a remarkable spiritual influence in many people’s lives, despite his unlikely demeanour. He has quirky eccentricities, he does not do small talk, he launches straight into the deepest theological matters. He cultivates a deliberate simplicity. One time I visited his home and his closet stood open – 6 sets of the same outfit stared out (one light blue long-sleeve shirt, black tie, and black pants for each day of the week), ‘my uniform,’ he explained sheepishly. When I questioned the nature of God or pondered the problem of evil, Steve brought booklets or cassette tapes on the subject to the next practice session. Judo training and theology filled my hours.
Steve was the ‘tape guy’ at Bible Baptist Church of Maplewood, Missouri – the only church I’ve ever been a member of. This church later ordained me and sent me out to minister in Indonesia. Steve described himself to me as the ‘earthworm’ of God. The earthworm lives unappreciated and hidden out of sight. The earthworm is not impressive to look at. But, he is the farmer’s best friend. He aerates the soil. He strengthens roots. He makes plants grow. He works behind the scenes (or rather under the soil) so that fruit may blossom and plants grow. Steve proved an earthworm in my life as well.
Christianity – unlike all the other religions of the world
I studied the world’s religions to compare them, and the truth dawned on me. There were not many religions in the world. There were only two!
Only two religions have ever existed throughout all of history: (1) The religion of works, and (2) the religion of God’s free and sovereign grace.
All false religion is works-based. False religion demands, demands, DEMANDS! ‘Do this and live!’ Obey and be good enough! Meet some standard. Only then can you be received by God.
In stark contrast stands the true religion of Christ – the gospel of God’s free and sovereign grace. It is unique and alone in the world. It is not because of our goodness and our works that we are saved but by Christ’s goodness and his works. Christ has provided all that God demands.
‘Do this and live’ the law demands,
but gives me neither feet nor hands.
A sweeter sound the Gospel brings;
it bids me fly and gives me wings.
Salvation is not merely a reformation of external habits that we accomplish by the strength of our own wills. We cannot change ourselves through hard work or force of personality or stubborn perseverance. Our old sinful nature cannot ever become good enough. You might as well try to make a skunk smell good or make a thorn tree grow apples. It is not in their nature or design to do so.
We are saved with a righteousness from outside of us, a foreign or alien righteousness. We must be born again, from above. Upon this new creation hinges all of our ability to do any good at all. We must have new hearts, a new root from which good fruit will spring.
‘For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is a gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast’ (Eph. 2:8-9).
I remember that summer of my 18th year first reading the Gospels all the way through. There was never a man that spoke or taught like Jesus. The concise plain account of the crucifixion in the Gospel of Mark moved me to tears. There is no poetry in it, but it sung to me in a way that no other philosophy could ever do – the God-Man volunteering to take my place! I read Ecclesiastes over and over – what intense resonance I felt with the text, the seeming vanity of life under the sun.
Some people can pinpoint the time of their conversion to an exact date, even to an exact hour. I can only pinpoint the summer of my 18th year as the time of my conversion – and the first half of the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Romans. In those first chapters of Romans, I read that the Jews having the law transgressed the law. The Gentiles without the law sinned against the light of conscience written on their hearts. All mankind was guilty. All were without hope before God. How could God, therefore, be holy and just and still clear the guilty of their sin? Each and every sin deserves an eternity of wrath. Every single sin must be punished. God cannot clear the guilty without punishment. His very nature is at stake! How could God be both just and the justifier of sinners? How could he fully punish sin and yet save the guilty?
Praise God for Romans 5:1, ‘Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ!’ God sent his willing Son into history to stand in the place of sinners. To stand in the place of me! God’s justice was vindicated. Divine wrath was poured out – but not on me! My debt was paid – but not by me! The Son of God was crushed instead. Jesus volunteered to absorb the punishment of sin upon himself – for me.
I went on to read the entire Bible within a short time and the New Testament at least six times before the end of that first year.
I sought the Lord, and afterward I knew
he moved my soul to seek him, seeking me;
it was not I that found, O Saviour true;
no, I was found of thee.
Thou didst reach forth thy hand and mine enfold;
I walked and sank not on the storm-vexed sea;
’twas not so much that I on thee took hold,
as thou, dear Lord, on me.
I find, I walk, I love, but oh, the whole
of love is but my answer, Lord, to thee;
for thou wert long beforehand with my soul,
always thou lovedst me.
‘For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them’ (Eph. 2:10).
After God saved me, I got very busy. Not in order to be saved, but out of a life of gratitude.
The Lord led me to a wonderful wife. I met Teresa in nursing school. What a perfectly suited helpmeet she makes as we labour in an unhealthy jungle region and treat the sick together. How my heart is pulled as I see her unselfishness and compassion towards others. To watch her play with our children is as close to heaven on earth as one can get.
Shortly after college, my missionary calling was confirmed. During a short-term trip to the Amazon River, I delivered a baby in a simple shack on the banks of that monstrous water. I cut the umbilical cord with a Wilkerson shaving razor. Dogs lapped up the drippings underneath the floor-boards. It was a shocking experience, but life-changing. I realized that my gifts and abilities could either earn a decent wage in America, or could be the God-ordained difference between life and death for somebody living in a remote region. Therefore, I sought to live and minister in the most remote region I could find. Now we live among a Papuan tribe that National Geographic calls ‘The Treehouse People.’
Dear Reader, please read a little longer:
Christianity is not a mere creed to be spoken. It is a life to be lived. It is not a mere testimony of the lips, but the walk of the feet. It is not merely academic, but activistic. We were created for good works. Christ is our root. How can we do anything but bear good fruit? Christ is our spring of fresh water. How can we do anything but desire to be poured forth and deliver life-giving nourishment to a thirsty world? Christ is the Sun in our sky. How can we not desire to enlighten and warm the whole world with his glory and presence?
Dear Reader, if you are a true Christian, then God has prepared good works for you to do. Not only has God chosen you in love, God has also prepared that you do great deeds to the glory of God and the good of the souls of men. Christian, your life is a journey of discovery!
God spoke with an audible voice from heaven in times past. God performed his will through angels in the Old Testament. God brought water out of a rock. God caused a donkey to speak. God brought the universe into being with mere words. If God so desired, he could write John 3:16 across the sky in clouds or explain the gospel audibly from heaven. And yet how does God choose to fulfil the Great Commission? He is pleased to use us, weak vessels. He is pleased to bless the world and glorify his name through struggling servants here below.
Dead Reader, if you are reading this testimony and have not yet believed in Christ, I pray that you will do so. Seek until you find. Knock until it is opened to you. If you already believe, then live in the light of that truth. You are, indeed, God’s ‘workmanship’ (poiema, a work of art). Let us make much of our Lord by making much of our gospel opportunities. Lord, grant us holy boldness!
The light of the gospel is not as the light of the moon, to sleep by; the light of the gospel is as the light of the sun, to work by!
Finally, if God has, indeed, prepared good works for us to do beforehand, this means that our labours are never in vain. There is absolutely no hint of purposelessness. We have every reason for optimism. We heartily agree with William Carey, ‘Expect great things from God; attempt great things for God.’ And again, ‘The future is as bright as the promises of God.’
God’s cause will triumph. We have Scripture. Become boldly optimistic!
• The kingdoms of this world shall become the kingdom of our Lord, and of his Christ (Rev. 11:15).
• Ask of me, and I will give thee the heathen for thine inheritance, and the uttermost parts of the earth for thy possession (Psa. 2:8).
• It shall come to pass in the last days, that the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established in the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills . . . all nations shall flow unto it (Isa.2:2).
• His name shall be continued as long as the sun; men shall be blessed in him, all nations shall call him blessed (Psa. 72:17).
• And the kingdom, and the greatness of the kingdom under the whole heaven, shall be given to the people of the saints of the Most High; and all dominions shall serve and obey him (Dan. 7:27).
• He shall say to the North, Give up; and to the South, Keep not back: bring my sons from far, and my daughters from the ends of the earth (Isa. 43:6).
• His way shall be known upon earth, and his saving health among all nations (Psa. 67:2).
• He shall have dominion from sea to sea, and from the river unto the ends of the earth (Zech. 9:10).
• We see not yet all things put under Him, Heb. 2:8. But he must reign, until all enemies shall be put under his feet (1 Cor. 15:25).
• For the earth shall be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea (Hab. 2:14).
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