An interview with a missionary

Trevor Johnson and his wife Teresa are missionaries in Papua, Indonesia, bringing the Gospel to the people there. I thought it would be helpful to many to interview Trevor so others might be edified and encouraged. Thanks be to God, brother Trevor was kind enough to take time out from his sabbatical to answer my questions, and I am sharing them here. May God use this interview to His glory.

Q1. Most people have a misconception about missionary work and missionaries, e.g. mission work is tough, or some might even romanticise the whole idea of being a missionary. What is, in your own experience, a missionary, and how would you encapsulate missionary work?

[TREVOR] SENT OUT:  While the term “missionary” does not occur in Scripture, I believe the concept is very biblical.  The word “missionary” comes from the Latin mitto, which corresponds to the Greek apostelos (ἀπόστολος), or a “sent-out one.”

While established congregations call pastors to come in and to minister to them, and while even these pastors also are charged to “do the work of an evangelist” the history of the church and the New Testament example shows a pattern of certain peoples going out as well to establish new congregations or to aid in the expansion of the Christian faith (see the mobile ministry teams in Acts, Paul’s list of co-workers and John’s call to support those who go out for the sake of the Name in 2 and 3 John). The Great Commission tells us to disciple all nations, and so this necessitates that we go to all nations, and so the Church has commissioned and sent out missionaries in order to accomplish this God-given task.

SENT OUT WITH A SPECIFIC TASK:  If we missionaries are “sent-out ones” then what are we sent out to do?  According to the Great Commission we are to disciple the nations and baptize and incorporate those believers into visible fellowships. Additionally, according to 2 Corinthians 5, we are to be ambassadors for Christ. Finally, we learn from 2 Timothy 2:2 that we are [to] invest in key folks who can then teach others a certain body of doctrine and not only safeguard it but multiply it (making disciples who can then make disciples).

SENT OUT TO CROSS BOUNDARIES:  There is a cross-cultural component to this task. Some may object, but I would like to differentiate the role of a missionary from that of a pastor or an evangelist. While a pastor is called by an already-existing congregation to minister to that flock, and while his calling might include the work of an evangelist, his main task is to “feed the sheep” which are already gathered.  An evangelist is a role that some local churches employ and is almost like a missionary, but usually involves outreach within his own ethno-linguistic setting and involves closer contact with his home church, the evangelist often living in proximity to his home church and operating out of his home church on a weekly basis (bringing the fruit of his efforts into that same local church). A missionary, on the other hand, is “sent out” and crosses ethno-linguistic-geographic boundaries with the Gospel. Sometimes one can use the same language, such as the Apostle Paul was able to do in many parts of the Roman Empire, but often a crossing of linguistic barriers is needed as well. His role is to establish the Church where it does not yet exist or strengthen the Church in a region where it needs significant help.

WHO CAN BE A MISSIONARY? While ordained elder-qualified men are needed, since the Great Commission tasks us with discipling and also baptizing and many missionary tasks involve preaching and exercising ecclesiastical authority, there are also many vital roles for other non-ordained Christians as well. Paul lists many females as his “fellow workers” (sunergois) and in Acts 14 we see that Paul and Barnabas were sent out and that they also had John as an aid to them.  Thus, the missionary task is not merely limited to pastors or elder-qualified men, but there are many roles that many willing Christians can play on the mission field. We need teachers, nurses, youth workers, pilots and mechanics, literacy specialists, and many other roles in addition to pastors, church-planters, bible teachers and theologians.

Q2. It must have been difficult making a decision to uproot and move to a remote place where you don’t speak the language and face unknown dangers. What was it that prompted you to become a missionary, and how did God move you to?

[TREVOR] It was not a difficult decision at all because we were called to it.

We were not merely weighing the advantages versus the disadvantages of going to the mission field, because we felt compelled to go.  The questions that persisted in my mind and which consumed my thinking were, “If not ME…then who will go?” and also, “If not now, then WHEN will there be someone to take the Gospel to these neglected peoples?” and so, knowing that my wife and I were both young and healthy and could thus go to many areas in which others could not go, we felt constrained to attempt to go to a hard place where there were not many others willing or able to go. Because we felt that this was God’s calling for our lives, we felt that it would be impossible, therefore, to stay in the U.S.

Also, upon ordination, our sending church, Bible Baptist Church of Saint Louis, Missouri also commissioned us to go and reach the lost in Indonesia. Thus, this is not a mere private desire on our part, but we are charged with the duty of going by our sending church. Thus, we are not merely going, we are being sent to fulfill a task and we must not, therefore, take this as a light task. Our local church has charged us with a mission, and so we have the duty to complete it.

HOW DO YOU MOVE TOWARDS MISSIONS?  If you are curious about the process of going into missions, I would say that the first step is to (1) ascertain a missionary call. All Christians are called to serve, but not all Christians are called to be pastors and/or missionaries.

How do you ascertain a missionary call? If you have a desire to serve, and your home church seconds that desire, then this is a good indication. I have never heard the audible voice of God, but the Spirit speaks through the larger body of Christ and also our sanctified desires. So, if you have a desire to go and serve and this desire is confirmed by the larger body of Christ, then I would say that you should move forward.

Secondly, after you have ascertained a missionary call, the next step would be to (2) start to research. When I felt called to go into missions, I began to pray for the nations, research missionary organizations, read about the peoples of the world and even research airline routes, language learning possibilities, etc. Research missions in general, the history of missions, the stresses associated with missions, the available people-groups that most need help, the organizations and groups that are presently operating, the training courses and schools that are available to gain training.

Also, examine yourself as well. Don’t merely research the statistics and geographies of other countries. Research the geography of your own heart, the shape of your own personality. What are your weaknesses, what are your strengths? How do you handle stress? How do you work in teams? What sort of scenario would I be most likely to succeed at, or fail if encountered? Know the world, but also know yourself, because missionary work is highly stressful.

Finally, (3) make your desires actionable and move those desires out of the mere cognitive realm only. Make concrete plans in light of those desires. And include your church. Move forward, make sure all your desires have “action steps” and timelines attached to them, and don’t merely dream or think about serving, approach your church and make plans to serve.

Have your elders pray for you, mentor you, give you increasing responsibilities to groom and prepare you for service. Take a short-term trip (not to “do something” but to confirm a calling and observe and learn).

Keep moving forward…

Q3. What would you say are the requirements for someone considering to be a missionary?

[TREVOR] (1) A missionary call, (2) some missionary competencies, and (3) good character– the three C’s.

First, one must have a calling: A missionary must have a desire to serve. This is integral to the missionary call. This call must be confirmed by the larger body of Christ. In most cases this means one’s local church (though some local churches are so unsound that missionary organizations feel the need also to check and confirm the recommendations of local churches).

A missionary must be sent. As I have said before, “a missionary is not merely one who goes. A missionary is one who is sent.”

A missionary must have certain competencies: This includes theological and doctrinal competencies. Every missionary need not be a theologian, but every missionary must be sound theologically. Doctrinal soundness is, therefore, a very necessary requirement.

Interpersonal and relational ability is also a must. I have known some folks who are very theological in their thinking, but could not connect well with other people. Therefore, a missionary must be skilled in Scripture, but also possess people-skills.

In some scenarios, other skills might also help the missionary, such as knowing how to live in remote or rough environments, knowing medical or linguistic skills, having the ability to learn another language, etc.

In addition to the theological requirements, holiness of life and certain qualities of character are also essential: Notice that the requirements for church office in the New Testament are NOT primarily academic, but involve one’s conduct and character.

In addition to holiness of life, other aspects of personality and character are also needed, such as a certain quality of perseverance. Missionary life is full of hard work and high stress. A missionary must not quickly break down due to the adverse conditions. Physical and mental strength are often needed.

Physical health, mental and emotional health and spiritual/doctrinal health are all necessary.

Q4. Please describe a typical day in your life as a missionary.

[TREVOR] See the attachment (PDF). You can also read Brad Kinnison’s fine blog about his experiences 2 months ago when he came and visited me in the village.

Q5. It must be difficult to break the ice, so to speak, with natives in a foreign land. What are some ways to do that, in order that the Gospel might be preached? I understand that you are a nurse, and so is your wife. If someone becomes a missionary without your skill sets, what can s/he bank on?

[TREVOR] Actually, my task of evangelizing in Papua might be far easier than yours.

The question of, “What is this white foreigner doing arriving in our village” demands an answer. When I show up in a remote setting in Indonesia, especially in isolated regions that are extremely difficult to access and which take many hours and even days of travel, the people want to know why I am there. To simply tell them that I have come to speak to them on behalf of God is much easier than attempting to minister in the urban West and compete for people’s  attention in a secular city such as Singapore, where the deepest matters of life are often privatized and deemed only proper to talk about among the closest of friends.

I would urge you to think less in terms of “skill set” and think less of “doing” and focus more on “being” instead. Missiology and “outreach” – especially in America – often becomes a cookie-cutter list of techniques and methodologies and people are always looking for a “golden key” or a new technique to “do evangelism.” But doing flows naturally from being. Be the person who God wants you to be – that is the first task. Our ministry should flow from who we are. Therefore, we need not worry about finding ways to break the ice or begin a Gospel conversation, but we should worry about being the people that God would have us to be and we should pray that the Holy Spirit will lead us to see those providential opportunities that God places before us.

My wife and I are nurses and we treat the sick every day. But we don’t do this merely to gain a Gospel hearing. We try not to have any ulterior motives for anything we do. We treat the sick because they are sick. We try to do good to people because of our calling as Christians.

One does not need to be a nurse to be a blessing to the people here. And if you were to live here, you could easily learn some basics in order to bless your neighbors. Come and move to Papua and within 2 months of living in the village you will know 90% of what you need to know to help most people medically.

While you have the Gospel and the Holy Spirit – and that is enough, here are some skills that might help you if you wanted to serve in Indonesia: (1) language skills, (2) medical skills, (3) being able to teach, (4) outdoor skills, (5) construction and skills such as being “handy” around the house and fixing/building things, (6) farming or agricultural skills, (7) technological or computer skills to train up a new generation of Papuan pastor[s] who will need technology to help bless the wider Church here.

Q6. What are some things that, besides seeing people coming to faith in Christ Jesus, that most warm your heart? On the flip side, what are some of the heartaches and disappointments you have experienced?

[TREVOR] To see a person coming to faith in Christ is to see eternal work happening. How much is a human soul worth? Of how much value should we place on seeing the redemption of even one never-dying soul?

Also, to invest and train future leaders is a great investment. To see young Papuan pastors use what they have learned from you and teach to others is very rewarding.

The death and disease and moral failures of the people cause much heartache.  God is building His Church and the gates of hell cannot prevail against it, but this building process seems to take so long and seems to encounter so much opposition. Sometimes I lose the historical perspective and I forget that sometimes a region resists the Gospel for a 1,000 years before God finally does a work of saving grace among the people there.

Q7. What are the challenges would-be missionaries should be prepared to face?

[TREVOR] Transitions, loneliness, sickness, frustration, worries about financial support, feelings of inadequacy.

Q8. The Christian life is a constant struggle against the flesh. In your own experience, what would you say are the greatest obstacles to glorifying God as a missionary?

[TREVOR] Attitudes. Irritations and aggravations compounded by living in less-than-ideal conditions (no AC, flies, dirt, people that don’t understand the Gospel).

Q9. You mentioned that 2 weeks is too short a time to experience missionary work. What, in your opinion, would be an ideal length of time someone should spend as a “short-term” missionary, if there’s such a concept?

[TREVOR] First, I believe that the concept of short-term missions is a biblical one. In the book of Acts in chapters 13 and 14 we see that the Antioch church sent out Paul and Barnabas and, upon their return, it was said that they had fulfilled the task for which they had been commended to the grace of God. Thus, Paul’s first missionary journey seemed to have limited goals which were all accomplished in a short period of time.

But, nowadays, too many people have a short-term mindset.  To cross linguistic and cultural barriers takes time. We should think in terms of our missionaries serving decades, not weeks or months.

While we can plan wisely to make the most of our short-term trips, let us cultivate a long-term mindset and pray that the Lord would call Singaporeans into a lifetime calling.

Q10. What are some of the things that a church and fellow believers can do to help missionaries, and to encourage missions?

[TREVOR] Pray, give, go.

Pray for your missionaries. Pray for specific things, like marriage, family, schooling of missionary children, etc.

Advertize/announce/explain missions in your church:  All too often the phrase is true, “Out of sight, out of mind.” Make sure your church personally knows your missionaries and where they are serving.

Give: Make sure your missionaries need not worry about money or physical needs.

Go: Become a missionary or help send or recruit others. Most missionaries could use co-workers or someone to help them.

Soli Deo Gloria!