Jean Johnson is the director of Five Stones Global and the author of We Are Not the Hero. She was a missionary in Cambodia for 16 years. Prior to her time in Cambodia, she moved into a one-bedroom apartment upper duplex with a Cambodian family of eight in Minneapolis. She works to promote and implement ways of cultivating indigenous movements for Christ that both sustain and multiply over the long term.
Living intentionally in the United States among Cambodian immigrants was something that sprang from her bible school training. “When I decided to go the missions route and study Cross Cultural Communications, there was a professor/director of missions that who had a vision for something different than the mainstream,” she said. At the college, he designed a training program that captured the heart and the enthusiasm of the students by sending them out on a two-year cross-cultural assignment as soon as they graduated. “Part of our training was to live fairly incarnationally among those we served. This meant using local transportation, having a mild income that required living by faith, learning the heart language through immersion, and living with the people.”
As soon as Jean graduated, she activated this identification style of mission among first-generation Cambodian refugees in Minneapolis. Other students went overseas, but Cambodia was not an accessible country, so she decided to start at the homefront. Due to this training, she embraced an incarnational mode of mission as her norm. “With the denomination I was with, you study, you gradate, then you spend two years as a traditional pastor in America before you could go on the field. The organization provided the missionaries with a nice budget. [This professor] wanted to do some things different than the typical sending route. He wanted to capture the heart of the students.”
She said that oftentimes, by the time students completed the two years serving as traditional pastors, they would no longer want to be involved in missions. “I don’t think he wanted to get us out of the system, he wanted us to stay in the systems the denomination provided. He therefore created a program that was two years with training stemming from the incarnational mentality.” So, Jean had a choice to enter the incarnational route or the pastoral route. She was only allowed to raise a certain amount of money for her incarnational living. Language was to be learned by immersion, and transportation was limited to what the locals used. Not long after Jean moved from the bible school classroom to the Cambodian one-room apartment, the incarnational part of her program was cut off. “The system didn’t like the program, and then stopped it while I was there. I had a choice: just keep going—at that point I was licensed with my denomination—so I became a home missionary. I didn’t change anything; I just kept on that path,” she said.
“It wasn’t revolutionary to me because I was a fairly new Christian at the time and thus. I didn’t have as much traditional baggage. I bought into [incarnational living] rather quickly,” she said. But her ease into that life was based on a stepping stone from her adolescence. “In high school, at the time the Cambodian, Hmong, and /Vietnamese refugees were coming into my comfort zone and social spaces, I felt called to make friends with them. It was God-driven but I didn’t know at the time. That identity was in me, having a whole chunk of people from another culture land in my social space overnight was good for me. I went to their homes, ate their noodles, I did with them what I did with my Anglo friends. I didn’t have an idea of what missions was. It was a gut experience encountering people who were different from me, and I learned to lean into it.” Jean said that once she began living with the Cambodian family, sleeping in the hallway, she couldn’t back-pedal because her organization had changed its mind.
Jean firmly believes in local sustainability within missions. When asked why that is so important, she rests firm on the Bible. “If you were to peel back which reason is most rooted in me, it is my take on the Bible. You can’t point to an example in the New Testament church Bible where there is a chronic ethnocentric going back to one group visiting and one-way giving to the same group over and over. There was communal sharing and accountability was organically built in accountability. . The discipline in all of that happening was internally. Jesus’ model for the disciples —they were mobile was rooted in mobility—if you don’t do stuff sustainability in a sustainable manner, you can’t be mobile. I don’t see Jesus creating stopping and setting up non-sustainable structures and projects and then staying on to maintain them. Take Paul, he didn’t subsidize the churches that he planted. I can’t find any examples of that,” she said.
Jean said that when she speaks of sustainability, she’s speaking of it being locally sustainable, without outside funding. “I feel like in the biblical framework, Jesus set up a ‘church’ that should naturally sustain itself. When we set it up as we do, we add things to it that aren’t sustainable. I believe that the cultural insiders are responsible for reaching their own Jerusalem,” she said. “I go to Cambodia and lead them to Christ. They now have their Jerusalem. I don’t believe it’s my responsibility to keep reaching their Jerusalem. It’s their responsibility to reach their own Jerusalem. For sustainability, whatever I do … I think if I’m Paul, I want Timothy to do it without me. I didn’t always do it that way. I had to intentionally work that that way. I didn’t know you could do church without a building. I wish someone would have told me that. I wish my assignment was: Go make disciples, but you’re not allowed to create a church building with church services. In the USA, we are accustomed to starting churches to make disciples, not the other way around. When you are in sending organizations, The mission senders and sending organizations they count the tangibles:, they want church buildings, they want bible school buildings, projects, and numbers. There are a lot of things with the traditional missions model, that I didn’t feel comfortable with.” Those normal missions models didn’t seem to have space for what she was doing. “My desires and/or attempts at incarnational methods models got swallowed up by these systems,” she said.
Jean and I met at this year’s Vulnerable Mission conference in Pittsburgh. One of her talks was entitled, “An Unhealthy Self-Image Equals an Unhealthy Community Image.” She said, “A healthy self-image of a church is a church that owns their biblical responsibility of what a church should be—not my definition of what it should be. They should both own that and then mobilize local resources for that. What I mean by ‘that’ is Those are the main functions of being the body of Christ. Non-healthy self-images include statements like, ‘We are too poor; we need a sponsor.’ ‘We’re not good enough, smart enough.’ ‘We want to love our neighbors, but we can’t do it until we get a medical team.’ ‘Why should we support our pastor?’” she said. “Anything that makes a community look outside of itself to be the body of Christ is unhealthy. The belief is that, ‘I can’t unless I have dot dot dot.’”
Jean desires that missionaries and mission agencies would recognize that there is a dependency issue, and acknowledge the biblical church model as a way to address dependency. “If we could reimagine the church to begin with, if we could dismantle the framework that says the church in Acts is a primitive church—let’s get back to that church.”
Coming soon is the Participant's Guide to We Are Not the Hero