Johnston paints missions mosaic at Central Baptist
By Allen Palmeri
February 21, 2006
KANSAS CITY – Tom Johnston seems ideally equipped to be interim pastor of Central Baptist Church in Kansas City, which is located in the northeast sector of the city just four blocks from an elementary school where 60 nations and 27 languages are represented.
“By the grace of God, I have a very multi-cultural upbringing,” said Johnston, assistant professor of evangelism at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (MBTS) who earned his doctorate in 2001 from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, Ky.
Johnston feels as French as the Marquis de Lafayette. His parents were missionaries to France, he was born there, and he speaks the language fluently. His pulpit ministry at Central Baptist, a Missouri Baptist Convention (MBC) congregation that began in 1950 as a mission of Bales Baptist Church but has been in decline since the late 1960s, is in English, of course, but he thinks like a Frenchman as he surveys his flock.
His regulars consist of a Haitian family, a Sudanese family, two from either Angola or Uganda, a Vietnamese man and a smattering of student ministers who drive 10 minutes from the seminary to join in the work.
“We’ve been averaging about 30 people,” Johnston said. “We go out door-to-door every week and share the Gospel. We’ve begun to make very tentative inroads into the Somali community. We’ve probably handed out over 1,000 Somali Gospel pamphlets from World Missionary Press.”
His goal is to plant two churches this year and to eventually “spin off multiple churches that meet in one building.” His dream would be to plant “an Arabic-speaking church that could reach both the Christian and Muslim Sudanese” and “a Somali small group.” The logical road would be for him to disciple French Haitians and French Africans, but nothing in his world seems linear these days. The Lord keeps prompting him to paint a mosaic.
“The language of choice that I found out I need to learn is Swahili,” he said. “I was in the apartment of Paul from Burundi. Paul gives haircuts, and I’ve shared the Gospel with him a number of times and prayed with him. He’s not saved, his wife is in Kenya, and he’s been here in America for five years. He was giving a haircut to a Somali, and I heard him speaking another language, which was Swahili. The Somalis who come from the cities, the Sudanese who come from the cities, and also those in Kenya and Burundi, all speak Swahili. So Swahili is a language of choice for northeast Africa, because it crosses a lot of cultures. It’s like a pigeon Arabic.”
Johnston, who founded the Midwestern Evangelistic Team and has previously taught evangelism in Russia and the Netherlands, is determined to get in touch with his inner Lafayette as he writes this allegory.
“ Brussels and Paris have been centers of very strong Catholicism which has influenced the entire French-speaking culture,” he said. “I’m honored to have learned the language and be born there. I feel it’s my mother tongue, actually.
“There’s a lot of bloodshed. Since the 1200s in France, between 300,000 and 500,000 have been killed for the Gospel. That hardens and numbs a society. The French culture is so cold and hard because of the bloodshed of God’s people.
“We have to reach French-speaking peoples. I think they are one of the groups that are actually being forgotten because it’s so hard, in many cases, and the language is such a pain to learn. I did a report on a French missionary training school in France that is almost going under now because they don’t have people learning the French language. I think we definitely could benefit from reaching more aggressively into French-speaking countries.”
Printed in the Central Baptist church bulletin is the Scripture text for Johnston’s Sunday morning sermon in six languages. Besides English, the verses are published in Arabic, French, Portuguese, Spanish and Vietnamese. On Jan. 29, he dedicated a Sudanese baby named Emanuel Yousif. One of his recent acquaintances on the streets of northeast Kansas City happens to be the Lutheran archbishop of Sudan, shepherd of more than 800,000. With all of those international fireworks shooting off in so many different directions, isn’t it ironic, then, that his pulpit ministry at the small mission outpost began in 2004 on the Fourth of July?
“I’ve been going through the book of Acts, and God has been opening His Word to me and I’m so grateful,” he said. “I’ve been a pastor, on and off, for about 11 years, and I have a little bit to draw from, but I also have delegated Sunday nights to Jonathan Moody and Wednesday nights to Mike Brooks, so I’ve been able to divide and conquer a little bit.”
He wrote his dissertation on the topic, “The Work of an Evangelist: The Evangelistic Theology and Methodology of Billy Graham.” His work has subsequently been published. Johnston said that Graham is all about mosaics like the one that is bursting through the sanctuary at Central Baptist.
“I think this was the heart of his ministry,” he said. “All through the life of Graham he had a heart for overseas missions. In fact, 70 percent of his ministry between 1946 and 1949 was in Europe, and overseas.”
Central Baptist has gone from basic survival, with only three people keeping the doors open, to robust health. Johnston credited church member Teresa Moody for planning and executing a successful Vacation Bible School that drew more than 50 children. Katie Johnston, a sophomore from Truman State University, brought seven volunteers from the campus Baptist Student Union to work the VBS for her father. Help also came from several other churches whose members came determined to love children.
“That allowed us to begin a youth group and a children’s ministry in one day,” the interim pastor said, noting that it resulted in 8-12 Sudanese children coming to church.
Winning souls on the streets of northeast Kansas City is like Jesus said it would be from the days of John the Baptist until now as the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force (Matthew 11:12). Bezi, from Somalia, is a prime example.
“The first time we met him, his eyes were hard and cold,” Johnston said. “The next time we met him, his eyes were open and receptive. During that conversation, a friend came and pulled him away from us, because they know we are Christians, and they see us talking to people outside, and they go and protect their own.”
Johnston is desperate in prayer.
“I pray for workers and for love and for God to open doors and for time,” he said.