Greg Johnson: Shunning Labels and Serving Leaders

By Justin Horey

Missionary. Coach. Pastor. Mentor. Influencer. Entrepreneur. Greg Johnson prefers not to be labeled, but he could be described as any of those. “I don’t like titles,” he says. “Even when I was leading a megachurch, I didn’t want to be called ‘Pastor Greg.’ I’m just Greg.”

International Beginnings

Johnson grew up in Ethiopia, where he attended boarding school while his parents worked as missionaries. His family lived in a very remote area where there were few white people. He remembers Ethiopian nationals traveling for miles to see him and his classmates and touch their white skin.

In boarding school, Johnson says, he heard a lot of talk about Jesus, but he really didn’t “get” him. In fact, as a high school student, Johnson briefly considered a career as a professional hunter. After graduation, Johnson decided to live one final year in Ethiopia. He spent time with many of the national Christians there and observed a supernatural joy in them—a joy he wanted for himself.

By the end of that year, Johnson says, he not only was a believer, he had decided to follow in his parents’ footsteps and become a missionary. He moved to the United States, where he attended Milligan College and Emmanuel School of Religion and met his wife, Becky. The couple spent more than 19 years as church-planting missionaries in Kenya, where he helped build the Maasai leadership training center in Kenya with CMF International (CMFI).

As the national Christians assumed more and more oversight of the ministry in Kenya, Johnson moved to Indianapolis and served for five years as marketplace ministries director at CMFI, imagining all the while that some day they would go back to the mission field. His decades of ministry, though, had taught him to be open to God’s leading and hold his own plans loosely. During that time, he and Becky prayed. They decided, “When God opens doors, we will step through.”

A Surprise Calling to Florida

That’s when Generations Christian Church in Trinity, Florida, called. The struggling congregation was looking for a proven leader to guide a new season of ministry. Johnson had never planned to serve in full-time local church ministry in the United States, but as he considered the possibility, two American pastors called and encouraged him to apply his passion for connecting people to Christ and his missionary mind-set to reaching people in America.

Johnson ultimately accepted the call to serve at Generations, choosing to go where God was leading. It was a radical change of plans, Johnson says, but, “A clear mission helps you determine when to say yes and when to say no.”

Johnson spent 16 years at Generations, during which the church grew to about 3,000 in average worship attendance. By embracing Johnson’s vision of being a church with “a broad, open front door where everyone is welcome,” the congregation shared the gospel message with unreached people who were far from God.

While serving there, Johnson was active in the community—connecting with local politicians and business owners to advocate for community development through One Community Now, a nonprofit organization he helped to establish in Tampa Bay.

As 2017 ended, Johnson left his position at Generations Christian Church, and he and Becky again spent time in prayer seeking to discern God’s plan for their next season of ministry. Johnson knew this job transition was not the end of his active ministry. At 65 years old, he describes himself as “far from retired.”

The Move to Myrtle Beach

The Johnsons have one adult daughter living in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, and another serving as a missionary in Thailand. For much of his life—from his childhood in boarding school until his early 60s—ministry kept his family apart. In 2018, Greg and Becky asked themselves, “Why not move to Myrtle Beach, where we can be closer to some of our family?”

Johnson began looking for a church he could serve in some useful way. When considering the move to Myrtle Beach, he was hoping to find a church that shared his spiritual DNA. “In ministry,” he says, “everyone is doing a lot. The question is, are you doing the right things?”

Before relocating, he traveled to Myrtle Beach, where he had lunch with Matt and Tina Wilson of Ekklesia Christian Church. Johnson asked to hear the church’s vision, and he listened as the Wilsons shared the story of their church plant. Then, to Johnson’s surprise, Matt Wilson said, “I’ll tell you why God wants you to move here.”

Wilson explained that Ekklesia Christian Church was in the process of transitioning from a temporary site to a permanent home and that he had been praying for an experienced minister—someone who had been through a full-campus relocation and successfully led a larger church—to serve as a mentor and support to him. He was convinced Johnson was the man he had been seeking. He said plainly, “You are God’s answer to our prayers.”

The congregation was averaging 400 to 450 in Sunday attendance when Johnson and Wilson met. The church averages closer to 800 now.

Johnson is helping Wilson with growth projections and systems development as Ekklesia continues to expand its ministry, but he has no formal role on the church staff, though he does preach occasionally on Sunday mornings. In their first meeting, Johnson told his young friend, “I am not a threat to you.” He continues to regularly remind Wilson he seeks only to be a blessing, not to be employed by the church.

“Matt is an exceptional young man,” Johnson says. “God is using him in a powerful way.”

Johnson sees tremendous potential in Ekklesia Christian Church. The biggest challenges, he says, are to establish a good structure and systems for the church, and to make time for Matt and Tina to rest from the increasingly busy work of the ministry.

In addition to serving at Ekklesia, Greg and Becky Johnson have created Level Up Ministries, a partner organization with CMFI, which provides strategic planning services to churches and Christian workers in the United States and around the world. This ministry calls for international travel, mentoring, and speaking.

“God has gifted me with lots of energy and lots of vision,” Johnson says. He plans to keep serving Christian leaders and growing churches, but as usual, he is hesitant to put a label on the work.

“Leaders have to walk humbly before the Lord,” Johnson says. “If you don’t walk humbly before him, you won’t hear from him.” Of all the titles Johnson could wear, one he might willingly accept is listener.

Justin Horey is a writer, musician, and the founder of Livingstone Marketing. He lives in Southern California.

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