Worship leader Jenn Johnson talks gold dust, grave sucking and supernatural healing with Megan Cornwell
It must be one of the best-known megachurches in America, producing songs that are sung by congregations around the world, but, according to Jenn Johnson, when it comes to the body of Christ, Bethel is probably akin to an armpit.
She says this in jest, of course, but if you’re looking for an up-close-and-personal account of the ministry, Johnson is your go-to. The 41-year-old has been leading worship in Redding, California, with her husband, Brian, since she was 18. During that time, she has seen “crazy” supernatural phenomena, including the much-discussed gold dust that reportedly fell for hours during one church worship service.
She tells me one of the main motivations for starting Bethel Music – the label she co-founded in 2001 as an overflow of their worship ministry – was to see musicians thriving in their local church without the constant pressure of touring or recording away from home. Johnson believes Bethel’s pastoral approach is as important as anything they’re doing creatively.
In many ways, Johnson is the face and voice of Bethel; her hit songs include ‘Goodness of God’, the third-most sung worship song in the UK, according to CCLI. But, despite leading the team for more than two decades, she had never formally been on staff, either at the church or the label, until taking over as president of Bethel Music in 2021.
On the one hand, Johnson talks about the church as a “business” – something many British readers may find unnerving – but on the other, she has not received a pay cheque for years. When we talk about women in leadership, she says there is “a reality of men and women being paid differently”, but believes the “movements” pushing for change in society can be motivated by “anger and a bitterness”. As for her own position: “I think they might now pay me something,” she says vaguely, before adding: “I’m not a money person.” It’s a contradiction I’m not entirely convinced she is at peace with – despite her claims to the contrary.
WE’VE SEEN CRAZY THINGS. WE’VE SEEN IT RAIN IN FRONT OF US WITH NO SOURCE
Before you feel too sorry for Johnson, one look at Instagram and you will see that penury is as far as the east is from the west when it comes to their Californian home, replete with natural swimming pool and acres of land. When we sit down to speak, she has just come back from a three-week break with her family and, like most working mums, is more tired than when she left. That’s because they have recently adopted two little boys, and so are back to finger food and sleepless nights. But whether it’s changing nappies or singing in front of hundreds, Johnson sees it all as worship: “The motto that we go by here is that worship is a lifestyle.” If that’s the case, then Johnson is living her best life.
The rumours that we hear about Bethel – supernatural occurrences, signs and wonders, gold dust falling during worship – is there any truth to it?
God had to turn me upside down [to understand] that he actually knew more than I did, and that there would be things that I couldn’t explain in my analytical brain. I’ve seen them many times, but that [the gold dust] happened to be one. I was in the room and it was unexplainable. It was coming from nowhere. ‘Unearthly’ is the only word I have for it.
“What’s the fruit?” is a great question to ask when something like that happens – and the fruit was worship. I’ll never forget the moment and what I felt. I leaned over to a couple of people – because it was going on for hours…and I just said: “You know what, I can’t explain this. I don’t get it, but I love it.”
I’ve been healed. My leg was numb after a surgery for years, and I’d gotten prayer a lot of times. One Sunday, Bill [Johnson, senior pastor of Bethel Church] just called out: “There’s a numbness of a leg,” and I stood up and got prayer and my leg woke up. That was over 20 years ago. So we’ve seen it first-hand. We’ve seen crazy things. We’ve seen it rain, like literally misty rain in front of us with no source. Unexplainable things like that.
Anytime God offers you something, you’d be crazy to say no
A lot of people make things up and there’s a lot of hype in church, but Bill says it best: “Where there’s life in a barn there’s a lot of mess.” Birth is messy…if you want order you can go to a graveyard and see that any day, but there’s life and mess when you value freedom and risk and the supernatural…And so that’s how I want to posture my heart; to be open versus analytical to the supernatural.
You mentioned graveyards. We’ve heard some very strange Bethel rumours about congregants lying on the graves of well-known Christians to soak in their anointing. Is that true?
I have never, and I don’t know anyone that I’m close with, that has ever done that. However, it is in the Bible.
I think there are mantles on people’s lives…there’s something on Joyce Meyer’s life, but I’m not planning on lying on her grave. I am like: “Lord, I want the mantle that this woman carries. I want to be a part of it because she has just been so faithful.” So I think the desire to walk in and glean from a mantle, that’s very biblical. But no, we don’t do that.
A couple of years ago, you adopted two little boys. How did that come about?
We had three biological kids and we thought we were done. And when our youngest son was nine or ten we were watching this [TV] show and, out of nowhere, God spoke to us: “I have this gift for you, if you want it.” And, you know, anytime God offers you something, man, you’d be crazy to say no to it! But it really was a supernatural moment for both of us. We prayed about it and God confirmed it. And so we sat our kids down and told them that God had spoken to us and we were going to adopt, and they were so happy; crying, laughing, running around the table. I think there’s a video on Instagram somewhere of it, but it changed our life. And so we adopted our son, Ryder Moses.
A couple of years later our kids were like: “I think we need to adopt again,” and my husband and I were like: “Oh, wow.”
It’s amazing that after you had done the baby years you had the courage to go back there.
That’s when you know it’s God, right?
I remember sitting at my kitchen counter and telling God, before we decided to adopt Malachi, our second: “God, do you want me to adopt another baby?” And I just heard the Lord, with a smile on his face and a wink, go: “I think that’d be a great idea.” And I was like, “Oh my gosh. Again? OK.”
Your two little boys are biracial. Does that lead to some interesting conversations?
Yeah, and it’s been beautiful. We’ve gotten a lot of wisdom on how to navigate all of it. But they both, from birth, knew that they were adopted, that they were in the tummies of very special ladies, and that Mommy and Daddy were in the room when they were born. Because those [ladies] weren’t able to care for them.
What about doing something on the structural level about the poverty that leads to these problems?
We can’t do everything for everyone, and we can’t meet every need out there. I have a song called ‘For the one’ that’s really about that…how do I help bring Jesus to people? And what does that look like? I think that’s a very personal journey that we all need to go on. At the end of the day, we have to ask the Holy Spirit: “Who and how?”
I was actually in our worship school a few weeks ago, and I just heard the Lord say: “Would you do it again?” And I’m like: “Oh, God, you know my answer is yes.” I think that’s the heart God is looking for in us: anything, anywhere, anytime. My answer is yes. Before you even ask.
I want to posture my heart to be open versus analytical to the supernatural
So it sounds like there may be a third on its way?
Only God knows. I mean, truly, nothing would surprise me in my life at this point.
You’ve been a Christian for a long time, so that means you’ve lived through quite a lot of scandals in the Church. How do you remain hopeful, and what do you say to Christians who are feeling despondent about their faith?
Being a leader is really difficult. There’s a lot of pressure, it can often feel lonely. It’s an amazing gift – I am very thankful that I’ve been in leadership for 24 years – but it’s hard. Something that we really encourage with our team is the power of vulnerability. Both Brian and I live that way; we are open books.
Sometimes people feel that if you talk to someone about what you’re going through as a leader, you’ll be punished. And I think that keeps things secretive and unhealthy. The invitation I hear the Lord saying is: “We all need help. We don’t need secrecy, we need vulnerability.”
We don’t need to name names – we’re all aware of those [scandals] – they’re my friends, most of them. I deeply love the people that have made some really big mistakes – and I’ve made mistakes, so it’s not like there’s an ‘us’ and ‘them’ here. It’s humanity, it’s Christians, and he who is without sin cast the first stone [John 8:7].
Brian and I have been in counselling off and on continually since we got married, because I don’t think we’re meant to know it all, or have it all together. There’s no one who does, no matter how polished your Instagram looks, you know? We all sin and we all fall short. And we all need guidance, wisdom, help and repentance.
Do you ever feel that the values and structures of the business world seep into Church culture and ministry?
I think that we’re crazy to not think that the Church is a business. It’s not a bad thing. On paper, you have a staff, you have a janitorial team, you have care workers, you have HR…you can either hate the business of it, or you can love the business of it – because it’s part of it – and ask God to lead you in purity. Money is tricky. But it’s not something we need to be afraid of.
At the end of the day, we can’t demonise business; it’s part of culture, it’s what keeps our lights on and our bills paid. And, you know, God is a father. I want my kids to be thriving in all aspects: emotionally, physically, spiritually. And that’s how God our Father is with us. So how do you navigate money? Should we all give everything we own to the poor? I’m like: “If Jesus tells you to do that, like he did someone in the Bible, go for it.”
[The worship music industry] is something that is difficult to navigate, especially [because it comes] out of something so intimate. I have to remind myself who it’s about and who it’s for. My prayer, and my heart is: “God, let me do this in purity, that your name is known, that mine is not the one in lights.” And that’s my approach to it.
LEADERSHIP IS EITHER ON YOUR LIFE OR IT’S NOT
So in terms of generosity, in what ways has God challenged you?
I think my biggest challenge has been [being] emotionally generous. I think that I’ve overgiven to people on our team…even to the detriment, potentially, of my own peace and quality time with my kids, because there’s just always a need at my door. There’s always somebody who’s needing counsel…it’s been: how do we get a break? How does my family get what they need? That’s something that I look back on not with regret, but with sadness, for sure. I don’t know if I did it wrong – I think I did – but it was really difficult to navigate that constant need.
Some in the Church think women leaders are not given the same opportunities as male leaders. Have you experienced that?
I think that I have an interesting dynamic, being the daughter-in-law [of Bill Johnson], and funnily enough, on paper – and I kind of love this – I haven’t been on staff at Bethel in a leadership position. I’ve been on all the leadership teams, but hardly ever [on staff]. One of our accountants was like: “Are you ever gonna get paid for anything?” And I was like: “I kind of like that I don’t.”
You’ve never been paid for your work at Bethel?
On the church side, Brian was initially the one who was hired, and I was home with kids. We found out we were pregnant with our first daughter on our one-year anniversary. And so between all the creative stuff, he was the one in the office mainly, and I was home teaching piano lessons and then had a baby and was just helping with teams and leading worship. It was kind of an organic thing…it felt healthy to me, it didn’t feel negative…I think they might now pay me something, but I just don’t care because I’m not a money person.
I haven’t even been on staff at Bethel Music, either, which is funny. I don’t think you need a title to be a leader. A lot of people feel they do, but leadership is either on your life or it’s not, and God will make a way when and how he needs to.
Have you always felt that call to leadership?
I’ve felt it since I was a little girl. I didn’t ever think that this would be my life, by any means. Before I went to [the Bethel] school of ministry, I was preparing to go to college to be a preschool teacher!
When I was little, I was known as being bossy…you’re bossy because you’re probably a boss, you know? I remember being in grade school and nobody was raising their hands during the chapel worship time, and I just knew I was supposed to. So by overcoming that fear of man to do what I was supposed to do, other people started raising their hands as well.
I think that if you’re a Christian, you are a leader. Day one, you’re leading people to Jesus. I teach that in our worship school. I have a very pastoral heart, so leading our teams over the years with Brian has felt really natural. I think we just need to naturally do it, and people will either follow or not.
To hear the full interview listen to Premier Christian Radio at 8pm on Saturday 30 September or download ‘The Profile’ podcast premierchristianity.com/theprofile