When Willie Strickland left the mission field in 2017, he didn’t think he’d accomplished anything.
“I was frustrated with the lack of what was happening,” he said.
Willie and his wife Paulette had spent the last 15 years moving up and down the rivers that run through the Amazon rain forest in Peru—working in the same general region as Jim Elliot. “We’d pass the Tigre River, which connects to the Curaray River [where Jim Elliot and Nate Saint worked] on our way up the Nucuray River,” Willie said.
Those he witnessed to seemed just as hard to reach as Jim Elliot’s Waodani. The people who live in the jungle barely survive by hunting and fishing, and they’re deeply entrenched in animistic religion. The Stricklands’ American citizenship caused many to see them as an endless source of funds—in the end, most people didn’t want to come to church unless they were paid.
The lack of fruit was especially disappointing because Willie didn’t come right out of school—he was 60 years old when he felt the call to the mission field. He’d just been offered a $10,000 pay raise and a promotion—his employer wanted him to oversee the 120-person information technology department. Instead, he and Paulette applied for a missionary appointment through their Assemblies of God denomination. No, they were told—you’re too old.
“So, we decided to go as independent missionaries with the church we were attending,” said Willie, who is charismatic but opposed to the prosperity gospel. He retired early, and he and Paulette sold their home, learned Spanish, and began sharing the gospel. But after 15 years of meager pay and missing time with their kids and grandkids, it seemed they had very little to show for it.
Five years after Willie and Paulette left, I flew to Iquitos, a city tucked so deeply into the rain forest that you can’t access it by road—you have to fly or float in. It sits where a spiderweb of rivers, including Willie’s Nucuray River, empty out to form the headwaters of the Amazon River.
I went to help a church called Iglesia Genesis throw a celebration for their 10-year anniversary. I found a thriving congregation of around 400, many of them teenagers pulled from street life—gangs, drugs, violence, or prostitution. The sermons were gospel-centered, the worship was energetic, and the discipleship was robust. (When I offered to send down books, they asked for titles by Mark Dever, Tim Keller, Jen Wilkin, and Miguel Núñez.)
The head pastor is named Nelton Noriega. And if you ask him or his wife Bethany to tell you their story, they’ll both point right at the influence of Willie and Paulette. While in Peru, the Stricklands had discipled them both.
When I got back to the U.S., I called Willie.
“We serve an awesome God, and he has promised his Word will never return void,” Willie said. “Paulette and I have no regrets for being missionaries in Peru for 15 years. We returned with very little of value except the exceptional journey that God gave us. Seeing God use Nelton and Bethany is more valuable than riches.”
Long before Willie thought about quitting his job, Nelton was struggling his way through a childhood of Peruvian poverty. He was the fifth of eight children, but as the oldest male he carried the weight of responsibility and decision making.
“All the financial pressure of caring for everyone was on me,” he said.
His path to work went past a church, where he could hear people singing.
“I felt this peace invading me as I heard them,” he said. “The first time I felt it, I didn’t go in. But by the third time, I entered the building. I listened to a message that Christ could do all things, that I could obtain all things.”
Nelton came to faith that morning. “I felt like I had peace for the first time,” he said. “But the message wasn’t so true. It was a gospel that I now know is called the prosperity gospel. And I got confused.”
Wanting to serve God and the church, Nelton made the hard decision to quit working in order to join the church ministry team. “They told me that if I serve Christ, he’ll take care of my finances and all of my problems,” he said.
Prosperity Gospel Problems
Nelton moved in with about 85 other young men—all of whom worked for the prosperity preacher, and none of whom ever received a paycheck. (Only five of them are still active in ministry today.) Convinced of the goodness, faithfulness, and providence of God, Nelton kept at it for seven years.
But he watched the young men get very little food, while the pastor’s family had plenty to eat. When he asked for help with replacing identification documents that had been stolen, the pastor just told him to pray. When he told the pastor he wanted to study, the pastor told him to read his Bible, and God would teach him everything he needed to know. But later, when Nelton overheard the pastor’s son complaining that he didn’t want to go to school, the pastor stressed the importance of education.
“Little by little, more anger started filling up my heart,” Nelton said. “My faith was vanishing.”
Finally, he left. Embarrassed by his poverty—he was skinny with malnutrition and his ragged shoes were held together with nails—he didn’t go home. Instead, he made his way up the river to the capital of Lima and found a job. He kept thinking of the promise in Psalm 23 that the Lord was his Shepherd, that he would lack nothing. He couldn’t wrap his mind around it—when he’d been serving the Lord full-time, he’d lacked everything. Now that he wasn’t in ministry, he could pay for food and a room to sleep in.
After a while, he felt that God was calling him back to ministry in Iquitos. No way, he told God. You are a god of poverty. I’m not willing to be impoverished again. I’m afraid of it. I prefer hell rather than living that way.
It took a serious illness and a serious conversation with his sister to change his mind. “If you don’t tell us the way to heaven, who will?” she asked him.
“I knew if I died, I would go to heaven, because I knew Christ as my Lord and Savior,” he remembered. “But what about the people I haven’t spoken to yet? My sister did not know him. I felt selfish, and I started to cry. I thought, What is my life worth? If I have to live poorly to share Christ, then I will.”
Nelton began working as a cook for a traveling evangelist. The evangelist was another prosperity theologian, but Nelton didn’t know anyone who wasn’t.
And then, one day, an elderly missionary couple from America showed up.
Willie and Paulette Strickland
The Stricklands had purchased a houseboat and taken to the rivers, regularly docking in the small villages that dot the shores. On one of the smaller rivers, they ran into Nelton’s pastor.
“I figured out after a few months the only thing he wanted was money,” Willie said. “But Nelton was there, cooking for him, and we talked. After about a week I told him if he ever left this other missionary, I’d be interested in him working for us.”
Nelton didn’t leave his other pastor right away. But the longer he watched the Stricklands, the more amazed he was. “I saw the love they had for the people, and it was not self-beneficial,” Nelton remembers. “I’d never seen that type of love. The other pastors wanted you to accept Christ for their benefit, give your offering and tithe for their benefit, come to church for their benefit, and do a campaign fundraiser for their benefit.”
He watched Willie and Paulette cry for those who didn’t believe in God. He heard them teaching sanctification—that those who believe should bear godly fruit. He experienced the kind way they treated him and the other staff. And he noticed that they didn’t gather wealth for themselves.
Are these another type of human? Nelton thought. Or is this really what the gospel is about?
He started watching out for them—for example, when the pastor told the Stricklands that a motor would cost $3,000, Nelton revealed it only cost $500.
Eventually, he did go work for them. But this time, he wasn’t confined to a kitchen and working for free. Over the next five years, Willie helped Nelton to study, to preach, to take on bigger responsibilities. He learned how to read the Bible without using verses to manipulate people. And he fell in love with a girl.
Bethany Baxter grew up in a small town in Iowa. She knew from the beginning that she wanted to be a missionary—she studied languages at a community college, then graduated from Moody Bible Institute. She loved theology, and she could spot the false prosperity gospel a mile away.
Her dad was a pastor, and through missionary friends, he connected her to Willie and Paulette.
“Nelton and Bethany hit it off,” Willie said. “I remember somebody told me, ‘Pastor Willie, I think Nelton and Bethany are sweet on each other—talking in Spanish.’ I said, ‘Well, that’s fine with me.’”
Nelton didn’t propose with promises of health or wealth. “If you marry me, it’ll be terrible,” he told her. “Imagine you’re out on the Amazon and the boat motor breaks down. And it’s cold. And we have no food. And then imagine it starts to rain. That’s what it’s going to be like.”
She thought that sounded like an adventure, and she married him.
They continued to work with Willie and Paulette for a while, then struck out on their own. Eventually, they began hosting a friend’s small church plant in their home.
“We did it because we had the biggest living room,” Bethany said. “At that time we wanted to raise money for our own boat ministry. But in time, we started falling in love with that church.”
The main strategy for Iglesia Genesis was “Don’t preach the prosperity gospel” and “Make sure this is not about us, but about Jesus.”
The church was still small and struggling when Willie told Nelton and Bethany he felt God calling him back to the U.S. He didn’t feel good about it—not only were there very few believers in the jungle, but his team had split apart, and the physical church he’d built had been claimed by a landowner.
The faith community, too, seemed unable to find its footing. Peru is 70 percent Catholic, but for most people, that doesn’t mean a lot beyond owning a crucifix. Witchcraft is widespread, especially in the jungle where medical access is nearly nonexistent. And the disunity among Christian churches, pastors, and missionaries—sometimes for good reasons—seems constant. Churches fold as quickly as they open; friendships between ministry partners often don’t last long.
“Peru has possibly the hardest spiritual soil I know of in Latin America,” said Jairo Namnún, The Gospel Coalition’s director for international coalitions. “There are some wonderful pastors and leaders in the country, committed to good work and sound doctrine, but they constantly report on astonishing difficulties of reaching the country through preaching and discipleship. These godly men and women would most likely be thriving elsewhere, but are struggling in Lima, Trujillo, Cusco, and other cities.”
No wonder Willie was discouraged.
Street Gangs, Drug Dealers, and Prostitutes
When I landed in Iquitos in March, almost exactly five years after Willie and Paulette left, I didn’t find the same small and struggling church. Iglesia Genesis has 37 small groups—each continuing to grow and split off into more small groups. The church introduces about 40 new people—mostly teens—to Jesus each month. And their Sunday night worship service is standing room only.
The demographic they’re drawing isn’t typical. Many of the newcomers are teens who used to deal drugs, steal, sell their bodies, or hurt other people.
David Pereira was 12 when he began doing drugs. To hide his habit from his grandma, he disguised his red eyes with eye drops. To pay for his habit, he stole—mainly cell phones, mainly from people walking down the street.
When David was 18, a woman named Keila moved into his neighborhood and started inviting the neighborhood gang over to eat. They’d get high or stoned first, then come when they were hungry. Gradually, she began talking to them about God.
“I didn’t realize it was a [small] group for her,” David said. “I didn’t realize what we were doing.”
She began inviting them to church. David didn’t want to go, but when his friends started attending, he couldn’t resist the peer pressure. “When I went to Genesis, I saw a lot of young people just like me,” he said. “It was something crazy. I felt I could be myself.”
Genesis welcomed David with high expectations, but not about the amount in his wallet. He was encouraged to attend a weekend conference called Encounter, where the Genesis staff give a robust presentation of the gospel and how it affects all of life. After David came to saving faith, Genesis staff asked him to volunteer at church, then brought him on staff and paid him. David had already dropped out of high school twice, but Nelton spotted both intelligence and leadership skills in him, so he re-enrolled David and walked him through his final two years.
Today, David is 21 years old. He lives with about a dozen other young men at Nelton and Bethany’s house. (It’s a big house.) They eat the same food at the same table as Nelton’s family.
With Nelton’s strong encouragement, David is now working toward being both a lawyer and a music producer.
“God has presented people in my life to put hope in it,” David said. “It makes me think about how I can be a hope to others—that they too may meet the God of opportunities.”
Iron Sharpening Iron
Just as Genesis draws a unique demographic, it also has an unusual staff.
“At the beginning, we knew that none of us were actually pastors,” said Bethany. With her BA from Moody, she had the most formal education of the group. Most hadn’t finished high school. Both pastors—Nelton and his copastor Jerry—had come out of the prosperity gospel.
So at first, the preaching was “a potpourri of doctrines and theology—a melting pot of whatever Pastor Jerry could find online,” Bethany said.
But around the same time the teenagers started showing up, so did two missionary couples from America. Both had been in Iquitos long enough to be burned by the poor theology and corruption of the organizations they’d come to serve with. Both were thinking about heading home to the States. And both were Reformed Baptists.
Sensitive to the prosperity gospel, “I’d bring a journal [to Genesis] and write down everything I disagreed with,” said Andrew Ronshausen, who came to faith as a Texas teen and went to Matt Chandler’s Village Church in Denton. He and Dustin Webb would bring their concerns to Nelton and Jerry, who didn’t shut them down but kept welcoming them and listening to them.
Nelton invited Dustin to preach and really liked what he had to say. Dustin and Andrew realized Nelton and Jerry weren’t in ministry for the money. Eventually, iron did sharpen iron. Andrew and Dustin softened their approach and joined the team; Nelton and Jerry’s sermons grew sharper theologically.
“Today I love their sermons,” Andrew said. “Because they’ve changed and I’ve changed. . . . Nelton has done an amazing job at showing the need for reading and advancing intellectually.”
It’s a work in progress. Genesis runs a discipleship school for just about everybody, but a while ago, when a graduate was asked about his salvation, he said he knew he was going to heaven because he was a small group leader. Those classes are now closed for restructuring; Andrew is basing the new curriculum on Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology and 9Marks materials.
The last five years have brought so much change and growth to Genesis that it can be hard to remember how long it took for the seed to take root. Willie knows he’s fortunate—not every Christian gets to see the fruit of the work they’re doing.
He also knows that you can’t take a seeming lack of spiritual fruit—perhaps somewhat like a lack of physical health or wealth—as a sign that God isn’t active.
“That’s dangerous, because it makes people think they aren’t worthy,” he said. “It makes people wonder, Why isn’t God answering my prayers?”
During the years when it looked like Willie’s prayers were turning to dust, God was using him to help rescue Nelton from a false gospel, to connect Nelton and Bethany, and to teach them both how to live as light in a spiritually dark place.
“God really used their faithfulness,” Bethany said. “The fruit we see today never would’ve been possible without the seeds Willie and Paulette planted, even when they couldn’t see the results.”