Remarkable journey of K.P. Yohannan: from humble beginnings to global impact

Gospel for Asia founder K.P. Yohannan greets people in Mumbai, India in February 2018. (Photo: Courtesy of Gospel for Asia)

On the funeral service of Kadapilaril Punnoose Yohannan or K.P. Yohannan, the visionary founder of Gospel for Asia (GFA World) and the Metropolitan of Believers Eastern Church on May 21, 2024, Christian Today spoke to Dr. Saphir Athyal, a close associate of Yohannan also referred to by the church as Athanasius Yohan I.

Ninety-four-year-old Dr. Athyal had known Yohannan, whom he refers to as KP, for 40 years. Athyal did his doctorate from Princeton University and became the first national doctor in the Old Testament in India. He was not only a friend and a neighbour to Yohannan (who lived a short distance from his house) but also “his (Yohannan’s) mentor” as Yohannan introduced him in one of his meetings.

Christian Today had an interview with Dr. Athyal:

Q. What is that one thing that you would like to remember Dr. Yohannan for?

Athyal – It amazes me how such a humble person rose to such prominence. He always had a supreme vision, which was the driving force in his life. Just like the five loaves and two fishes, God took the small things from KP’s hands and multiplied them to something enormous. Despite all his success, KP remained very humble.

Q. Can you highlight any five things Dr. Yohannan did in a unique way in his ministry that the world should remember him for?

Athyal –

1. Passion for Evangelism: Evangelism was always at the forefront of his mind. His burning passion for reaching out to people made his mission incredibly successful. Though his messages might not be considered unique, they were powerful tools. He focused on training local people in their native languages to evangelize within their own communities. This approach was crucial, as not everyone can cross cultural and language barriers effectively. KP's training programs across India and Southern Asia led to the rapid growth of his churches. His combined church membership grew to three-and-a-half million, making Believers Eastern Church one of the largest in South Asia. In my opinion, what the Metropolitan achieved was a miracle in the history of Christian missions in India.

2. Wholistic Mission: KP’s mission mirrored that of Jesus—healing, feeding, and sharing the message of salvation with the poorest people. He established a hospital in Thiruvalla, Kerala, which became one of the largest medical colleges and hospitals in the state. KP told me he wanted the hospital to provide employment and medical care for the poor. He also started high schools, orphanages, and destitute homes in many Indian states. This holistic approach of meeting all the needs of a person stood out in his ministry.

3. Combining Classical Liturgy and Church Traditions with a very clear evangelical biblical faith: Coming from a charismatic background and later the Church of South India, he adopted a more liturgical approach. While some criticized him for this, I believe there's no issue with the external form being more liturgical and traditional, as long as certain teachings—such as prayers to Mary, the dead, or through saints—are not followed. The Believers Church is rooted in the belief of being born-again, having faith, and accepting Christ as one's personal Savior. At the same time, he combined these two aspects. I see great value in symbols like wearing bishops' robes, hats, and rings, especially when the Believers Church works among illiterate people who learn through symbolism. Though they cannot read and write, symbolism leaves a deep impact on them. KP managed to balance classical church traditions with a strong evangelical biblical faith.

4. Extremely good at developing relations: KP had strong relationships with various societal elites—Indian political leaders, chief ministers, police officers—and connected well with the poorest people. He was able to relate to all strata of society effectively.

5. Affective Communication and the poorest could identify with him: One day I was traveling in a taxi, and that taxi driver stopped on the way with my permission to drink a cup of tea. But he did not return for more than 30 minutes. When he did, I asked him ‘how was the tea?’ and he responded that he was not only there for tea, but it was time for K.P. Yohannan’s message to be broadcasted on radio, and he was away listening to it. I asked the driver the reason for him to be eager for KP’s message while there are so many other Christian messages also on the radio. He said, “He speaks our language.” KP spoke the language of the lowest and ordinary people and they loved him.  

Q. What are your final words?

Athyal – Seventy-four years of life, KP rose from nothing to establish a powerful and fast-growing church in South Asia, Africa, and other regions. This is nothing short of a miracle from God. KP’s death is a significant loss to Christian missions.