Jerry Johnston’s Folly
I was a tad disappointed to read this article.
Normally, I would dismiss the news as another example of what’s wrong with modern evangelicalism. Just another mega-church pastor who set out to make a name only for himself under the guise of “doing it for Jesus” driving his multi-million dollar ministry into bankruptcy. But I have a connection with Jerry Johnston: He was the guy God used to bring me to Himself.
In May of 1988, I was finishing my freshman year of college at Arkansas State. During the finals week, my church had scheduled a “revival” service and Johnston was the speaker. He was probably 28 at the time. Not only did he have the powerful, soul-winning testimony about being saved from the life of a teenage, suicidal drug head, he had the dynamic personality and the vocal pipes made for preaching. Man, oh man did the guy have the voice for preaching!
Now, while he was in town during the daytime, he was traveling around to local, area high schools giving his presentation on teen suicide and inviting the kids to a Friday night pizza blast at the new basket ball arena on our college campus. (“Pizza blast” being code word for, “we’re gonna hammer you all first with an unexpected Bible message, shame you into walking forward to receive Jesus, AND THEN you’ll get pizza).
These schools were coming to their final days of the year also, so Johnston’s suicide lecture was tailor made for a quickie time sucking general assembly.
After he gave a series of emotional, heart rending stories about teens committing suicide and the meaning of life, he crescendos his talk at the end by playing an audio recording of a teen boy’s final words before killing himself. It was a classic play right out of the fundamentalist “scaring wayward youth straight” horror story handbook. The only thing that could have made it better was if the kid had AC/DC’s “Hell’s Bells” playing in the background of his final words.
At any rate, Johnston would then give his final farewell and tells everyone to come out for pizza on Friday night and then makes a hasty retreat leaving a stuffy gymnasium full of blubbering wallflower girls and socially awkward, pimply guys. Of course, none of them wanted to return to class; they all wanted someone to share their feelings with.
Our church, who was the primary sponsor of Johnston being there, interpreted this manufactured public display of grievous teenage angst as a move of the Holy Ghost. After he had left a wake of weepy teens at a few more schools on Monday and Tuesday, a few of the youth leaders from our church thought it would be a grand idea to have evangelistic counselors available to speak with traumatized kids still reeling from his talk. Keep in mind this is the late, 1980s when you could still have evangelistic counselors in the public schools of the Bible belt South with out incurring the wrath of P.C. postmodern secularists.
Our college group was recruited to help supply the counselors, and having no class on Wednesday of that week due to finals, I was available for the afternoon session at Westside High School (where, btw, about 10 years later two boys opened fire on their classmates killing 5 people).
At this point in my life, I was a “churched” kid with good, outward morals. I had attended a lot of youth groups and church camps, but I hadn’t giving the Gospel to anyone, let alone counseled teens with thoughts of suicide. That had more to do with me not being saved rather than knowing how.
Thankfully, after the suicide talk this time, not a whole lot of the audience stuck around. Those who did were covered. That evening at the “revival” service, Johnston gave what I consider to be a fine message on personal holiness and Christ’s lordship. When the service ended, I was eager to leave, because I needed to get back to my dorm room so I could study for an algebra examine the next morning. However, the fellow I had rode to church with that evening disappeared, and I was annoyed he had left without coming to find me, so I had to catch a ride with another friend.
About an hour after I had returned to my dorm room, the missing friend came to my door to apologize and tell me the reason he disappeared was because he had gotten saved that night. He realized he was living a fake Christian life and needed to get right with God. I listened to his story, told him I wanted to hear more later, said good-bye, and returned to studying.
But I couldn’t study. This is when the Lord gripped my soul with the conviction of my sin as I pondered Johnston’s message. I began wrestling (spiritually, mind you) with the Lord and all night I couldn’t sleep. It was early in the morning hours that I finally realized my need for Christ and the Lord was pleased to save me.
Now, some 2o plus years later, I learn about the impending demise of Johnston’s mega-church ministry. It’s kind of sad, really. It’s too bad the man had to be led astray by world-wise thinking about how to do ministry. Sad, indeed. But it is example of the power of God’s Gospel to save. A “foolish” message presented by a foolish man.