A Conversation with Jennifer Johnson
Jennifer Johnson
Jennifer Johnson

Meet Our Contributing Editors: In this final interview of CHRISTIAN STANDARD’s contributing editors, we talk with the writer who interviewed all the others. This worker and watcher of the church talks about small churches, megachurches, and the failings and future possibilities of our movement.

Tell us who you are—not a recitation of your résumé, but what makes you tick.

My parents like to tell the story of coming to pick me up from the toddler’s room at church one Sunday morning and discovering me hiding under a crib, calmly looking out at everybody. That kind of sums it up—I’m an introvert, a bit cynical, and usually kind of anxious about kind of everything. I sound fun, huh? 

On the other hand, I made a decision years ago to say yes to the adventures and opportunities that come my way, even if they’re scary. So eight years ago I started my own business, and two years ago I married a divorced pastor named Matt who has two kids, and last October I traveled to India and preached my first sermon. 

Life will keep asking you questions and it’s a more fun ride if you say yes.

 

Did the church play a role in giving you the confidence to live this way?

The church was always a safe, happy place for me. It was where I met my best friends and was mentored by adults who invested in me. It didn’t become an unhappy place until my 20s, when I started to realize some of the things we grow up believing are not the whole truth. I always loved Proverbs 3, which says if we just trust in the Lord he’ll make our paths straight. (What straight paths meant was a question I never asked.) Or Psalm 37:4, “Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.” (I never asked what that one meant, either.) I just took them at face value and figured I was asking for good things—guidance on my career choices, a husband, all of that—and he’d keep his part of the bargain.

Except he didn’t. Turns out, God will not trample other people’s free will to answer my prayers, and he’s much more concerned about who I might become in the midst of the struggle than in fixing it. I began to understand I do not get to control God. He is not answerable to me. In fact, God is not nearly as explainable as all those Sunday school teachers made him sound.

I became more comfortable with a God who is mysterious and has plans way bigger than my temporary happiness. I revisited those Bible stories and realized just about everyone God worked through significantly also suffered significantly. Now my theology is big enough for a God I can’t figure out but whom I trust, ultimately, to be deeply good. That’s the God I recognize these days.

 

Now you find yourself married, a pastor’s wife, and living on the East Coast.

I moved to a church of 100 in a blue-collar town near Philadelphia. You cannot hide in a church this size! Everyone knows what your deal is and how you’re going to annoy them, and they choose to be there anyway. And if you choose to be there, too, they choose to love you. It’s actually very beautiful, even if sometimes I still want to hide under a crib.

When I was a single girl and a freelancer—so basically most of the last decade—I could step away from any situation that bugged me, whether it was a client or a relationship or even a church. You do not get to leave when you have uprooted your life and married a pastor and joined his church. That kind of mandatory faithfulness is new, and transformative.

E. O. Wilson is a renowned biologist and researcher who said the key unit holding any society together is not the nuclear family, but the tribe. What you are describing is at its essence tribal behavior.

I am not only in weekly communion with these people, but I live next door to the church. I know when Bill and John are doing maintenance work. People knock on our door when they are in crisis.

Then there’s my other tribe—my new family of husband and stepson and stepdaughter and really big dog. I went from completely independent to completely enveloped into two new tribes.

 

What kind of personal growth has that brought, whether welcome or unwelcome?

I called 2013 “Selfishness Detox.” There are moments of great joy interspersed with stretches of doing the right thing, taking a breath, showing up, keeping my mouth shut. Lots of that last one—I’m not sure whether that’s more helpful as a pastor’s wife or as a stepmom!

 

What advice might you give to a young couple just leaving seminary and coming to serve at a similar church?

Some churches are small because they’re dysfunctional and some are small because they’re small. Ours is the latter. We’re healthy and growing—we baptized nine people last year, not bad for a church with 85 on a good weekend. After the final song on Sunday morning, there’s an explosion of talking and hugging. So I couldn’t say much to the couple going to a dysfunctional church other than—don’t.

Beyond that, I’d say set your boundaries. On the Sunday before we got married, Matt asked the church to give me space and gently reminded them I was not going to be the new piano player/children’s minister/VBS director. And they have been great. But out here there is a lot of deference to the clergy family, a result of the Roman Catholic influence on the culture. So if I want to lead something, they will let me lead, and sometimes they’ll look to me for leadership even if I don’t want to. You have to decide what you’re willing to do and be and what you’re not.

 

It’s actually pretty amazing Matt did that before you arrived. Tell me a little about him.

He wanted to thank the church for supporting him through the four years since his first wife left and for loving him and his kids. He also told them his expectations for me were the same he would have for any committed member of the church, that I would worship and find a place to serve. Of course, that didn’t stop one dear lady from asking me my first month here, “Have you ever thought of starting a choir?”

Matt is one of many lesser-known, character-filled leaders in our movement. I wish we could find a way to hear from more of them. There are plenty of guys like him who do good work and preach good sermons. We tend to think if you’re at a small church it’s because you couldn’t cut it anywhere else, and that’s not always true.

 

Is that an American culture issue or a church issue?

One of the downsides of treating the church as a corporation is that the “presidents” who produce great measurable returns are the ones we look to as our role models. We have an entrepreneurial movement in which the cream supposedly rises to the top. But there are more good leaders than there are megachurches, and when we define “the top,” we’re looking only at attendance and giving.

A while ago, Americans started demanding more organic food, and now you can even find some at Walmart. People started valuing organic, so the people who made buying decisions started valuing it. We can talk all we want to about the value of the small and medium-size church, but we still buy the books and read the blogs of the guys from huge churches. 

That sounds like sour grapes, but it’s really not. I love some of our megachurch pastors; some of them are amazing people with rich insights and great spiritual depth. And I’m happy at our little church. I just think we’re more likely to define church growth numerically instead of spiritually, and if we have to choose between the two, we’re always going to celebrate the numbers. 

It’s more exciting, after all, to hear from the guy who grew a church from 20 to 2,000 than to hear the story of someone who grew it from 20 to 200, although each of them could learn something from the other.

 

You have worked for the North American Christian Convention, Church Development Fund, and Christian Standard. You are on the boards of Christian Missionary Fellowship and the Orchard Group. I do not know anyone from our “40 Leaders Under 40” list (see the July 2013 issue) who knows the movement better than you do. What do you see for our future?

Well, again, we are so pragmatic. We do care about theology, but we are much more concerned about whether or not it works right now than we are about the long-term ramifications of what we’re embracing. In a tribe with no formal leadership, we get to decide who the influencers are. 

Journalists were once the prophets and sages of our movement, then it was the Bible college professors. Now it’s the megachurch pastors and the church planters. I am on the board of the Orchard Group, and I have a lot of respect for church planters. But we have taken two steps away from the scholars and journalists and decided to go with the decisions of the least-experienced leaders.

Matt had a professor in college who said, “I don’t care what your conclusions are, I care about your process.” Our conclusions as a movement may or may not be right, but the process isn’t. We’re in such a hurry to get stuff done that we aren’t willing to wrestle with things. After all, that takes time. But until we’re intentional about inviting a lot of voices into the important discussions, and willing to engage in a process that has a goal beyond instant action, then we’re going to settle for conclusions others have reached.

 

Is there a truth the movement does not want to see?

We aren’t special anymore. A lot of folks consider themselves to be “Christians only.” In a sense, that’s because we’ve succeeded. Wasn’t it Barton Stone who said if we truly live out our principles, we’ll sink into the body at large? Maybe it’s a good thing.

On the other hand, a lot of people are starting nondenominational churches without many relationships or experience, and we can help. We know how to be a movement of like-minded leaders working together. We have something to teach about being a group but not a denomination. If nondenominationalism is the thing, well, that’s our wheelhouse. Why wouldn’t we want to speak into that?

 

So is it still worth it to connect with each other?

It’s the perennial question—whether there is a reason for us to hold onto some sense of affiliation. Every Christian church group I’m part of is asking those questions. Lots of the younger leaders I know say no, some for well-thought-out reasons and some out of a reaction to one particular situation. It’s trendy to affirm the movement’s principles but dismiss its people and churches and institutions. Of course, it wasn’t the principles that baptized, educated, or hired us.

And it’s like a church or a family—we’re full of eccentrics and factions, and our history is a mixed bag of successes and failures; we’re excellent in some things and in others we have blind spots you could drive a truck through. 

Sometimes it seems really tempting just to be done with it and join another group. Then you realize all those things are true in those groups, too.

So I think everybody needs a tribe. It doesn’t have to be this one, but this is a good one.

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1 Comment

  1. August 1, 2014 at 8:39 am

    Thanks Jen for encouraging the small church pastor/preacher/leader. More than 30 years ago, I suggested that the best preacher in the world may be serving in a church of 100, and God was laughing at how we humans decided who was “best.” Conventions and conferences must draw large numbers of people to cover budgets, fill assembly rooms, visit exhibit booths and boost local economies through hotel charges. Thus, it makes sense for them to focus on the preachers of large churches and directors of larger ministries. More people are likely to attend when the roster of speakers is recognizable. I too wish there was a way to include “many lesser-known, character-filled leaders in our movement” in our conferences and conventions. I would not say our current system is broken, but I am equally sure I would learn from, and be inspired by, preachers with less name recognition.

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