Archive for Saturday, September 3, 2005

Big stakes in Lawrence

Megachurch’ seeks mass appeal with ministry

September 3, 2005


The Rev. Jerry Johnston is thinking big when it comes to his new church in Lawrence.

His vision: A church built on 40 to 50 acres of land that has thousands of members. It would offer dozens of ministries, a rock band for college worship and sports leagues for all ages, all the while preaching a basic, evangelical Christian message.

Sounds ambitious? In less than a decade, Johnston has turned 51 acres of Overland Park ground into First Family Church, a congregation of 4,100 members and an annual budget of $7 million.

Now, he wants to build Lawrence's first megachurch.

"It's the difference of being a strip mall to a shopping mall," Johnston said, comparing smaller congregations to his church. "It's the Oak Park Mall compared to a strip mall. We're a megachurch."

First Family Church started Sunday evening worship services in Lawrence on Aug. 20. The first week was at Wescoe Hall on the Kansas University campus, but the service moved last Sunday to Lawrence High School, where it will meet at 6 p.m. for at least the next five weeks. No permanent home has been located.

The Rev. Jerry Johnston recites his sermon during a Sunday worship service. The Overland Park-based church will meet at the Lawrence High School auditorium every Sunday for at least the next five weeks with the hope of finding a permanent location in Lawrence.

The Rev. Jerry Johnston recites his sermon during a Sunday worship service. The Overland Park-based church will meet at the Lawrence High School auditorium every Sunday for at least the next five weeks with the hope of finding a permanent location in Lawrence.

The congregation averaged 275 during the first two services, though some of those in attendance were recruited from the Overland Park location to serve as a base for the new church.

Johnston, 46, gained attention in the state as a leading supporter of a constitutional amendment, approved by voters earlier this year, that bans gay marriages in Kansas. Douglas County was the only county to vote against the amendment, but Johnston said that didn't have anything to do with his decision to build a church in Lawrence.

Rather, he said, the Lawrence church is the first step toward developing First Family Church satellite locations throughout the Kansas City metropolitan area. The church already streams its services live on the Internet and can be seen on TV stations in Kansas City, Wichita and Omaha, Neb.

Johnston is a former traveling minister who spoke in large churches across the country and has written eight books. He founded First Family Church, which is affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention, in 1996.

Room for church?

First Family Church's entry into Lawrence has been the buzz among local pastoral circles since it did a postcard mass-mailing to Lawrence residents advertising its first service.

Megachurches are typically defined as having 2,000 or more weekly attendees. No church in Lawrence currently comes close to that.

Members of the First Family Church take part in the opening hymn of worship.

Members of the First Family Church take part in the opening hymn of worship.

"This is the wave of the 21st century," said the Rev. Peter Luckey of Plymouth Congregational Church, 925 Vt. "I don't know why Lawrence would be any different from the country in terms of trends."

The Rev. Bill Bump, pastor at Lawrence Free Methodist Church, 3001 Lawrence Ave., said he saw nothing inherently wrong with megachurches. He said he'd like to grow his church into a megachurch and may be on the way, with 700 attending services weekly and plans for an expansion for children and youth ministry.

"In my opinion, 'megachurch' is not a bad term," Bump said. "Larger churches, as a rule, can have a wider range of ministries. A small church cannot offer some things. But some people choose the small church because they like to know everybody there."

Several pastors estimated only 10 percent of Lawrence residents attend church on a given week, and there are plenty of empty pews on Sunday mornings. Bump said he didn't know whether First Family Church would find the key to reaching those not currently affiliated with a church.

"Lawrence has a lot of good churches," Bump said. "I don't know Jerry Johnston, but I'd be interested to hear why they think Lawrence needs another church."

The Rev. Randy Beeman, pastor at First Christian Church, 1000 Ky., previously served at Hillcrest Christian Church, another megachurch in Overland Park. Though he said he hoped First Family Church succeeded, he said the danger with larger churches is some don't provide enough opportunities to members to make connections with others.

"One of the biggest challenges of a larger church is the assimilation process," he said. "You could walk in and walk out and never meet a person. That's a downfall to these large, event-driven organizations is they're not built relationally."

He said he wasn't concerned about losing members to First Family Church.

"I don't see Jerry as a threat," Beeman said. "He'll be reaching people in a different way. I can't reach everybody."

Johnston said he thought there was plenty of unfilled need for a new church. Though he said the focus would be on reaching those in Lawrence who don't currently attend church, he expects some of his new Lawrence congregation to come from existing churches.

"When people change churches, it's because they need a new chapter spiritually in their life," he said. "To me, that should be an incentive to a pastor to evaluate the quality of his ministry and not get mad at the new thing in town."

The plans

First Family Church's philosophy of getting new people through the doors is simple: Offer a variety of ministries and activities. The church also brings in guests such as Bobby Bowden, Florida State University football coach; Michael Irvin, former Dallas Cowboys wide receiver; and Randy Travis, country music singer.

"If I can't connect with declaration of the Gospel, I hope to connect with athleticism for children, marriage enrichment for young couples, success enrichment for businessmen," Johnston said. "I mean, there's just a hundred different ways to meet a need in someone's life or try to add value to their life, with an ultimate aim to get them into a personal relationship with Jesus Christ."

Johnston said he'd like to secure land in Lawrence and start building within a year.

Plans call for him to continue preaching at the Lawrence services on Sunday nights, in addition to the three services he leads in Overland Park on Sundays, which draw more than 2,200 weekly.

In three months, the church plans to start a midweek Bible study on Thursday nights. Activities for youths, college students and senior adults also are in the works and should be running in four months.

Eventually, Johnston plans to have a Sunday morning worship service in Lawrence, with a local praise band and minister. His sermon from Overland Park would be streamed in on a big screen.

Johnston's goal is to have 250 charter members of First Family Church-Lawrence by Oct. 23. He wants 450 members by this time next year.

'Here to stay'

Last Sunday evening, at First Family Church's second Lawrence service, 250 people swayed to the music of a praise band in the LHS auditorium. There were drums, a guitar, keyboard, singers and a projector with the lyrics.

"Folks, we're here to stay," said Christian Newsome, a pastor who will eventually be in charge of the Lawrence site. "We're dreaming big dreams."

The sleek worship style appealed to Doug and Jenny Timm, Lawrence residents who said they'd been looking for a church home.

"It seems like a lot of planning went into it," Doug Timm said. "They're on the ball. I think they're good people. They don't seem like they have ulterior motives."

Jim Erickson, a KU sophomore from Overland Park, said he thought Lawrence was ready for a megachurch. He got involved in First Family Church in Overland Park in the spring and now is helping organize its college ministry in Lawrence.

"It's a lot different from my church growing up, which was pretty boring," he said. "You see it as a megachurch, but it's a small, family atmosphere. There are so many ways to get involved. You'd have to try not to meet people."


Richard Heckler 12 years, 6 months ago

Beware of these flambouyant large could be about money. How personal can a huge church be? Members will be just another number in the herd.

John1945 12 years, 6 months ago

Ah yes, watch the religious bigots slither out from under their rocks on this one.

How unfortunate that religious bigotry has become the bedrock plank of liberalism and the Democrat Party. If the Republican Party has become the party for people of faith it is because the Democrats have chosen to become the party of Satan. (Donnie Darko is just too precious a screen name to resist)

Why don't you go find out how personal a large church can become Merrill rather than sit on the outside spewing your hatred and ignorance.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 12 years, 6 months ago

Satan is part of your religion. Quit trying to project your superstitions on those who choose not to share them, and maybe you won't be subjected to so much "bigotry."

John1945 12 years, 6 months ago

Incidentally, Merrill, are the schools paying you to bash Christians, or is this a sideline you do for free?

I think you would make an interesting news story. I also think if you're a paid employee of the "education" lobby, or the KNEA that you ought to be honest enough to let people know what your position is.

It's obvious that most of these people are just sharing their own views, but you clearly have "paid endorsee" written all over your postings on education. I just think it would be interesting to know if a government employee was on here bashing evangelical Christians.

DonnieDarko 12 years, 6 months ago

Gee, John--maybe you should tell us who is "paying you" to bash anyone who doesn't agree with your intolerance of people who don't practice religion. It's as relevant as grilling others about their vocations. Government employees are entitled to express the same views as you and I--the last time I checked, they were also taxpaying citizens of this state and country.

What really makes your posts fun are all your references to "Satan" and "slithering". Go back to sitting in a corner and reading all the dark prophecies in your own "bible" while working yourself into a frothy frenzy, and quit trying to drag others down into your perverse world. Better yet--show up for Pastor Jerry's services, where you'll find hundreds of other morons who share your short-fused, uneducated and lowest-common-denominator "beliefs".

P.S. "DonnieDarko" is the name of a movie that....nah, never mind--you definitely wouldn't be able to comprehend it.

John1945 12 years, 6 months ago

No one, and obviously your posts wouldn't be worth much to anyone, but I do think that you and I have right to know if we are being monitored and propagandized by someone who's here representing a specific organization or cause, particularly if they're using our tax dollars to do so.

If Johnston were to hire someone to monitor this forum and respond to criticisms, I would want that person to identify themselves as such. And if a government agency had an employee on here who, as a sideline to that job, also promoted Johnston's church, I suspect you'd want to know if your tax dollars were being used to promote ideas you didn't believe in. And, I'd support you in that request.

Anonymity shouldn't be a cover for unethical or inappropriate conduct, and I think that's what Merrill is doing.

That's fair game regardless of which side of the fence you're on.

DonnieDarko 12 years, 6 months ago

John: I'm gonna go waaaaaaaaay out on a limb here, and guess that Merrill is making his posts at home, where he is a private citizen (just like you and I). That's not unethical or inappropriate, and your tax dollars have nothing to do with it.

You also helped validate my previous post by dismissing it ("...wouldn't be worth much to anyone"). Thanks!

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 12 years, 6 months ago

Sorry to shoot down your ad hominem/strawman attack on Merrill, but you are wrong about his being an evil, paid hack of evil, slithering, satanic teachers.

mefirst 12 years, 6 months ago

I don't want anymore of their freakin' flyers.

Virginia 12 years, 6 months ago

The good pastor said that the aim of his church is to enable everyone to have "a personal relationship with Jesus Christ" and to add "value to their life."

The problem with this approach is that it is individualistic and almost consumerist. (What's in it for me?)

As far as society is concerned, a lot of evangelicals never talk about poverty, militarism, racism, environmental degradation. Except for gay marriage, they address nothing else. As the aftermath of Katrina shows, individualistic consumerism doesn't work anymore

Richard Heckler 12 years, 6 months ago

John 1945....

I don't bash Christians in general, mostly the leadership of these right wing christian coalition organizations who are very definitely big spenders in their personal lifestyles and certainly are not saints. They are politicians who have taken over the republican party. I do know that these very radical thinkers of the Christian Coalition do not represent all christians and neither do you not by a long shot. Jerry Johnston,Oral Roberts, Pat Robertson,Jerry Falwell, a new guy on the block in Florida and George W. Bush make me want to vomit.

Church and religion/spirituality are not necessarily synonymous therefore I do not attend church.

Merrill is my real name thank you.

It is questionable who here may be the bigot...I pick Jerry Johnston.

The bogus allegations and implications you have presented are exactly that...bogus. I will offer no further comments on this matter.

John1945 12 years, 6 months ago

I didn't question your name. I asked whether you were here as a paid employee of the education establishment, or representing some organization such as the KNEA. If all your posts are made as a private citizen solely representing your own views, say so.

I am, and everyone else here seems to be, but your posts are quite a bit different.

Also, you offer no evidence for your assertion that Johnston is a bigot, and yet we'll have post after post of folks bashing him for his faith, just as you already have.

Quite frankly, these are the silliest posts that I've seen you write. None of the people you cite claim to represent all Christians and I don't think you have a clue as to what their personal lifestyles are.

If Johnston devoted the same energy to running a corporation, I guarantee you he'd be a lot wealthier than he is now. All of these mega churches have large boards of equally influential people who voluntarily supply the capital that Johnston needs to run his programs (unlike the schools who rely on judicial tyrants to hold our children for ransom to get money for their failed agenda) and they watch over the budget quite carefully, certainly more carefully than the government schools.

Indeed, you claim not to be a bigot, but, as you admit,evangelical Christian leaders all make you want to vomit. Frankly, you sound just like David Duke talking about people of color.

As I said before, religious bigotry is at the core of current liberal ideology. When 90% of your political program is oriented towards dead babies, moral perversion and looting the treasury you can't have people of principle getting in the way.

Once again, this blog has demonstrated that Lawrence is a hotbed of hate-mongering, intolerance and bigotry. The Crackerville of Kansas as it were.

grubesteak 12 years, 6 months ago

I've been to Johnston's church in Overland Park. I'm a believer, and this guy (and this inflated mission) scares me.

timothy 12 years, 6 months ago

Regarding Rev. Luckey's comment:

As far as I can tell, megachurches aren't the wave of the twenty-first century. They were the wave of the '90s, and now the Christians of the next generation are looking for something more authentic

timothy 12 years, 6 months ago

By the way, I am a Christian who dislikes megachurches, wishes John1945 wouldn't post so confrontationally, and thinks that "Donnie Darko" is a great movie.

John1945 12 years, 6 months ago

This comment was removed by the site staff for violation of the usage agreement.

letsgetwise 12 years, 6 months ago

I went to the first meeting at Wescoe. It was a good evening. I do not know alot about this pastor, but just because the church is successful does not make it bad.

Daniel Speicher 12 years, 6 months ago

I like timothy. I agree... The planting of Megachurches seems to be on a downward trend. Although, there is something to be said about the continuing growth of those already existing. Although I do appreciate the vast array of ministries offered by these churches (and I see value in that aspect), I believe it is a monster that could someday own its creator. Meaning... When anything that is large and organized turns bad, lots of bad things happen.

Having said that, I welcome this new church plant to Lawrence and will be interested to see how a very "right-wing" pulpit does in a somewhat "left-wing" town. I might even check out a service sometime. Although, just to visit... I love the people at my current church.

--Danny Speicher

PS -- John... There is a difference between "paid advocates" and those who are simply stating an opinion that would personally benefit them. If I were working for the public schools (as I have before) I would be rallying around pay raises as well. Not to mention, I think the public school system is getting the short end of the stick (or at least it was until recently.) Anyway, I digress... Anybody up for checking out this church with me? ;)

publicdefender 12 years, 6 months ago

Lawrence needs another right-wing church like it needs another doughnut shop or "bistro." And at least a doughnut shop or bistro gives you something your body needs. These 'churches' are anything but nourishing to your soul. They are simply a way for their 'preachers' of hate to make money off of the those whose souls and brains have already been leached-out in this society of capitalistic acid-rain.....

incognito 12 years, 5 months ago

Grubesteak is right. I have also attended Jerry's Overland Park church. He seems very sincere and seems to really mean what he teaches and he reaches people very well. I really loved going there. But my husband ended up convincing me it was all about money, and I have to admit now that he was right. I am most definitely a believer. I'm on the radical right. But I'm afraid that building churches is all about money. Jerry lives in a $600,000 house and there is more that I could say, but I'd better not.

incognito 12 years, 5 months ago

And by the way, Christian Newsome is Jerry's son-in-law.

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