Honor Such Men: Rich Johnston’s Thirty Years of Youth Ministry

JohnstonNext week, the Great Lakes-Gulf Presbytery of the RPCNA will hold its annual spring meeting. The nominating committee will submit a slate of candidates for various committees and offices for the coming year. For the first time in some thirty years, Rich Johnston will not be nominated for youth secretary. The vote will probably be quiet and ordinary, but it will formally conclude a most-extraordinary three decades of ministry to the young people of this presbytery.

A few times in recent years, individuals in a moment of frustration over a particular decision made by Rich have asked questions like: “Who put Rich in charge, anyway?!” I’ve had the privilege of answering them with a little story.

The story begins in 1982. At that time, aside from the presbytery family conference each summer, there was no organized ministry to the young people of the presbytery. Young people often felt little substantial connection and did not remain in the church. Rich Johnston was a public school teacher and a ruling elder at the time, and the Lord laid on his heart the promises of Isaiah 44:3-5:

“For I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground; I will pour my Spirit upon your offspring, and my blessing on your descendants. They shall spring up among the grass like willows by flowing streams. This one will say, ‘I am the LORD’s,’ another will call on the name of Jacob, and another will write on his hand, ‘The LORD’s,’ and name himself by the name of Israel.'”

Rich longed to see young people trusting Christ and growing in him. He sought to minister in a way that would strengthen families and local congregations rather than pull youth away from their parents and churches.

With a heart for the youth of the present generation, Rich Johnston worked with Jerry O’Neill, Jim Long, and a group of four high schoolers from the presbytery to form the Covenanter Young People’s Union of the Great Lakes-Gulf Presbytery in 1982. Dave Schisler, Andy Moore, Meg O’Neill, and Kelly Moore comprised the first leadership team. They hosted a winter conference at Second RP church in Indianapolis over the winter school break which a handful of young people attended. They heard the word of God proclaimed and enjoyed fellowship and other activities.

Though attendance was light in those early years, Rich and others strove to develop youth leadership and minstry. An all-night evangelistic event, known as the Sonrise Party was soon added. But, the work was slow. By the time I was able to participate in 1990 as a fourteen year-old, there were still less than twenty students who attended the Winter Conference. The presbytery demographics were changing, and more youth would come in following years. Eventually, more than 100 would register for the Winter Conferences. Yet, the programs didn’t just appear; they had to be built through much sacrifice and prayer.

In the 1990s, the numbers swelled, and several other activities were added and changed under Rich’s leadership. The Fall Ministry Project is a weekend of teaching, prayer, and hands-on service to congregations in the presbytery. The Winter Conference is four days of fellowship and teaching over the Christmas break. In the spring, the Gethsemane Challenge provided an opportunity for fasting and prayer. It has since been replaced by the Theological Foundations Weekend, a time for serious doctrinal teaching for juniors and seniors. The Sonrise Party continues as an overnight evangelistic event. In 1989, Rich Johnston pioneered a summer work mission to ECHO, a Christian research farm in North Fort Myers, Florida. John Hanson has led the ministry for the last twenty years, but Rich cast the vision with the first team, and kids have been sweating in the sun and serving Jesus for decades since. Finally, the young people gather annually in the summer at our family conference.

Rich emphasized three goals very often: friends, fun, and faith. By God’s grace, they have very often been realized:

Friends: The Lord established powerful friendships through these events. Rich has always set the pace by being at the registration table with a warm smile for parents and youth. He tries to make every kid feel special. The warmth he exudes spills over to others, by day and by night. Curfews are good and necessary, but they never stop the formation of fast-friendships into the wee-hours. Topics in my day ranged from sports, to games, to girls, to theology and spiritual growth, to our futures, and beyond – and I don’t think much has changed since. Those hours met the need of the moment as iron sharpened iron, and we also received a great vision for the church through those times while Rich Johnston sawed logs on his mattress near the door. Friendships born almost twenty-five years ago continue to bear fruit in my life. I even met the cook at one of these conferences when I served as a counselor, and she soon became my best friend for the rest of our days on earth.

Fun: Rich emphasized the need for adventure, and fostered a culture of the same. We went spelunking and lost our way in Buckner’s Cave in southern Indiana, trudged through the Hoosier National Forest on ten-mile hikes, engaged in stress-challenge events, hurled mattresses in Olympic games, and played human battleship with teams hauling members around frozen tundra on a mattress while the “sailor” on board the mattress launched tennis ball ammunition at other “ships.” Underground Church was an outdoor game on sixty acres of woods in “Siberia” that looked like the game sardines – except that students caught by Russian guards could only be freed if the guard was “converted” through the use of effective Christian apologetics. Then there were scavenger hunts, service projects, theme parties, and games that ended with team members duct-taped up on the wall. Maybe these were designed to exhaust the students to sleep that night, but it was exhilarating fun!

Faith: The proclamation of God’s word and application of it to the heart in counseling groups has always been central in the youth work of the presbytery. Most of us who attended these events can still remember certain speakers on certain topics. How many of us had our hearts awakened in these special times and said “I am the Lord’s”?! God worked significantly in my heart when Jerry O’Neill spoke on love in 1991 at the Winter Conference. Who can forget Barry York’s exposition of Isaiah 40 in 1994 as he led us in the theme of Knowing God? We sometimes joked that there were two speakers. After the main speaker concluded, Rich was so concerned that the message strike the hearts of the young people that he would continue to plead with the students and hammer home the truth. In it, we knew he loved us. He still longs for students to grow in faith, and hundreds have as a result.

I estimate that over 1000 individuals have attended these events under Rich’s leadership. Hundreds have benefitted all through their high school years. Carloads have come from other presbyteries, too. Dozens have served on the youth leadership team that Rich has led month by month for the last thirty years. Rich has carefully given responsibility to students in leadership over the years and in so doing has helped to develop a whole generation of spiritual leaders. I served on the planning team as a junior and senior. He always reminded us that we did not have free-reign because he would be the one to stand before presbytery when things went wrong. But he still let us pursue a lot of harebrained ideas and encouraged creative thinking. Consequently, a whole lot of youth leaders have taken serious personal responsibility not only for events and games, but also for spiritual needs of their classmates.

Rich has never been youth-pastor cool. He treated us as students like the adults he expected us to become, and in so doing has won the respect of most. He engages with the students and seeks to love them, and he is always willing to sacrifice for their well-being. Though Rich has kept a steady hand on the program, he has never had a sacred-cow with respect to activities and events. He has listened to new ideas.

Obviously, mistakes have been made along the way, and Rich would be the first to say so. Others might have thought there was a better way in certain situations, but I doubt there are many who would have been willing to give one year to organizing all of these events, let alone thirty years of life year-in and year-out. It’s not easy to let youth lead in events, be the first to arrive for events and the last to leave, be the last one to bed and the first one to rise. In it all, I can’t remember Rich complaining.

The Lord has done great things for us in the Great Lakes-Gulf Presbytery youth program. Who put Rich in charge of all this? Obviously, the presbytery has in a sense, but in a greater sense, it is the Lord himself. The Lord himself laid it on Rich’s heart to lay down his life and take up his cross by sacrificing and investing for three decades. And the Lord has changed the face of our presbytery as he has poured out his Spirit on our offspring. Those of us who are sons and daughters of the presbytery under the age of forty-five can say: “The Lord has done great things for us, and we are glad.”

In the last decade, Rich has wisely given the leadership of various events to specific adult leaders who work with the youth leadership as the work has matured and as he has anticipated the need for the next presbytery youth secretary.  Now, a new secretary will be appointed, though Rich will continue to reach young people as long as the Lord gives him life. It’s the end of an exciting era, with hope of greater things still to come. So, let us give thanks to the Lord for his goodness to us in the Great Lakes-Gulf Presbytery over the last three decades and pray that he would bless the next three decades of youth ministry and beyond.

If you would like to share a favorite story of the Lord’s blessing through Rich Johnston to you in the Great Lakes-Gulf CYPU, please do so in the comment box below.


  1. Rebekah Magill February 21, 2013 at 11:16 am #

    As I explore other branches of Christ’s Church (my husband is a military-man so we have the opportunity to live all around the world and therefore have been a part of PCA and OPC churches) I am struck with the strong bond of fellowship enjoyed in the RPCNA. I would be the first to say that other denominations/churches have much to contribute to the kingdom and much to teach us. Yet, on the issue of friendship I have noticed that it is not common for members to know the fellow churches in their presbytery much less people in the denomination that live all around the country.
    I spent my first 20 years in the RP and God used Rich to lead the way and provide the opportunity for dozens of men and women to invest in ME during those crucial years. Honestly, if it hadn’t been for God’s grace, manifested through the strong ministry to the youth in the Great Lakes-Gulf CYPU, I don’t know if I would be in the Church.
    Thank you Rich for the thousands of hours you have given to the Lord and to us. Thank you for faithfully sharing the Gospel of Christ at every opportunity. Thank you for pushing us to evaluate our faith and to encourage “others also”. Thank you for teaching us to imitate Christ by looking out for the outcast. Thank you for graciously and firmly handling rebellious students and outraged parents. Thank you for crafting an environment of fellowship with peers and mentors, again and again! Thank you for sending us to serve at ECHO and Fall Ministries. Thank you for teaching us to fast at Gethsemane Challenge. Thank you for nurturing us through preaching and teaching at Winter Conference and Covfamikoi. Thank you for your humility in teaching and enabling others (Larsons, Moores etc) to lead so that the ministry will continue. Thank you for your patience as God used you to build His church even if the stones were awkward, obnoxious and covered in zits. 🙂
    James guessed 1000 students attended but only God knows how many were saved, how many were encouraged, how many were rebuked/restrained through the CYPU ministry. We thank the Lord for providing Rich Johnston and for his 30+ years of faithfulness.

  2. Pat Hart February 21, 2013 at 12:54 pm #

    I was blessed with the opportunity to be on the CYPU planning committee for 4 years. I think the thing that Rich taught and exemplified to me more than anything else was the role and work of a servant leader. Those lessons are still a blessing to me today, and I praise God for this and the many others I enjoyed in the CYPU.

  3. John Webb February 21, 2013 at 3:38 pm #

    Rich has been a vary, very, very great freind since i have met him for th first ( i can’t rember wheen it was) Rich gave letters of to these on the youth ttheir fine year. I was nevr part of the youth board but he me letter anyway because of cheerful sprint. Not has been a good freind but. Me and his son Stevn both do Spcail Oylpics. we both swim. so besides the summer Covfamikoi i gat to Rich , his wife Beka and Steve at State games in years past hope for long to seee each othe at in Tterre Hatue every and a Covfamikoi for many yers to come. Rich will aways be a very good and great frenid to me and my family

  4. Joel Hart February 21, 2013 at 5:36 pm #

    I distinctly remember growing in my respect and admiration for Pastor Johnston year by year as I became more involved in serving on the CYPU leadership team. Pastor Johnston believed sincerely in the involvement of youth in ministry, and worked hard to give young men and women like myself opportunities to serve in real and tangible ways. He saw a real connection between the everyday labors of young people and the promises of God in Isaiah 44, and never let us forget that, for which I’m grateful. Four years later, I now have the privilege to have Rich as my pastor. So while he steps away from the youth ministry, I continue to have the blessing of growing under this faithful man who truly loves the Lord and His saints.

  5. Jerri Faris February 21, 2013 at 8:26 pm #

    As a parent of eight children who have reaped the benefits of Rich’s vision and ministry, I thank the Lord for Rich! As homeschooled kids, our children were very blessed to have the type of supervised socialization that was provided in a godly environment. Many homeschoolers railed at youth groups, but I truly believe that the CYPU events were a much different model than what other families in other churches had experienced. The orientation to spiritual growth, development of leadership skills, biblical fellowship centered in the context of the church, and truly meaningful work and service were wonderful complements to our goals for our children. As we see in Romans 16, there is a definite place for commending the brethren, so I am thankful for this opportunity to commend Rich for his years of service to our youth.

  6. Barry York February 22, 2013 at 7:33 am #

    Below is a tribute to Rich that Gentle Reformation received from Kenneth G. Smith.

    Dear Brother Rich…

    The article in Gentle Reformation just hit my computer, and I read it with great interest. I speak of James Faris’ write-up of your thirty-plus years as Youth Director for Gulf-Lakes Presbytery. It brought back a good many memories; and I can certainly second the motion for celebrating your service to the Lord through this channel. You have done an excellent job.

    In 1957 I was elected to be Young People’s Secretary to fill the position left when Remo Robb was taken to heaven. It had been a half-time job back then; the other half-time was Home Missions Secretary. Remo filled them both; and I can affirm with gusto how much we youth admired and profited from his ministry! The Crusader Corps began under his tenure.

    My job description changed in 1959 when as a full-time worker under the Synod I was made Director of Christian Education. About 9 small committees were brought together under a new board, which meant I reported to the Board now rather than directly to Synod. A tremendous improvement administratively. I might add that probably this was the first Synod board to draw members across the nation. We persuaded the Synod that not everyone in the church throughout N. America thought the same way! Anyhow it was at that time the presbytery conferences were operating and I visited as many as possible annually. It was a great experience in learning the church.

    And it was during those times that the summer training programs became recognized as significant. Indianapolis played a major role in that development. As I muse about these things, it has been a great encouragement to me to see how the Lord has used persons like you, Rich, to keep seeing ministry move out into the non-clergy level. Discipleship has begun to take significant role in seeing youth and others both coming to, growing in, and ministering (read bearing fruit) for Jesus. (One of the blessings of old age is being able to reflect over a lifetime of movement and growth in people’s and the churches’ lives! God has answered, and keeps on answering, our many prayers!

    You have played a significant role, Rich, in this renewal that has been taking place in the RPCNA and beyond; and I just wanted to add my note to James’ tribute. I say Amen!

    Blessings in the Lamb…


  7. rpcnacovenanter February 22, 2013 at 7:38 am #

    Don’t forget how he has ministered to us old guys also. His work has been important from the beginning.

  8. rpcnacovenanter February 22, 2013 at 7:40 am #

    Reblogged this on RPCNA Covenanter.

  9. Barry York February 22, 2013 at 8:50 am #

    I too am grateful for James’ tribute to Rich, and add here just one or two of many memories of my own.

    In 1989 I did a summer internship in Indianapolis under Dr. Roy Blackwood. Yet I have always thought of it as a dual internship, as I also spent a great deal of time learning from Rich, who was at that time a ruling elder. My pregnant wife, toddler, and I enjoyed living in the third story of the old house at 4800 N. Michigan Road.

    That summer Rich, along with another ruling elder-turned-pastor Jack Baumgardener, allowed me to assist with a two week long Father & Son Training Program they ran in the church building. With the theme of II Timothy 2:2, the dads and their boys lived at the church, and spent the days doing work projects, participating in sports and game tournaments, having adventures, and studying & memorizing Scripture together. It was a blast, and I recall some fathers at the end of the time in tears as they thanked the Lord for the special time of bonding.

    Then at the end of the summer, under Rich’s tutelage, Miriam and I assisted in a church-sponsored Father & Daughter Banquet. At a fancy downtown hotel with an upper story restaurant, with their teenage daughters dressed up, the dads were encouraged to give flowers and gifts along with a letter expressing love their girls who were quickly becoming young women. It was a sweet time. The tradition continues, as last year I took my own teenage daughter to one. It was even a sweeter time!

    These examples exemplify what James and others are pointing out. In his work with the youth, Rich sought to not come between the parents and their children. Rather, he has invested his life energies, in very practical yet creative ways, in seeking to fulfill that last Old Testament promise of turning the hearts of parents toward their children, and the children toward their parents.

  10. Meg Spear February 22, 2013 at 1:20 pm #

    I am so thankful to God for Rich’s wise, faithful, and enthusiastic leadership in the Great Lakes-Gulf presbytery for so many years! Serving on the CYPU Leadership Team in its early years, I have wonderful memories of the first Winter Conferences (those freezing Stress Challenges) and Sonrise Retreats, as well as the first ECHO trip. We have tried to model Rich’s godly service and example in our own presbytery conference at Laurelville, but we have not had the stamina that Rich has had! As an adult, I have been surprised to learn that not all presbyteries have a “Rich Johnston,” a blessing that I simply assumed and took for granted. One of things I have most appreciated about Rich is simply his presence: always there smiling to greet the first arrivals, always there to close down the event, always on hand to answer questions or to redirect. He was for many of us the face we associated the presbytery youth. I always look forward to opportunities to visit with Rich, as he is personally invested in my life still … twenty-five years later. Some of my closest friends are from those CYPU events, a testament to the bonds that they formed.
    Thank you, James, for honoring Rich in such a great way. May God be glorified.

  11. Adam D. February 22, 2013 at 3:16 pm #

    As a current high school student in the Great Lakes-Gulf presbytery, I have been blessed greatly by Pastor Johnston and his ministry to the youth of the presbytery. As others have already said, he has always been very welcoming to new people at the events. I’ve had the privilege of working with him on the CYPU leadership team, and that has been a unique experience that has pushed me to mature.

    I remember one time when Pastor Johnston was jokingly lamenting how he’s become less “relatable” to the kids or less “cool” than he used to be when he was younger. I don’t know what he’s talking about; he’s always been “cool” to me.

  12. David Pulliam February 22, 2013 at 6:38 pm #

    I was on the CYPU Leadership team in high school, did a couple internships at 2nd RP and now work with the high school students at 2nd RP under Pastor Johnston’s leadership. While in high school, I was held to a high standard by Pastor Johnston with the other leaders and all the students who attended the CYPU events.

    I learned so much under Pastor Johnston’s leadership while in college because he gave sound and wise advice and direction. He also was incredibly patient and kind to a crazy college student who continually messed up under his care. Now as a public school teacher, I look back on these experiences and stories Pastor Johnston told as reference points for my teaching today.

    God has used Pastor Johnston in a special way in my life which I am eternally grateful for. I’m saddened that he will be stepping down this spring, but thankful for these 30 years he sacrificed for the church and her children.

  13. Russ Pulliam February 22, 2013 at 8:40 pm #

    Thanks for such a good tribute, James.

    When Rich was not busy with young people, as Randy noted, he also gave of himself to the rest of us. He was a couple of years ahead of us in child-rearing and gave me much wisdom as a father. He was the first to help me see that I would need to win the hearts of my children as they became teens and older, that we could follow some rules and do all the right steps as parents, but ultimately it was a matter of heart relationship.

    He also told me that we would not be changing diapers forever, and that really was a startling revelation at the time.

    He was a wise counselor to parents in part because of his sacrificial work with the young people.

  14. bobhemp February 23, 2013 at 12:11 am #

    James, thanks for writing this tribute. It is well-deserved.

  15. Anjali Rao February 23, 2013 at 9:40 am #

    Amen to this post.

    I look back on my years of attending CYPU events with wonderful memories and a strong sense of how the Lord used them to shape me as a young person and build my sense of belonging and identity in His church. Specifically I remember my first trip to ECHO in 2002, and how that was a turning point in my feeling a strong bond to God’s people beyond my local congregation. Through the ministry of CYPU, I learned that there is so much joy to be found in being nurtured in the Word of God and in rich fellowship with His people.

    I’ve had the privilege of knowing Pastor Rich not just as a youth leader but as my pastor for most of my life. Perhaps the one thing that stands out most about him is that he has always been an encourager. No matter how many things he had going on in his busy schedule, whenever I’d meet him, he would always the time to ask me about some specific situation he knew was going on in my life or ministry I was involved in. He always made me feel as though whatever small part I was playing in the kingdom of God was meaningful and significant. I think I got so “used to” his encouraging words that I often took them for granted, but now as I’ve been away from 2nd RP for a couple years I realize what a huge blessing his encouragement has been and continues to be in my life. I think Pastor Rich has been a kind of “cheer leader” for a lot of the youth in the Great Lakes-Gulf Presbytery, coming alongside in such a kind and fatherly way and urging us to run the race the Lord has set before us. I thank God for his ministry and example.

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