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.

James Faris

James Faris

Child of God. Husband to Elizabeth. Father of six. Pastor of Second Reformed Presbyterian Church in Indianapolis, Indiana. Ordained as a pastor in 2003.

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